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.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Magical Thinking Watch: “Promise Neighborhoods”

  1. Snippet says:

    I really, REALLY appreciate your tireless cataloging of the endless taxpayer-funded inanities that have been failing so spectacularly to fix our “inner cities.”

    However, just to play Devil’s advocate, I think it is helpful (but not very hopeful) to bring up the fact that Stephen Pinker (conservative? I don’t think so), in his superb book, “Blank Slate,” raised the incredibly politically incorrect suggestion that the dismal marriage rate is not the cause of “inner city” dysfunction, but rather a result of the fact that the “inner city” suffers from a dearth of marriage-able men (ouch.).

    If he’s right, the solution to this particular problem will elude us for a VERY long time.

  2. wm tanksley says:

    The government serves “nicely” as a complete replacement for a father. There’s a reason for the idiom “sugar daddy”.

    Remove the need for fathers, and you reduce the incentive for fathers to stay.

  3. Susan says:

    There’s no longer any social stigma attached to having a child out-of-wedlock, nor, for the religious, is there any longer any religious stigma, since religion now promotes the idea that having a baby without a husband in the picture is far preferable to having an abortion. And there’s a financial incentive, in the form of welfare, to give birth outside of marriage. I don’t think promoting marriage is going to work as long as there are so many reasons not to marry before giving birth.

  4. Sam Schulman says:

    Heather, the magical thinking on your own part is fully equivalent to the Administration’s. They think that any amount of spending could be equivalent to having a father in a child’s life; you think that young men would be foolish enough to marry their sexual partners without any sort of transcendent hand on the scale that might threaten punishment if they did not.
    Fortunately, a bare majority of men know that they would be in for it, big time, if they didn’t do the right thing. Please stop trying to disabuse us of this notion!

  5. CONSVLTVS says:

    Excellent post on a fundamental problem in the U.S. (and beyond). Every word is perfect. My questions: (1) How in the world do we get people to see the obvious but politically anathema truth? (2) How do we re-valorize marriage (along with a couple of other old norms)? Your suggestions are a great start, and you’re (again) absolutely right that doing nothing is worse than trying something.

    The dearth of marriageable men Pinker mentions may be a result of frat-boy connivance with feminism. Check out my logic:

  6. Snippet says:


    Interesting observation. I’ll take a closer look time permitting.

    Pinker is arguing that certain neighborhoods are simply lacking in a supply of marriageable men, so the women rationally chose not to marry them (opting instead, for the government check).

  7. John says:

    Women are, to some extent, rational in taking the government check instead of marrying. The solution is obvious: take away the check. Until the welfare state is done away with, there is no way that enough social stigma will develop that will prevent girls from becoming mothers without getting married. The breakdown of the family is mostly a direct result of the welfare state. The other, even less PC reason, is that poor people aren’t very good at planning for the future. That’s why they’re poor. There is no policy that will change that.

  8. dfhjdh says:

    If I had any sense at all I’d stop fantasizing about the sort of financial stability that would allow me to realize the American Dream of home and hearth, and simply procreate like the (aknowledged) underclass does.

    Negro or not, the underclass fornicate, procreate and let the government worry about suckling their seed. It’s a great gig and I’m annoyed at myself for being too queasy to just let loose and live that way like my more prolific indigent brethren.

  9. Rich Rostrom says:

    Susan: “nor, for the religious, is there any longer any religious stigma…”

    There is still a stigma – but the religious are reluctant to apply it, because they fear it will push women to have abortions instead. And if abortion is murder, then yes, it is far worse than having a bastard. Also, of course, it is far worse for the child to be killed than to be born out of wedlock.

    “there’s a financial incentive, in the form of welfare…”

    Not really. Welfare doesn’t pay much, and the “welfare reform” enacted under Clinton limits it further. I doubt if any women give birth to collect welfare. What welfare does is enable bastardy and single motherhood. – make it survivable. Most such cases arise through accident: the woman (or girl) either bungled contraception or lapsed in chastity, and became pregnant, then decided not have an abortion. The potential support of the welfare system diffuses the fear-incentive to be rigorous about contraception or chastity; and it only takes one mistake or lapse to conceive a baby.

  10. Susan says:

    Ric, I wasn’t suggesting that welfare is a get-rich-quick scheme, merely that the cushion is there, and however non-luxuriously unmarried mothers and their children may live, they are, at least in my state, guaranteed food, shelter, and medical and dental care.

    A few weeks ago, in a similar discussion at this site, I cited a report I’d recently read concerning a woman at the Harvard Medical School who’d done a long-term study of about 1500 teenagers who’d become pregnant outside marriage. What the researcher found was that virtually all of these young women either intended to become pregnant, or didn’t care if they did become pregnant.

  11. DonZilla says:

    I agree with Sam: marriage doesn’t magically transform irresponsible people into responsible people. An important piece Heather’s missing from this puzzle is that in our society, a mother is still considered the most powerful thing a woman can be. Her other accomplishments are okay, but if she’s not a mother, she’s a social oddity.

    Motherhood is an easy chance at power and making a difference (through children) for women who can’t or don’t see other options.

  12. Apathy Curve says:

    You can thank LBJ, the biggest crook ever to sit in the Oval Office. He successfully hijacked the civil rights movement and turned it into a vote-generating machine for the Democrat party. As John states above, the solution is to take away the check. The problem is that we as a people now lack the will to do so, because it will create “suffering and misery,” at which the frail mind quails. Life sucks sometimes; deal with it. The Just World Fallacy is dangerous and delusional.

    The solution for that particular delusion is travel. Go visit people living in cardboard huts on Green Beach in the Philippines; they’re poor, not dead. Paying people not to work will never be a functional policy. If they want to eat, they’ll find a way to work. Welfare is quicksand. And I’d say the old argument that welfare reduces poverty-driven crime has been pretty conclusively disproven at this point in history. If you don’t believe me, go take a leisurely evening stroll through Detroit. Update your will before you leave.

    N.B. – I’ve been unemployed before. It sucked ass. That’s why I found another job.

  13. CONSVLTVS says:

    DonZilla, I’d like to know more about why you see “mother” as the most powerful identity for a woman in our society. I’ve certainly seen plenty of men and women react to a “stay-at-home mom” as if she’s just too dumb to hold a “real” job. I’m not saying motherhood doesn’t exercise a powerful appeal for many women (and for Eric Idle in Life of Brian). I do wonder, though, how much of that appeal is cultural.

  14. you think that young men would be foolish enough to marry their sexual partners without any sort of transcendent hand on the scale that might threaten punishment if they did not.
    Marriage predates religion. Religions batten onto marriage to get authority from its enduring appeal. As Ferdinand Mount points out in The Subversive Family, in the long war between the Church and the family, the family is clearly winning. (The Catholic Church, for example, is in favour of the family in the same way the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was in favour of the workers: it is in favour of the ones that do as they are told.)

    That being said, lots of low income single mothers is pretty socially disastrous. It is, however, hardly true that all Western inner cities are socially dysfunctional. The US seems to be particularly good at generating dysfunctional inner cities: it would surely be worth looking at the specific reasons why that is so.

  15. Snippet says:

    What exactly happened to this “transcedent hand,” anyway?

    Did it quit? Take a coffee break? Is it a union transcendent hand? If so, this coffee break’s going to last until about lunch time.

  16. RandyB says:

    The US seems to be particularly good at generating dysfunctional inner cities: it would surely be worth looking at the specific reasons why that is so.

    Europe is beginning to generate them with minority immigrants.

    In Bruce Bawser’s While Europe Slept, he makes the point that traditionally generous northern European welfare states were designed by a political system that understood the values of recipients, and could accurately assess what level of help wouldn’t turn into a lifestyle. Then immigrants from other lands came in, who not only didn’t share the same values, but didn’t necessarily think that needlessly costing taxpayers was any kind of priority.

    I suspect America’s anti-poverty programs (as opposed to middle-class transfer programs, like unemployment and Social Security) were not designed to prioritize avoiding moral hazards or minimizing taxpayer impact.

  17. John D says:

    Sure, there are many benefits to marriage. I’m a marriage advocate myself, and we should all be encouraging marriage (that means for same-sex couples too). I think the way to encourage marriage is to provide clear incentives for raising children as a married couple, and not by being punitive. Punishing people does not work.

    Some of these women, of course, have good reasons for not being with the men who fathered their children. Do you want to tell a woman that she’s stuck with the drug-using abuser who seemed to charming just a few years before? Once again, we get nowhere by being punitive here.

    There are undoubtably a slew of social ills (many of them self-perpetuating) that lead to broken families in the inner cities. Better schools, social programs, convincing men that it’s unmanly to walk out on a woman with whom they’ve had children.

    These woman aren’t criminals, after all. We make a mistake if we treat them that way. “Sink or swim” is going to lead to a heavy social toll, and we can’t smugly assume it’ll never touch us (I’m a suburban white guy, but I’m not stupid).

    I don’t have the magic simple answer that turns poor urban dwellers into affluent bourgeois suburbanites. I suspect they’d all be happy to be in suburbia. How do we help them get there?

    It’s easy to say, “I don’t like this because it doesn’t promote marriage.” How does one promote marriage? What are the conservative solutions to the problems of the inner-city poor?

  18. outeast says:

    Hmm. Colour me deeply unconvinced! Marriage is arguably a proxy for a healthy community, and possibly a mechanism for reinforcing and maintaining community health, but you don’t cure a condition by dicking about with a proxy.

    Implicit is not just the need for marriage-as-institution but marriage packaged with a whole bundle of values (responsibility, duty…), abilities (parenting skills, employment competence…), and infrastructure (extended familial support…) – and these don’t come automatically with marriage as some kind of gift bundle. That’s magical thinking.

  19. Snippet says:

    >>> Implicit is not just the need for marriage-as-institution but marriage packaged with a whole bundle of values (responsibility, duty…), abilities (parenting skills, employment competence…), and infrastructure (extended familial support…) – and these don’t come automatically with marriage as some kind of gift bundle.

    We don’t need a laundry list of things “they” need to do, and then some sort of plan to get them to do each one of these.

    What is needed is the motivation to committ to such things, none of which are what you’d call “fun.”

    Actually, the motivation to do all of those things is given a pretty good boost by the public commitment and attendant responsibilities associated with marriage.

    Yes, there is a bit of a contradiction between this and my earlier post regarding the (possible) futility of the whole enterprise due to the lack of marriageble men, but life is complicated.

  20. Michael in PA says:


    I have to ask, why do you think that incentivizing mothers is going to, in any way, effect marriage rates?

    Marriage is a contract. Both parties must agree.

    As a single man in his mid 20s, I don’t see a compelling reason to get married. Modern no-fault divorce is such a danger to a productive man that there is almost no reason to enter into such a contract.

    In the event that my partner “gets bored” I’ll be on the hook for a ruinous 50% loss of my assets and continuing alimony and child support payments.

    No thanks.

  21. VJ says:

    Marriage is not now nor ever was a universal salve or balm to cure all social ills, least of all poverty. Economic history will tell you that. Might it help at the margins? Certainly, under the right & favorable circumstances. But the dysfunction seen in the inner cities? Might have been said of the teeming tempest of immigrants of 1900 too. Poverty is it’s own problem. And it’s been with us for a very long time.

    What always mystifies me if the level of argument & debate about various kinds of ‘welfare’. We can & often do get down to the atomistic level with the cluck clucking about ‘poor blacks’ & ‘gals who just can’t say no’ & abstinence for all. But folks? This is the short end of the stick here. Colorful that it is. Impressively engaging. But our welfare state? Transfers far more benefits to Corporations & industry than mere poor folks. Easily 10-100 times more, anyway you count it. Why do I never hear of this welfare ‘baked into’ our tax system & the subsidies that underlie all that easy living in the burbs & elsewhere? I guess poor pregnant black & brown kids are always more attractive somehow, right? We just love to tell them what to do to ‘get their lives back on track’ & to ‘better themselves’.

    Bottom line? You either believe as a ‘conservative’ that human life is worth propagating, or it’s not. Babies as a ‘social good’ as recently adjudicated & pronounced by the USSC, or not. And if you want to yes, pick and choose who reproduces when & how? That will require far more Governmental intervention than anything yet imagined in this country. Even by the socialists of yore.

  22. Snippet says:

    >>> Marriage is not now nor ever was a universal salve or balm to cure all social ills, least of all poverty

    Of course it isn’t. Nothing is.

    The belief that such a salve exists is probably the single defining characteristic of liberalism, or perhaps more properly, “leftism.”

    >> Bottom line? You either believe as a ‘conservative’ that human life is worth propagating, or it’s not.

    Bottom line? You either simplify and misrepresent the beliefs of broad swaths of the population, or you don’t.

    Conservatives definitely believe human life is worth propagating, but that does not by any means necessarily commit them to the support of government programs that destroy (or severely compromise) the most responsible means of its propogation.

  23. CONSVLTVS says:

    Snippet: Well said.

    Will Durant somewhere says the family is the nucleus of civilization. He was right–obviously, plainly, painfully right. Only ideology blinds the Left to this truth.

  24. Snippet says:

    Thanks Consvltvs,

    This is of course, anecdotal, but an Indian poster at Steve Sailers site said that he truly fears the day when India’s very large poor population abandons the family, as has happened here.

    We may have the opportunity of watching this particular experiment unfold.

Comments are closed.