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.

What I Learned From Walter Williams

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My latest article on what I learned in Walter Williams’ class published at Oklahoma’s free-market think tank, The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs here.

When I stepped into a Ph.D. microeconomics class at George Mason University at the age of 23, I knew little about what lay in store for me. The professor, Dr. Walter Williams, was unfamiliar to me. I had never read any of his syndicated columns and had never heard him on the radio when he guest-hosted Rush Limbaugh’s show.

With wide-ranging discussions ranging from the minimum wage to the precepts of libertarian thought, Dr. Williams’ class exposed this young student to those economic and political ideas that are the cornerstones of liberty, dramatically reshaping my worldview over time.

Some of the most interesting discussions occurred when Dr. Williams would share personal stories with us. Somehow, his stories turned what might be a dull graphical presentation of the minimum wage into a fascinating historical narrative that vividly drew a picture of why the minimum wage wasn’t the great policy innovation it was purported to be.

His minimum-wage observations were rooted in his experiences in the North Philadelphia housing project where he grew up. He talked about the well-kept subsidized housing where most of the households were married, unlike his mom. Additionally, the majority of mothers and fathers worked full time.

In his autobiography, Up from the Projects, he states: “In those days, the Richard Allen administration office would periodically send someone to make inspection visits to all apartments to ensure cleanliness and good repair. Graffiti and wanton property destruction were unthinkable. The closest thing to graffiti was the use of chalk to draw blocks on the pavement to play hopscotch.”

He described the thriving business community next to the housing project where the proprietors were both Jewish and black. Most striking were all the jobs he talked about having as a boy. A thriving business community meant jobs for any young person willing and able to work.

Enter: the minimum wage. Dr. Williams described the minimum wage as a tool that eradicated opportunities for young, willing workers like him. This outcome is especially egregious for those growing up in the inner cities that don’t have access to the best schools. They need the experience a job allows. However, when an employer is forced to pay $7.25, he will discriminate and hire the better-educated white worker over the inner-city black or Hispanic worker. What happens to those who would have been willing to work for a wage below the minimum? Unfortunately, these missed employment opportunities have left us with generations of poor, unemployed Americans trapped in a cycle of hopelessness.

Another lesson that stood out was a story about a woman who knocked on Dr. Williams’ door at his Pennsylvania home and asked if he was registered to vote. He said he didn’t vote. She said that was a shame—everyone should vote. What followed was a classic Williams reply: “As soon as everyone else stops voting, I’ll start voting. Then, my vote will count.”

Another vivid memory from his class involves the time I swiftly transcribed his words onto paper and then suddenly screeched my pen to a halt as I re-read what I had just wrote: “education departments are the cesspools at all universities.” Having no idea what that meant, I looked up to survey the reaction of my fellow classmates. This was one of the first times I had really looked around the classroom. I think it was the third class of the semester. We were seated in a U-shaped configuration.

I remember seeing this guy across the room with his arms crossed, leaning back in his chair as if he didn’t have a care in the world. I immediately thought, “I need to get to know that guy—he must be the smartest guy in class.” We talked after class, and it turned out that the main reason he applied to George Mason’s Ph.D. economics program was that he had grown up reading Dr. Williams’ columns and listening to him on Rush. So, for him, sitting in Williams’ class was like listening to his favorite radio show. That guy eventually became my husband. Longtime Perspective readers might recognize the name: OCPA research fellow Scott Moody.

One of the things I admire most about Dr. Williams is his boldness. He is unafraid to speak the truth despite the onslaught of criticism that follows. For that example, I will always be grateful. He was also an unknowing matchmaker—for which I am also grateful.