Monthly Archives: September 2005

New Orleans: federal spending

In the aftermath of Katrina, an emerging line of argument goes like this: Bush is an anti-government conservative. Anti-government conservatives cut spending. Therefore, Bush cut spending. And the flooding has revealed the vulnerability of poor people when government spending is inadequate. I suspect that the real story is somewhat different. Bush is a profligate spender who borrows to finance rising expenditures. Cuts are coming, forced by the debt, but they have not happened yet. Therefore, it is generally inaccurate to attribute current social problems to Bush’s spending cuts. The real culprits are decades, even centuries, of under-investment, plus very poorly managed government–both in big cities and, since 2000, at the federal level.

The full story is probably somewhat more complicated, since there have been federal cuts in some programs. I wish that financial data were more widely cited in the debate about what Katrina “means.” In my limited discretionary time, I have created two graphs, both of which end in 2002. (More recent data are not easily found.)

The first shows that total federal spending per capita increased in Louisiana through 2002, although these numbers are not adjusted for inflation. Consistently, about 10% of the annual spending is for defense.

The second graph shows that spending per student in the Orleans Parish public schools rose, but then fell in the 2002-3 school year, mainly because of a drop in state support. Again, these figures are not adjusted for inflation.

I acknowledge that these are just snippets of information, and I’d welcome more detail about any actual Bush spending cuts that might have affected citizens of New Orleans.

New Orleans: the youth/adult ratio and why it matters

According to the New York Times, in areas of New Orleans where there was significant flooding, the poverty rate was 29%, four out of five residents were people of color, and the ratio of adults to minors was (as I calculate it) 2.58-to-one. That is a similar ratio to what we see in Detroit and Camden, NJ. It is not too far below the national average of 2.5-to-one. But it is quite different from the pattern in wealthier neighborhoods. In contrast to the inner city, some of Detroit’s suburbs have four adults per minor. Even the non-flooded parts of New Orleans (where the median income is much higher and about half of the residents are White) have an adult-to-minor ratio of 3.5-to-one.

Why does this matter? Dan Hart and colleagues argue that “child-saturated” communities–those with fewer than three adults per minor–do not provide many adult role models, much adult supervision, or many opportunities for participation in adult-led groups. On the bright side, when there are many youth, they can participate in volunteer activities together and benefit from positive peer role models. Youth are more likely to volunteer than adults; therefore, volunteering is particularly common in youth-heavy communities. But there is an important exception: youth-saturated neighborhoods that are also poor tend to have low levels of civic participation as well as high rates of delinquency. This is probably because young people suffer from the shortage of adult leaders, and there are too few youth organizations with adequate and legitimate funding to absorb most kids. The “autonomous youth culture” is subject to heavy influence by one group of local people who happen to have money and power: criminals.

Thus cities like Detroit and Camden face a shortage of adults along with their other problems. And I suspect that the low adult/youth ratio in New Orleans–which may have dropped further after the evacuation–is an important reason why order broke down there.

they agree about one thing: Streetlaw

Since I’m on the board of Streetlaw, Inc., I can’t resist quoting this snippet from the Roberts confirmation hearings:

ROBERTS: In addition to those actually involved in the case, one of the pro bono activities that I’m most committed to is a program sponsored by the Supreme Court Historical Society and an organization called Street Law. They bring high school teachers to D.C. every summer to teach them about the Supreme Court. And they can then go back and teach the court in their classes.

And I’ve always found that very, very fulfilling.

HATCH: Well, thank you. My time is up.

Thanks, Mr. Chairman.

SPECTER: Thank you, Senator Hatch.

Senator Kennedy?

KENNEDY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

That Street Law program is a marvelous program. I commend you for your involvement in that.

the effects of 9/11 on youth civic engagement

Over the weekend, both the New York Times and the Washington Post marked Sept. 11 with stories about a resurgence of civic engagement among American young people. The Post gave Harvard’s Thomas Sander and Robert Putnam space to argue that “a renewed commitment to civic engagement among a crucial segment of the population”–young people–“has resulted from the “horrible event” of 9/11. For evidence, the authors relied on the latest HERI surveys of incoming college freshmen, which reveal big increases in volunteering, plus the turnout surge in the 2004 election. Meanwhile, the Times ran a news story by Alex Williams entitled “Realistic Idealists” that described some super-volunteers–like 13-year-old Hazel, who created a 3,000-volume library for a homeless shelter. Williams writes, “Hazel is at the leading edge of a generation whose sense of community involvement was born four years ago on Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks spurred an unprecedented outpouring of donations and volunteerism from Americans.”

I never miss an opportunity to emphasize the idealism and civic creativity of today’s young people. There are reasons, however, to doubt that 9/11 had a meaningful effect. At CIRCLE, we tend to explain the turnout increase as a result of feverish efforts to mobilize youth–although, to be sure, younger citizens were following current events more closely than usual in 2004, and one reason could be that 9/11 had caught their attention. Our own surveys found that adolescents were “all dressed up with nowhere to go” in 2002-4. That is, they expressed a heightened commitment to volunteering and other forms of participation, but they had no more than the usual opportunities.

Which brings me to the difference between Robert Putnam and Jim Youniss, some of whose views I mentioned here last week. For Putnam, values (such as trust, connectedness, and responsibility) underlie actions. For Youniss and colleagues, values tend to arise from participation, and what causes participation is (mainly) the opportunity to do something. If Youniss is right, then any effect of 9/11 on youth civic engagement would be indirect. Perhaps young leaders and adults responded to the attacks by creating venues for other young people to serve.

Another controversy is buried in the article by Sander and Putnam. Many people argue that 9/11 increased people’s sense of connectedness (especially in New York City) but did little to enhance their capacity to solve public problems together. A national survey that CIRCLE released in 2002 found that many Americans of all ages volunteered, at least occasionally, but only 20 percent of the volunteers (and 10 percent of young volunteers) described their participation as a way to address a ?social or political problem.? Putnam’s own writing immediately after the 9/11 attacks was surprisingly apolitical; he seemed to be arguing that it would be good if people trusted one another more and cared more for others, but he said little about people’s capacity for collective problem-solving. (I have written before about such apolitical notions of “social capital.)

“expert” voices

I’m quoted in a recent story on Yahoo News (provided by Agence France Presse), entitled, “Katrina: US TV swings from deference to outrage towards government.” The lead is, “In the emotional aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, US television’s often deferential treatment of government officials has been replaced by fiercely combative interviews and scathing commentary.” Some examples follow, and then I am quoted near the end:

Media expert* Peter Levine, of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, said the shift in stance of American television was a return to normal following four years of toeing the government line following the September 11 attacks.

“After 9/11 those who publicly dissented from support of the president and the government were rounded on from all sides,” he told AFP.

“The political calculation of (opposition) Democratic politicans was that it was best to support the president and so no one wanted to be seen dissenting, giving the media little to base any criticism on,” he said.

But with local officials, including Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin openly slamming the government response to the New Orleans catastrophe, usually reserved media feel free to do the same, he said.

Added to that, the horror played out on live television belied the government’s claims that its preparations for the storm and subsequent rescue effort had been sufficient.

“(Television stations) have people on the ground and are seeing a huge difference between what they are being told by officials and what they are actually seeing,” Levine said.

None of this is profound or original, but it exemplifies the phenomenon I meant to describe. The reporter probably had the thoughts that he attributed to me before I said them. But he could not simply write those ideas down in his own words, because that would be editorializing, interpreting, or analyzing, and he couldn’t do that as a reporter. His assignment was to record facts, such as what a “media expert” had said. So he called around until he found someone who told him something that he wanted to say himself, and then he quoted that person–in this case, me.

Between Sept. 11, 2001 and the Iraq invasion, relatively few of the people whom reporters quote were willing to say anything bad about US foreign policy, and that is why critical perspectives were so rare.

*My media “expertise” comes solely from regular reading of The New York Times, including the news, arts, op-ed, NY region, and business sections and the obituaries, but rarely the sports and never the new “style” section, which I condemn unequivocally.