My colleague Ed Rogers rightly chastises those complaining about first lady Michelle Obama’s selection as a speaker at a high school graduation in Topeka, Kan. I doubt she will take the opportunity to improperly inject partisanship. In fact, I wish both Obamas would use such occasions to do more in an area in which they could have tremendous impact.
If anyone can deliver the message effectively to teens that the key to success is staying in school, staying away from drugs and delaying children until after marriage it is they. For millions of at-risk youth, the Obamas are role models whose fidelity to one another and obvious concern about their two lovely daughters are powerful examples.
We (sort of) are having a national conversation about inequality, which we know from study after study is related to marriage and out-of-wedlock births. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) calls it the “other” marriage debate. Politicians are often stymied, however, by whether they can affect decisions like marriage. Legislation is an imperfect tool in this regard, but the bully pulpit — and the graduation speaker’s podium — can be used to great effect.
Why not announce that for the remaining years in the White House, the president or the first lady will each go to five at-risk schools’ graduation ceremonies provided the graduation rate is X percent? Instead of “just say no,” the Obamas can champion a “just say yes” program — yes to staying in school, yes to delaying child birth, yes to abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Instead of using speaking tours to fruitlessly harangue his political opposition, the president in his final years in office could make a huge push in this area. He can still press for universal preschool or whatever other programs remain on his agenda, but his biggest mark might come from attacking the roots of poverty.
Robert Doar of the American Enterprise Institute previously led New York City’s exceptionally successful anti-poverty effort. Among the most import items, he argues, is marriage:
Very few families with married and involved parents, both working, ever need any form of welfare. This is why I came to believe that it was dishonest for us not to talk about the importance of parents’ marriage in reducing the poverty of children. Children need stable, two-parent families. No government or public program can replace a missing parent. It was the recognition of government’s inadequate response to the problem — and my desire to be honest about it — that led us to put together the city’s public-messaging campaign about the consequences of teen pregnancy. With messages about the bad employment prospects and poor school performance of children raised by unmarried teen parents, we created subway and bus posters that told the truth in a way that kids and adults would see and understand. We got blowback from liberal commentators and politicians, but independently conducted focus groups with low-income teenagers found that the people we were trying to reach understood and agreed with what we were saying.
I have noted that politicians tend to shy away from talking about marriage. But in the long run, marriage and delayed childbirth might be the most important factor in reducing inequality and poverty. And the president and first lady don’t need Congress to deliver this message.