Paging Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: The ghost that haunts many urban teens

Paging Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: The ghost that haunts many urban teens

Two or three paragraphs into this riveting Wonkblog essay in The Washington Post I began having flashbacks, and not the good kind.

The key thought: Where is the late, great Democrat Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan when we really need him?

The headline opens the door and it's a very important door, if you care about social justice and the urban poor: "What your 1st-grade life says about the rest of it." Here is the opening of the report, which has a Baltimore dateline for perfectly logical reasons:

BALTIMORE -- In the beginning, when they knew just where to find everyone, they pulled the children out of their classrooms.
They sat in any quiet corner of the schools they could claim: the sociologists from Johns Hopkins and, one at a time, the excitable first-graders. Monica Jaundoo, whose parents never made it past the eighth grade. Danté Washington, a boy with a temper and a dad who drank too much. Ed Klein, who came from a poor white part of town where his mother sold cocaine.

They talked with the sociologists about teachers and report cards, about growing up to become rock stars or police officers. ... Later, as the children grew and dispersed, some falling out of the school system and others leaving the city behind, the conversations took place in McDonald’s, in public libraries, in living rooms or lock-ups. The children -- 790 of them, representative of the Baltimore public school system’s first-grade class in 1982 -- grew harder to track as the patterns among them became clearer.

What shaped these young and, quickly, troubled lives?

The Post describes the crucial factors as the "circumstances they were born into, by the employment and education prospects of their parents, by the addictions or job contacts that would become their economic inheritance." The patterns that emerged were familiar and starkly depressing:

Johns Hopkins researchers Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle watched as less than half of the group graduated high school on time. Before they turned 18, 40 percent of the black girls from low-income homes had given birth to their own babies. At the time of the final interviews, when the children were now adults of 28, more than 10 percent of the black men in the study were incarcerated. Twenty-six of the children, among those they could find at last count, were no longer living.
A mere 4 percent of the first-graders Alexander and Entwisle had classified as the “urban disadvantaged” had by the end of the study completed the college degree that’s become more valuable than ever in the modern economy. A related reality: Just 33 of 314 had left the low-income socioeconomic status of their parents for the middle class by age 28.

So what is the religious and moral angle in all of this? 

Simply stated, there is no such angle -- according to the Post report. Then again, there is a very good chance that this faith-shaped hole exists in the Johns Hopkins report itself. It would not surprise me if the answer to this sad puzzle is "both-and."

This is where my flashback kicked in.

It seems that the goal of this study, when stated in basic English, was to identify the key factors that help urban children thrive, especially the factors that help them succeed during the crucial early days of schooling and into the maelstrom of the teen years.

That was the goal of a newspaper project that I watched unfold in one of my first mainstream newsrooms roughly, oh, a third of a century ago. Mustering the research muscle of the old Knight Ridder Newspaper chain, the editors of the now dead Charlotte News -- at that time a small afternoon daily operating in the same building as the larger Charlotte News -- set out to create a survey that would shed light on the lives of teen-aged Charlotteans. The goal was to discover the key factors that influenced whether they would thrive socially, academically, financially, etc.

See the reason for my flashback?

Notice that I did not say that, as the religion-beat reporter, I participated in this project. No, this effort was created at levels far above that of people on beats other than politics, education and metro life. When I finally heard about it, the contents of the survey were already locked into place. To my distress, the project -- like this Post piece -- was completely faith free. There were also few questions probing the, for lack of a better word, "moral" dimensions of the crisis.

I asked for a meeting with an editor and pleaded to be added to the project team. He asked, "Why? What does religion have to do with this?" or words to that effect. I predicted that, when the results came in, he would find the following factors near the top of the results: 

* Whether the young people were from broken homes or homes in which a marriage had never formed. To state the Moynihan factor in this story, the question was whether these children had fathers who played meaningful roles in their lives.

* Were these young people involved in churches or other institutions offering guidance on moral issues in their lives? 

* Had their parents (both parents, single parents or grandparents) made sacrifices to move these children into alternative -- specifically religious -- schools?

The newspaper editors had assumed that the crucial factors were all linked to spending levels in public schools and the participation, or lack thereof, of these children in government-driven social programs. Thus, the survey never explored religious or moral dimensions in this crisis. Sound familiar?

When the results came in, what was the top factor influencing these young lives? It was this: Were their homes intact? Did they have two parents? If I remember correctly, participation in churches and similar organizations came in third.

Nevertheless, the series was published as planned, with no material focusing on the religious and moral dimensions of this crisis, even in a down where one of the major roads was Billy Graham Blvd. and churches dominated the social landscape.

Was education funding the key? Decades later, this new Post article notes, candidly: 

We like to think that education is an equalizer -- that through it, children may receive the tools to become entrepreneurs when their parents were unemployed, lawyers when their single moms had 10th-grade educations. But Alexander and Entwisle kept coming back to one data point: the 4 percent of disadvantaged children who earned college degrees by age 28.

“We hold that out to them as what they should work toward,” Alexander says. Yet in their data, education did not appear to provide a dependable path to stable jobs and good incomes for the worst off.

No, the key seems to have been that "family background" factor. 

In the end, it appears that people have minds, souls and bodies and that religion, morality and culture may have something to do with all of that. I would urge journalists and academics involved in the next version of this tragically timeless project to take that into account.

Maybe this question is relevant: What would Moynihan do?

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