(The Root) — According to Politico, President Obama told Maryland's Rep. Elijah Cummings and other Democrats that addressing the needs of minority youths, including disparities in the criminal-justice system, is a priority of his second term. What remains to be seen is whether or not his solutions will move beyond talk and result in meaningful action.
To be more precise, it is unclear if the president, Cummings or any other elected officials will demonstrate the courage to discuss the solutions that can really make a difference, not just ones that look good on paper or sound good on TV — like creating laws against sagging pants or promoting stop and frisk — and ultimately only appease those who know very little about the realities facing the urban poor.
What was so frustrating about watching some people obsess about Don Lemon's comments about sagging pants is that yet again a debate about who is allowed to discuss solutions to our community's problems distracted us from a substantive discussion of how to actually solve them. (For the record, I may not love seeing sagging pants, but I also recognize that a lot of young men who wear them live in neighborhoods where walking around in a pair of Gap khakis might make them targets.)
Aside from the Bill O'Reilly shout-out, I haven't talked to a single person who doesn't agree with at least one point Lemon made. But instead of talking about solutions, we wasted precious time arguing over who the messenger is allowed to be, and in front of what audiences they are allowed to deliver the message. (Black audiences, yes. Fox News hosts, no.)
But beyond the sagging-pants debate, here are the realities the president, his policy advisers and every member of the Congressional Black Caucus know but will not say out loud: We can increase funding for public schools, increase the number of after-school programs, heighten the police presence in high-violence neighborhoods and increase penalties for illegal firearm possession, and none of those solutions will do a damn thing to close the gap between poor communities of color and other communities.
Only two things can fundamentally change the fact that poor, primarily brown kids, in poor, primarily brown communities, are more likely to get killed, end up in jail and end up in poverty than kids in other communities:
1. The first is getting those in charge of major institutions to acknowledge the lingering pervasiveness of institutional racism and its continued impact on basic day-to-day realities of life, such as employment. The president's acknowledgment that racial profiling is a reality for all black Americans — including the president of the United States — was a great first step. I have written about this issue at length so will not be focusing on it here.
2. The second is getting people of influence in communities of color, pastors and politicians — including the president — to say out loud, with authority, what they have so far been afraid to say: Parents who are more mature, better educated, financially secure and in a stable relationship with a long-term partner make better parents. As long as these types of parents are rare in poorer black communities, we will never close the gap on poverty, educational achievement or crime in those communities.
To those of you already drafting an angry email to let me know that you are a poor, single parent who raised a wonderful child, or more than one, please save your note. I believe you, and I applaud you. But you are the exception, not the norm, and communities rise and fall on the norm, not exceptions. To be clear, being poor doesn't make someone a bad parent; neither does being single or uneducated. But being financially stable makes being a parent much easier: to pay for tutoring when a child struggles, or fees to be on a basketball or baseball team so he has somewhere to go after school and on weekends, when you're working.
Having the knowledge and education to help a child with history or algebra homework also makes being a parent easier. So does having a full-time life partner with whom to share the responsibility, so that when one parent works late, there is someone to make sure junior is home doing homework and not out doing something he is not supposed to.
For those of you ready to dismiss all of this as "just my opinion," here are a few facts:
* Black children are more likely to grow up in poverty than other groups. They represent 14.4 percent of the child population but 25.6 percent of those living in poverty, according to the U.S. census (pdf).
* Being raised by a single parent increases a child's likelihood of growing up in poverty, according to the West Coast Poverty Center, an academic research center that studies the poor.
* Seventy-two percent of black kids are now born to single mothers.
* Growing up poor increases a child's statistical likelihood of being abused. According to Child Abuse America (pdf), poverty and substance abuse are the two most common problems in homes in which there is child abuse, based on a national survey of 50 state child-protection agencies.
* Abused children are more likely to become teens or adults who commit crimes. This is even more true in black communities than in white ones. According to the National Institute of Justice, "Being abused or neglected as a child increases the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 59 percent, as an adult by 28 percent, and for a violent crime by 30 percent according to one study that looked at more than 1,500 cases over time."
When the researchers looked at the children's race, they found that white children who had been abused and neglected were no more likely to be arrested for a violent crime than those who had not been abused or neglected. By contrast, black children who were abused and neglected showed significantly increased rates of violent arrests compared with black children who were not maltreated.
* Kids are more likely (pdf) to become incarcerated adults if a parent was incarcerated. Black children are seven times more likely than white children to have an incarcerated parent.
* Students are substantially more likely to attend college if their parents are college-educated. (Eighty-two percent [pdf] of students whose parents have a college degree enroll in college, compared with 36 percent of kids whose parents do not have a high school diploma.)
The president has certainly talked about parental responsibility, but what he keeps missing is that to some degree, the battle has already been lost when you are giving a speech on parental responsibility to an audience of people who are already halfway through the struggle of impoverished parenting, people who are working a minimum-wage job that provides little scheduling flexibility to get home in time to do all of the parenting extras we keep lecturing them about.
The real conversation should be taking place with tomorrow's parents, who are adolescents and teens today. By setting a standard with them now, while they are young — that it's not just about safe sex, or birth control, but about the fact that responsible parents and responsible people plan to have children when they can be fully responsible for them, not before — many of the other problems in our community may not disappear altogether but would begin to dissipate. After all, having children you cannot afford makes poverty worse, not easier.
According to the U.S. government, it now costs nearly $250 thousand to raise a child, without counting the cost of a college education, which can easily double the total parenting bill.
There are likely some of you wondering if I'm saying that poor people shouldn't become parents — and that if I am saying that, it's not fair.
You're right. It's not fair. It's not fair that there are rewarding experiences that come more easily to those born into wealth than the rest of us. But it's really not fair for a child to be born into a situation in which he is unlikely to have a shot at the American dream from the start because his parents were too selfish to put a child's needs before their own when making the choice to conceive and have a child in an unstable situation and unstable community. It's also not fair that most of our so-called leaders don't have the courage to lead on this issue by speaking the truth from their pulpits and their presidential press conferences.
To those of you who think I'm being harsh, consider this for a moment: Most animal shelters will not give a dog to an individual who cannot prove that he is capable of financially supporting a pet or has a work schedule that will allow him to spend sufficient time with a pet. Yet we treat lives around us of so little value that most of us are too cowardly to discourage those in our family or communities who choose to have children whom we all know they cannot support financially or emotionally.
Here's something else to consider: If every person who doesn't have the financial and emotional bandwidth to be a truly great parent recognized this early and contributed his or her time in some other way to helping kids in our communities, the number of at-risk kids would decline.
I don't have an extra $250,000 lying around to be a parent just yet, so I've used my child-free status for years to volunteer as a mentor to at-risk girls. I'm in between programs at the moment, though, so if you know of a great program in New York, please share it in the comments section below.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.