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A worthy local government program to combat poverty

By SHANNON WHITWORTH

As we watch another summer of black Americans mowing each other down in our cities’ streets while some of the people in charge call for more useless gun laws and peace summits, I’m left to ponder whether there’s anything clear-headed people can do from a public policy standpoint to stem the tide of poverty and violence for our younger generations. In Milwaukee, there have been more than 90 homicides so far this year; the city’s total in 2014 was 86.

When we view the unruly and antisocial behavior of white, black and brown children in our communities, it’s easy to see why many of them wind up going nowhere in this life or to an early grave. Is there a way to reach these children to break that cycle of violence and poverty? 

I’ve worked the past year as a child support enforcement attorney. You’d be amazed at the sheer volume of parents of troubled children who don’t see a problem with the job they’re doing. Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol, a Racine native who was a Milwaukee County prosecutor, sees the issue in terms of cultural apathy.

Looking at the situation from a historical perspective, he posits that “all cultures are oriented around subsistence.” And it is only when individuals or cultures are confronted with a clear challenge are they driven to achieve. The welfare state, despite its altruistic intentions, has doomed poor people to impoverishment by making it possible to get by but gives no incentive to do better. As Mark Steyn once wrote, “the real tragedy of welfare is not that it’s a waste of money, but that it’s a waste of people.” 

That subsistence culture creates less opportunity for economic advancement. When a person is uneducated, unskilled, unmotivated, antisocial and angry, economic opportunity flies by as if it had Stealth technology. Poverty, joblessness and no prospects for the future create an environment where criminality can thrive. Economic advancement is the surest path to social stability.

With regard to our young men, it is hard for a man to behave in a manner that he has never seen in his life. And many of our young people, especially males, have had no good example to follow. They are, as Gerol puts it, “rudderless.”

What can be done to break that cycle without intervening as a substitute parent in these children’s lives – a policy that would be doomed to fail? Is there a way to provide a real incentive to do better?

“The single, best financial year of most people’s life is their senior year of high school,” says Brad Logsdon, legal director of the Dane County Child Support Agency. That is because the difference between having a high school diploma and not means the difference of an additional $300,000 to $1 million in net income over the course of one’s life, according to a 2009 report from the Northeastern University Center for Labor Market Studies on the consequences of dropping out of high school. The fact is shocking but not surprising.

The Milwaukee Public Schools’ failures in graduating educated black students is well-documented. It might surprise some, however, that, the black high school graduation rate in Madison is a mere 55%, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. And even in the relatively affluent Madison suburb of Middleton, the black graduation rate is 52%. 

Logsdon has a small solution for his little corner of the world. This summer, the Dane County Child Support Agency will be rolling out a pilot program called the Forgiveness of Arrears for Completion of Education (FACE). The concept is this: There are many parents who owe the state money for years of taxpayer assistance to the families for which they are financially responsible. Some of this debt can be decades old; the children are adults and the balances due with interest run into the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. 

As far as you and I are concerned, as John Q. Taxpayer, that money already has been spent and the chances of getting it back are next to zero. Sure, we can make debtors’ lives a living hell to hold them accountable, but we’re not going to see the money, which exists only on our books. And the reality is that some of the debtors are still having children, who could become financial burdens on the state if they do not graduate from high school. Debtors who participate in FACE can have some of that debt written off in exchange for pushing their younger children to get a high school diploma.

While it crushes my groove to write off money we’re owed for supporting these families, there’s a lot to like about this program:

1) It creates a financial incentive for the person with the most influence – the parent – to push a child to complete his or her education.

2) Every child the program successfully affects is less likely to become a burden to the taxpayer and to be more socially stable. An extra $300,000-plus over a lifetime likely means a different standard of living, one where people either can remove themselves and their families from a chaotic community or become a stable presence within one. Either way, it’s positive.

3) No business likes to write off accounts receivable as bad debt, but the reality is eventually it has to be done. A man who’s spent 35 years in and out of prison or in minimum-wage jobs will not pay off a $50,000 tab. At least this way, taxpayers get something for their money. These educated children will more likely become taxpayers than tax burdens.

4) The high school diploma is the gateway to additional educational achievement. You cannot get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree or a doctorate without completing high school. And every step up the ladder has a corresponding income boost over time. It is not to say that every high school diploma means college, but no one takes a step in that direction without it.

5) There comes a point where continual punishment such as incarceration has diminishing returns in collecting child support. The point of child support is for parents to be accountable. If we can provide a vehicle for an otherwise absent parent to push his or her kids in a positive direction, it is a better outcome than spending more tax money to have someone occupy a cell knowing that, at best, the return will be pennies on the dollar.

It is one small solution in an ocean of problems. But as someone who believes that’s how genuine change occurs – small, incremental steps in the right direction, rather than grand, sweeping gestures – I believe it to be creative and effective policy, which has the potential to be of enormous benefit to individuals and society as a whole.

Shannon Whitworth is an attorney who works for the Dane County Child Support Agency and the Ozaukee County district attorney’s office. This column represents his personal opinion.

© 2015 Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, 633 W. Wisconsin Ave Suite 330, Milwaukee, WI 53203
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