Black Leaders Say Personal Responsibility Key to Economic Opportunity

Bill Cosby, Walter Williams, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter

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

What do Bill Cosby, Walter Williams, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter have in common?

They are all black men who grew up in Philadelphia. Williams and Cosby are a year apart in age. Both grew up in the Richard Allen housing projects in Philly and were raised by their mothers. Cosby attended Temple University in Philadelphia, where Williams later taught as an economics professor. As a former student of Williams, I remember him mentioning the funny kid his mom told him to stay away from. My husband (also a Williams student) and I wondered whether he was referring to Cosby—we never knew for sure.

Another similarity these very accomplished men have in common is their belief that intact families reduce dependency on government services.

Bill Cosby spends a significant amount of time talking to groups of black men, whether it be at a prison graduation ceremony for men receiving their GEDs or in a Detroit church closed to the media so that lawbreakers feel comfortable enough to attend. His message is harsh but the same wherever he goes: black men and women need to be responsible parents. In one of his most famous speeches, at a 2004 NAACP awards ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, he said: “No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the … child.”

In their book Come on, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors, Cosby and co-author Alvin Poussaint recall that blacks have always owned and operated any number of restaurants, laundries, hotels, theaters, grocery stores, clothing stores, life insurance companies, banks, funeral homes, and more. “Such successes provided jobs and strength to black economic well-being.”

Similarly, in his autobiography, Walter Williams described the thriving business community next to his housing project where the proprietors were both Jewish and black. A thriving business community meant jobs for any young person willing and able to work. Williams delivered hats, pressed hats, made hats, and picked fruit in New Jersey and sold it in Philly. He worked as a busboy and a dishwasher, delivered mail during Christmas, worked in a mail-order department, and delivered newspapers.

Cosby has a similar long list of jobs he worked during his teen years. Their early years clearly influenced their consistent and persistent call for personal responsibility as the solution to many of society’s ills.

Philadelphia’s current mayor, Michael Nutter, is a University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business graduate whose message resonates in, and results are lauded in, both majority white and majority black districts. He is in his second term as mayor, with his first election garnering the largest percentage of white votes ever cast for an African-American mayor in Philadelphia. Four years later he won in landslides in both the primary and the general election. His winning message: parents can’t be outsourcing their responsibilities to the government if the city is to thrive.

In the summer of 2011, flash mobs of mostly black teenagers would gather suddenly and riot through popular tourist neighborhoods, assaulting pedestrians and robbing stores and people. Nutter took to the pulpit of Mount Carmel Baptist Church on August 7, 2011, and preached to teens and their absentee parents: “This nonsense must stop. If you want to act like a butthead, your butt is going to get locked up. And if you want to act like an idiot, move.” He lambasted absentee fathers, implying they were responsible for the crimes their children committed. “You’ve damaged your own race,” he declared.

He continued: “And if you’re not providing the guidance and you’re not sending any money, you’re just a sperm donor. You’re just a sperm donor. You’re what the girls call out in the street: ‘That’s my baby-daddy. That’s my baby-daddy.’ That’s not good enough.” He said he would speak plainly and he did: “That’s part of the problem in the black community. And many other communities, but a particular problem in the black communities: we have too many men making too many babies that they don’t want to take care of and then we end up dealing with your children. We’re not running a big babysitting service. We’re running a big government and a great city. Take care of your children. All of them. All of them.”

Cosby and Nutter have identified a pervasive problem leading to the decline of communities all over America: out-of-wedlock motherhood (absentee fathers). From a public policy perspective, there is a link between those poor women enrolled in Medicaid and increases in single motherhood. Medicaid provides states 90 percent reimbursement for contraception (birth control is a mandatory part of state Medicaid programs). Nobel Prize-winning economist George Ackerlof of the University of California, Berkeley, finds a causal relationship between widespread contraception and out-of-wedlock childbirth, suggesting a relationship between government funding of contraception and unmarried mothers. As economist Jennifer Roback Morse (PDF) rightly questions: “With the ability to prevent and terminate pregnancy increasing, why would low-cost or free contraception lead to more children being born to unmarried women?”

Morse then answers her question. “This occurs precisely because so many women actually want babies, more so than the estimates of so-called ‘unintended’ pregnancies and birth suggest. These women want their babies; they don’t want to have abortions. Not very long ago, these women would have had the support of the entire society in pressuring the father to marry them. But since having a baby is a ‘woman’s choice,’ that pressure is greatly attenuated. Consequently, the overall birth rate has declined, the proportion of women that are married has declined, and the proportion of babies born outside of wedlock has increased.”

A quick glance at SoonerCare (Oklahoma Medicaid) data shows that as of May 2013, of the 293,416 adults enrolled, 205,334 (or 70 percent) are women and 88,082 (or 30 percent) are men. Further, children represent nearly 65 percent of all enrollees. Although there are many factors that could help explain these enrollment data, one of them is assuredly single motherhood. These data surely warrant closer examination in a future OCPA study.

Furthermore, as my OCPA colleague Jonathan Small has pointed out, Oklahoma Health Care Authority data tell us that an astonishing 64 percent of births in Oklahoma are covered by the Medicaid program. That is not a misprint.

As a black man himself, Mayor Nutter can more credibly deliver the harsh message that might be needed for Philadelphia’s majority black population (43 percent black, 37 percent white, and 12 percent Hispanic) and not be accused of racism. Likewise, Cosby and Williams are extremely credible voices, having been raised by their mothers in the housing projects of Philadelphia. Although these men have many similarities and credibility, when it comes to public policy suggestions for Philadelphia’s population, they do not identify with the same political party. Walter Williams is an avowed libertarian, Bill Cosby doesn’t easily identify with either major party, and Michael Nutter is a Democrat. However, they are all conservatives to the extent that they all believe that the keys to social stability and economic opportunity are personal responsibility and intact families.