Part A Identifying the at-risk children
There are numerous factors that may contribute to a young man’s decision to join a gang, and these factors often vary case by case, but four factors in particular appear to have a high correlation among gang members in Bermuda (as confirmed by a number of Bermuda social workers, teachers and police officers, and consistent with similar findings in the UK and US):
Young men who join gangs in Bermuda are likely to
(i) be from low-income, single-parent homes,
(ii) have received minimal or no economic or emotional support from their fathers (absentee fathers),
(iii) have done poorly in school (often because parents failed to participate in their education or learning disorders were not properly diagnosed) and
(iv) often have had minimal community involvement (sports teams, church, social clubs).
With little sense of belonging to family or community, these young men fulfill that need through gang membership.
Part B Policy Objectives to reduce the number of children at-risk of joining gangs
Using the above four correlatives as a starting point, we can identify the following objectives of a Bermuda Policy to reduce the number of children at-risk of joining gangs:
- The Policy should discourage men from fathering children if they are not prepared to provide the financial and emotional support needed to properly raise that child;
- The Policy should provide a viable legal means to ensure that fathers provide the necessary financial support for their children;
- The Policy should provide incentives for fathers to spend more time with their children and to increase the child’s community involvement;
- The Policy should seek to increase the upward mobility of low-income families, in particular by improving public education and providing financial assistance for post-secondary education.
- The Policy should provide incentives for parents to learn more about how they can be better parents and become more involved in their children’s education;
Since Bermuda’s national debt is significant, and therefore Government is unlikely to enact a policy that requires substantial government funding, each potential program should be evaluated on the basis of both how much it costs and how effectively it will reduce the four factors that strongly correlate with at-risk children joining gangs.
3. Some suggested programs
Program 1 Program to reduce the problem of low income, single-parent homes with minimal father input at minimal cost to the government
The frequency and depth of the first two correlatives (boys who grow up in low-income, single-parent homes with minimal father input) can be dramatically reduced by implementing a program that (i) assists single moms to collect delinquent child-support payments from fathers who contribute neither money nor time toward their children’s upbringing and (ii) encourages these fathers to spend more time with their children.
Under our present legal system, a mother seeking to obtain child-support payments must go to Court to obtain a judgment ordering the father to make those payments. When the father simply refuses to pay, the mother then must go back to court for a garnishment order that must be served upon the father’s employer ordering that company to deduct support payments from the father’s salary. This may sound like a good system—and sometimes it works—but far too often these fathers simply change jobs, thereby forcing the mom to start all over again. With limited time and finances the mother often has little choice but to give up her quest for child support. The result is a mother who has to work longer hours to pay the rent and put food on the table, thereby leaving even less time for her to properly nurture her child by (i) instilling in him proper moral principles, (ii) providing help and guidance with his education (particularly in the early formative years) and (iii) giving him a sense of belonging that comes from strong family and community involvement.
We can improve this inefficient and ineffective system by implementing a program under which government (i) helps single moms obtain the required court order against delinquent fathers and (ii) registers the garnishment order on a computerized national registry that constitutes continuous notice to all Bermuda employers. Under this system the father will no longer be able to avoid payment merely by changing jobs because registration on the national registry will constitute continuous notice to all Bermuda employers, both at the time of registration and in the future.
It works like this. Prior to paying salaries, each company will be required to enter the social security number of all their employees into a computerized national registry system. This may sound like a large task, but it really just requires a one-time input of employees’ social security numbers, and thereafter it takes only one computer click to receive a computerized response. Any moneys owing under a garnishment order will be deducted from the delinquent father’s pay-cheque and remitted to the single mom. The program will not only provide much needed assistance to struggling moms, but it will dramatically lower government expenditures on housing and other social assistance programs, thereby lowering the national debt.
But there is even more that we can do, and it is this second part of the program that is most important. Once it becomes clear to fathers that they can’t escape responsibility for child-support payments, the program can allow for a negotiated reduction in payments in exchange for the father spending more time with his children. For instance, the original garnishment order can be for an amount equal to, say, 30% of the father’s salary, with provision that it be lowered to a lesser amount, say, 20% if the father agrees to certain conditions such as (i) spending at least 8 hours a week helping his children with their homework and playing with them at a community centre (like the Sandys 360 Centre or the Aquarium) or coaching their soccer or cricket teams and (ii) taking a parenting course to learn how to best nurture his children and help them with their educational endeavors.
What are the benefits of such a program? The implementation of this National Garnishment Registration System will (i) increase the income level of single-parent families, (ii) reduce the need for single-parent moms to work a second job, thereby increasing the time mothers can spend nurturing their children and helping them with homework, (iii) increase the time fathers spend nurturing their children and helping them with homework, (iv) increase parent and child involvement in community activities, and (v) discourage men from fathering children when they are not prepared to provide the necessary financial and emotional support. These five outcomes should dramatically reduce the number of at-risk children becoming involved with gangs, and the program can be implemented with minimal cost to the government. Consequently, on a cost/benefit basis, this program ranks extremely high.
Program 2 Combining food and shelter programs with family education programs
Bermuda spends tens of millions of dollars each year on social programs to help the disadvantaged. These programs are important. They provide the social safety net that allows struggling Bermuda families to pay their rent and put food on the table. But the ugly truth is that many of these families are immersed in generational dysfunction that they don’t have the tools to fix. They were born into dysfunction and they will give birth and raise their children in dysfunction because that’s the only pool of experience from which they can draw upon to deal with the problems they face.
The Bermuda government, charities and social agencies have numerous programs to help these families develop the life-skills needed to turn their lives around, but unfortunately many of these families don’t take advantage of these programs. In many cases they are so immersed in dysfunction that they can’t see that these programs can help them and their children build a better future. In other words, from their perspective, there is no incentive to take these life-skills programs and so they don’t—or if they do, they do so only half-heartedly.
The Bermuda government can change this. They can go through every single social assistance program they fund and, wherever possible, restructure it to provide incentives for education and life-skills improvements. And they can do all this without spending one dollar more than they presently do.
For instance, the Bermuda Housing Corporation provides rent subsidies to needy families so that they can pay their rent, and in return we as a society receive the satisfaction that we take care of our needy. But we can obtain a much bigger social return on our money simply by making part of the rent subsidy dependent on the recipients taking any number of life-skills programs or high school completion courses.
For instance, instead of paying an unemployed, single-parent mom $1,500 a month in rent subsidy, the government can pay her only $1,000 but offer to pay another $500 if she enrols in a parenting-skills class that teaches the importance of reading to your child every day, providing him with nourishing, affordable meals and singing songs or telling them stories to help them develop their vocabulary and imagination. (The list of skills is long and varied and can extend right through the teen years.)
Each of these subsidy programs can meaningfully help people improve their lives provided they are structured properly. The key to the success of these integrated social programs is to find out what each recipient needs to do to change his or her life around, and then to use a meaningful part of the financial subsidy as an incentive for them to take the steps needed to make that change. The increased cost to government is zero. The increased benefit to both the individual and society is unlimited. Consequently, on a cost benefit basis, this program ranks extremely high.
Program 3. Decreasing housing costs by changing the way housing allowances are structured
The largest single expense to Bermudian families is housing, and so one of the most effective ways to help struggling families is to reduce their rent. Fortunately, there is a very simply way to lower rents in Bermuda—change the way corporate housing allowances are structured so that they no longer artificially increase rents.
At present, the typical employee housing allowance is structured in a way that removes or reduces the recipient’s incentive to bargain for a lower rent. For lack of a better term, I will call these allowances the “You Lose What You Don’t Use” housing allowances and I will illustrate the problem by example.
A landlord is asking $6,000/month for a three-bedroom house. There are three persons interested in renting, one of which has a housing allowance for, say, $8,000/month. Two of the potential renters increase their offers to $6,300 and $6,500, respectively, but the subsidized employee simply shuts them all out by offering $8,000. Since the employee would forfeit back to his employer any amount of the allowance not used for rent, he has no vested economic incentive to negotiate a rent for an amount less than his $8,000 limit. The result—artificially inflated rents that flow right through the entire housing market. Everyone pays higher rents.
The problem gets worse. Not only did “You Lose What You Don’t Use” housing allowances artificially inflate rents when housing was scarce, but they are slowing down the decrease in rents now that housing is abundant. Again, an example to illustrate the point. A friend of mine receives a $10,000/month housing allowance. His landlord, aware that rents have fallen, offered to reduce his rent below $10,000 so not to lose a good tenant. My friend (proving himself an exceptionally good tenant) turned down the offer. “It’s not necessary,” he told his landlord, “I have a housing allowance that covers the full rent as it is.”
The solution is an easy one—structure housing allowances so that they give employees a vested economic interest in lower rents.
If companies granted only non-refundable housing allowances (we give you the housing allowance in cash and you decide how you spend it) instead of “You Lose What You Don’t Use” housing allowances, the employee would then have an incentive to negotiate in good faith for the lowest rent he could get. The result would be more affordable housing throughout the Bermuda market (which not only helps out low-income families but also reduces the living costs of other Bermudians such as those in the hospitality and tourism industries which decreases Bermuda tourism/retail costs and makes us more competitive with other jurisdictions).
The increased cost to government for this program is zero while the increased benefit to low-income families and the rest of Bermuda is substantial. Consequently, on a cost benefit basis, this program ranks extremely high. The one caveat to this program is that lower rents will help the have-nots but will reduce rents for landlords, many of whom are in overstretched financial positions. As such, the policy requires a decision to be made—who do we most want to help: the struggling poor or the struggling middle and upper classes?
Program 4 Improving education by increasing parental involvement
Study after study has consistently shown that the number one factor in determining how well a child will do in school is not income or social status (it doesn’t matter if you are black, white, Asian, Hispanic, rich or poor). Active parental involvement in a child’s education is the most accurate predictor of a student’s achievement in school—attending school regularly, earning higher grades, passing their classes, graduating senior school and going on to obtain a postsecondary education. I’ve yet to meet a teacher that didn’t wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Children will perform significantly better when their parents are actively involved in their education. So what can be done to encourage parents to do more?
See “Proposal to Facilitate Effective Parental Involvement in Children’s Education,” under Education, which advocates the implementation of a three-part program to increase the number one determinant in children’s education success.
Program 5 Replacing bad teachers with good
In the Bermuda public school system we have good teachers, mediocre teachers and bad teachers. With training, some of these mediocre teachers may become good teachers, but no amount of training can convert bad teachers into good.
For the sake of Bermudian children in our public school system, the problem of bad teachers has to be fixed. Studies have shown that if a child has a bad teacher for just one year, it will take that child one and a half years to catch up. And if the child has a bad teacher for a second year, he not only is unlikely to ever catch up, but he is also much more likely to drop out before completing high school and his chances of joining a gang and becoming involved in criminal activities increase substantially.
Bad teaching not only destroys lives, it perpetuates the cycle of poverty and dysfunction that prevents lower to middle class mobility—a key component to social stability, lower crime and more equitable income distribution between the races. In other words, bad teaching prevents all the good things that good public education can achieve.
See “Replacing Bad Teachers for Good” under Education, which suggests a program to remove bad teachers from the Bermuda public school system, replaces them with good teachers, and finds jobs for the bad teahcers in the private sector.