Family Intactness, Parental Participation, and Student Performance

Chart Showing Combined Average in English and Math by Family Structure

Combined Average in English and Math by Family Structure

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

When President Obama was interviewed by Bill O’Reilly of FOX News, O’Reilly made the statement that poverty is driven by the dissolution of the American family. He specifically asked the president, “Why isn’t there a campaign by you and the First Lady to address this very explicitly?”

President Obama pushed back that he has indeed mentioned the importance of families in at least 10 speeches since becoming president. As a black, married man with children, the president has a tremendous opportunity to change the dialogue about our cultural ills. Instead of just lobbying for more spending for broadband Internet in schools or universal pre-K to help America’s children, the president should heed O’Reilly’s advice and advance a national dialogue about the importance of marriage.

According to a joint project between Princeton University and The Brookings Institution called Fragile Families, in 2006, 75 percent of black children were born to unmarried mothers. Black fathers are missing in action, and this absence is one of the greatest drivers of the failure of inner-city schools to effectively educate the children in poor neighborhoods. Bill Cosby and the Democratic mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, are among the successful black males that have publicly addressed the problem. Research by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation shows that if the inactive father becomes a participant in the household, 80 percent of those families in poverty would no longer be impoverished.

Children bring their personal struggles and frustrations to school with them. When you fill a room with angry, frustrated children, effective learning and comprehension are significantly impaired. Journalists at the Tulsa World recently wrote a series of articles addressing the challenges teachers and children face in one of Tulsa’s failing public schools. Oklahoma’s A-F grading system identified 36 schools in the district to receive an F in 2013, and this series of articles examined one of these failing schools: Hawthorne Elementary School.

Tulsa Public Schools has 36 “F” schools and 44 schools where more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-rate school meals. At Hawthorne Elementary, 94 percent of students qualify for these programs. According to one of the articles, “Teachers, low-wage support staff, and PTA members spend money out of their own pockets to buy warm coats, gloves, socks, underwear, and even toiletries for kids in need.”

Coupled with the poverty in this neighborhood is a high incidence of crime and violence. For the children at Hawthorne, this means that many of them have relatives who have been violently assaulted or killed. Many have parents that have been arrested and have been or currently are in jail. A pre-K teacher at Hawthorne said that in a reading of “The Three Little Pigs”—in which a pig died when the wolf ate him, and the wolf was caught and sent to jail—one child said, “My dad’s in jail for shooting someone.” Another student said, “My dad is dead.” Recently, faculty members recognized a man on Tulsa’s “Most Wanted” list as the father of one of their students.

According to Hawthorne’s principal, the most horrifying thing that she has dealt with is a fifth grade boy who was prostituting himself to men to bring extra money home for his family of 10 children that lives in a two-bedroom apartment. Hawthorne’s principal remarks about the boy’s family, “All of the kids in the family have special needs and serious behavior issues. Three of them were sent to foster homes or group homes because of behavior problems.”

Former Heritage Foundation scholar Patrick Fagan, now of the Family Research Council, testified last year in House Speaker T.W. Shannon’s interim study on “how to reform Oklahoma means-tested welfare programs so as to improve the health of the nuclear family.” In his testimony (Kansas pdf version), Fagan reported on household income, which is an important proxy for economic activity and human capital formation. Human capital formation is driven by the labor activity of the head of the household, and our future economic growth and human capital are determined by America’s children.

Dr. Fagan stated that, of those households with children, it is married intact households which have the highest median income. The lowest median income is in those households where marriage has never occurred.

With regard to the relationship between marriage and educational outcomes, children from intact families have higher GPAs in English and math (pdf), as you can see in the nearby chart.

Further, Dr. Fagan finds in his “Index of Family Belonging and Rejection” that family intactness is very influential on high school graduation rates. It influences high school graduation rates more than does the fraction of adult college graduates in an area. Further, he finds that family intactness and the fraction of adult high school graduates in an area have similar beneficial influences on prime-age male employment rates.

In the series of Tulsa World articles, teachers do stress that the significant lack of funds available for curriculum obviously impairs the children’s ability to succeed. However, their greatest challenge in trying to create a hospitable learning environment is the children’s behavior issues. The lack of concern and involvement from Hawthorne parents is overwhelming.

Hawthorne’s counselor recently visited the homes of parents of 15 students because they “weren’t responding to repeated phone calls over the course of three weeks about the possibility of their children having special education needs.” Chronic absenteeism is common, with many parents not even assuring their kids get to school.

According to one article, which mentions a fifth-grader who is student body president and two second-graders with perfect attendance who were recently named to the honor roll, “The active PTA members’ children are proof positive that kids can not only succeed but can flourish academically, even in an F school.”

School faculty’s focus on incorporating children’s family into the curriculum on a regular basis is crucial to marked academic improvement. Hawthorne held its first Donut with Dads event and had 120 dads attend. In its first-ever honor roll assembly, teachers were elated at the 100-plus in attendance. Given that the school hadn’t engaged parents before this to publicly share in the success of their children is disappointing, but the fact that the faculty recognizes the importance of this involvement is the first step toward improvement.

Increases in per pupil spending will never affect the academic outcomes of students like the encouragement and active participation of their parents in their learning. Hawthorne’s new principal seems to recognize the importance of engaging parents. We can only hope that her colleagues in the 35 other “F” schools take notice and phone her for advice.

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.

In Praise of Enterprise Zones

Obama speaks about the sequester in Washington

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

Economic distress does not always manifest equally throughout America. Some communities are hit hard economically while others may only feel a small economic hiccup. If the same communities are hit repeatedly then they may slide into a state of permanent decline—Detroit is the current poster child for this kind of economic tragedy.

Of course, this is not a new problem. Policymakers have been attempting to tackle hotspots of economic distress for decades. Perhaps the most popularized attempt was the idea of “enterprise zones” first touted by Jack Kemp while serving as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President George H.W. Bush.

Fast forward to today and the idea of enterprise zones is alive and well. In fact, President Obama has even embraced the idea of enterprise zones with his recently launched Promise Zones (PZ) initiative.

PZs are designed to help areas of the country that were hit hard by the recent Great Recession and will initially include areas such as San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky, and right here in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The PZs are intended to help build infrastructure, increase access to education, reduce crime, and, most importantly, provide incentives for businesses to hire and invest by expanding the existing Empowerment Zone tax credit.

Additionally, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) recently unveiled his Economic Freedom Zones (EFZs) (pdf) which would reduce taxes, enhance educational opportunities, and reduce regulatory burdens. Sen. Paul’s tax reductions include enacting a 5 percent flat rate for the individual and corporate income tax, a 4 percentage point reduction in the payroll tax, boosting expensing on new investments, eliminating the capital gains tax, and a $5,000 per child educational tax credit to help children attend the school that most meets their needs. Unlike PZs, EFZs will be available to any jurisdiction that meets certain criteria and would receive these benefits for 10 years.

However, it’s not just Uncle Sam that has found the enterprise zone model to be useful. There are currently more than 3,000 enterprise-type zones in the United States. Most of these zones are implemented by the states, but they can also be coupled with local tax relief through a popular vehicle known as Tax Increment Financing, which often provides rebates on property taxes or earmarks money to be used for infrastructure improvements.

These initiatives are noteworthy, especially since a new problem has arrived on the scene which threatens to drag down economic prosperity: demographic winter.  Demographic winter is the situation which arises when, due to declining birthrates, there are not enough young people to sustain the current population level. As a consequence, the area afflicted with demographic winter experiences a slow-moving economic depression as both the labor supply and customer base shrinks.

Recently, Kansas implemented a new twist on the enterprise zone model—the Rural Opportunity Zone (ROZ)—in an effort to fight the growing problem of demographic winter in its rural counties. There are currently 73 counties that qualify for a ROZ. ROZs offer individuals a 5-year abatement on their individual income tax and/or student loan repayments up to $15,000 if they move into one of the qualifying counties from out of state.

Overall, enterprise zones, in their many forms, are a step in the right direction. Yet, there are still flaws that reduce their effectiveness. Among the largest flaws is the degree of difficulty complying with the selective parameters of the program. For example, while a tax credit does reduce one’s tax liability, it does not reduce the complexity and compliance costs associated with tax filing—it could actually make them worse. At the extreme, these problems can cause businesses and individuals to forgo the benefits of these zones.

One proposal in Maine seeks to address the problems associated with such complexity. The Free ME initiative would eliminate Maine’s income tax (individual and corporate) and sales tax completely on a county-by-county basis starting in the most economically distressed county. Free ME would create a clean, level playing field for all participants and would not disappear until tangible economic benefits are seen—specifically, seeing the county move back to the state average on key economic variables such as unemployment and poverty. The Free ME initiative is receiving much-deserved state and national attention. This is worth keeping an eye on.

In conclusion, it is not every day that two people from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, like President Obama and Senator Paul, agree that changing incentives do in fact make a difference in the lives of families across America. This targeted approach embedded in the idea of enterprise zones can help pave the way to broader reforms as the EMZs show progress in tackling some of the most difficult economic challenges of our time, such as stubborn pockets of poverty and demographic winter. The recipe may need tweaking, but at least policymakers are in the right kitchen.