My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


Most Important Things 

Most Important Things #3: Combat Persistent Poverty

Thomas P.M. Barnett writes that "Disconnectedness Defines Danger." To review what I've written about this before, the idea is that those who are outside the community, and who have little real connection to the community, are the ones who are the most dangerous to the community.

Well, I cannot think of a greater disconnectedness from within the American community than the pockets of persistent povererty that seem to exist in every major metropolitan area in America.

If you are a young man born in the inner city, what are your opportunities for making a better life? Sports, performing, education, or crime. In truth, that is probably true for young men born in the richest suburbs--it's just that much more stark for urban youth. They don't have access to taking over dad's business or other sorts of legacy careers. So they're left with those choices.

And what are those choices, really? Sports? One in a million, with the very real possibility that one bad step is the end of the dream. Think about this: every year at Denver East H.S. there are 15 varsity basketball players; over the last 15 years, that translates into (with overlaps) probably 150 players at one of the best basketball programs in Colorado; right now, exactly one of those 150 is making a living at basketball (Chauncy Billups).

And performing? Like comedy or singing? Even a longer shot.

Education? Well, considering how devalued it is in the inner city, I wouldn't bet the farm on this option.

Are urban schools bad? Yes. Is it because we don't throw enough resources at them? No--look at the comparative per-pupil spending between Washington, D.C. or New York and, say, Douglas County, CO or suburban Kansas City. Is it because they are, frequently, cesspools of bad behavior and apathy? Yes. In this setting, does education create the sort of connectedness to society that schools are supposed to?

No. In fact, the social nature of the urban school actually contributes to the DISconnectedness from the society in general.

Which leaves two options: turn to crime, or settle for another generation of poverty.

The sort of hopelessness that this scenario breeds is exacerbated by sociological statistics: more than half of all black children, primarily in urban settings, are born to single mothers; the number one predictor of poverty is single motherhood; the number one predictor of becoming a single mother is being the child of a single mom.

In other words, statistically speaking, poverty breeds poverty; culturally speaking, poverty is synonymous with disconnectedness.

Oh, and, by the way, if you were a male between the ages of 18 and 35, with dark skin, an accent, and the intention of killing hundreds or thousands of Americans, where would you hide: suburbia, or the inner city?

And, as I've written about before, Republicans are very VERY weak at talking about this particular issue. But it is both important enough in reality, and obvious enough symbolically to demand that Republicans elevate this issue to the top of their platform. It simply isn't acceptable that modern-day America has a permanent underclass. The problem is that Republicans cannot advocate a large-scale government solution--it has never worked in the past and it is anethema to us.

Here's what, IMHO, Republicans need to start doing to address this.

Idea #1: Break up the inner city school
This is far from simply a typical Republican attack on public schools. For many suburban youths, schools are places where they learn to form social networks while gaining the skills necessary to acquire knowledge which will make them valuable to either higher-level schools or employers (in a perfect world); in other words, suburban schools are the place where suburban kids begin to learn how to create their own connectedness. It doesn't always work, but it works at, actually, a fairly high rate. Urban schools, on the other hand, are Darwinian psychological cage matches where the best hope is survival; connectedness is only one direction: gangs.

Many would say the solution is simple: vouchers. I don't believe in the immediate efficacy of vouchers. Ask teachers, especially middle school and above, who shows up at parent-teacher conferences; they will tell you it's the parents of good kids. The parents they really need to see are almost never there. And, really, good kids tend to find ways to survive and thrive--from experience, there was a very weak music program at a school once that has produced a band with a major-label record deal, several music teachers, and a couple Ph.Ds. The point is this: greatness will find its way, even through the valley of shadows.

I'm not talking about the great ones: there's a vast, VAST number of students just below the level of greatness who we have to save. And unless we can put them in an environment where there is a critical mass of interested, dedicated students--unless we can create a "tipping point" that creates a learning environment--those students will be lost.

So, let's not do vouchers. Instead, let's create partnerships with near-suburban school districts and charter schools that can take students from the inner city and provide them with a "connectedness" experience. Will that require bussing? Yes. Will it be forced? No. Will we force the students from the suburbs to go to the inner city? No.

Will it be difficult? Absolutely. Will it be more difficult than finding a way to turn around a 23 year-old who didn't get their diploma and getting them connected to the larer society. No.

Provide, from both a state and federal level, an incentive for the suburban school to take on this challenge; provide an opportunity for parents of inner-city youth to volunteer for their children to take on this challenge; provide--MOST IMPORTANTLY--resources for those suburban schools to partner with the business community and government so that these students can get connected.

We simply cannot--CANNOT--accept that there is a permanent underclass. And Republicans MUST be a part of this discussion, so that we can influence it towards market-based reforms. Otherwise, we may be seeing bussing coming back down the line.

Idea #2: Employ "Counter-Insurgency" Policing in Dead Zones

This is not, as Barnett would say, a call for a Leviathan police force to go in and clean up the Projects. This is, above all else, a call for SysAdmin approach to policing the inner city--EVERYWHERE. The model is out there, we know where it works: the "Broken Glass" theory of policing that Rudy Giuliani used to save New York City. The idea, also stolen from Malcolm Gladwell, is that you can affect massive cultural change simply by changing little things; the problem, as discovered by Gen. David Patreaus, is that you cannot learn which little things will work unless you are embedded in it.

Get the police and the National Guard into the inner city--not to shoot people, but to build shelters, rebuild American schools, run soup kitchens, be on a first name basis with the church leaders in the inner city, and learn how to solve the problems of the inner city. Oh, and, yeah, at the same time, figure out who the bad guys are and end them.

The difference between a "Dead Zone" and a "Cultural Renewal Zone" is the elimination of crime and the reintroduction of hope and opportunity. Small deal? No. Important? Yeah.

I think the bigger picture is this: Republicans have to care about this problem; Republicans have to talk about solving this problem; Republicans have to actually provide some opportunities to solve this problem.

And the thing is: Republicans do. I do. But we get suckered--EVERY TIME--into simply saying government can't do this. That's a colossal mistake, because then we leave the impression that we either don't recognize the problem or that we don't care about the problem.

Government has a role in this, and it's one that the Republicans should start taking a role in defining.

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