Saturday, November 23, 2013

(Most) Girls Don't Want to be Engineers

My son with his plastic tools
Who said this, and when: "Ad agencies are predominantly men, and the men in ads are generally heroic and funny, while women are sidekicks or home-makers."
Was that...Gloria Steinem, 1970?
Was that...Betty Friedan, 1969?

How about this gripe: "I thought back to my childhood with the princesses and the ponies and wondered why construction toys and math and science kits are for boys."

Was that...Sheryl Sandberg, on why she leans in? Was this Tina Fey in "30 Rock"?

No, this is the anachronistic grouse of the makers of the currently viral YouTube commercial for GoldieBlox building toy, kits for girls to build things. The ad shows three gleeful girls watching their elaborate Rube Goldberg contraption knock over stuff, turn on water and generally make a mess rivaling the classic "Cat in the Hat." Their ad is destined for even greater fame, as the result of a New York Times business section front-page story today.

All the feminists are posting the link to their Facebook pages. They're tweeting how innovative this ad is, with its girls wearing hardhats and cool new lyrics to the Beastie Boys' song "Girls." Hey, I'm a feminist, and I think girls should be encouraged in math and sciences; I want girls with the proclivity to become engineers.  And I have no problem with GoldieBlox.

But I doubt girls will play with them.  Parents will definitely purchase and push the toy, and since sales is the goal of any entrepreneurial endeavor, GoldieBlox will make some money. That's great; I want every start-up to succeed.

But in five years, lots of dusty GoldieBlox will lay in thrift shops, barely used.

Modern feminism, the one that sent many more women back to the workforce, is forty
years old. Since that first feminist wave, toy makers have marketed chemistry sets and tool kits to girls. Aisles in toy stores were re-named from "Boys'" and "Girls'" toys to generic "dolls" and "sports." But...take a stroll down any Toys R Us, and you won't find lots of boys dawdling among the toy kitchens, or girls ogling the trucks.

Serious boy with toy gun that has an orange tip
I've got a raft of books on my shelf--more than a dozen--describing the difference between boys' and girls' brain hard-wiring. No matter what idealists would desire, male and female are created differently. Little girls want to play with dollies and set up dining-room vignettes (like my daughters did, without my coaching); little boys, like my son, want to push toy lawnmowers, "shoot" with anything handy, and wrap ropes around furniture. Arriving as he did as the third child after two sisters, our Danny's first gun was a Barbie doll, held by the head with a barrel of a pair of legs. Our first, Sarah, made her "Shabbat table" tableaux using erasers and other "food" scavenged from my desk drawer.

Makers of GoldieBlox, yours may be a noble sentiment, but it's not just because girls don't have their own build-it kits that they stay away from engineering. Note that in 1985, women earned 37% of computer science degrees, and now they earn half that, according to the NY Times piece. Girls just want to have fun; can't we just laud their natural preferences, and stop implying their choices' inferiority by insisting they really want something else?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Government as Savior: Feed the Hungry, Slim the Obese

Pic from a 1949 'Life Magazine' article on obesity
It's ironic: the poorest Americans, the ones on government food stamps, tend to be the fattest. Which calls for another government program to get them slim.

Reading a fascinating series of articles in the Washington Post by Eli Saslow about poverty and obesity, I was struck by the underlying assumptions fueling many expensive, publicly-funded efforts to "save" the obese poor.

Everyone wants to spare people illness and pain. Everyone wants to enhance longevity and add to quality of life. No one wants to pay for medical services for poor people if their illnesses can be avoided. In fact, with the laughable state of Obamacare in its first roll-out weeks, it appears no one wants to pay for governmentally-required health plans.

But we're paying for a lot of health-oriented programs, anyway. One Post article describes ignorance and incapacity in nutritious food preparation of residents in Hidalgo County, Texas, near the Mexican border. Forty percent of the population there relies on federal programs to pay for comestibles, a percentage nearly the same as the area's 38% obesity rate. Local food stores don't offer many vegetables, but do a brisk business in Cheetos smothered in melted cheese. Is it greedy grocers who are pumping pounds onto hapless neighbors, or, could it be that if these outlets offered veggies, neighbors would still opt for Cheetos?

slide show with the Washington Post series offers a rather disheartening, though honest answer. One photo shows a portly woman guffawing in a nutrition class when the teacher suggests serving smaller portions. "Yeah, well, try telling that to my husband!" she retorts.

In Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel boasts city efforts brought a 21% decline in "healthy food deserts" in the last two years, obesity remains high. Childhood obesity rates are notably higher than the national average; overall, 27% of Chicagoans are obese, 34% overweight, and 38% of "normal" BMI. Reporting on a study that made national projections, the Chicago ABC affiliate last year headlined, "Half of Illinoisans to be Obese by 2030."

A conundrum that health experts ponder is that food stamp recipients--whose need for sustenance is great enough for the government to step in--are disproportionately obese. As I frequently note, more and more non-gluttony causes of obesity are surfacing. Offering vegetables to the poor obese, even with education explaining how and why to cook them, can't affect most causes being discovered. It's condescending and silly to think that government-programs for classes, gyms and markets with produce can have much effect on the poor's collective girth.

That relates to the "government will provide" mentality inculcated in the public by Obama's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the values-free new moniker for Food Stamps.

Under Obama-administration direction, taxpayer-funded "outreach" workers infiltrate low-income pockets to sign-up as many candidates as possible. One illuminating Washington Post article follows a recruiter as she approaches residents of a shabby central Florida trailer park, pursuing her quota of 150 seniors per month. Her method is to bring piles of free food to attract a crowd, and then lure them to enroll, using a set of SNAP-provided talking points crafted to silence listener's doubts.

If a prospect hesitates because of welfare stigma, the recruiter responds, "You worked hard and the taxes you paid helped create SNAP."

If a candidate's embarrassed, the recruiter soothes, "Everyone needs help now and then." If accepting denotes failure, the recruiter just normalizes the experience: "Lots of people, young and old, are having financial difficulties." The recruiter might add that with the step-up in loading people to the dole, fellow recipients likely live next door. In Florida, the setting for the story, food stamp enrollment soared in just the last 5 years from 1.45 million to 3.35 million beneficiaries.

The whole effort riles me, not only because of the increase in federal tax burden, but because stifling moral objections scoots a vulnerable population down the chute to permanent dependence. Of course, the presently-empowered political party gains supporters when more voters rely on them rather than on family, church or self-starting entrepreneurship. It's a smart move for Democrats to ease in as many new SNAP dependents as possible, because they form the voting bloc guaranteeing support for politicians who guard their entitlements. Challengers who would rein in government largess become the bad guys grabbing food away from the hungry.

Clever strategies cajole low-income elders with salesmanship and persuasion. The stigma of ripping stamps or paper slips from a coupon book is gone. Now, recipients swipe a cute little card called an EBT, for Electronic Benefits Transfer. Looks just like a credit card, but you never get the bill.

In an astonishing reversal of right and wrong, recruiters claim that taking federal assistance is actually altruistic, because it brings money into the local economy and thereby creates jobs. Despite the appeal to civic responsibility, seniors are reticent to sign up, and only 38% of eligible Floridians have, a rate half that of other age groups. "That means about 300,000 people over 60 are not getting their benefits, and at least $381 million in available federal money isn’t coming into the state," spins the Post article. Mr. Low-Income Senior, it's your duty  to, well, snap it up.

The article describes the moral dilemma of one older Florida resident who prided himself throughout his life in being one of society's "makers" rather than "takers." He resists shifting to a new demoralizing status that confirms his failure, but the implication is that sooner or later, he will succumb.

While certainly some assistance to people in need is important, the search-and-SNAP effort brings two kinds of harm. First is replacing initiative with entitlement. And the second is the intrusion of public agencies' tentacles into the crevices of families' lives, all the way to their dinner plates. Cheetos smothered in melted cheese are awful as daily fare, but the issue isn't lack of broccoli, but the desire and energy to create vegetable-laden dishes--that children eschew anyway. Poor single parents, especially, are exhausted, and they'll never pay six dollars for salad when the Cheetos their kids crave cost just two. And once again, obesity can be driven by chemical, genetic or environmental causes that fruit and veggies can't cure.

 Government-as-savior's response is to do something. Subsidize greens for poor people. Install basketball hoops in every cul-de-sac. Send nutrition educators to every low-income home. Help these poor people!

Concerned legislators began throwing money at obesity ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, and even with Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign, it seems obesity outruns it all. Mrs. Obama seems to see the futility in her efforts; last week she officially turned her focus from pummeling childhood obesity to encouraging college. Her new cause is a more constructive direction, because the college message says "you can make something of yourself." Much better than "we can make less of you."