Standing Up for Parents’ Rights

The Turner family

This is adapted from my article published by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs blog InterAlia.

Imagine traveling outside the state where you reside and your child becomes ill. At first reflection, you wouldn’t hesitate to take her to the best and closest hospital. Well, after reading about the parents of 16-year-old Justina Pelletier from Connecticut who were charged with medical neglect, I will now hesitate before having my child treated by someone other than our family doctor.

In February 2013, when Justina began experiencing some gastrointestinal problems, a Tufts University doctor treating her wanted the girl to visit a doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH). Justina was taken by ambulance to BCH because she was in a wheelchair at the time and heavy snow was falling in Boston. She was taken to the emergency room and her parents informed doctors that she was there to see a specific gastroenterologist. The intern at BCH instead called upon a psychologist who diagnosed Justina with somatoform disorder. This disorder is a mental condition where the patient’s symptoms have no physical or biological explanation.

The Pelletier family refused to accept this new diagnosis and kept repeating that she was at BCH for the specific purpose of seeing a certain gastroenterologist to treat her diagnosed mitochondrial disease as directed by her doctor at Tufts University. Her parents never requested a new evaluation of Justina and repeatedly refused to accept this new diagnosis and accompanying psychiatric treatment. The BCH doctors called in Massachusetts Children and Family Services to take custody of Justina and had her parents escorted from the hospital.

Justina’s parents live in Connecticut and were forced to hire lawyers and travel between Connecticut and Massachusetts during their fight to regain custody of their child. Poor Justina spent a year in a locked psychiatric unit at BCH and then was moved to another locked facility in Massachusetts. Her parents were only allowed a one-hour weekly visit and 20-minute phone call for the 15 months when she was in Massachusetts.

Fortunately, Justina is now going home. However, it was only because her father risked going to jail by breaking the judge’s gag order to speak with the press. That there is even a discussion about who has rights over children – the parent or the government – is profoundly disturbing.

Consider recent legislation that passed in Michigan that provides children 12-17 years old the option to deny their parents access to their online medical records. One mother went to the press and expressed her dismay when medical personnel at her doctor’s office informed her they would be having a private conversation with her 17-year-old daughter to discuss this new right of privacy from her parents. The doctor’s office manager also reportedly said that during the five-minute private conversation with her daughter a nurse would discuss birth control options, HIV, and share information about sexually transmitted diseases. When this mother refused to allow the conversation, they informed her she could not opt out of this new medical records access law. Sounds pretty heavy-handed.

Parental rights are doubtless more secure in Oklahoma than in some of the more liberal states. Oklahoma’s newly enacted Parents’ Bill of Rights (pdf) may be seen by some as duplicative, given that Oklahoma already has laws that firmly protect parents’ relationships with their children. However, given Washington’s desire to assert its preeminence over the states, Oklahoma policymakers must remain vigilant and active.

Families, Not Government, Can Reduce Generational Poverty


This is adapted from my article published by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs in their May Issue of the Perspective Magazine.

I have previously written about the mayor of a great city, a prize-winning economist, and an award-winning actor who all speak about the need for stable families.

In my previous post I discussed the inner-city woes of an “F” school in Tulsa and how the administration was attempting to deal with the behavioral problems the children brought with them to the classroom. Teachers and administrators commented that it was the unstable family life experienced by the children which was a primary factor driving the children’s undesirable behavior.

The mainstream notion about disadvantaged youth is that coming from a low-income family determines the effects on those disadvantaged children in adulthood. It is this notion that propels government anti-poverty policies. In a 2007 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, economists Rajeev Dehejia, Thomas DeLeire, Erzo Luttmer, and Joshua Mitchell state (pdf):

“Many studies have documented the correlation between poverty and youth outcomes. Growing up in poverty is related to having worse physical health, lower levels of cognitive ability, lower levels of school achievement, and a greater level of emotional or behavioral problems.”

The authors also state that evidence shows that it is improbable that low income is the cause for all these adverse outcomes.

In addition to income, there is a significant amount of evidence that having an unmarried parent can help explain these effects. Economists Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur argue in their book “Growing up with a Single Parent” that:

“growing up with only one biological parent frequently deprives children of important economic, parental, and community resources, and these deprivations ultimately undermine their chances of future success.”


For instance, the highest percentage of single-headed households is among black mothers. In an interview with President Barack Obama, television host Bill O’Reilly stated that 72 percent of black babies are born out of wedlock. He asked the president why he and Mrs. Obama haven’t explicitly addressed this very serious problem.

According to federal health statistics, 24.6 percent of births to non-whites were to single mothers in 1964. (This includes blacks, Hispanics, and Asians—so the percentage of blacks was even lower than 24.6 percent.)

Fast forward to 2012, almost 50 years since LBJ’s War on Poverty began, and the percentage of births to unmarried black mothers was 72 percent. Despite 50 years of LBJ’s War on Poverty and $20 trillion spent, we are presented with one of the many perverse results of welfare policy. Clearly, the intent of welfare policy in 1964 was not to rip apart the structure of the American family.

In groundbreaking research in 1985, Harvard economist Richard Freeman (pdf) found that the background factors that most influence who escapes inner-city poverty are churchgoing, whether other members of the family work, and whether the family is on welfare.

In Oklahoma, 62 percent of children are born on Medicaid. The percentage nationwide ranges from a whopping 71 percent in Louisiana to a low of 27 percent in Virginia (with a median value of 45 percent). Unfortunately, Oklahoma is in the very high range, at fourth-highest in the country. In absolute numbers, that represents, on average, approximately 30,000 babies that are born into Oklahoma’s welfare system each and every year.

Unfortunately, as I recently pointed, this suggests Medicaid will continue to swell, as this next generation of newborns is very likely to be remain dependent on the program into adulthood like their parents. Economist Carolyn Moeling’s 2004 research (pdf) is a forewarning to those Oklahoma policymakers flirting with expanding public assistance:

“States that offered the most generous benefits to single mothers were the states that experienced the largest increases in single motherhood.”

Largely missing from mainstream conversation about what factors influence disadvantaged individuals’ ability to improve their financial trajectory is church going—despite robust evidence. Dehejia, et al.’s empirical results:

“show that religious organizations play an important role in shaping the lives of disadvantaged youth by mitigating at least some of the long-term consequences of disadvantage.”

More specifically, the results are strongest when disadvantage is measured by maternal education or youth’s level of education.

Similarly, Byron Johnson finds that church attendance has been found to influence youth’s inclination whether to commit serious crimes. In other words, when youth are actively involved in church, the linkage between neighborhood disorder and serious crime diminishes (where neighborhood or social disorder is characterized by visible cues like hanging out, drinking, taking drugs, and creating a sense of danger on the streets).

Research which confirms that welfare policy contributes to the ongoing existence of intergenerational poverty abounds—whereas factors like two-parent households and churchgoing have been shown to ameliorate intergenerational poverty. For liberal policymakers and media to argue that intact marriages and religion have negligible effects on the health of a community and an economy is to blatantly ignore the facts.

Family Structure, Geography, and Income Mobility

Lyndon Baines Johnson, Thirty-sixth President (1963-1969)

This is from my article published by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs in their March Issue of the Perspective Magazine.

Politicians and economists from the left and the right have been decrying the lack of economic mobility in the United States and offering different solutions to solve the problem. In a recent interview on CNBC, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, said that although we should be proud of providing a safety net for Americans in need, we have failed to create an opportunity society.

Brooks says the government has gotten in the way of creating opportunities for personal transformation that are the precursors of success—like faith, family, happiness, and work—for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Educational reforms that allow school choice are the key inputs needed to achieve this transformation, but these reforms often are not embraced by advocates for the poor, who overwhelmingly attend failing schools.

Another component to creating opportunity for those at the bottom is exposure to entrepreneurship. Brooks says that we’re good at helping the rich with regards to entrepreneurship but we’ve done a terrible job helping those at the bottom become entrepreneurs. Given all the regulatory barriers, it is just too difficult to start a business.

So, with all this focus on the income gap and President Obama’s claim that we live in a continuous state of income inequality where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, let’s see what the data have to say.

A January 2014 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study from the Equality of Opportunity Project by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren and UC Berkley economists Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez (pdf) concludes that children born into poverty today are just as likely as their counterparts born 50 years earlier to be poor adults. So, despite President Johnson’s efforts to increase the government’s role in education and health care in 1964, $20 trillion later we haven’t moved the needle with regards to income mobility. Although the poor suffer less today, the odds that a poor child will rise out of poverty are the same as they were 50 years ago.

So, what else can this study tell us about income mobility? There seem to be two important findings. First, these economists find that family structure has the greatest impact on upward mobility. Second, they find that geography matters. More specifically, when ranking the 100 cities (commuting zones) with the largest populations, they find that Salt Lake City has the greatest overall upward mobility and that commuting zones that have more two-parent families exhibit more upward mobility.

According to an analysis by New York Times author David Leonhardt, “Climbing the income ladder occurs less often in the Southeast and industrial Midwest, the data shows, with the odds notably low in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Columbus. By contrast, some of the highest rates occur in the Northeast, Great Plains, and West, including in New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and large swaths of California and Minnesota.”

So, where does Oklahoma fit into this analysis? Of the 100 largest commuting zones, Oklahoma City ranks 41st and Tulsa ranks 44th with regard to upward mobility. There are a total of 741 commuting zones. Of the 16 commuting zones within Oklahoma, the top four are Woodward, Elk City, Guymon, and Enid. Rounding out the bottom are Oklahoma City, Okmulgee, Tulsa, and Muskogee.

Let’s examine a potential scenario to compare income mobility in Oklahoma with regard to its neighboring states. Consider a child born to parents making $31,000 in Oklahoma City. According to the data in this study, that child will, on average, climb the economic ladder and earn $50,000 in adulthood. In Dallas, that same child would end up grossing $48,000 as an adult. In Wichita, the child ends up earning $49,000, and, finally, in Little Rock the child would bring in $45,000.

Overall, Oklahoma is performing well amongst its neighbors when it comes to upward mobility. However, when ranked across the country, Oklahoma’s biggest city is in the middle of the pack. What the Equality of Opportunity study does show us above and beyond anything else is that an emphasis on creating and maintaining two-parent families is not a supplemental prescription to a healthy economy, but a necessary one.