You Can’t Solve A Problem That You Won’t Name


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Published in Ingramsonline.com - April 2014

Google “Kansas City Zoo,” and the headlines that jump out are ones that civic leaders would rather did not, headlines like this one from The Kansas City Star on March 18: “Free day at Kansas City Zoo ends in violence.”

As is typical with Star reporting—all major media reporting, for that matter—you have to parse the article as carefully as a Talmudic scholar to make any sense out of it. The opening sentence—“The Kansas City Zoo will again review its policies”—makes it appear that the problem is a zoo problem. It is not.

The actual “problem” stems from the inducement the city offered voters to pass a zoo sales tax in 2011, namely, four free zoo days. The voters of Jackson and Clay took the bait. “We can’t just take that away,” said zoo director Randy Wisthoff.

After a comparable incident last year, zoo officials moved the free day from a weekend to a weekday, but that only seemed to make matters worse. One witness called the mass fighting and sporadic shooting last month “by far the scariest experience ever.”

A space-trotting Martian, on reading The Star, would have to conclude that this was a problem unique to zoos. “We want for people to be able to see the zoo free,” Wisthoff remarked in the article’s close. “We just have to figure out how to accomplish that and maintain a safe environment.”

Had that same Martian visited Kansas City not on zoo day but a month prior, he would have surmised upon reading The Star that the Country Club Plaza had some unresolved issues of its own. These, the city proposed to solve with “a beefed up curfew ordinance” and additional “recreational opportunities for youth.”

Had the Martian continued to visit, however, he would have soon recognized that there was not a zoo problem, nor a Plaza problem nor a Power & Light District problem or—dare he say it?—even a school-district problem.

Unaware of cultural sensitivities, the Martian might have pointed out that virtually all the “youth” involved in all these seemingly disparate problems were black and male, a fact that my neighborhood Bubble Boy, whose information comes exclusively from The Star, still does not know.

In the way of analysis, the Martian might have said that when a society incentivizes fatherlessness and that fatherlessness reaches critical mass and that mass is empowered by the exculpatory rhetoric of a vestigial civil-rights movement and enabled by a media too timid to tell the truth, there will be hell to pay.

Having said this, no matter how accurate his analysis or how sincere his desire to solve the problem, the Martian could be assured of never winning any of the awards that city leaders give one another for their compassion and racial sensitivity. In fact, he would be lucky if he were not ridden back into space on a rail.

Given his open-mindedness, here is what the Martian learned: For more than half a century, under the guise of compassion, America’s good deed-doers have been encouraging fathers to abandon their kids. That dates to 1960, the year that the Aid to Dependent Children Program became the Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or, more realistically, Aid to Moms with Dependent Children. A working dad at home did not fit the state definition of “family.” In 1964, the Feds sweetened the pot for forsaken moms with food stamps, and in 1965, with Medicaid. Shortly afterwards, public housing switched from fixed rents to rents based on ability to pay, a change that made the working dad all the more an albatross.

The reforms of the 1960s targeted black families and hit them hardest. In 1950, five out of every six black children were born to married parents. By 1990, that number had plummeted to a woeful two out of six nationwide. If it were not for federal welfare reform, quietly undone by the Obama administration, that number would likely have continued to slide.

As it happened, millions of Americans voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008 thinking that he could address the problem that dare not speak its name. Early on, he even gave it a shot. On Father’s Day 2008, Obama took his campaign to a church on Jesse Jackson’s home turf, the South Side of Chicago.

To murmurs of approval, Obama preached, “If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that too many fathers are also missing.” He added, “You and I know this is true everywhere, but nowhere is it more true than in the African-American community.” He then spelled out the consequences, including the fact that boys who grow up in fatherless homes are “20 times more likely to end up in prison.”

As the father of a neglected “love child,” Jackson took Obama’s comments as a personal and professional insult. A few weeks later, Jackson made his feelings known on a hot mic. “I want to cut his nuts out,” Jackson whispered. “Barack, he is talking down to black people.” Obama got the message. He never really raised the issue again.

Obama had a much better pulpit from which to make this case than the last national politician who tried, Dan Quayle. In 1992, Quayle was widely mocked for attributing the post-Rodney King riots to “the breakdown of family structure, personal responsibility and social order in too many areas of our society.” He aggravated the media by linking this breakdown to their willingness to create characters, “Murphy Brown” in particular, which mocked “the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.’”

Once the laughter died down, the social scientists weighed in. Yes, children in single-parent families were six times as likely to be poor and much more likely to engage in every self-destructive behavior on the market. In 2010, USA Today ran an article with the headline, “Was Dan Quayle (gasp!) right?”

But why talk about any of this here in Kansas City when we can satisfy ourselves for the moment by adjusting zoo hours or Plaza curfews or Power & Light dress codes. As to the young men we condemn by our silence to a life of joblessness and pointlessness, better to let them drift than to deny ourselves a shot at a few more good-citizen awards. 

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