Guide Poor Reason: Culture Still Doesn’t Explain Poverty

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There is little evidence that we can convince people to marry by enrolling them in marriage-education or counseling programs. In some low-income minority communities, marriage is now so rare that one wonders what, if anything, could ever reverse the tide. Making tax and benefit programs more marriage-friendly may help, but the cost will be large and the benefits will almost certainly be small.

Nonetheless, government programs should at least send the right message. Nongovernmental organizations, including those that are faith-based, also have a role to play. A much shrewder, if less obvious, solution would be to redouble efforts to prevent early childbearing. As I have argued before in these pages, the recent emphasis on marriage in public debates about welfare and taxes has missed a crucial point-that the problem is not purely a lack of marriage.

More than 90 percent of women have been married by the age of 45 although the racial differences are large. The real problem is that women are having babies at a very young age, usually before they are even old enough to marry. Half of all childbearing outside marriage begins in the teenage years. They should instead be encouraged to finish school, get a job, and defer having a child until they have found a lifetime partner with whom to share the responsibilities of parenting.

The good news about marriage is that it appears to be making a small comeback. After years in which the proportion of children being raised in a two-parent family declined, the trend leveled off and reversed slightly in the late s. Although it is not clear what is driving this more favorable trend, I suspect that the new messages embedded in welfare reform are having an effect. Even if these public messages begin to turn the tide, it will be a long time before out-of-wedlock childbearing drops substantially.

One-third of all children in America are born outside of marriage, and the figure for African-American children now stands at a staggering two-thirds. Single parents will be with us for at least the short term. We should insist that they work, but we should also provide child care or early childhood education for their children. This will relieve single parents of an expense that their low-wage jobs make unaffordable.

And if done right, it will help to break the cycle of poverty as well. Policies that support work and marriage are not just an antidote to short-term poverty.

The argument for an obligation to assist

The differences in attitudes toward work and marriage between rich and poor have been steadily increasing, with disturbing implications for the children of the poor. Consider trends in employment. Historically, the poor have worked long hours to compensate for their lack of skills and low pay, and leisure has been the province of the rich.

But, as Gary Burtless at the Brookings Institution has documented, in recent decades people at the bottom of the income distribution have worked fewer hours than those at the top. Since , total hours of work have increased significantly among the entire working-age population, mainly because more women have entered the labor force.

But the increases have been largest for those at the top, while the number of hours has actually dropped for those at the bottom. Hours of work increased slightly among men at the top but fell by one-third among adult men in the bottom income quintile. These changes in hours worked are exacerbating preexisting income gaps between rich and poor. Changes in hourly rates of pay over this period have also favored the more advantaged, but this growing salary gap has been greatly amplified by a growing hours gap. The story surrounding marriage is similar. Not only are fewer people marrying than in the past, but the trends have affected the haves and have-nots quite differently.

Several years ago, I studied the family environments of American children under the age of six. Most of the children growing up in these circumstances will likely end up repeating the cycle of poverty. Many will do poorly in school, become unwed parents, and will have difficulty supporting themselves as adults. While some children will overcome the odds, their prospects are seriously compromised. At the same time as more children were being born into these high-risk families, another large and growing segment was being raised in very privileged circumstances-that is, in families where the mother is a college graduate, is married, and had her first child in her mid-twenties or later.

What is Poverty?

These families have on average four times as much income as a poverty-level family. Similarly, when David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks at Harvard University began looking at marriage and childbearing patterns among women with varying levels of education, they were surprised to find how much the trends had diverged. For women aged 25 to 34 in the bottom third of the education distribution, the percentage of single parents had risen from 7 percent in the mid s to nearly 20 percent today. For comparably aged women in the top third of the education distribution, the percentages had barely changed from the 5 percent of the s.

Both well-educated and less well-educated women are delaying marriage and in the case of many African-American women not marrying at all. The difference is that the less well-educated are not delaying childbearing, while the better-educated are. The result is very high rates of childbearing outside of marriage among less-educated women and low rates among more advantaged women. Where does this evidence lead? It suggests we will become even more a divided nation of haves and havenots unless strong measures are undertaken to change these poverty-inducing behaviors at the bottom and ward off the damage they inflict on the next generation.

These measures should not deny assistance to the poor, but should link assistance to a change in behavior. Policies that are inconsistent with this premise must be discarded. The EITC is an income supplement provided to low-income families with working parents. And it has a powerful record of encouraging work.

Single mothers, the group most affected by recent expansions in the EITC, have moved into the work force in droves. Their employment rate increased from 57 percent to 74 percent between and If a single mother marries another low-wage worker, she will lose most of this benefit. Another perverse incentive is health insurance. As long as a mother is on welfare, she and her children are automatically eligible for Medicaid. But if she goes to work, she often loses coverage for herself and may also lose coverage for her children, depending on her income and the state in which she resides.

Finishing the job should be a high priority. Finding affordable child care is another stumbling block for low-income parents. Some subsidies are available, and some mothers have friends and relatives who can care for their children. But not everyone is so fortunate. Whatever assistance is provided must be both generous enough and sufficiently tied to desirable behavior to be effective. The program has been carefully evaluated by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation in New York City, which found that when work-incentive programs are conditioned on full-time work, employment, earnings, and total income increase.

Some observers claim that a program like SSP could never be enacted in the United States, given our more conservative politics and less generous social welfare system. But in the early s the state of Minnesota experimented with a similar, though less generous, program. When the state of Wisconsin required that its welfare recipients work as a condition of aid, and offered to provide jobs to those unable to find them, most people were able to land jobs on their own.

The state backed up its work requirement with subsidized child care and health care. Among families receiving welfare, caseloads in the state declined by 76 percent between and A push from the welfare system along with a strong economy in the late s produced a dramatic increase in employment and earnings among single mothers, the group most likely to wind up on welfare, and a drop in child poverty.

It turns out that the number of involuntarily unemployed is much smaller than commonly believed, although that number clearly waxes and wanes with the condition of the economy. The Aid to Families with Dependent Children AFDC system was created in the s with the explicit purpose of enabling single parents to care for children in their own homes. In those days, most of the women on AFDC were widows, and almost all children were born inside marriage.

By the s, this was no longer the case. Most modern-day single mothers on welfare have never been married. They typically have their first baby as a teenager and go onto welfare shortly thereafter.

The argument for an obligation to assist

In the meantime, the vast majority of middle-class mothers, including those with young children, now work and pay the taxes that help to support these stay-at-home moms. No wonder welfare is unpopular with the public. Egged on by Republicans in Congress, he signed the tough welfare-reform bill of Congress and the Bush administration are now attempting to reauthorize the law, and once again the debate is about whether, or how much, recipients should be required to work and whether resources should be devoted to encouraging marriage.

Many scholars continue to argue that marriage is an unrealistic goal for many of the poor. They point to the lack of employed men in low-income neighborhoods and cite the significant number that are in prison. But they also fail to stress the importance of finishing school and getting a steady job before taking on the responsibility of raising a child.

Although a good job is no substitute for a second parent, it at least ensures that the child will not grow up in poverty. With the availability of birth control and legal abortions having made unplanned parenthood unnecessary, it is hard to understand why so many women are having babies that they cannot support. As evidence of the benefits to children of growing up in a two-parent family has strengthened, liberals have become less likely to question the value of marriage. But many liberals still argue that marriage is no cure for poverty.

About this, they are wrong. Adam Thomas, now a doctoral student at Harvard, and I recently conducted a statistical exercise in which we identified all of the single mothers interviewed by the Census Bureau and then matched them up with unmarried men of the same race, education, and age. If enough marriages had taken place to return the incidence of single parenting to levels, and the incomes of the men and women involved were combined, the poverty rate among children in would have fallen by about a third.

For certain subgroups of African-American women we did find a shortage of eligible men, some of which may be due to the difficulty the Census Bureau has in locating these men and some of which is due to the large number who have died at a young age or been incarcerated.

The reasons for the decline in marriage remain unclear. Economic factors, such as the poor earnings prospects of less-educated men, cannot explain more than a modest portion of the rise in single parenting. Cultural changes have likely played a larger role. Acceptance of unwed childbearing has increased dramatically among the youngest generation. Behaviors that had their roots in conditions fostered by slavery and were later exacerbated by racial discrimination, the welfare system, and the poor inner-city job market made single parenting the most viable option in many communities.

Now, through a process of cultural conditioning, these behaviors have become endemic and self-sustaining. Though marriage has a number of important benefits, especially for children, it is not presently clear what can be done to encourage it. There is little evidence that we can convince people to marry by enrolling them in marriage-education or counseling programs. In some low-income minority communities, marriage is now so rare that one wonders what, if anything, could ever reverse the tide. Making tax and benefit programs more marriage-friendly may help, but the cost will be large and the benefits will almost certainly be small.

Nonetheless, government programs should at least send the right message. Nongovernmental organizations, including those that are faith-based, also have a role to play. A much shrewder, if less obvious, solution would be to redouble efforts to prevent early childbearing. As I have argued before in these pages, the recent emphasis on marriage in public debates about welfare and taxes has missed a crucial point-that the problem is not purely a lack of marriage. More than 90 percent of women have been married by the age of 45 although the racial differences are large.

The real problem is that women are having babies at a very young age, usually before they are even old enough to marry. Half of all childbearing outside marriage begins in the teenage years. They should instead be encouraged to finish school, get a job, and defer having a child until they have found a lifetime partner with whom to share the responsibilities of parenting. The good news about marriage is that it appears to be making a small comeback.

After years in which the proportion of children being raised in a two-parent family declined, the trend leveled off and reversed slightly in the late s. Although it is not clear what is driving this more favorable trend, I suspect that the new messages embedded in welfare reform are having an effect.


  • Reflections of God’s Work.
  • Mountaintops Fall a Rowan Adventure.
  • London Fashion Designs of 1800.
  • It Was Always You!

Even if these public messages begin to turn the tide, it will be a long time before out-of-wedlock childbearing drops substantially. One-third of all children in America are born outside of marriage, and the figure for African-American children now stands at a staggering two-thirds. Single parents will be with us for at least the short term. We should insist that they work, but we should also provide child care or early childhood education for their children.

This will relieve single parents of an expense that their low-wage jobs make unaffordable. And if done right, it will help to break the cycle of poverty as well. Policies that support work and marriage are not just an antidote to short-term poverty. The differences in attitudes toward work and marriage between rich and poor have been steadily increasing, with disturbing implications for the children of the poor. Consider trends in employment. Historically, the poor have worked long hours to compensate for their lack of skills and low pay, and leisure has been the province of the rich.

But, as Gary Burtless at the Brookings Institution has documented, in recent decades people at the bottom of the income distribution have worked fewer hours than those at the top. Since , total hours of work have increased significantly among the entire working-age population, mainly because more women have entered the labor force. But the increases have been largest for those at the top, while the number of hours has actually dropped for those at the bottom.

Hours of work increased slightly among men at the top but fell by one-third among adult men in the bottom income quintile. These changes in hours worked are exacerbating preexisting income gaps between rich and poor. Changes in hourly rates of pay over this period have also favored the more advantaged, but this growing salary gap has been greatly amplified by a growing hours gap.

The story surrounding marriage is similar. Not only are fewer people marrying than in the past, but the trends have affected the haves and have-nots quite differently. So all of us living comfortably in industrialized nations should be prepared to change our lifestyles in order to protect the environment and reduce the chances that climate-related catastrophes will harm ourselves and others.

Ethics and Poverty

We should use more energy from sources other than fossil fuels, use less air-conditioning and less heat, fly and drive less, and eat less meat, for meat production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Those are things that we ought to start doing now, for our own sake, for the sake of the global poor, and for the sake of future generations everywhere. There is a different kind of objection to my argument for aid that must also be taken seriously. This is that to set so high a standard is likely to be counterproductive. Is it true that the standard set by our argument is so high as to be counterproductive?

There is not much evidence to go by, but discussions of the argument with students and others have led me to think it might be. On the other hand the conventionally accepted standard—a few coins in a collection tin when one is waved under your nose—is obviously far too low. What level should we advocate? This is therefore an entirely realistic amount, and one that people could easily give with no sacrifice—and indeed, often with a personal gain, since there are many psychological studies showing that those who give are happier than those who do not.

I do not really know if the scale I propose is the one that will, if widely advocated, achieve the greatest total amount donated. If everyone with abundance were to contribute to the effort to reduce extreme poverty and all that goes with it, the amount each of us would need to give would be quite modest. This surprising outcome—that if everyone with abundance were to contribute to the effort to reduce extreme poverty and all that goes with it, the amount each of us would need to give would be quite modest— shows that the argument with which this essay began is demanding only because so few of those with the ability to help the poor are doing anything significant to help them.

We do not need to transfer half, or a quarter, or even a tenth, of the wealth of the rich to the poor. If few are helping, those few have to cut very deep before they get to the point at which giving more would involve sacrificing something of comparable moral significance to the life saved by their gift. But if we all, or even most of us, gave according to the scale I have suggested, none of us would have to give up much. That is why this is a suitable standard for public advocacy. What we need to do is change our public ethics so that for anyone who can afford to buy luxuries—and even a bottle of water is a luxury if there is safe drinking water available free—giving something significant to those in extreme poverty becomes an elementary part of what it is to live an ethical life.

There are many reasons for that. Some of these are psychological reasons rather than ethical issues. But a lot of the things that people think of as somehow making a difference, I would say only make a psychological difference, not a real ethical difference. So, for instance, you all agreed that we should help the child in the pond, and probably you all would help the child in the pond if you were to find yourself in that situation. Psychologists have studied a variety of different phenomena that are relevant to when a person will help a stranger.

This makes a huge difference. Please fill it in. Hand it in. You can help her. You can help them. That would mean that she would become quite wealthy by Malawian standards. Another factor is, in the example of the pond there was only you, remember; it was up to you to save the child. We know there are other people in the world who could help at least as well as we could. In fact, obviously there are some people who could help much better than we could.


  1. Poverty in the United States!
  2. How To Start on Teach First!
  3. Does aid really do any good??
  4. A Rill from the Town Pump!
  5. Bring Your Legs with You (Pitt Drue Heinz Lit Prize);
  6. What about Bill Gates? Actually he is helping.


    • The Carpenters Tale (The Renfrew Files Book 1).
    • Working but still doing it tough: The reality of modern poverty.
    • Fifty Acres and a Poodle: A Story of Love, Livestock, and Finding Myself on a Farm!

    We need to try and change these variables. We need to change the cultural standard so that giving becomes more normal. I hope that this will make it easier for others to go on and pledge, because they can see they are not alone in doing this. Some of them also have contributed photos of themselves and a line or two as to why this is significant and why it makes a difference. That would be a really important change in our world today. That would make a really significant difference. We are very much focused on thinking about our interests in terms of how much money we have. But when we stop and think about it, none of us would really say that the most important thing in life is to have a big bank balance.

    That finding comes out again and again in the general well-being surveys that have been taken for many years in a large number of different countries. This has been done admittedly the study I am about to cite was a small one, and it would be good to have it replicated with people who have been given some money and asked if they want to make a donation to a charity.

    It seems that they reward us for being generous as well as doing those other pleasant things. Exactly why is an interesting question. No doubt it has something to do with the circumstance in which we evolved in societies where giving was something that enhanced our survival value in a community that required some sort of cooperation.

    Poverty in the United States

    It seems that the same mechanisms are there. In terms of the way we live our lives, we are likely to find involvement in these larger causes is actually rewarding and fulfilling, something that enables us to feel that our lives are more meaningful than they are if we are simply living for ourselves and thinking only about our own narrower self interest.

    So while giving to help the global poor may involve some financial sacrifice, we should not think of it as involving any sacrifice of our real interests, properly understood. On this issue of global poverty, therefore, ethics and self-interest are not as much at odds as one might at first imagine. There is, on the contrary, a considerable degree of harmony between them.

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