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July 6 2017

Poverty and Behavior: Three Cheers for Marriage and Work

by Charlotte Hays

The American left traditionally tries to address the issue of poverty through social programs. But George Will argues in a must-read article that the most important causes of poverty are behavioral.

He cites the example of the Bronx, one of New York's five boroughs, which was in the 1930s "a city without a slum" (the words are from Daniel Patrick Moynihan).

The Bronx built commercial housing even during the Great Depression. In the twentieth century, however, the Bronx became poor and dysfunctional.  Moynihan described the change as “an Armageddonic collapse that I do not believe has its equal in the history of urbanization.” So what happened?

Will writes:

Of the several causes of descent, there and elsewhere, into the intergenerational transmission of poverty, one was paramount: family disintegration. Some causes of this remain unclear, but something now seems indisputable: Among today’s young adults, the “success sequence” is insurance against poverty. The evidence is in “The Millennial Success Sequence,” published by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies and written by Wendy Wang of the IFS and W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and AEI.

The success sequence, previously suggested in research by, among others, Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, is this: First get at least a high-school diploma, then get a job, then get married, and only then have children. Wang and Wilcox, focusing on millennials ages 28 to 34, the oldest members of the nation’s largest generation, have found that only 3 percent who follow this sequence are poor.

A comparably stunning 55 percent of this age cohort have had children before marriage. Only 25 percent of the youngest baby boomers (those born between 1957 and 1964) did that. Eighty-six percent of the Wang-Wilcox millennials who put “marriage before the baby carriage” have family incomes in the middle or top third of incomes. Forty-seven percent who did not follow the sequence are in the bottom third.

Oddly enough, romanticizing marriage beyond reasonable expectations may be a contributing factor to the breakdown of that institution:

One problem today, Wilcox says, is the “soul-mate model of marriage,” a self-centered approach that regards marriage primarily as an opportunity for personal growth and fulfillment rather than as a way to form a family. Another problem is that some of the intelligentsia see the success sequence as middle-class norms to be disparaged for being middle-class norms.

And as AEI social scientist Charles Murray says, too many of the successful classes, who followed the success sequence, do not preach what they practice, preferring “ecumenical niceness” to being judgmental. In healthy societies, basic values and social arrangements are not much thought about. They are “of course” matters expressing what sociologists call a society’s “world-taken-for-granted.” They have, however, changed since President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed “unconditional” war on poverty. This word suggested a fallacious assumption: Poverty persisted only because of hitherto weak government resolve regarding the essence of war — marshalling material resources.
 

Rather than government programs, then, an at least partial antidote to poverty is values. In addition to marriage,  a work ethic is another obvious weapon in the fight against poverty. Many of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs had the inadvertent effect of harming both family unity and the work ethic.

That is why Alabama's reinstatement of work requirements for receiving food stamps are so important in the battle against bad habits and over use of programs. As Ian Tuttle puts it with admirable succinctness :

It turns out that work requirements . . . work.

Tuttle goes on:

According to the Alabama Department of Human Resources, between January 1 and May 1, 13 counties in the Yellowhammer State saw their food-stamp rolls drop by a combined 85 percent. The reason? At the beginning of the year, those 13 counties joined the rest of the state in ending a years-long exemption from work requirements for ABAWDs — able-bodied adults without dependents — participating in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

On New Year’s Day, there were 5,538 ABAWD enrollees across the 13 formerly exempted counties; by the beginning of May, there were 831. That mirrors a sharp statewide decline, which began on January 1, 2016, when the same exemption ended in Alabama’s 54 other counties. At the beginning of last year, the state had 49,940 able-bodied adults without dependents on its SNAP rolls; by May 1 of this year, that number was 7,483 — a drop of 85 percent. Since 1996, when Bill Clinton and Republican majorities in Congress aimed to “end welfare as we know it,” food stamps have come with a catch for certain beneficiaries: Able-bodied SNAP participants can receive no more than three months of benefits in a 36-month period, unless they are working or participating in an approved training program for at least 20 hours a week.

Our friends on the left persistently claim that work requirements are "harsh." That amounts to saying that promoting a work ethic, which like marriage is helpful in escaping poverty, is just so unfair. 

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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