Why Some Kids Go Bad

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday December 11, 2007

Possibly a weekend front page editor with a sense of irony laid out the big metro daily I saw on Sunday. At the top of the page was an all-to-familiar story about young black men destroyed by absentee parenting and the allure of street life. It featured the obligatory map of Oakland. “OAKLAND: A PLAGUE OF KILLING” was the overline. And the subhead: “Trapped in a bleak world where drugs and violence offer a chance for money and respect, many young black men quickly resort to murder.” 

Below the fold, right below the picture of the barbed wire fence of a state prison, but in pointed contrast to it, was a soft feature about yet another perk for the lactation, latte and laptop set: “While their children play and learn, parents can visit cafe, business center or fitness facility at Ghirardelli Square—Kids [sic] club hopes to double as a parental playground.” Deliberate or not, the juxtaposition of the two stories couldn’t have made a clearer statement about what’s wrong with what’s happening to many young people today. 

San Francisco papers enjoy using Oakland as the poster site for urban horror stories, but the story could just as well have been written about Hunter’s Point, or Richmond, or Vallejo, or Antioch, or even about Berkeley. The young men tracked into their prison cells by the reporter were black, but they could have been Latino, or even, as we learned from last week’s headlines, white boys in Nebraska or Colorado. There are neglected throwaway children everywhere these days.  

It is a familiar story, and its many causes are also familiar to any thinking reader. If the reporter had chosen to, she could have listed them on the back of an envelope. It’s a problem well-described by a medical term: multifactorial. The ready availability of guns, of course. The war on drugs, which has turned possibly unhealthy recreation into a billion-dollar illegal industry. Racially-tinged sentencing disparities, which send black crack cocaine dealers to jail for long terms while white powder cocaine dealers walk.  

But most of all, the cause of what is sometimes called the violence epidemic is the cental organizing principle of American life in the last thirty years, pointed up by the stories juxtaposed on Sunday’s front page: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The parents of a few kids have jobs that pay very well, enough so that they can afford the kind of deluxe child care offered by the Ghirardelli Square club. But other parents work most of their hours at hard jobs that don’t pay much, and their kids are raised on the street with predictable consequences. Mothers of the three convicts featured in the Sunday spread were a nurse, a hairdresser and a night clerk in a liquor store—all jobs requiring long hours and hard work just to pay a few bills. Fathers were mostly unemployed and unemployable, absent, incarcerated or dead.  

It’s easy to blame George W. Bush for this situation, and it wouldn’t be completely wrong to do so. But it was William Jefferson Clinton, lovable old Bill, whose welfare-to-work program kicked parents off Aid to Families with Dependent Children and into dead-end low-paying jobs which left them no time to take proper care of their kids. The welfare moms I knew in the sixties when my own kids were little, though they could never have competed in the job market, loved their kids and knew where they were most of the time, but most low-income parents today can’t manage that.  

The AFDC check made it possible in those days for some family member to be home after school—that’s now an unaffordable luxury for a growing number of families. Most of these families are not white, though some of them, like the mother of the unfortunate young man in Omaha, are. The parents of today’s kids of all races and in all income brackets would benefit from the program at the San Francisco “family club”, but few can afford it (fees start with a $2000 annual membership.)  

Even proven government programs like HeadStart have never come close to being fully funded and available to everyone. My oldest daughter was in one of the first HeadStart classes during Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, since we were living on a graduate student’s stipend in a low-income minority neighborhood. It was spectacularly good, as good as the private nursery schools my younger children and grandchildren attended. If every child in Oakland could be in a program like that from age 2, and if every parent in Oakland made enough money in few enough hours on the job to have some energy left for parenting, fewer boys would end up on the streets and ultimately in jail. But we’ve chosen instead as a nation to give ever-bigger tax cuts to people who are already too rich. 

The Sunday story had a Monday follow-up using the standard formula: first document a disaster, and then offer a feel-good tale of big-hearted individuals making a difference. Here the feel-good factor was supplied by the Big Brothers, one-on-one mentoring for boys in the troubled teen years. The featured encounters were heart-warming indeed, but no panacea for the bigger social problem. (There’s a theory that all boys need to keep them on the straight-and-narrow is a male role model, but Berkeley news in the last week provided some cause to question that idea as a universal solution.) Much more is actually needed—we need to do a huge number of things to create and empower a complete social support network for our young. That means some subsidized downtime for harried mothers and grandmothers of little kids. It means comprehensive school-based programs to make sure that every child has adequate nutrition and competent supervision all day every day, not just over-crowded classes from 8 to 2 and the occasional poor quality slice of free pizza for lunch.  

And it’s not just minority kids, though many African-American children at the bottom of the class structure are still suffering disproportionately from the social consequences of slavery, and many Latino and Asian-American kids are carrying the stress of their parents’ migration struggles. Any child whose family members work too many hours for too little pay is an at-risk child. And as these kids grow up and become over-stressed parents themselves, problems are compounded in each successive generation.  

Families need genuine support for their child-rearing efforts, and where they aren’t succeeding they need efficient and compassionate substitutes to take over some of their responsibilities. What’s needed now is nothing less than a New-Deal-scale program to take care of all our kids, paid for by realistic taxes on the obscene wealth now being amassed by a few favored clients of the current administration. Are any of the Democratic (or even Republican) candidates in the next election ready to get behind this kind of effort? Ask them when they solicit your vote and your dollars. 


—Becky O’Malley