Popular conservative radio personality Larry Elder is seen here addressing an issue that he feels has hindered the black community – the lack of black fathers being present in the household. While my primary disagreement stems not from this belief that a one-parent household can be a hindrance to the development of a child, rather it is with his insistence that the government is the primary enabler of this family structure.
He is also doesn’t express the direct correlation between poverty and out-of-wedlock births which can be clearly seen here and elsewhere in many other studies. His commentary instead lays the blame on the lap of the government for not allowing black fathers to carry out their “traditional moral and financial responsibilities.”
1) Early in his presentation, Elder reveals a chart entitled “Rates Of Unwed Mothers.” He uses this chart to express the steady increase of children growing up in fatherless homes since 1960.
But an “unwed mother” doesn’t necessarily equate to a “fatherless home.”
The emergence of new social norms over the last half-century have contributed to the increase of non-marital, yet cohesive familial arrangements, in which both the mother and father are present in the household.
Elder discounts this caveat, or simply didn’t consider it. Either way, the chart does not accurately represent the point he attempts to convey as it omits this important detail.
2) Larry Elder: “For blacks, even during slavery when marriage for slaves was illegal, black children were more likely than today, to be raised by both their mother and father.”
Common sense completely eludes him here. Of course black children were more likely to be raised by both parents during slavery – no one in the family had a say in the matter. A black father did not have the freedom to be live a separate life from his family, even if he wanted to.
And even if the father wanted to be present, he instead would often see his family permanently broken up, purchased by different owners on the auction block.
3) Elder: “Economist Walter Williams had written that “According to census data from 1890-1940, a black child was more likely to grow up with married parents, then a white child.”
In this instance, the data may very well be accurate, but expounding on the details becomes important for the context. To better represent and interpret the census data, one needs to consider the divorce rate and it’s social acceptability at the time. From the conservative leaning Hoover Institution (full article here):
“Not only was divorce highly stigmatized before the 1960s, making it likely that divorces were under-reported in early census years, but also, as E. Franklin Frazier pointed out sixty years ago,“divorces” among rural African Americans were most likely informal agreements (between two married people or two people living together) or the defacto result of long-standing separations. Thus, it is likely that formal divorces among African Americans were much lower, and perhaps much lower than among whites.”
Yet another very important nuance that Elder excludes in his narrative, damaging the credibility of his argument.
4) Elder than displays a graph to show how rampant the “out of wedlock” births have become amongst the black community in comparison to whites and Hispanics. It illustrates those births as rising from 25% in 1965, to 74% in 2015 among the African-American population. It contrasts those with only 5% in 1965 to 25% in 2015 for the white population.
But to reiterate a prior point, “out of wedlock” births don’t necessarily mean that the father is not present in the household.
And in analyzing the chart, a 73% rate among the African-American population is indeed a high number, representing an increase of almost 200% from 1965. But also both notable and alarming is the 400% increase over that same period of time of white out-of-wedlock births which indicates that this has quickly become an issue within the white population as well.
5) Elder: “The poverty rate has remained unchanged, but the relationship between poor men and women has changed – dramatically. That’s because our generous welfare system allows women, in effect, to marry the government. And this makes it all too easy for men to abandon their traditional moral and financial responsibilities.”
The poverty rate has not “remained unchanged” – it has actually decreased (as we’ll see next). Elder may like to call our welfare system “generous,” but it is actually one of the least generous among all industrialized countries.
He then likens a woman receiving welfare to being “married to government.” But the welfare programs in the U.S. were never intended to be a substitute for earned income. Instead, their purpose is to provide the very basic and vital needs to those who cannot provide for themselves.
This is not a “marriage” that anyone with any other viable option willingly enters into. This is not a life of luxury. There are no “welfare queens” becoming wealthy at the expense of taxpayer dollars.
Next, he addresses the irresponsible men who do not provide financial support to their family as a result of the welfare state essentially stepping up and doing this for them. Men of this nature do of course exist, but they don’t withhold support because they feel the government is doing such a fine job of providing for the family. Again, these government benefits are meager and provide for only a very minimal standard of living.
Elder over-amplifies this idea that the predominant role for a welfare program is to inject itself into a family in which nobody has a job, portraying those on welfare as unemployed and avoiding their “traditional moral and financial responsibilities.” In doing so, he conveniently omits facts about welfare programs such as SNAP:
The majority of households on the SNAP program have at least one family member who works (many of these workers are presumably men). Keep this in mind when an outraged conservative radio host shouts out a tirade about the 43 million people on food stamps. This number includes children (which constitute almost half of total SNAP recipients), employed adults, the elderly, and the disabled. He also ignores the number of married couples who rely on welfare programs as well.
We also learn nothing from him about the conditions needed to qualify for welfare programs, and the effort that must be made to retain the assistance. Benefit limits and usage restrictions are contained in every welfare program.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of Elder’s analysis is his narrow-minded eagerness to blame government for the problems of our social construct instead of looking at root economic causes for this behavior. He never even hints at a minimum wage that has been stagnant for decades despite a greatly inflated cost of living. As a result, we as taxpayers have to provide working Americans with food, medicine, and shelter because a very wealthy corporation like Wal-Mart won’t pay them a wage that they can live on.
Elder also withholds commentary on how difficult getting a job can be as it relates to the health of our economy. During the worst part of the Great Recession of 2008, there was an estimated one job available for every eight people who were unemployed. Correlating economy health to welfare distribution can be further made by examining the decline of SNAP recipients as our economy has improved. Since 2013, SNAP recipients had steadily declined by 6 million as our economy has rebuilt itself from the economic disaster a decade ago.
6) Elder displays a chart entitled “U.S. Poverty Rate” and states that “In 1949, the nation’s poverty rate was 34%. By 1965, it was cut in half to 17% – all before President Lyndon Johnson’s so-called ‘War On Poverty’. But after that war began, in 1965 poverty began to flat line.”
Notice Elder stops the chart at 17% claiming that poverty reduction flatlined, when actually it continued to decrease after LBJ’s legislation, staying in the 11% range throughout the decade of the 1970’s with the exception of one year. A drop to 11% from 17% is not flatlined – it represents a very significant and sustained decrease.
He also fails to mention that when a chart such as the one he displays get’s closer to zero, the decrease cannot equally sustain itself like it did when poverty was higher. In other words, eliminating the first 17% of a 34% historically high poverty rate is much easier than eliminating the last 17%.
Bill O’Reilly has also made the same claim about this supposed “flatlined” povery rate. See it thoroughly debunked here by Politifact, giving this claim a “false” rating.
7) Elder: “In 1985, the Los Angeles Times asked both the poor and the non-poor whether poor women ‘often’ have children to get additional benefits. Most of the non-poor respondents said no. However, 64 percent of poor respondents said yes. Now, who do you think is in a better position to know?”
Unable to find the original poll question Elder is referencing, I did find a relatively recent LA times article which re-examined that 1985 poll and asked those same questions (but curiously not the question Elder referenced) to those living in modern-day poverty to see how opinions have changed.
So rather than rely on information from a question asked 33 years ago, here are the much more recent responses (August of 2016) to some of those same exact questions asked in the 1985 LA times poll.
Recall that Elder said that those living in poverty are the ones who are in a better position to know about issues involving poor people themselves (to which I agree). Of course he said this while providing just one question to which their response happened to support his one specific point.
But here are their modern responses to the other questions that provide a broader picture and go beyond the bias of Elder’s one cherry-picked question. Responses are from those polled who live below the poverty level:
– 71% think that it’s “very hard for poor people to find work” as opposed to “plenty of jobs available.” This dismantles the conservative myth that jobs are plentiful.
– A plurality (41%) believe that “conditions for poor people in this country — like education, housing, job opportunities, health care, and so forth” are bad. This goes against the conservative mantra that we all have the same opportunity regardless of class.
– 72% believe that “poor people are hard-working.” This discounts right-wing stereotypes that says “you’re poor because you just don’t work hard enough and are lazy.”
– 64% believe that “most poor people who receive welfare benefits..would rather earn their own living.” This eliminates the conservative stereotype that the poor prefer to just live off the “government dole”.
– And to the repeated conservative line that the poor see it as the governments responsibility to take care of them? 57% of the poor believe that “people are responsible for their own well-being and they have an obligation to take care of themselves” with only 38% feeling that “the government is responsible for the well-being of all its citizens and it has an obligation to take care of them.”
So if Mr. Elder wants to take one opinion of the poor that happens to support the case he’s trying to make, he’s going to have to accept their other opinions listed above- all of which run against traditional conservative orthodoxy. The overall breadth of the opinions stated here by the poor run in complete contrast with the messages that the typical conservative commentator will preach.
For those who are poverty stricken say that it’s not easy to find a job, conditions and opportunities for them to flourish are bad, they prefer work over welfare, and they feel it is their own responsibility to take care of themselves.
Elder ends by providing an anecdote about his father who respectfully worked hard his entire life and never complained, owning a restaurant as a young adult until he retired at an old age.
But with that one anecdote, there are a million others that portray a converse reality. Contained in these are disturbing and disgraceful treatment of black fathers living in a pre-civil rights era, being completely deprived of the basic dignity and opportunity that should have been afforded to them, yet given without reserve to a while father.
Maybe Elder’s father had an admirable and uncanny ability to persevere unfazed through the blatant hate and racism that existed in that era. But he should have never even had to deal with this perverse injustice in first place.
When you misrepresent history by omitting key facts, formulating erroneous statistics without context, while reinforcing conservative ideals that actually can be shown to be wrong by applying your own very standards to them, you are simply creating propaganda piece written to pander to the ideals of a loyal audience.
Just because those standards are good enough for Prager U, doesn’t mean its viewers should accept them as well. ■