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What Joe Biden was trying to say about record players, explained

This was supposed to be about preschool and neonatal home visits.

Biden, at the center podium, speaks with his hands up, while Sanders to his right and Warren to his left look down at their podiums.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on stage during the Democratic presidential debate at Texas Southern University’s Health and PE Center on September 12, 2019, in Houston, Texas.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Asked about the subject of slavery and reparations at Thursday night’s Democratic debate, former Vice President Joe Biden delivered an answer that confused many people, particularly his call to parents to “make sure you have the record player on at night.”

Some of that criticism is simply ideological — many progressives have come around to a pro-reparations viewpoint, and Biden has not. He holds a much more traditional take on challenging disadvantage, advocating for investment in the education system.

But some of the criticism reflects genuine confusion about a genuinely confusing answer. Biden did ramble, but his substantive points spoke to specific elements of his education program that are designed to ameliorate the effects of disadvantages facing poor children. It’s fairly well-established that low-income children start kindergarten already behind their more affluent peers. Whether or not you think these programs do enough to address the legacy of anti-black discrimination, they’re a pretty good idea. And whether or not you agree with Biden’s broad ideological worldview, he’s just not a very clear messenger.

What Joe Biden said

Biden’s answer from the outset was awkward because the question put him in an awkward position. Reparations have become an in-vogue position for progressives and some 2020 Democrats have embraced the idea, but it remains very unpopular with the electorate at large.

Biden has opposed reparations throughout his career, and part of his electability pitch is that he is steering clear of new unpopular left-wing ideas. But most African Americans do support the idea, and the Biden constituency includes many black voters. So rather than trash the reparations concept, he pivoted to talking about educational opportunity, which messaging testing by a progressive political group has found to be a highly motivating issue for many black voters.

This is an inherently difficult pivot to execute, and Biden didn’t execute it gracefully. He quickly acknowledged that structural racism is a thing, but then said we should “talk about education” and outlined his proposal to increase federal spending on high-poverty Title I schools.

Well, they have to deal with the — look, there’s institutional segregation in this country. From the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining banks, making sure we are in a position where — look, you talk about education. I propose is we take the very poor schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise to the $60,000 level.

That was clumsy, but it’s the context you should understand for the rest of the pitch, which is all about Biden’s education plan. In addition to raising teacher pay, Biden wants to increase the quantity of social services available in schools to help support classroom teachers — something teachers unions have long touted as the real answer to addressing the problems of high poverty schools. And Biden wants a universal preschool program with a real instructional emphasis, which he distinguishes from a mere child care program.

Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy. The teachers are — I’m married to a teacher, my deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. Make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3, 4 and 5-year-olds go to school. Not day care, school.

Last but by no means least, Biden touts a home visitation program that was initiated under the Affordable Care Act and that his education platform calls for expanding. The way this policy is described in Biden’s official plan is that “health and child development specialists make consistent, scheduled visits to help parents through the critical early stage of parenting. Families may receive coaching on preventive health and prenatal practices, learn how to care for their babies and about important child development milestones and behaviors, receive breastfeeding support, get connected to employment and child care, and receive general support in navigating the often-stressful early stages of parenthood.”

The “record player” comment in the debate was part of a slightly garbled version of that proposal, mashed-up with a reference to disputed research about the so-called “word gap.”

Social workers help parents deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help, they don’t know what to play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — make sure that kids hear words, a kid coming from a very poor school — a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time we get there.

This 4 million words factoid was widely circulated for years, but it’s not at all clear that it’s actually true. What does seem pretty clear is that the home visit programs Biden touted are effective in helping families and children and that expanding funding for them could be a good way to help disadvantaged kids.

Home visit programs help — modestly

The home visits initiative happens to have been one of the signature elements of the Obama administration’s push for evidence-based policy, so they’ve been subjected to unusually rigorous levels of program evaluation.

The upshot, as summarized by Child Trends, is that the evidence-based home visit programs the federal government funds have a positive impact.

Research on early childhood models has demonstrated impacts for children and families across different outcome areas. There are many different home visiting models, serving children of different ages or targeting different outcomes (e.g., health, education, child abuse, employment, etc.). Some models target only one outcome while others try to improve a wide range of outcomes. Improving many outcomes versus one is not necessarily better or worse, in terms of effectiveness. Most evidence-based home visiting models (i.e., those with evidence of effectiveness) demonstrate favorable impacts on child development, school readiness, and positive, supportive parenting practices. Evidence-based home visiting models have shown positive long-term impacts on children in the long term, via increased school readiness, reduced child maltreatment, and reduced lifetime arrests and convictions. Evidence-based home visiting programs also show positive impacts for families, such as increased parental income and increased percentages of parents who live together.

The bad news about home visits, as Heather Sandstrom writes for Health Affairs, is that in most cases “effect sizes overall are small.” One possible reason for this, as detailed in the official Department of Health and Human Services evaluation is that program compliance proved to be a bit challenging in practice.

“Families in MIHOPE participated in home visiting for eight months on average, which is less than expected by the four evidence-based models in the study,” they report and “more disadvantaged families tended to participate for a shorter time than other families.”

In other words, families tended to drop out of the program sooner than they were supposed to, and the most-disadvantaged families were most likely to drop out early. Even a good program will have limited effectiveness if people — especially the people most likely to need it — don’t fully use it.

If Biden were a hard-core policy wonk, he would’ve said that the evaluations of this program are pretty good, but their helpfulness is limited by compliance, and so he wants to put more resources into it to try to improve on both the depth and breadth of their reach. But he’s Biden, so instead he referenced an outdated and tenuously related piece of research.

Joe Biden is who we thought he was

Biden’s answer brought forward furious denunciations on Twitter from progressive writers who long before Thursday night’s debate didn’t like his ideas or policy agenda.

The denouncers are not wrong. Biden is a slightly old-fashioned meliorist liberal who does not believe in reparations or in overhauling the basic structure of the American economy. He believes instead that high-income people should pay slightly higher taxes and those higher taxes should fund somewhat more generous public services — especially public services targeted at the neediest. This is a different idea from the more expansive social democratic agenda of Sen. Bernie Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and also a different idea from the explicit focus on racial injustice that’s become more popular on the left in recent years.

At the same time, Biden is not wrong that this formula is the one that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama rode to victory. By espousing it, he is the heir to Obama’s ideological legacy. And this was, for Obama, at least in part a Biden-style electability argument.

As he told Ta-Nehisi Coates in a 2016 interview, “I have much more confidence in my ability, or any president or any leader’s ability, to mobilize the American people around a multiyear, multibillion-dollar investment to help every child in poverty in this country than I am in being able to mobilize the country around providing a benefit specific to African Americans as a consequence of slavery and Jim Crow.”

This is the reality that’s put Biden in the lead of the 2016 primary. It’s not just a warm fuzzy afterglow of the Obama years, it’s the fact that Biden agreed with Obama ideologically in a way that his critics mostly don’t.

At the same time, there’s a clear sense in which Biden is no Obama. His answer was much less eloquent than Obama’s answer. He’s been a legendary gaffe machine for his entire career, and at the age of 76 his tendency to garble what he’s saying strikes some people as extremely alarming.

He’s also just obviously more of an old-school back-slapping relational politician than a detail-oriented policy wonk. He knows broadly speaking where he stands, but he’s not prepared to give you chapter and verse on exactly what the program is or how it works. Speaking about his idea to bring more social supports into schools he references his wives’ personal experience as teachers but doesn’t use the jargon term “wraparound services” that’s used in policy circles to describe this idea.

But far from a piercingly revelatory moment about Biden the incident fundamentally just underscores what’s obvious about Biden: He’s old, he’s never been known for precise speaking, and he’s more politically moderate than the other top contenders in the field.

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