California Democratic Senator Kamala Harris has come under fire for her enforcement of anti-truancy laws — including threatening parents with incarceration — as San Francisco District Attorney and later her advocacy for toughening the same laws as California’s Attorney General.
I don’t need to review all of the criticism, which you can see all over social media, but I want to focus on one of the smartest critics, Current Affairs founder Nathan Robinson, who wrote a piece at The Guardian:
Harris looked at the problem of perpetual truancy and believed she ought to start locking up parents. A humane progressive looks at the problem and asks: why do absences actually occur? Truancy occurs disproportionately among children whose parents are poor and less-educated, and among children who don’t feel safe at school, who have to work or support their families, who have mental and physical health issues, and who are in unstable living situations.
Robinson and I probably agree about the basic nature of antisocial and deviant behaviors and crime — they are socially and biologically constructed. It’s best to try to tackle the root causes, and you shouldn’t try to personally destroy people who aren’t meeting social expectations in a variety of settings. Robinson and I are essentially Robert Sapolsky-pilled.
But there is a big difference between not demonizing human beings who are doing the wrong thing, and using social sanctions to help them improve their behavior. The former is just good ethics. The latter is often necessary, and good social policy. Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, for instance, is one of the world’s most successful cash transfer anti-poverty programs. But it also requires parents to make sure their kids go to school and get vaccinations in order to get the payments.
Some would complain that withholding cash payments as punishment for truancy is “blaming the victim” — that it unfairly puts the burden on the most marginal in society rather than realizing that they are simply not able to control their circumstances because of their lack of power. If I’m strawmanning this please let me know in the comments but I’ve heard a lot of these arguments and that’s pretty much how it goes.
But Bolsa Familia works. It has decreased poverty dramatically and increased school attendance. Incentives, when structured correctly, can change behaviors. Changing behaviors is a big part of improving peoples’ lives. It isn’t blaming the victim. It’s giving the victim the privilege of learning and adopting behaviors that completely change their circumstances. If you’re arguing that someone who is making bad decisions should not be encouraged or given incentives to change their behaviors to make better decisions, you’re the one denying them privileges. One of the most important interventions psychotherapists deploy is called cognitive behavioral therapy, which is based on helping people restructure their own thoughts to, among other things, change their own behavior.
The surprising thing about Harris’s anti-truancy crusade in San Francisco is that truancy went down and no one actually went to jail.
Harris’s initiative all but certainly reduced incarceration, because dropping out of school is the single biggest predictor of going to jail later in life.
Let’s return to Robinson’s argument, which is that “truancy occurs disproportionately among children whose parents are poor and less-educated, and among children who don’t feel safe at school, who have to work or support their families, who have mental and physical health issues, and who are in unstable living situations.”
He could re-write this paragraph about homicide laws, if he wanted to:
POLITICIAN looked at the problem of perpetual homicide and believed she ought to start locking up offenders. A humane progressive looks at the problem and asks: why do homicides actually occur? Homicide occurs disproportionately among children whose parents are poor and less-educated, and among children who don’t feel safe at school, who have to work or support their families, who have mental and physical health issues, and who are in unstable living situations.
(As a side note, I actually don’t know if it’s disproportionate, I’d have to look at the numbers. Sometimes I think the only statistical term the vast majority of op-ed writers know is “disproportionate,” but it doesn’t always apply!)
But that doesn’t mean we’d be wrong to enforce laws against homicide, because we need to have social sanctions that can change people’s behavior. (As another aside, Harris did ask why truancy occurs, which is why her office matched her threat of incarceration with additional services.)
Robinson would prefer that we were able to re-order society so that we could simply make parents and students more responsible and reduce truancy without deploying the threat of arrest. That’s a noble idea, but the choices before Harris were not A) Radically re-order society in ways that are not even clear (we don’t have a truancy silver bullet) or B) Use the prosecution powers she had to levy sanctions in order to create incentives for parents to be more involved in their kids’ lives.
She had A) Use the prosecution powers she had to levy sanctions in order to create incentives for parents to be more involved in their kids’ lives and B) Do nothing.
Harris chose A in San Francisco and it worked, and it worked with little cost because no one at the end of the day was prosecuted. Simply the threat of arrest was enough to get parents more involved in their kids’ lives.