Politics & Policy

The Wounds Public Policy Can’t Heal

The devastating decline of the nuclear family requires cultural change first and foremost.

My new favorite podcast is Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell’s weekly look back at stories that have been “misunderstood” or “overlooked.” Anyone who follows Gladwell’s work knows that he’s no fan of elite higher education — or, more precisely, of how elite higher education accumulates and hoards vast amounts of wealth without doing anything truly meaningful to give the poor and the less-privileged an opportunity at a better life.

His entire series on the issue was fascinating, but one episode stood out. Called “Carlos Doesn’t Remember,” it focuses on the extraordinary challenges facing one talented kid, and the heroic efforts underway to lift him out of poverty through the power of elite education. It’s a dramatic story, centered around a remarkable young man who’s doing his best to be a good son, a good brother, and a good student as he shuffles through foster homes and deals with traumas that could break the most stable adults.

The kid in question, Carlos, seems to be headed for something approaching a happy ending, in large part through the tireless efforts of a private philanthropist, Eric Eisner, whose YES Program seeks to help talented middle-school kids who would otherwise be in danger of falling through the cracks. Eisner’s efforts provide these children the mentoring, tutoring, and other resources they need to have a chance at going to the best colleges and universities — a chance to enjoy all the opportunities the American “meritocracy” has to offer.

In listening to Carlos describe his life — and to Eisner describe all the ways that YES intervened to help — I was struck by two things: First, that men such as Eisner and his team are simply irreplaceable American assets, transforming lives in the best way; second, that there are simply not enough men like Eisner in the world to truly ameliorate the consequences of shattered families, because there are wounds that neither philanthropy nor public policy can heal.

RELATED: The Failure of the Family Widens America’s Economic and Cultural Divides

Gladwell laments the squandering of human capital and places part of the blame on elite educational institutions that horde vast resources he believes could be better deployed. I happen to agree — most of Harvard’s billions could be put to better use. But even Harvard’s billions better deployed would make at most a marginal impact. The true squandering isn’t happening at Harvard, it’s happening at home.

A friend of mine spent four years teaching in one of Tennessee’s worst inner-city elementary schools. I once asked her how many of her roughly 100 students came from intact, married families. She said none of them did. How many lived with a mom and dad who were just cohabiting? Seven. Most of the kids didn’t even know anyone who came from an intact, nuclear family.

Broken families don’t just lower the margin for error; they erase it entirely.

What, pray tell, is the public policy that’s going to give those kids anything approaching even half the chance that kids from intact families enjoy? If it takes Herculean efforts from philanthropists to change the fortunes of the most talented kids, what happens to the kids who are merely average? A nation simply cannot wonk its way out of sadness, instability, and childhood trauma. Broken families don’t just lower the margin for error; they erase it entirely.

To be sure, the world is full of stories of the impact of the extraordinary teacher, the extraordinary charter school, or the extraordinary principal. But the key word here is “extraordinary”: by definition, these stories are the exception. Trauma is the rule. In his heartbreaking book Our Kids, Robert Putnam documents the ways in which childhood stress can dog kids throughout their lives, and the ways in which these traumas fall disproportionately on the kids with the fewest resources to respond, often because their parents went through the same cycle.

Adoptive parents know this all too well. When kids are adopted out of crisis, it is simply false that you can put them in a loving, financially secure home and watch their problems disappear. The effects of the initial abandonment and loss can and do linger for a lifetime. Indeed, they are often debilitating. There are wounds that not even parental love can truly heal.

RELATED: Social Inequality Matters as Much as — or More Than — Economic Inequality

None of this should be news. But in spite of the knowledge that family dissolution lies at the heart of so much of our economic stagnation and existential despair, our cultural elites still celebrate the aggressive sexuality that breeds infidelity and shatters families. They still scorn and mock “traditional values.” Some of them — like the founders of Black Lives Matter, for example — still seek to disrupt the “Western-prescribed nuclear family.”

There’s a word for this: evil. And that evil is compounded by a bullet-proof sense of progressive moral superiority. They’re progressive. They offer government band-aids to cover the gaping wounds created by living the very life of sexual self-indulgence and radical personal autonomy that the elite has long celebrated. In our upside-down world, the people who celebrate the sin and offer the most meager salves to the sinner are “good.” Those who reject the sin for the sake of saving the sinner — well, they’re the haters.

#related#Bright spots do exist, however. Not all pop culture is a moral desert. It matters, for example, that most of the NBA’s biggest stars are family men — and that they splash their families all over social media. I don’t know a darn thing about Steph and Ayesha Curry’s politics, but I love the example they set. LeBron James puts out videos of his son on social media, in which he cheers his kid’s games like any other parent. Since pop culture matters, these relationships matter.

Gladwell is right to ask college administrators hard questions — and I must admit that it’s somewhat enjoyable to imagine them squirming — but we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture. By all means, we should rethink college endowments. But while we’re at it, let’s rethink the sexual revolution, the rejection of faith, and the mockery of the faithful. Carlos needed Eric Eisner, and we should be thankful for Eisner’s intervention. But he needed his mom and dad more, and we should all be sorry that they failed him.

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.


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