Blow, Nocera, Kristof and Collins

In “Dinosaurs and Denial” Mr. Blow says Senator Marco Rubio created quite a stir with comments about the age of Earth, but his answer was in line with the consensus of the Republican Party.  Mr. Nocera has a question in “It’s Hard to Be a Hero:”  What would you do if you saw someone pushed onto the subway tracks?  Mr. Kristof presents some uncomfortable truths in “Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy.”  He says conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.  In “Twenty and Counting” Ms. Collins says so there are going to be more women in Congress. But what does that mean?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Finally, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — a Tea Party darling and possible 2016 presidential candidate — admits that dinosaurs and humans didn’t co-exist.

Last month, when GQ asked Rubio “how old do you think the Earth is?” he stammered through an answer.

“I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says. I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians.” He continued, “Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”

This week, in an interview with Politico, he attempted to mop up that mess.

He said, “There is no scientific debate on the age of the Earth. I mean, it’s established pretty definitively. It’s at least 4.5 billion years old.”

But then he hedged: “I just think in America we should have the freedom to teach our children whatever it is we believe. And that means teaching them science. They have to know the science, but also parents have the right to teach them the theology and to reconcile those two things.”

Why the hedge? Because he is in a party of creationists. According to a June Gallup report, most Republicans (58 percent) believed that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. Most Democrats and independents did not agree.

This anti-intellectualism is antediluvian. No wonder a 2009 Pew Research Center report found that only 6 percent of scientists identified as Republican and 9 percent identified as conservative.

Furthermore, a 2005 study found that just 11 percent of college professors identified as Republican and 15 percent identified as conservative. Some argue that this simply represents a liberal bias in academia. But just as strong a case could be made that people who absorb facts easily don’t suffer fools gladly.

Last month, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said on CNN:

“We need to stop being the dumb party. We need to offer smart, conservative, intelligent ideas and policies.”

This is exactly the kind of turn the Republicans need to take, but Jindal’s rhetoric doesn’t completely line up with his record. As The Scotsman of Edinburgh reported in June, “Pupils attending privately run Christian schools in the southern state of Louisiana will learn from textbooks next year, which claim Scotland’s most famous mythological beast is a living creature.” That mythological beast would be the Loch Ness monster.

The Scotsman continued: “Thousands of children are to receive publicly funded vouchers enabling them to attend the schools — which follow a strict fundamentalist curriculum. The Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) programme teaches controversial religious beliefs, aimed at disproving evolution and proving creationism. Youngsters will be told that if it can be proved that dinosaurs walked the Earth at the same time as man, then Darwinism is fatally flawed.”

This is all because of a law that Jindal signed. Thankfully, last week a state judge ruled that the voucher program is unconstitutional. But Louisiana isn’t the only red state where creationism has state support.

Kentucky has a Creationist Museum that warns visitors to “be prepared to experience history in a completely unprecedented way,” according to its Web site. It continues: “Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden. Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers.” Unprecedented is certainly one word for it.

Now the museum group is planning to build a creationist theme park, with $43 million in state tax incentives. It should be noted that Mitt Romney won Kentucky by 23 points last month. President Obama won only four of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

And the beginning of the world isn’t the only point of denial. So is the potential end of it. A March Gallup poll found that Republicans were much less likely than Democrats or independents to say that they worried about global warming. Only 16 percent of Republicans said that they worried a great deal about it, while 42 percent of Democrats and 31 percent of independents did.

This as the National Climatic Data Center reported that “the January-November period was the warmest first 11 months of any year on record for the contiguous United States, and for the entire year, 2012 will most likely surpass the current record (1998, 54.3°F) as the warmest year for the nation.”

Surely some of this is because of party isolationism and extremism and what David Frum, the conservative columnist, called the “conservative entertainment complex.” But there is also willful ignorance at play in some quarters, and Republicans mustn’t simply brush it aside. They must beat it back.

If the Republicans don’t want to see their party go the way of the dinosaurs, they have to step out of the past.

Well, if you make sure that your core constituency is pig-ignorant they’re easier to defraud with tales of “death panels” and the like…  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

On a crisp January day in 2007, a 50-year-old construction worker named Wesley Autrey became a New York hero when he rescued a man who had fallen onto the subway tracks.

A train had just left the station, so the platform was nearly empty except for Autrey, his two daughters and a young man who was having a seizure of some sort. The man fell onto the tracks, in a position, Autrey told me recently, “where he was going to lose his limbs.” With another train fast approaching, Autrey instinctively jumped onto the tracks, positioned the man’s body safely between the rails, and lay on top of him. Five cars passed over them before the train screeched to a halt.

What prompted me to telephone Autrey was the death on Monday of Ki-Suck Han, a Queens man who was pushed onto the 49th Street subway tracks, allegedly by Naeem Davis, a drifter with whom police said he had been having an altercation. This time, there were plenty of people on the platform, most notably R. Umar Abbasi, a photographer who took some horrifying pictures as the subway train closed in on Han.

The 22 seconds or so between Han being pushed and the train reaching him was about the same amount of time that Autrey had nearly six years earlier. Yet, on Monday, no one on the crowded platform made a move to help Han until it was too late. (A doctor tried to administer C.P.R., but he was already dead.)

“People were just standing in fear and shock, not really knowing what was going on” one bystander told a crowd of reporters. “Some people started running out of the platform. Other people just stood there.”

When one of Abbasi’s gruesome photographs landed on the front page of The New York Post, the reaction was fierce. “Someone’s taking that picture,” said Al Roker on NBC’s “Today Show.” “Why aren’t they helping this guy up?”

Abbasi defended himself in part by saying he used his flash to warn the conductor, but he was also quick to point the finger at others: “Why didn’t the people who were close enough help him?” he asked. “If I had reached him in time, I would have pulled him up,” he insisted. We all harbor the hope that if we found ourselves in the same position as Wesley Autrey — or Umar Abbasi — we would act with courage instead of cowardice.

Yet behavioral science suggests otherwise. The most famous case of bystanders failing to act took place in 1964, when Kitty Genovese, a young woman living in a quiet Queens neighborhood, was brutally stabbed to death. Despite her repeated screams for help, some 38 people who heard her from their apartments did nothing — not even call the police.

A.M. Rosenthal, the renowned former executive editor of The Times, who was then the metropolitan editor — and who had gotten the tip that led to the story — wrote a short book called “Thirty-Eight Witnesses.” In it, Rosenthal asked the question that haunted the country in the aftermath of the murder: Why?

Why didn’t anyone do anything?

Rosenthal could only guess at the answer because there had been no research on what is now known as “pro-social behavior.” But after the story gripped the country, two young social scientists — Bibb Latané, then at Columbia University, and John Darley, who taught at New York University — conducted a series of experiments on the behavior of bystanders.

Their startling conclusion, which is now known as the bystander effect, is that the more people who witness a crime, the less likely any one of them will come to the aid of the victim. Partly this is because when people see others not doing anything, they become confused, not sure if it really is an emergency — “a collective ignorance” says Latané. Another reason, though, is something called the diffusion of responsibility. “You think to yourself, there are all these other people here. This isn’t entirely my problem,” says Latané.

Go back to the beginning of this column. The crucial detail in 2007, when viewed through the prism of behavioral science, is that the subway platform was nearly empty. Autrey acted heroically — even leaving his two young children unattended to do so — because there was no one else who could help. On Monday, the 49th Street subway platform was full of people, each possibly thinking that someone else was closer, someone else was stronger, someone else should be responsible for the heroic act. As a result, no one acted.

“I wouldn’t do the wrong thing,” one man waiting for a subway train told The Times on Tuesday. That’s what we all want to think. It’s why we are so quick to condemn those who do nothing at such moments.

But let’s be honest: We don’t really know how we’d act until the moment is upon us. Sadly, the science says we’re more likely to do nothing than respond like Wesley Autrey.

Next up is Mr. Kristof, writing from Jackson, KY.  He should make us all squirm a bit:

This is what poverty sometimes looks like in America: parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability.

Many people in hillside mobile homes here are poor and desperate, and a $698 monthly check per child from the Supplemental Security Income program goes a long way — and those checks continue until the child turns 18.

“The kids get taken out of the program because the parents are going to lose the check,” said Billie Oaks, who runs a literacy program here in Breathitt County, a poor part of Kentucky. “It’s heartbreaking.”

This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.

Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.

Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage: In a means-tested program like S.S.I., a woman raising a child may receive a bigger check if she refrains from marrying that hard-working guy she likes. Yet marriage is one of the best forces to blunt poverty. In married couple households only one child in 10 grows up in poverty, while almost half do in single-mother households.

Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it’s best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month.

“One of the ways you get on this program is having problems in school,” notes Richard V. Burkhauser, a Cornell University economist who co-wrote a book last year about these disability programs. “If you do better in school, you threaten the income of the parents. It’s a terrible incentive.”

About four decades ago, most of the children S.S.I. covered had severe physical handicaps or mental retardation that made it difficult for parents to hold jobs — about 1 percent of all poor children. But now 55 percent of the disabilities it covers are fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation, where the diagnosis is less clear-cut. More than 1.2 million children across America — a full 8 percent of all low-income children — are now enrolled in S.S.I. as disabled, at an annual cost of more than $9 billion.

That is a burden on taxpayers, of course, but it can be even worse for children whose families have a huge stake in their failing in school. Those kids may never recover: a 2009 study found that nearly two-thirds of these children make the transition at age 18 into S.S.I. for the adult disabled. They may never hold a job in their entire lives and are condemned to a life of poverty on the dole — and that’s the outcome of a program intended to fight poverty.

There’s no doubt that some families with seriously disabled children receive a lifeline from S.S.I. But the bottom line is that we shouldn’t try to fight poverty with a program that sometimes perpetuates it.

A local school district official, Melanie Stevens, puts it this way: “The greatest challenge we face as educators is how to break that dependency on government. In second grade, they have a dream. In seventh grade, they have a plan.”

There’s a danger in drawing too firm conclusions about an issue — fighting poverty — that is as complex as human beings themselves. I’m no expert on domestic poverty. But for me, a tentative lesson from the field is that while we need safety nets, the focus should be instead on creating opportunity — and, still more difficult, on creating an environment that leads people to seize opportunities.

To see what that might mean, I tagged along with Save the Children, the aid group we tend to think of as active in Sudan or Somalia. It’s also in the opportunity business right here in the United States, in places like the mobile home of Britny Hurley — and it provides a model of what does work.

Ms. Hurley, 19, is amiable and speaks quickly with a strong hill accent, so that at times I had trouble understanding her. Ms. Hurley says that she was raped by a family member when she was 12, and that another family member then introduced her to narcotics. She became an addict, she says, mostly to prescription painkillers that are widely trafficked here.

Equipped with a crackling intelligence, Ms. Hurley once aspired to be a doctor. But her addictions and a rebellious nature got her kicked out of high school, and at 16 she became engaged to a boyfriend and soon had his baby.

Yet there are ways of breaking this cycle. That’s what Save the Children is doing here, working with children while they’re still malleable, and it’s an approach that should be a centerpiece of America’s antipoverty program. Almost anytime the question is poverty, the answer is children.

Save the Children trains community members to make home visits to at-risk moms like Ms. Hurley, and help nurture the skills they need in the world’s toughest job: parenting. These visits begin in pregnancy and continue until the child is 3 years old.

I followed Courtney Trent, 22, one of these early childhood coordinators, as she visited a series of houses. She encourages the mothers (and the fathers, if they’re around) to read to the children, tell stories, talk to them, hug them. If the parents can’t read, then Ms. Trent encourages them to flip the pages on picture books and talk about what they see.

Ms. Trent brings a few books on each visit, and takes back the ones she had left the previous time. Many of the homes she visits don’t own a single children’s book.

She sat on the floor in Ms. Hurley’s living room, pulled a book out of her bag, and encouraged her to read to her 20-month-old son, Landon. Ms. Hurley said that she was never read to as a child, but she was determined to change the pattern.

“I just want him to go to school,” she said of Landon. “I want him to go to college and get out of this place.” Ms. Hurley said she was clean of drugs, working full time at a Wendy’s, and hoping to go back to school to become a nurse. I’d bet on her — and on Landon.

“When kids come to us through this program and come here, we can see a big difference,” Ron Combs, the principal at Lyndon B. Johnson Elementary School here, told me. “They’re really ready to go. Otherwise, we have kids so far behind that they struggle to catch up.

“By second or third grade, you have a pretty good feeling about who’s going to drop out,” he added.

A group of teachers were in the room, and they all nodded. Wayne Sizemore, director of special education in Breathitt County, puts it this way: “The earlier we can get them, the better. It’s like building a foundation for a house.”

I don’t want to suggest that America’s antipoverty programs are a total failure. On the contrary, they are making a significant difference. Nearly all homes here in the Appalachian hill country now have electricity and running water, and people aren’t starving.

Our political system has created a particularly robust safety net for the elderly, focused on Social Security and Medicare — because the elderly vote. This safety net has brought down the poverty rate among the elderly from about 35 percent in 1959 to under 9 percent today.

Because kids don’t have a political voice, they have been neglected — and have replaced the elderly as the most impoverished age group in our country. Today, 22 percent of children live below the poverty line.

Of American families living in poverty today, 8 out of 10 have air-conditioning, and a majority have a washing machine and dryer. Nearly all have microwave ovens. What they don’t have is hope. You see it here in the town of Jackson, in the teenage girls hanging out by the bridge over the north fork of the Kentucky River, seeking to trade their bodies for prescription painkillers or methamphetamines.

A growing body of careful research suggests that the most effective strategy is to work early on children and education, and to try to encourage and sustain marriage. Bravo to Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio for backing a landmark initiative to add one-eighth of 1 percent to the local sales tax to finance a prekindergarten program. Early interventions are not a silver bullet, and even programs that succeed as experiments often fall short when scaled up. But we end up paying for poverty one way or another, and early childhood education is far cheaper than adult incarceration. I hope that the budget negotiations in Washington may offer us a chance to take money from S.S.I. and invest in early childhood initiatives instead.

One reason antipoverty initiatives don’t get traction in America is that the issue is simply invisible.

“People don’t want to talk about poverty in America,” Mark Shriver, who runs the domestic programs of Save the Children, noted as we drove through Kentucky. “We talk more about poverty in Africa than we do about poverty in America.”

Indeed, in the 2012 election campaign, poverty was barely mentioned. A study by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal watchdog organization, found substantive discussion of poverty in just 0.2 percent of campaign news reports.

Look, there are no magic wands, and helping people is hard. One woman I met, Anastasia McCormick, told me that her $500 car had just broken down and she had to walk two miles each way to her job at a pizza restaurant. That’s going to get harder because she’s pregnant with twins, due in April.

At some point, Ms. McCormick won’t be able to hold that job anymore, and then she’ll have trouble paying the bills. She has rented a washer and dryer, but she’s behind in payments, and they may soon be hauled back. “I got a ‘discontinue’ notice on the electric,” she added, “but you get a month to pay up.” Life is like that for her, a roller coaster partly of her own making.

I don’t want to write anybody off, but I admit that efforts to help Ms. McCormick may end with a mixed record. But those twin boys she’s carrying? There’s time to transform their lives, and they — and millions like them — should be a national priority. They’re too small to fail.

The kids can’t vote, and probably their parents either don’t vote or have been brainwashed (see Mr. Blow above).  It’s not a happy picture…

You may have heard that there are going to be 20 women in the Senate next year. I’ve been trying to figure out what that means.

Well, it means one-fifth. Whoop-di-do.

Still, up to now there have only been 39 women senators in all of American history. In 2001, the entire female caucus published a book about their experiences called “Nine and Counting.”

So I say, look on the bright side. In the House, 78 women were just elected. True, that’s still under 20 percent. Nevertheless, when it comes to the proportion of women in the lower chamber of its national legislature, next year the United States is almost certainly going to soar past the United Arab Emirates and possibly even Indonesia.

Feel free to blame the Republicans. After the elections, the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, pointed out that next session most of the Democratic members will be something other than white men. The Democrats named Representative Nita Lowey of New York the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, the chamber’s historic Alpha Dog Central. Meanwhile, over on the Republican side, Speaker John Boehner announced a list of new committee chairs that was entirely, um, pale male. After the ensuing outcry, he stuck Representative Candice Miller of Michigan in a vacant top post on the House Administration Committee, a panel she had never served on.

“In her new post, Candice will provide the leadership needed to keep operating costs down, save taxpayer dollars, and help lawmakers use new technology to better engage with their constituents,” said Boehner.

Having any committee chairmanship is better than not having one. But I believe I speak on behalf of many American women when I say: oh good grief.

But let’s cheerfully return to the fact that there are going to be more women in Congress. What does it mean? These days, the answers are mainly about interpersonal relations than any particular issue. “It’s not that they’re going to agree on everything,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. “I think in some ways, it will be about: Will they talk to each other and work with each other on some things and at least be able to communicate with each other?”

She’s right, and while sociability is a pretty low bar, this is the Washington in which everyone complains that bipartisan dinner parties are a thing of the past. The Senate women most definitely dine together. Regularly, in the Capitol, in a room named after the late Strom Thurmond, an infamous pincher of ladies’ bottoms.

“I know, the irony,” said Olympia Snowe, Republican from Maine.

But about the issues. There are plenty of veterans who remember the days when women banded together in bipartisan battles on behalf of their sex. Lowey pointed to a fight to get the National Institutes of Health to study women as well as men when it did clinical trials. (“Even the lab rats were male.”)

Now, not so much. Barely at all, as a matter of fact. The House women’s caucus did hold some hearings on the question of pay parity, but it never took a position on what to do to reduce the wage gap between male and female workers, since the Democratic and Republican co-chairs don’t agree on actual bill proposals.

One of the reasons is the dwindling band of moderate, pro-choice Republican women. Diversity is always a good thing — if you’ve got to have a Tea Party, I’d rather not have an all-male one. But a female lawmaker who opposes giving poor women access to family planning services is not really playing for the team.

In the Senate, the small band of Republican women has included influential moderates like Snowe; Susan Collins, also of Maine; and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who was forced to run as a write-in when a Tea Party candidate swiped the Republican nomination. “Any time I’ve been successful I’ve had a woman Republican helping me on the other side of the aisle,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

The other day Gillibrand proudly noted that every woman in the Senate had supported an amendment to the defense bill she’d sponsored, despite Republican opposition. In the current session, she said, “I think it’s the first thing we all voted on.”

The amendment would expand treatment for the autistic children of members of the military. Really, folks, you would not think rallying around that one would be all that hard. But once again, we’re going to celebrate the clearing of a bar rather than pointing out that it’s kind of low.

And all but one of the current 17 women voted in favor of ratifying the United Nations treaty on the disabled. Although the Senate being the Senate, the treaty failed.


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