Magical Thinking Watch: “Promise Neighborhoods”

The Obama Administration has announced the latest desperate twist in the country’s nearly half-century-long evasion regarding the central truth of inner-city dysfunction.  Twenty-one social service organizations, schools, and universities have received $10 million to draw up plans for a cradle-to-grave social service network intended to close the achievement, crime, and civility gap between perpetually impoverished communities and the rest of the country.  This cradle-to-grave concept is modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, a $77 million-a-year enterprise in a 97-block zone in Harlem that tries to surround black children with an inescapable web of social services and educational support that will accompany them all the way into college. 

The press release from the U.S. Department of Education announcing the so-called Promise Neighborhoods awards is full of the usual boilerplate about “collaboration among agencies” and “investments in children”: 

“As shown in Promise Neighborhoods and HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, transforming distressed neighborhoods into communities of opportunity means connecting housing and development resources to education and access to economic opportunity,” said Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan.

“Strong communities start with healthy children who have safe places to live and play and high quality educational opportunities that put them on the road to success,” added Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. “Creating these strong communities requires everyone, including the federal government, to work together.”

“Well-coordinated investments and actions at the local level can generate significant change and positively impact opportunities for children,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a written statement. “To build communities of opportunity, residents must feel safe to live, learn and go about their business. We look forward to continuing working with our partners in support of this innovative initiative.

Promise Neighborhoods . . . is closely linked to the White House Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, which seeks to align federal housing, education, justice, and health programs with the overarching goal of transforming neighborhoods of concentrated poverty into neighborhoods of opportunity.

Blah, blah, blah.  Nowhere in the various documents surrounding these initiatives is there a single mention of the only thing that will turn these communities around: marriage.  As long as children grow up in a world where it is the normal practice for boys to inseminate girls and then take off, you’re going to get crime, teen pregnancy, failure of socialization, truancy, and high rates of academic failure.  Government can pour social services by the billions into fatherless communities, as it already has; none of that windfall for social workers can substitute for married fathers who take responsibility for their children.  Barack Obama once acknowledged the centrality of marriage to black children’s future; since becoming president, however, he has gone silent. 

The idea that collaboration and coordination among service providers is some new breakthrough concept is particularly amusing:

It’s really about organizing a community response to create a network of services for children and their families,” said Kathy Hopkins, the vice president for community services. “Sunset Park is rich in assets, but they are not coordinated and there are some gaps as well.”

The liberal foundation world has been pushing collaborative for years without the slightest effect on dire inner city outcomes. 

The $10 million just awarded for planning is merely a down payment on the $200 million that the Obama Administration intends to dole out the first year of this project.  The only argument for continuing this irrelevant approach is that “we” need to do something in the short term, and in the short term, there are no fathers in these kids’ lives.  (Though see Amy Wax’s Race, Wrongs, and Remedies for a brilliant analysis of who the “we” is that has the only power to affect inner-city dysfunction.) But at the very least, such efforts should always acknowledge that they are a second best solution—if that.  It’s probably unrealistic to think that we are going to dismantle this vast ineffective infrastructure that feeds off of black family breakdown.  But if I were king, I would announce the following rule for social service contracting:  No one gets a dime of taxpayer money unless his grant proposal contains a plan for revalorizing marriage, if only to speak about it to “clients” or to foreground images of engaged fathers.  Any proposal that is silent on family breakdown goes directly in the trash.  It may be that the larger society has no power to strengthen marriage, even if it tries.  But if it doesn’t try at all, everything else will fail as well.

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