Monday, May 28

Vast Wasteland

Isabel Sawhill, "20 years later, it turns out Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown and unmarried moms". May 25

If you're gonna be snooty, at least learn how to hold a wineglass. 

FOR several years now I've harbored the suspicion that we're asking the wrong questions. Not "How did the Right/Republican party get so nuts?", which could be asked only by someone unfamiliar with the last sixty-five years. And not, of course, "When did the Brookings Institution go from Nixon firebomb target to Reagan pet turtle?" since everybody has one of those pocket calculators these days.

But "When did educated, well-off Americans of reasonable political mien decide they just couldn't be happy so long as the rabble were out there mongrelizing?" I'm not sure we've looked into that enough.

Dr. Sawhill is a Doctor of something-or-other; the answer seems hidden, somehow, from the casual and indolent internet researcher, but her Ph.D's from NYU, not Oral Roberts. She was once Brookings' Vice President and Director of Economic Studies, which I'm guessing is sorta like being President of the World Bank, but with Monopoly money. She was an Associate Director of the OMB in the Clinton administration (Motto: "Thank God We Were Followed By The Bush Administration, Or Our Appointments Would Look Particularly Crappy"). How then does she come to say something as crazy-assed as "Twenty years later, it turns out Dan Quayle was right"? Except, I mean, for the honor of being published in the Washington Post.
On May 19, 1992, as the presidential campaign season was heating up, Vice President Dan Quayle delivered a family-values speech that came to define him nearly as much as his spelling talents. Speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California, he chided Murphy Brown — the fictional 40-something, divorced news anchor played by Candice Bergen on a CBS sitcom — for her decision to have a child outside of marriage.  “Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong,” the vice president said. “Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong. We must be unequivocal about this. It doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” Quayle’s argument — that Brown was sending the wrong message, that single parenthood should not be encouraged — erupted into a major campaign controversy.
Here's an interesting reversal which might actually mean something: twenty years ago a political "controversy" could erupt over something a politician actually said. And today an academic--who lived through it at the time--can look back at it and get it bass-ackwards.
Twenty years later, Quayle’s words seem less controversial than prophetic. The number of single parents in America has increased dramatically: The proportion of children born outside marriage has risen from roughly 30 percent in 1992 to 41 percent in 2009. For women under age 30, more than half of babies are born out of wedlock. A lifestyle once associated with poverty has become mainstream. The only group of parents for whom marriage continues to be the norm is the college-educated. 
Well, let's raise a glass to Our Sort, then. Once we learn how to hold one.

Fer chrissakes, that wouldn't qualify as "prophecy" even if it reflected what Vice-President Potatoe Head had said. What controversy there was--and, hell, Quayle was taken about as seriously as Sarah Palin is when the mic is off--centered on Quayle's apparent confusion of a teevee character with a real person. He made a right-wing social moralist argument, and he got laughed at. Rightly so. Sure, no man is a prophet in his own country. But Dan Quayle isn't one anywhere.

Look, the misapplication of scientificalism is nothing new; it's practically a tenet of the social sciences. But it shouldn't be done so clumsily by someone who's made her living at it for forty years. I believe we can take it as a given that a thirty-percent increase in out of wedlock births in twenty years was not caused by a fictional character few women of childbearing age even remember. We might also remember that the divorce rate skyrocketed in the 1950s, the Golden Age of Ozzie and Harriet.
In later research, Ron Haskins and I learned that if individuals do just three things — finish high school, work full time and marry before they have children — their chances of being poor drop from 15 percent to 2 percent. Mitt Romney has cited this research on the campaign trail, but these issues transcend presidential politics. Stronger public support for single-parent families — such as subsidies or tax credits for child care, and the earned-income tax credit — is needed, but no government program is likely to reduce child poverty as much as bringing back marriage as the preferable way of raising children.  
Hey, no one admires the source of a good Mitt Romney talking point more than I, but to begin with, 80% of that is in finishing high school. And, to date, there's a wealth of literature somewhere which points out that no amount of sneering at unwed mothers has affected the graduation rate. Or the unemployment rate.

And nothing changes the fact that over the lifetime of Dr. Sawhill's career, Republican and centrist Democrat policies have drastically shifted wealth upwards, to those married college grads with the 2.5 children and the SUV with the trendy dog strapped to the top. The lower classes aren't the only ones who enjoy a little economic irresponsibility. They just don't fuck as many people at once.

Why don't you and Mitt work on that for a while, Doc?


Anonymous said...

I assume this is being brought to us by the privatized orphanages industry lobby. Although if I remember the early 1990s, there was "debate" about forced birth control implants for all females on public assistance as well.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Dane Quayl was right, because if there's one reason low-income teenage girls are dropping out of high school to have kids, it's because a wealthy, educated professional character on an early-90s sitcom did so.

The Washington Pest once again proving they'll publish anything that toes the preferred ideological line, no matter how egregiously stupid.

Both Sides Do It said...

"The lower classes aren't the only ones who enjoy a little economic irresponsibility. They just don't fuck as many people at once."

I hope I can always apperciate the simple joy of a well-turned phrase

Anonymous said...

Before tonight, I would have sworn that NYU taught its doctoral students that correlation does not imply causation.

heydave said...

Nice pearl necklace, lady!

-raising the level of commentary since 2005.

Deggjr said...

Dan Quayle was right? Yay for the culture wars. Bristol Palin is right too, so what?

Who argues that children aren't better off in a stable nuclear family? The issue is how to create those stable nuclear families. Allowing Mitt Romney to eliminate jobs so that he can replace his 3,000 square foot ocean side mansion with a 12,000 square foot mansion isn't my first choice but I'm not Isabel Sawhill. She's focused on pinning scarlet 'A's on people.

Jim said...

"but no government program is likely to reduce child poverty as much as bringing back marriage as the preferable way of raising children"

Well that's good news since we seem to to have no interest in government solutions to child poverty. Of course the current Republican candidate wants to legally deny this other, better "way" of raising children to people he simply doesn't find to his liking.

Such a contradiction might almost make you thing that they really don't give a shit about reducing childhood poverty at all.

Anonymous said...

Shit-- I've been holding my wineglass wrong.

KWillow said...

A European boyfriend instructed me in the fine art of holding a wineglass... one holds it by the stem. Also, women aren't supposed to leave lipstick marks on their wine glass. He couldn't explain how we would manage that. My solution was to drink from his glass. Ha!

Anonymous said...

In Marseille you're allowed to hold your wineglass around the top, but that's OK because you can always chunk in another ice cube.