Reaping the American whirlwind

New York Times Columnist Tom Friedman argues that American schools are failing because students lack motivation.  It ain’t the parents and don’t blame the teachers–the problem is the kids. 

Friedman gets his information from Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson who says: “Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited ‘student apathy.’ ”

Want to know why America is on the downgrade?  It’s the damn kids!

David Brooks answers the “why are we slipping?” question in similar fashion.  “After decades of affluence,” he says, “the U.S. has drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.” 

According to Brooks, wealthy Americans abandoned the manufacturing sector and are enriching themselves (unproductively) building banks and fiddling with Wall Street speculation.  Middle class folks have shifted from degrees in engineering (building stuff) to communications (moving information around). 

And the lower class . . . don’t get David started on them.  “The problem here is social breakdown. Something like a quarter to a third of American children are living with one or no parents, in chaotic neighborhoods with failing schools. A gigantic slice of America’s human capital is vastly underused, and it has been that way for a generation.”

Friedman and Brooks get it wrong because they view the world from the 27th floor of the New York Times building.

Friedman is right to worry himself about low levels of motivation in the high school population.  But the problem isn’t spread equally across racial and class lines.  According to a recent study by James J. Heckman of the University of Chicago and Paul A. LaFontaine of the American Bar Foundation, graduation rates for male white, black and Hispanic students were vastly different in 1970 and there has been no real convergence in the interim.

Notice that graduation rates for white males declined from about 83% in 1970, bounced around a bit, and settled in around 78% in 2000.  A significant decline, but no cause for alarm.

Black and Hispanic males had graduation rates around 60% in 1970, fluctuated a little in the 80s and 90s, and ended up back around the 60% range.  In short, there has been no racial convergence over this 30-year period.  The story for Hispanic immigrants is particularly bleak. 

Mass incarceration is a major contributor to chronic minority male underachievement.  According to Heckman and LaFontaine, 

There has been an explosion in the growth of the incarcerated population since the early 1980s.  In 2002, the total incarcerated population exceeded 2 million people for the first time. Minority males, especially young black males, have been disproportionately affected by tougher anti-crime measures. Nearly one out of every ten black males age 18-24 is now incarcerated and it is estimated that more than one-third of all black male high school dropouts age 20-35 were in prison on an average day in the late 1990s – a higher proportion than found in paid employment. (my emphasis)


There is a strong negative causal relationship between education and crime. Thus, the educational attainment levels of prisoners are low. Among the prison population, 78 percent are uncertified high school dropouts or GED recipients. Furthermore, 56% of the incarcerated high school completion category comes via GED certification.

In other words, if black males don’t graduate from high school chances are very good that they will wind up in prison.  The same is true for white dropouts, but as the chart demonstrates, the vast majority of white males graduate.

Students don’t lose motivation because they are lazy or undisciplined (as both Brooks and Friedman suggest); they lose motivation out of sheer despair.  When there are no jobs in your world, few grown men are working, and the only “employment” available is on the streets, young men see little good reason to stay in school.

It is certainly true that, even in a time of severe recession, some skilled fields are desperate for employees.  But here’s the difference; in 197o employers still had job openings for unskilled young males with a high school degree.  They might not have been the best jobs, but they paid just enough to sustain a family.  These jobs have been drying up since the late 1960s and for many young men they no longer exist.  David Brooks misses the obvious connection between outsourcing and the decline of American manufacturing. 

Sure, the kid from the ‘hood with the single mother could apply himself to his school work, get a college degree in a hot field and move up and out.  Some do.  But when no one you know is making that move, the pull of the streets and the underground economy can be overwhelming.  These kids know they are buying a one-way ticket to the joint, but they don’t see a viable alternative and David Brooks and Tom Friedman aren’t around to dispense advice. 

There are very good reasons why black and Latino males (and to a lesser extent, females) often fail to thrive.  Instead of creating jobs in the vicinity of low-income neighborhoods, we declared a war on drugs and broke the bank building prisons.  If we had reversed our priorities we would have saved money in the long-term while significantly enhancing public safety.  But no one got elected between 1970 and 2010 advocating a ramped-up war on poverty while thousands of politicians owe their success to the mass incarceration movement.

After watching Jeremiah Wright’s fate, I hesitate to talk about chickens coming home to roost; so maybe I should shift from Jeremiah’s image to Hosea’s: Having sown the wind, we are reaping the whirlwind.