What I’m Pondering This Father’s Day: Memoirs by Some Notable Black Authors

June 17, 2017

Last year long about this time, I read a tribute by Walter Moseley to his father Leroy. His dad, Walter says, taught him “to bob and weave in life and art,” which, if understand it, means to agilely protect himself.

The lessons were Leroy’s own stories about growing up poor and oppressed in harshly racist Louisiana, learning to do various sorts of paying work and to protect himself after he fled to New York City — this after his mother died, his father left and the relatives he resorted to wouldn’t care for him.

Leroy wanted to write pulp fiction, but realized that it was impossible for an impoverished man in the Deep South to become any sort of writer then. “Hardly easier now,” Walter interjects.

Leroy headed west and settled in Los Angeles, having realized that more of his draft-age friends died in Houston than in the Second World War. He became a “fiercely loving father, ” prepared all his kids’ meals, but left Walter free to choose whatever he wanted to do when he grew up.

So Walter decided to be an artist –“someone who makes something from nothing.” That, in his case, would be something from the “stuff” of Leroy’s stories — “of pedestrian, tragic life.”

A telling snippet follows. Leroy decides to go to an all-white café. He orders a tuna melt, gets served and exclaims in his later telling, “Man, that tuna melt felt like freedom.”

Then the man next to him drops dead.  “I realized right then and there,” he said, “that, freedom aside, no man, no matter who he is, can escape his death.”

Yet that wasn’t his “ultimate gift,” though the insight surely became part of it. The gift itself, imparted through a wave and smile as he was dying, was “an indomitable spirit and the talent of taking the beauty and refusing the rest.”

It’s nice to reflect again on how Walter learned to “attend to ordinary suffering, to the love that persists in its midst … and the attendant grim humor.”

He wasn’t rejecting anger. Nor lessons like the talk black parents feel they must have with their sons. But what I’ve heard and read suggests that those are more consumed by continuing anger at violence against blacks, though not to the exclusion of helping their kids avoid it.

And in some cases, they’re messages to us, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s potent book-length letter to his son.

I’m brooding on blacks’ memoirs of their youthful days with their fathers in part because we’re about to celebrate Father’s Day — officially at least. But I’m also working my way through Gregory Williams’ Life on the Color Line.

The line is one Williams discovered — that he looked white and thought he was, partly because his black father passed as Italian until chronic financial, booze-fueled recklessness brought him to seek housing with his unmistakably black mother.

Things go generally from bad to worse, so far as his father is concerned — and ultimately his brother, who rebels against his father’s demands and related, though unexpressed needs, e.g. making sure he’d gotten to the home his mother had exiled him to before passing out in the street.

Greg responds instead by giving his all to qualifying for a college education — and the financial assistance he’d need, of course. We know he succeeded. We know that, in some perplexing manner, his relationship with his father, as processed through this memoir had something to do with it.

We — daughters, as well as sons, on the white side of the line as well as over into the colored—know how life with our fathers (or without) helped shape the way we are today.

I still recall especially fraught and endearing moments with my father, who died many years ago. I convert them into unspoken words — from raw memory to memoir snippets.

No art nourished that way. But probably political leanings, since I recoiled at my father’s bootstrapping conservatism, even when he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Republicans any more.


So Much Wrong With Single Mother Stereotype

May 22, 2017

Posts on single motherhood consistently rank among my weekly top-10 viewed. I’ve published nothing on the issues for quite awhile.

So I’ll take a brief break — and give you one too — from the stream of reports, op-eds, forecasts and the like sparked by turbulence in the White House and fractiousness in the Congress.

Here’s some of what we learn from the aptly-titled Single Mother Guide, fleshed out from other sources and what’s stashed in my own brain.

What Single Mother Commonly Means and What It Should

First off, a bit of clarification. Single mothers, in all the standard data sources, are only unmarried women raising minor-age children. Widows who’ve sole responsibility for grandchildren don’t count. Likewise women not currently married who’ve let adult children move back in with them.

Social conservatives often speak disapprovingly of single mothers as women who gave birth out of wedlock and didn’t then enter into holy matrimony with a male breadwinner.

But somewhat more single mothers are either widowed, separated from their spouses or divorced — roughly 51%, according to the latest Census data. .

This isn’t new, but the percent is shifting toward the never-married. It doesn’t mean that all the never-married mothers had babies, however. Single women may choose to adopt a child, as several of my long-time friends have.

It also doesn’t mean that the never-married mothers have no adult in the house with whom they’re in a quasi-spousal relationship.

Perhaps fewer now that same-sex marriages are legal nationwide. But opposite-sex domestic partnerships so far outstripped them when the Supreme Court ruled the former a Constitutional right that they’re probably stillmore common.

On the other hand, an as-yet unknown number of same-sex marriage partners are officially single mothers because some state laws and/or administrative procedures prohibit or otherwise deter their spouses from adopting.

Recent Single Mother Trends

What’s definitely shifting is the age when single mothers first give birth. The teenage birthrate has hit another record low. Researchers have tried to tease out reasons. The one that seems most certain is more use of contraceptives, especially the maximally-effective long-acting, reversible kinds.

Economist Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution is championing LARCs, having earlier coauthored an oft-cited study that found a very low likelihood of poverty among people who married before becoming parents.

Some of you may recall how some conservatives seized on this as a simple, personally responsible way to avoid poverty.

But Sawhill’s concluded that it’s not a realistic basis for an anti-poverty strategy, given the upward trend in unmarried motherhood. She would instead have us promote “responsible parenthood,” i.e., choosing when to have a baby — and to make the choice easy and cheap.

What Accounts for Single Mother Poverty

We’ve got a debate on solutions to out-of-wedlock births, rooted in ideological differences. What’s beyond debate is the strong link between single motherhood and poverty.

Single-mother families consistently have the highest poverty rate of any household type — currently 28.2%, as compared to 5.4% for married couples. Whether the out-of-wedlock births or the poverty came first is an open question.

Most of our best research suggests both. We see, for example, that out-of-wedlock births are far less common among college graduates than women with at most a high school diploma.

So the former can earn far more by working — and live even better because college graduates tend to marry others even more than they used to.

Pregnancy surely compels some young women to drop out of high school, having no one to care for their child.

They’re then unable to work — at least for enough pay to keep the family out of poverty — because they’re still without the child care and lack the minimal credential so many employers require.

On the other hand, Kathryn Edin, best known as the coauthor of $2 a Day, earlier coauthored a study of poor single mothers. It too was based in part on her actually living in poor neighborhoods and gaining the trust of the people whose experiences and views she sought to understand.

Single mothers she interviewed there wanted children — “somebody to take care of,” as one said. But when they looked at their prospects for a trustworthy, breadwinning husband, they concluded the risks outweighed the potential rewards.

An Altogether Different Explanation

The cause-effect interaction the various studies indicate has commonsense appeal, as well as substantive credibility. But a recently-published study by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Board raises doubts.

It looks at wealth, rather than income. But, of course, the one begets the other and vice versa. The researchers tested various potential causes of wealth differences, including family structure.

When they looked at that factor within specific race/ethnicity groups, rather than across the whole sample, they found little or no correlation. “[T]he bottom line,” a summary concludes,” is that links between family structure and wealth are weak, inconsistent and mostly spurious.”

We need to look instead at factors related directly to race. We know more than enough to know how the legacy of slavery, out-and-out discrimination and less overt forms built into our income-related systems account for a large portion of the black/white wealth gap.

And we do, in fact, see that the percent of children being raised in single-parent families, mostly by mothers is higher for blacks than any other race/ethnicity group the Census Bureau breaks out.

Might they perhaps find a unique shortage of men who’d be suitable marriage material.

Might they also find positive role models in the single black mothers who’ve successfully raised children without the spousal role model some still insist that kids, boys especially need to stay out of trouble, on the path to a paying job, etc.

As I write this, I think of Mom, who raised two fine boys, including my late husband — and of what moms like her will likely face unless Congress basically scraps the proposed budget they’ll get from Trump on strikethrough Tuesday.


DC Mayor Bowser Won’t Halt Triggered Tax Cuts to Gain Needed Funding

April 13, 2017

Just finished my annual dialogue with my tax preparation software. So as always, my thoughts turn to the tax laws that determine what I have to pay. A sweeping federal tax reform is much in the news. And I’ll probably have things to say about that.

But I’ll start with the automatically triggered tax cuts Mayor Bowser has decided to let alone in her proposed budget, styled “DC Values in Action: A Roadmap to Inclusive Prosperity.”

These because they don’t hinge on new legislation. And they push down spending because the District, like most states must balance its budget every year.

As you may know, the triggered tax cuts reflect recommendations made by the Tax Revision Commission in 2014. It didn’t recommend triggering them whenever a certain revenue projection exceeded the version the budget was built on.

That was the work of DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who folded them, ranked according to his preferences into the final version of the legislative package that accompanied the Fiscal Year 2015 budget.

A last minute thing. Other Councilmembers had no chance to consider them — perhaps didn’t even know they were there.

The triggered tax cuts have already reduced revenues by $102 million — none a one-time loss. The rest will all kick next fiscal year, unless the Council decides to instead recoup about $100 million.

Some of the cuts, would benefit lower and moderate-income residents, though not those with incomes so low they already don’t owe income taxes, once they’ve taken all now allowable exemptions, credits and the like. Nor, of course, those who’ve no taxable income at all.

These cuts include a further increase in the standard deduction, which a very large percent of DC filers with incomes less than $75,000 choose because they don’t have more costly specific deductions like interest on a mortgage or real property taxes high out-of-pocket medical expenses. (The District relies on the federal government’s Schedule A for these.)

The other of this sort is a multi-part increase in the personal exemption, which applies to all filers and their dependents, except apparently those whose incomes exceed $275,000.

But the surplus also triggers a second increase in the threshold for the estate tax, bringing it to $5.49 million if left by an individual and twice that for a married couple — the same as in federal law.*

Why the District should aim to mirror a tax giveaway to heirs of the very most prosperous that Congressional Republicans insisted on as part of the deal that pulled us back from the fiscal cliff is a mystery.

Additional cuts in the business franchise tax, coupled with a further cut in the business income tax are, at the very least questionable.

Sure, we want profit-making businesses in the city — a source of jobs, among other things. But a recent survey indicates that the taxes they must pay are a relatively minor factor in their decisions on whether to locate here or elsewhere.

Topping the list is the ready availability of workers with the knowledge and/or skills they need. One could do a lot to help residents qualify for and get jobs with the potential loss of $35.7 million.

Advocacy organizations of various sorts have already flagged a wide range of shortfalls in the Mayor’s proposed budget. We’ll have a fuller accounting from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute fairly soon — and undoubtedly more from other concerned nonprofits too.

I’d thought to cite examples, based on the Mayor’s prosperity promise and my own topmost concerns. But even summaries made this post far longer than my somewhat flexible maxim. So I’ll return to them shortly.

Yet I don’t want to leave the impression that the Mayor’s budget shortchanges her low-income constituents in every way.

The most significant example of how it would benefit them is the funding she proposes to begin the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families time limit reforms recommended by diverse working group the Department of Human Services convened.

This will not only save roughly 6,500 families from losing all their benefits when the new fiscal year begins — and more as time goes on.

It will preserve those benefits for all children and all parents who’re meeting their work preparation and/or job requirements until they’ve found jobs or otherwise gained enough income to put them over the eligibility cut-off.

Cash benefits being as low as they are — and will be — the initiative in and of itself hardly shares the non-inclusive prosperity reflected in the District’s tax revenues. But it does save very poor families from the most dire poverty.

And the non-cash benefits — free training and, in some cases, formal education, no-cost child care and transportation — give parents a chance to move from welfare to decent-paying work and, in the process, improve their children’s future prospects.

* The thresholds were somewhat lower when the Council adopted the triggers, but the legislation refers to raising the threshold “to conform to the federal level.” And the federal level rises with the inflation rate.

UPDATE: I’ve learned that the Mayor’s budget doesn’t altogether reflect the working group’s recommendations. They would significantly protect children if their parents had their benefits cut for not complying with their work requirements by allocating 80% of the family grant to them.

The Mayor would split the grant 50-50. As a practical matter, this might not make much difference. The parents will have the same amount to spend, and it will surely go for the same basic needs. We will need to see how the Mayor justifies her split, assuming she or a Department of Human Services official is asked.


What Trump Could and Wants to Do to Disadvantage Disadvantaged Kids

April 3, 2017

Having canvassed the big problems with public funding for private school vouchers, I’ll turn to what I’ll call some backdoor maneuvers, plus other ways Trump’s budget would further disadvantage disadvantaged kids..

Backdoor Federal Funding for Private School Choice

Trump wouldn’t have to have to put all federal funding for private school enrollment into the spending part of his budget. He could propose tax credits, taking a leaf from state playbooks. Like all other credits, that’s spending through the tax code.

But it doesn’t seem to grow the government — a big bad from the right-wing perspective, including Trump’s, of course.

In fact, as the Tax Policy Center says, it seems to do the opposite, without really doing so. In this case, the revenues lost could instead be plowed into programs to foster educational equality.

Four states award tax credits to parents for private schools tuition—and two of these for other expenses also. The credits, of course, benefit only parents who owe state taxes. Federal tax credits would do the same.

And as we know from former Presidential candidate Romney’s gaffe, many lower-income people don’t owe federal income taxes. But, as I early said, the voucher system tilts toward well-off families.

Seventeen states offer tax credits to organizations that donate money for scholarships to private schools, including those operated by religious organizations.

This is a clever way of getting around what many view as a breach of the First Amendment prohibition against any law establishing a religion, including one that promotes it.

The Supreme Court nonetheless let Arizona’s tax credits stand, but the narrow majority based its decision on legal technicality, not the substantive complaint.

The federal tax code already allows filers to take such donations as deductions, if the money goes to a non-profit. But Trump could jawbone prospective donors, dangle promises, celebrate the persuaded, etc. Very much in his dealmaker mode.

Backdoor School Choice in the Budget

Trump’s budget blueprint includes $1 billion more for Title I of the Education Act — now named the Every Child Succeeds Act.

The blueprint says it’s “dedicated to encouraging districts to adopt a system … that enables Federal, State and local funding to follow the student to the school of his or her choice.”

This would fundamentally undermine the purpose of Title I and the way all versions have achieved it. As things stand now, basic grant funds go to schools districts based on the percent of poor and near-poor children they have.

So they help provide equal educational opportunity — in part because it costs more to educate poor children and in part because public schools in high-poverty neighborhoods generally have less to spend. Like all public schools, they’re funded largely through property taxes, rFederal grants and state funding notwithstanding.

Trump would shift funds from high-poverty schools by having a student’s portion go to any publicly-funded school s/he enrolled in, including one a wealthy community. That much less then for a school that needs it most—and for the children left behind.

Title I portability, as it’s called, was a controversial issue during the effort to revise No Child Left Behind. In the interests of bipartisanship — and one would like to think, commitment to the fundamental purpose of Title I —  members of the responsible Senate committee agreed not to include it.

At the time, the National Coalition for Public Education warned that proposals like Trump’s version portability were intended to make initiating private school vouchers easier. No reason, I think, to view Trump’s differently, despite his first relatively low-cost stab.

Other Disadvantages for Disadvantaged Kids

The Trump budget would, among other things, eliminate funding for after-school programs — a larger cut than the extra he’d commit to Title I.

The programs vary a lot, but as a whole they shore up students’ academic skills, e.g., by pairing them with tutors, increase their interest in learning by engaging them in intriguing activities like computer coding.

They also foster their health through team sports, other physical exercise and free or nearly-free snacks, nutritionally balanced according to guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which subsidizes them. For some children, it’s the last food they’ll get for the day.

And on top of all this, they provide free, supervised care so that parents can work after the school closing bell rings. The alternative, would cost, on average, $67 a week  — and a whole lot more in some states.

But even the average would cost a parent with two school-age kids more than she’d earn at the federal minimum wage rate. So she’d forfeit the pay — another way this piece of Trump’s budget would disadvantage disadvantaged kids.

Also proposed for zero-funding is a program that helps fund “the quality and effectiveness” of teachers and principals and “provide low-income and minority students greater access to them.”

While not only for teachers in high-poverty schools, ESSA gives heavier weight to districts with these schools than its predecessor, as well it should. Recent studies confirm what many have said for a long time.

By all major measure of teacher quality, e.g., teacher experience, scores on licensing exams, the least qualified teachers are the most likely to have the responsibility for educating students disadvantaged by poverty and/or color.

So far as “access” is concerned, it seems to mean reducing class size, judging from how school districts used their recent grants. That, of course, enables teachers to give individual kids more attention, which means, among other things, that they pay attention instead of acting up in the back of the room.

Overly-large classes may help account for the teacher experience quality gap. Teachers in high-poverty schools get frustrated because they’ve got too many kids to teach, especially given the disadvantages they bring to the classroom, e.g., fewer or no books at home, fewer words heard, stress, hunger.

So the teachers find other professional opportunities or they transfer to a better-off school — a privilege they gain with seniority that a higher percent recently took advantage of than teachers in low-poverty schools.

Both avenues out leave openings that seem likely to be filled by a new cohort of less-qualified teachers. We thus have still another way that low-income and other disadvantaged students would lose out if the Trump budget prevails.

More to Come?

The blueprint, of course, is merely a preview. The Education Department would lose $9.2 billion — 13.5% less than what it has today, when the spending caps in the Budget Control Act have constricted funding.

So we’re sure to see more and larger cuts when he’s signed off on a full-fledged proposed budget. And you can bet they’ll fall heaviest, directly and indirectly, on poor and near-poor students.