Update: The Good Big News

Political commentary and more.
Aug. 14 2001 3:05 PM

Update: The Good Big News

A recent kausfiles item complained that so few journalists were reporting on a big story--the half-century-long single-motherhood trend, thought unstoppable, is actually reversing, and the 1996 welfare reform seems to be partly responsible. Last Sunday, however, the New York Times' lead story was "2-Parent Families Rise After Change in Welfare Laws." It's fair to say the news is now out.

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Times reporter Blaine Harden noted the significant increase in marriage among blacks, the "widespread agreement among welfare experts that something remarkable has been going on in poor urban communities," the "confluence of positive trends" including falling crime, falling poverty, greater employment, lower drug abuse, and a falling teen birth rate. Liberal child welfare expert Kristin Moore talked of a "tipping point" at which these changes might "pick up speed." Liberal welfare reform foe Wendell Primus--who quit his Clinton administration job to protest the 1996 law--was quoted saying "Whatever we have been doing over the last five years, we ought to keep going."

So kausfiles has nothing to complain about? Not so fast! The Times report, while a blow for truth, still exhibited some of the paper's more annoying tics. It was as if the mighty editorial machine couldn't tell the good news about welfare reform without at least attempting to make it seem like bad news. I'm being a bit picky here, but if the Times does this with a) really good news b) from an unbiased reporter c) when the favorable trend is acknowledged (indeed, discovered) by prominent liberals, imagine what will happen in a murkier case.

My beefs:

  • The Times waits until the, um, second paragraph to note that "nagging questions remain" about the "well-being of children" growing up in the new two-parent households. Some of the families lack "stability." The marriages are "crisis-driven." These concerns are perfectly valid. But sticking them at the top of the piece is a bit like reporting "Victory in World War II" in Paragraph 1, and using Paragraph 2 to highlight nagging questions about the sterility of life in the Americanized culture of the postwar world.

  • It's not until the 17th paragraph, long after the "jump" to Page 24, that we learn "something remarkable has been going on" in the ghettos. That's because, starting in Paragraph 4, Harden turns to the story of an ex-welfare mother in Milwaukee who got married but wound up homeless when her husband became a crack addict. (At the end of the piece, we're told the marriage has held up and the father is now training to be a forklift operator.) In another family, the father has a bipolar disorder and the mother has to work two jobs. What evidence is there that the problems of these families are widespread, or more widespread than they were before welfare reform? Harden says that a "number of social workers and ministers ... along with several national experts in child welfare," say the problems

"are an all-too-typical reality check for those inclined to get carried away, after just five years, with the family engineering success of the welfare overhaul."

There's a triple-insulated fudge-phrase worth storing on your save-get key! What does "all-too-typical" mean? If it means "typical," the Times would presumably have said "typical." If it means "excessively typical," it's meaningless--if there's only one troubled family in this great land, that family's "all-too-typical"! (And who, exactly, are these people getting "carried away ... with the family engineering success of the welfare overhaul," present company excluded? The big surprise has been the absence of crowing on the right.)

  • Why the snide references to social "engineering"? This is a pose familiar to readers of Katherine Boo and Jason DeParle: The reporter on the "front lines" uncovers the reality that the "engineers" and policymakers in Washington ignore (though the "engineers" mainly turn out to be right). Arguably, getting rid of a big, intrusive government program such as welfare is social de-engineering, not social engineering. Would the Times routinely use the same loaded term to describe, say, the effort to decrease smoking or banish racial prejudice?

  • The Times notes statistics showing that living with two cohabiting, but unmarried, adults may be bad for kids. What gets forgotten is that actual formal marriage is rising too. The Times' own chart shows that among blacks the increase in marriage has been more than twice the increase in mere cohabitation. (Primus' data suggest this 2-1 advantage holds across the entire population.)

I'll stop now. My conservative welfare-wonk friends tell me I'm crazy to gripe about the Times piece--it's the fairest thing they've read on the subject in that paper in years. I say that while on balance this was a badly needed, fair-minded, eye-opening story, nagging questions remain!

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