David Brooks writes about a favorite theme of mine:

This is not to say that policy choices are meaningless. But we should be realistic about them. The influence of politics and policy is usually swamped by the influence of culture, ethnicity, psychology and a dozen other factors.


When you try to account for life outcome differences this gigantic, you find yourself beyond narrow economic incentives and in the murky world of social capital. What matters are historical experiences, cultural attitudes, child-rearing practices, family formation patterns, expectations about the future, work ethics and the quality of social bonds.

Researchers have tried to disaggregate the influence of these soft factors and have found it nearly impossible. All we can say for sure is that different psychological, cultural and social factors combine in myriad ways to produce different viewpoints. As a result of these different viewpoints, the average behavior is different between different ethnic and geographic groups, leading to different life outcomes.
It is very hard for policy makers to use money to directly alter these viewpoints. In her book, “What Money Can’t Buy,” Susan E. Mayer of the University of Chicago calculated what would happen if you could double the income of the poorest Americans. The results would be disappointingly small. Doubling parental income would barely reduce dropout rates of the children. It would have a small effect on reducing teen pregnancy. It would barely improve child outcomes overall.
So when we’re arguing about politics, we should be aware of how policy fits into the larger scheme of cultural and social influences. Bad policy can decimate the social fabric, but good policy can only modestly improve it.

Read the whole thing. I am reminded of a black pastor who moved some years ago to south Dallas to take over a church, one that ultimately became quite successful. When he and his wife got there, they opened up their home in the afternoons, so children from the church could come over and have a safe place to do their homework. What they discovered, to their shock, was that all the kids wanted to do was … sleep. It wasn’t because these children were lazy. It was because, as the pastor and his wife discovered, these children lived with adult caretakers who were so disinclined to discipline themselves and do right by the kids that they stayed up all night partying. The poor children weren’t getting enough sleep, much less doing their homework. It wasn’t their fault; it was the fault of the adults responsible for taking care of them. Theirs was a failed culture, one that celebrated the values, such as they are, of gangsta rap, and which all but guaranteed social and economic failure for the next generations. The pastor and his wife, middle-class African-Americans, were there to try to fight the culture. The point here is that no amount of money poured into the schools where those kids attended would have made much difference in their lives, given the culture inside those kids’ heads, put their by the adults in their lives. Only the pastor and his wife were signs of contradiction to the way those kids were taught the world was.
Similarly, a couple of years ago I interviewed a middle-aged white man who was raised in a well-off family in the nicest neighborhood in Dallas. Trey Hill experienced a religious conversion in his early 30s, and moved with his family to inner-city Dallas to minister to the children of the poor — which, in a place like Dallas, means largely black and Hispanic kids. In the story I wrote about him, Trey talked about how the culture the kids he lives among carry around in their heads cripples their chances of success, by which he means getting out of poverty and building a stable life. He also saw the limitations imposed on him by the culture in which he was raised:

Unlike the Other Dallas, Trey Hill grew up in a Park Cities culture that expects its young people to go to college, succeed there and beyond.
“But there’s a negative side to that, too,” he says. “Pressure to conform. This whole success mentality, where success is gauged in financial terms.”
Trey says his parents taught him to have compassion for the poor and took him into impoverished parts of Dallas as part of charitable initiatives. But for the most part, southern Dallas was no-man’s land for white kids.
“The community I grew up in taught us to isolate, cloister and ignore,” he muses. “When you don’t know something, you feel somehow absolved from dealing with it. Besides, people looked different, had a different culture, and too often, we view different as bad and scary. I didn’t see any active racism growing up, but I didn’t see anybody actively engaging with other communities or races either.”
But running track at Highland Park High changed the trajectory of Trey’s life. At track meets, he spent a great deal of time with black kids from Wilmer-Hutchins, Lancaster and other southern Dallas communities.
“I just liked them,” he says. “I got to spend time with them in their communities, and I saw the disparity. I could see that I was given opportunity that some of these guys just didn’t have or see that they had.”


I tell him about a guy I know, a white teacher in a predominantly minority Dallas area public school, who is about to give up on his school. He’s tired of trying to change a culture. The black and Latino kids he deals with despise authority and don’t want to do their schoolwork. When my teacher friend challenges them to stick to their studies, they tell him he can’t possibly understand their lives, because he’s a “rich white man.”
“This is why so many whites have so little patience with poor minorities,” I say to Trey. “There’s such a culture of excuse-making and victimization going on there. My teacher friend says that the values of hip-hop music have colonized his students’ minds.”
This, I tell him, is the heart of the matter: culture.
We all pretend that if only we spend more money or implement new programs or in some other way manipulate material conditions for the urban poor, their problems will be solved. It seems we never talk about culture, especially the broken-family culture, because we don’t want to come across as judgmental.
Many of the housing projects in West Dallas have been razed and replaced with townhouse-style housing developments. The despairing public school teacher contends that school authorities constantly lean on him and his colleagues to be culturally sensitive, but nobody has the courage to tell these kids that the hip-hop culture they’ve embraced – one that idealizes sex, drugs and gangsters and looks down on hard work, study and self-restraint – all but dooms them to failure.
“Yeah, I see that,” Trey says resignedly. He prefers the term “poverty culture” but agrees that hip-hop artists are evangelists for a toxic, self-defeating worldview and that their youthful converts are legion. We concede that the same hedonistic materialistic values many north Dallas whites disdain in hip-hop music are embraced north of the Trinity too, in a more socially acceptable guise.

I would no more put my kids in a school full of rich white kids who carry with them a culture of hedonistic materilistic values than I would a school full of poor minority kids who carried with them the same culture. I would rather put my kid in a school full of Asian kids who carried in their heads a culture of hard work, self-discipline and diligent study than a nominally Christian school whose kids carried in their heads a culture of privilege and well-upholstered suburban decadence. Bottom line: when it comes to schooling for my kids, I don’t care about the race, the family income or the professed faith of the student body. I am most interested in the quality of the culture that dominates the school and its students, because that is going to be the greatest determinant in the quality of life, and the content of the character, of my children. And money can’t buy that.

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