Mitch Pearlstein, Founder, Center of the
Family breakdown leads to
disastrous social problems
A Civic Caucus
Review of Minnesota’s Public
Interview December 4, 2015
Family fragmentation is
the overwhelming social disaster of our time in this country and
the root cause of society's problems, according to Center of the
American Experiment (CAE) Founder and Senior Fellow Mitch
Pearlstein. He notes that nationally, 30 percent of white
babies, 50 percent of Hispanic babies and 70 percent of African
American babies are born out of wedlock. In Minneapolis and St.
Paul and Ramsey and Hennepin Counties, the out-of-wedlock
percentage for African American babies is in the mid-80s. He
argues that as long as that trend continues, the achievement gap
between whites and African Americans will, in most cases, never
Pearlstein is an advocate of
private-school choice, believing that private-school education,
especially religious-school education, would work best for many
at-risk kids. He is optimistic about the chances in upcoming
Minnesota legislative sessions for education savings accounts,
scholarships or tax credits that could be used for private
He asserts that Minnesota's civic
infrastructure leans to the left and that most civic
institutions here don't take up the cultural and moral questions
he considers vital. He says a number of people on the left agree
with some of the issues he raises, but they don't want to say so
publicly. He argues that our political and civic system,
including the party caucus system, is structured in a way that
Making more men, particularly minority
men, marriageable could help attack the problem of family
fragmentation, Pearlstein believes. He notes the importance of a
decent education and believes apprenticeships could lead to
opportunities for young people to learn a skill and earn an
income. That, in turn, could lead to more marriage and more kids
growing up in two-parent families.
Mitch Pearlstein is
founder and, and at the time of this interview, president of
Center of the American Experiment (CAE), a Minnesota-based,
nonpartisan, tax-exempt, public policy and education institution
founded in 1990. CAE brings conservative and free-market ideas
to bear on the hardest problems facing Minnesota and the nation.
After 25 years as president, Pearlstein recently stepped down
and was named "Founder and American Experiment Senior Fellow," a
post in which he will continue writing and speaking full-time
about education, family and other issues.
Before his 1990 return to the Twin
Cities, Pearlstein served for two years during the Reagan and
first Bush administrations in the U.S. Department of Education.
He held three positions there, including director of outreach
for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
Just prior to his federal service in
Washington, Pearlstein spent four years as an editorial writer
and columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he
focused on foreign and national affairs.
He also has served as special
assistant for policy and communications to Minnesota Gov. Al
Quie, assistant to University of Minnesota President C. Peter
Magrath, research fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of
Public Affairs, director of public information at Binghamton
University (New York), reporter for Binghamton's The Sun
Bulletin, and a columnist for CityBusiness and
Twin Cities Business Monthly.
A former adjunct professor of public
administration at Hamline University in St. Paul, Pearlstein
earned his Ph.D. in educational administration, with an emphasis
on higher education policy, at the University of Minnesota. He
did his undergraduate work in political science at Binghamton
Caucus is currently undertaking a review of
the quality of Minnesota's past,
present and future public policy process for anticipating,
defining and resolving major public problems.
interviewed Center of the American Experiment's (CAE's) Mitch
Pearlstein to learn more about CAE's role in the state's policy
process and to get his assessment of how well Minnesota's policy
process is working today.
Both conference-table and kitchen-table conversations are
essential. According to
Mitch Pearlstein of Center of the American Experiment (CAE), a
conference-table conversation might include public officials,
business people, foundations and community leaders. It would
likely consist of talk about budgets and rules, policies and
laws, and, perhaps, racism. He said those are "fine
conversations," but they don't deal with some of the issues
people routinely talk about in "kitchen-table" conversations,
which can take place in kitchens, restaurants or other places.
"There," he said, "you also talk about religion, motivation and
family fragmentation. I would argue that those are closer to the
mark than the conference-table conversations, though both are
essential." He asserted that conference-table conversations
simply don't touch the kinds of issues he finds quite important.
The focus of civic infrastructure in
this community is almost entirely on policy, not on culture.
"Policy is essential; it is not sufficient," Pearlstein said.
CAE focuses on both, he said.
Family fragmentation is the
overwhelming social disaster of our time in this country.
Pearlstein continued by saying the breakdown of the family is a
root cause of society's problems. "I'm struck, not surprised, by
how reluctant people are to discuss family breakdown or family
fragmentation," Pearlstein said. "People don't want to be
He offered statistics on the
percentage of babies born out of wedlock nationally: 30 percent
of white babies, 50 percent of Hispanic babies and 70 percent of
African American babies. Overall, nationally, 40 percent of all
babies and 50 percent of babies born to young people are born
outside of marriage. And he noted that in Minneapolis and St.
Paul and Ramsey and Hennepin Counties, the out-of-wedlock
percentage for African American babies is in the mid-80s.
"Whatever issue we're talking about,
be it poverty, inequality, education, or crime, it's impossible
to understand and deal adequately with those issues unless we
recognize issues of family fragmentation," he said. "How in the
world do we expect to close or narrow achievement gaps with
numbers like that? Except in rare instances, it's impossible,
not just difficult, to have black kids catch up with white
Many people are stuck
socio-economically or at least feel stuck. Pearlstein said
this will cause more demands to be put on government here and
across the country, which is not good news for a conservative.
"The degree to which we ignore family breakdown in that equation
is stunning," he said.
When the employer-led
was examining income disparities
around the Twin Cities region, Pearlstein said, it looked at
household income. White households have more working adults than
African American or Hispanic households, he said, which alone
will lead to a fair amount of inequality.
Private-school education, especially
religious-school education, would work best for many kids "with
holes in their hearts." Pearlstein described kids "with
holes in their hearts" as children living without their fathers
or without their mothers. He believes, and has for many years,
that many of these children would do best in private, especially
He said the late John Brandl, Humphrey
School professor and Minnesota legislator, shared that belief
and worked on behalf of vouchers that would allow families to
choose private school options for their children. Pearlstein is
optimistic about the chances in upcoming Minnesota legislative
sessions for education savings accounts, scholarships or tax
credits that could be used for private schools.He said House
Speaker Kurt Daudt supports proposals like these.
Pearlstein said he doesn't know of any
professors in the schools of education in the Twin Cities who
have publicly supported private-school choice. But, he said,
polls show that a majority of Americans support private-school
choice, with African Americans being the most supportive group.
He noted that many education policy
nonprofits in Minnesota, like
"Many of the things I write," he said,
"people on the left agree with. They just don't want to say so
Besides CAE, only one other
organization in the Twin Cities focuses on questions of family
fragmentation: the Minnesota Family Council. But, Pearlstein
said, because the Family Council takes positions on issues like
abortion and same-sex marriage, people in the middle and on the
left don't want to listen to it. By default, then, CAE has been
the one putting the issues of family fragmentation on many
tables. CAE has never taken a position on abortion.
Many of the people having great
problems aren't steeped in Minnesota's civic culture and
Pearlstein pointed out that
today Minnesota is more diverse and multicultural than before.
Many newcomers and people suffering from economic and social
problems don't know about our history and salutary culture and
how to participate in the civic and political process.
In Minnesota's civic infrastructure,
everything leans left. Pearlstein indicated he's talking
about policy groups, universities and other groups. "I think
that is unfortunate," he said. CAE tries to work through
coalitions. He called the Citizens League a "magnificent
operation," saying that it tries not to be ideological. But
CAE's job is to be ideological, he said. Overall, he
asserted, most civic institutions here don't take up some of the
questions that are vital.
Why is it that achievement gaps and
income gaps between whites and blacks are greater here than
elsewhere? "I don't think we're any more bigoted here than
other places," Pearlstein said.
He noted that in the 1940s, 1950s and
1960s, the Twin Cities had a small black community. Over the
last 25 years-plus, he said, many blacks came here trying to
escape Detroit, Chicago and other places where life was more
difficult and more dangerous. And some people came here to
commit crime and to receive welfare benefits.
He argued that has left the Twin
Cities with a disproportionately high number of relatively new
arrivals in the African American community and a
disproportionately small number of solidly middle-class African
Americans compared to other places.
"I've never had this argument
refuted," he said. "But we don't want to deal with this. The
institutions in town don't want to acknowledge this."
Conservative views of the importance
of family breakdown get stuck in the policy cycle in this
community. An interviewer commented that Pearlstein's
arguing that the data on family breakdown is compelling, but the
interviewer said somehow the data don't translate into
definition of the problem or into policy proposals. He asked
Pearlstein whether the problem was with the policy process or
with an inability to come up with proposals. Pearlstein
responded that there is definitely a problem in coming up with
specific proposals, but the policy process is also problematic.
People who are successful refuse to
preach what they practice. Pearlstein said successful people
know what it takes to have a solid family and career, but they
don't tell kids to finish high school and get married
before they have babies. "We don't have institutions saying
that," he said. An interviewer commented that ever since the
1960s, it's been illegitimate to tell other people what to do.
Making more men marriageable could
help attack the problem of family fragmentation. An
interviewer asked what small step the Legislature could take to
attack the problem of family fragmentation. Pearlstein responded
that he's seeking to make more men marriageable. He said a lot
of men who used to be able to support a family can't do so
anymore because of the departure of good-paying jobs for
low-skilled people out of urban areas and, in some cases, out of
"How do we make more men, particularly
minority men, urban people, more marriageable?" he asked. "I go
back to education. They are closely tied together. We have to
make sure kids have a decent education, so they have a chance to
earn a living and be marriageable. A lot of women don't want
anything to do with these guys, not just because they don't have
skills and good jobs. They can be abusive in disproportionate
numbers, as well as alcoholics and drug addicts."
He said one of his emphases is on
apprenticeships as a way of better tying together questions of
education and family. "If young people have opportunities to
learn a skill and to earn an income, presumably that would lead
to more marriage and more kids growing up in two-parent
families," he said.
Do we need a body that's confronting
the organizations of Minnesota's civic infrastructure,
challenging them to come up with specific proposals that are
helpful? In response to an interviewer asking that question,
Pearlstein said he didn't think he'd listen to an organization
like that telling him what to do. "I listen to my board and to a
good idea," he said, noting that it would be helpful if the
Star Tribune's editorial page raised more forcefully some of
the issues he's raising. "I'm not suggesting that everyone in
town agrees with me," he said, "but it'd be nice if those who do
would speak up."
He recalled an interview he once had
with then-U.S. Department of Education Secretary William
Bennett. In his final question, Pearlstein asked Bennett how one
can change the very culture of society. He said Bennett
responded, "Say what you believe in your heart to be true and
say it over and over again."
Should voluntary year-round schooling
for at-risk kids be considered? An interviewer recalled the
Oct. 30, 2015,
interview with Growth & Justice President Dane Smith.
Smith had discussed the number of young men who are growing up
deficient in so many ways in terms of dealing with life. The
interviewer said Smith did not disagree with the interviewer's
assertion that voluntary year-round schooling, all day, six days
a week, would be beneficial for at-risk kids. The interviewer
said this would be a way of doing what needs to be done for
these kids that's not being done elsewhere. He asked Pearlstein
for his thoughts about the proposal.
Pearlstein responded that he's for any
number of options. He noted that he is chair of the board of OAK
(Opportunity for All Kids), an organization promoting school
choice. "We all support chartered schools," he said. "But
charter supporters don't support us. I'm willing to try just
The interviewer asked what stands in
the way of trying, of experimenting. Pearlstein said in some
instances, it is Education Minnesota, the state teachers union,
and in some instances, it's money.
He noted that Richard McKenzie, a
now-retired economist at the University of California, Irvine,
who grew up in an orphanage in North Carolina, has studied the
graduates of his orphanage. Pearlstein said McKenzie found that
people who had been at the orphanage, "The Home," were doing
better by every measure than the rest of the population:
education, income, marriage stability, etc. McKenzie wrote a
book asserting that orphanages are a good idea in some
"A lot of people beat up on that
idea," Pearlstein said. Orphanages were different back then, he
asserted, when many kids were there because their parents had no
money or a parent had died. Now the kids who might go to an
orphanage are kids who've gone through foster-care situations,
who might be emotionally damaged.
"We talk all the time about how we
don't invest in our kids, but that's not true," he said. "We
spend more money on education than just about any place."
Our political and civic system is
structured in a way that doesn't work. Several interviewers
had questions and comments about how the political system lacks
financial integrity, responds only to special interests and
prevents public officials from speaking publicly about proposed
policies or projects. "We're structured in such a way that it
doesn't seem to work," Pearlstein responded. "We have a caucus
system in which the only people who can fully participate are
graduate students who don't have to get up in morning." He noted
that nothing is stopping people from writing opinion pieces in
the newspaper and said we need people running for office who
will speak the truth as they truly see it.
An interviewer commented that we need
a way to get an issue on the table and then get the broader
society to take ownership of doing something about that issue.
Another interviewer remarked that
knowledge precedes ownership and that it's astounding what 18-,
19- and 20-year-olds don't know. He said their lack of knowledge
is worse now than it was 30 years ago. In response, Pearlstein
noted that CAE has just started the Young Leadership Council for
conservatively inclined professionals under the age of 40.
He concluded by saying that the
cultural and moral issues people talk about in private need to
be raised in conference-table conversations that include public
officials, business and community leaders, and other
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,