Personal responsibility is too narrow a way to think about poverty and school failure.
On June 29, Mitch Pearlstein (“What’s blocking the upward path?”) defended U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s statement that there is a culture problem in the inner cities with men not working. Pearlstein’s principal solution is to exhort young people to exhibit more personal responsibility.
The hubbub over Ryan’s statement was excessive. And Pearlstein, president of the Center of the American Experiment, is a friend whose compassionate conservatism I respect. But the two men have picked out only one piece of the puzzle.
Pearlstein and Ryan are correct about the facts. In 15 years as a Hennepin County judge, I have become accustomed to seeing young men in their 20s with remarkably little employment history. And, yes, young people are well-advised to face the fact of deficiencies in the education and employment systems and strive to succeed nonetheless.
But it is too simplistic to explain social problems as deficits in somebody else’s culture. What other “culture” could be expected from childhood poverty, neighborhood violence, mass incarceration and little hope?
Pearlstein quotes top researchers Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson, who write that low-income fathers are in headlong retreat from the breadwinning role. But Edin and Nelson carefully document the dismal economic conditions in Philadelphia, where they did much of their research — 350,000 manufacturing jobs employing 45 percent of the labor force in 1953, down to 30,000 jobs for 5 percent of workers in 2007. And they flatly dismiss Ryan’s analysis: “[I]t is not very illuminating to point to inner-city fathers’ deviant values as the primary source of what we’ve observed.”
Instead of exhortations, Edin and Nelson advocate offering low-income fathers respect — treating their sincere parenting efforts as “a resource with real potential value.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who started the whole debate about economics and family structure in 1965, proposed a return to twice-a-day mail delivery, creating 50,000 good jobs.
The shortcomings of our criminal-justice system, with about two-thirds of offenders released from state prisons rearrested within three years, provide a good example of why personal responsibility is inadequate public policy. By ascribing all the blame for a crime to an individual, the rest of us are absolved of any responsibility for the social conditions that inevitably produce crime.
Doing better does not require rocket science — witness the success of the country’s 3,000 “problem-solving” courts, which blend accountability with treatment and support for education and housing, and where hugs are more common than prison sentences.
Having started with a Drug Court, Hennepin County now has a Mental Health Court, a DWI Court, a Veterans Court, and specialized services for homeless individuals and those charged with prostitution.
As for fathers supporting children, the University of Minnesota’s three-year study of our Co-Parent Court reports that child support payments by low-income fathers increased 16 percent with just 12 hours of coparenting workshops and offering fathers meaningful roles in their child’s life.
The massive study by the Centers for Disease Control of the consequences of adverse child experiences — ACEs — underscores the limitations of personal responsibility as public policy. The CDC found a direct correlation between adult behavior and childhood adversity. People with four or more ACEs are five times as likely to engage in sexual intercourse by age 15, five times as likely to become alcoholic and seven times more likely to perpetrate domestic violence than those with no ACEs.
It turns out that a stable, nurturing, prosperous upbringing doesn’t just provide real capital — money — and social capital such as helpful relationships. It also bestows “character capital” — grit, the capacity to overcome adversity, to forgo gratification, to plan ahead. A sturdy character isn’t a mark of virtue; it is a gift that not everyone gets.
Want to see more personal responsibility? Don’t just lecture; address ACEs. The good news is that taking collective responsibility for each other works. I have heard more than one Drug Court graduate say: “You all saw something in me I did not see in myself.”
Bruce Peterson is a Hennepin County Drug Court judge.
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