Education Opinion

Self-Sufficient Citizens: Public Education’s Job No. 1

By Michael J. Petrilli — September 26, 2013 9 min read
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Dear Deborah,

We’ve been writing about the democratic control of education (or the lack thereof), but let me shift the conversation back to the education of democratic citizens. I strongly agree with those who argue that our current fascination with “college and career readiness” overlooks a third, probably more important, c-word: citizenship. That’s public education’s raison d’etre, right? To prepare our young people to take their rightful place as voters, jurors, taxpayers, and leaders--to become “the people” that gives our government its legitimacy?

Many people are doing good work on this challenge; let me recommend that you check out the new group Citizenship First, for starters. (Here’s a neat idea they are promoting: By 2026, every high school graduate should be able to pass the U.S. Naturalization Exam.)

But I want to put a related issue on the table that rarely gets discussed. It’s the most basic requirement of citizenship, a responsibility that we “experts” often overlook in our quest for more ambitious goals: self-sufficiency.

Let me state it clearly: If we haven’t prepared our young people to be financially self-sufficient once they finish their educations, we have failed our most fundamental duty. And the “we” is meant to be inclusive: our education system, our social service agencies, our families, our churches, all of us.

Yes, the poor we will always have among us. And there will be times--like these past five years--when the economic situation throws people out of work. We absolutely need a safety net for such contingencies (including food stamps).

But it ought to make us blush that at times of relatively “full” employment--such as we experienced for much of the 1990s and 2000s--we still had nearly one in five children growing up in poverty.

As you know from our discussions last spring, I’ve become increasingly interested in the issue of poverty. As a newcomer to the field, I come in with fresh eyes. I’ve been reading up on all of the classic books and studies, investigating all of the potential solutions that have been floated during the fifty-year War on Poverty. A few things are clear.

First, it’s really, really bad to be born poor. Most children who are born poor will spend significant periods of their childhood poor, and only half will escape poverty by the time they are twenty-five. On the other hand, children who aren’t born poor are very unlikely to experience long-term poverty as children or as adults.

Second, the reason the overwhelming majority of children are born poor is that they are born to young single mothers without much education or many job prospects. These mothers will struggle mightily to provide the kind of home environment that is necessary to help children get off to a good start in life and in school. To put it bluntly, they tend to be bad parents. (Not “bad” in a moral sense but “bad” as in “ineffective"; with their brains literally maxed out with basic survival, it’s easy to understand why.)

Nothing I’ve said so far is particularly newsworthy or controversial. Since our discussions last spring, the public discourse has been full of news articles and research studies pointing to the link between poverty, parental education levels, and family structure. How to spur social mobility has also been a major topic of debate.

And there seems to be something of a new consensus forming. As Derek Thompson of the Atlantic wrote last week, “There are two basic ways to improve the lot of children. The first tries to make bad parents less relevant. The second tries to make bad parents less bad.” He places preschool and education reform in the first category. He puts home visits and parent trainings in the second. The latter, of course, are controversial: “Asking the government to support policies that send workers into private homes to teach parenting skills smacks of Big Brother--or, perhaps, Big Mother. But do we still have the luxury of rejecting solutions simply because they feel too direct?”

The bigger problem is that even these programs don’t do enough. They help at the margins but they aren’t breaking the cycle of poverty. So what might?

Let me float a third option: A renewed effort to encourage young, uneducated, unemployed women to delay childbearing until they are ready--emotionally, financially--to start a family. Let’s promote a simple rule: Don’t have babies until you can afford them. If everybody in America followed this rule, most long-term child poverty would disappear, and parenting would improve dramatically.

Again, this isn’t a new idea. Social scientists have long known about the “success sequence": Finish your education, get a job, get married, start a family. Stick to that sequence and you avoid poverty, and so do your kids.

And allow me to be crystal clear: I’m not saying that some people shouldn’t have children. I understand the evil history of eugenics and wholeheartedly reject that path. I am saying that people should wait until they are no longer poor before they start families--which will happen for just about anyone who follows the success sequence.


Over the summer, I read two fantastic books by Kathryn Edin (thanks to Dana Goldstein’s recommendation): Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage and Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City.

Edin and her co-authors (Maria Kefalas for the first book and Timothy Nelson for the second) spent years living in low- and working-class Philadelphia and Camden neighborhoods, where they met and interviewed the young parents (white and black) who were their subjects. As works of social science, these studies are incredibly impressive; as works of storytelling, they are masterful. Like a favorite aunt, Edin strikes a loving, respectful tone toward these young moms and dads--but isn’t afraid to call them on their BS, either.

What she and her colleagues find is that these kids (most of whom are in their teens and twenties) didn’t try very hard not to get pregnant. It’s not exactly that they had decided to start families at fifteen or eighteen or twenty-two. But they weren’t opposed to the idea, either. So after they had “associated” with someone for a while, they stopped using birth control. And when (surprise!) the pregnancy happened, most treated the news with excitement, rather than regret.

In many ways, it is impressive, even touching, that their respect for life is so strong. Families and community members enforced a clear moral standard: The “right” thing to do was to “take responsibility” for the child and raise it. To have an abortion or “give it away” would be taking the easy way out--and wrong.

So have the baby, and raise the baby, they did. But didn’t they know they were signing their children--and themselves--up for a life of hardship? Didn’t they understand that if they were going to “climb the mountain to college"--or even to a decent paying job--doing so as an uneducated teen with a baby in a stroller was going to make the ascent that much tougher?

What Edin and her coauthors show is that both the young women and men see parenthood as a chance to “start over” and to do something good with their lives, as well as connect deeply with another human being. “In these decaying, inner-city neighborhoods, motherhood is the primary vocation for young women, and those who strive to do it well are often transformed by the process,” they write in Promises. Furthermore, “Children provide the one relationship poor women believe they can count on to last. Men may disappoint them. Friends may betray them. Even kin may withdraw from them. But they staunchly believe that little can destroy the bond between a mother and child.”

Edin and Nelson pick up this theme in Doing the Best I Can: “Fatherhood offers the opportunity to connect with a child--an unsullied version of oneself--in an intensely meaningful way. But fatherhood is also a tool, almost a magic wand that youth...can use to neutralize the ‘negativity’ that surrounds them as they come of age in chaotic and violence-charged neighborhoods like East Camden.”

Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, these hopeful attitudes eventually give way to the grinding reality of daily life. Because most of the romantic relationships between the parents were shallow to begin with, almost all had fallen apart within a few years. The dads desperately wanted to spend time with their kids--but not their kids’ mothers--a situation that would eventually prove untenable. And so another generation of children was born into poverty, with single mothers doing most of the childcare and trying to make ends meet and fathers having additional babies with other women in a fruitless quest to “start fresh” and “do the right thing.”


What to make of this? I can imagine that liberals read books like these and recommit themselves to building a stronger safety net. (This is the preference of Edin et al.) Let’s pump some serious resources into home visits, child care, preschool, food stamps, K-12 education, tax credits, and all the rest, in the hope that the next generation of kids will be better prepared for “college and career"--and thus will see a reason to put off children until they are ready. After all, that’s what motivates upper-middle-class teenagers to put off childbearing--the promise of the college years, the exciting career, the fun of the “roaring 20s” sans babies.

But it’s hard for me to blame others who respond to this cycle of poverty story with outrage. “You’re telling me that because these teenagers want to have a baby to ‘feel loved’ and ‘start fresh’ I’m supposed to fork over my hard earned tax dollars to feed their children, send them to daycare, pay for their preschool, pay for their education? While I’m struggling to make ends meet myself? That I shouldn’t be ‘judgmental’ about people who are happy to have the government raise their kids? This is CRAZY!”


So here’s my question for you, Deborah, as the educator among us: Is there anything schools can to do to encourage their students to follow the “success sequence”? Did you talk about these issues with your Central Park East kids? Did you tell them about the importance of finishing their education and getting a job before starting a family? Do you think any of the “teenage-pregnancy prevention programs” are worth pursuing? (Some of them have impressive evidence of effectiveness.) Should we consider paying low-income individuals to put off childrearing? Mayor Bloomberg is already experimenting with cash incentives to encourage all manner of positive behaviors. Maybe offer “25 by 25": All young men and women who graduate from high school get a post-secondary credential, get a job, and avoid a pregnancy and a prison record get $25,000 in cash at the age of twenty-five. Is that worth trying?

Or is the best way for schools to tackle this issue simply to provide a top-grade education to their charges? To instill in them the “hope in the unseen” that they, too, can aspire to college, to a good career, to an early adulthood full of intellectual and social and emotional challenges and experiences, not to include parenthood (yet)?

I look forward to your advice.


Michael J. Petrilli is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-policy think tank based in Washington, where he writes for the award-winning Flypaper blog. He is also an executive editor of Education Next and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelPetrilli.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.