There are two basic approaches to dealing with the social ills confronting America’s poor.
Liberals by and large want to spend more money to solve the problem of poverty, while conservatives see poverty and social breakdown as a crisis with cultural roots.
In a column headlined “For Poorer and Richer,” the New York Times’ Ross Douthat dealt addresses these two ways of looking at the crisis. Douthat compared the prescriptions for urban poverty as set forth in Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart and Robert Putnam’s new book Our Kids. Douthat writes:
Murray belongs to the libertarian right, Putnam to the communitarian left, so Putnam is more hopeful that economic policy can address the problems he describes. But “Our Kids” is attuned to culture’s feedback loops, and it offers grist for social conservatives who suspect it would take a cultural counterrevolution to bring back the stable working class families of an earlier America.
That idea makes some people on the left angry. As they see it, it’s money and only money that Murray’s Fishtown and Putnam’s hometown lack and need. And it’s unchecked capitalism and Republican stinginess, not the sexual revolution, that has devastated working-class society over the last few decades. Fight poverty, redistribute wealth, and you’ll revive family and community — it’s as simple as that.
If you read IWF’s book Lean Together: An Agenda for Smarter Government, Stronger Communities, and More Opportunity for Women, you’ll see that we support a social safety net—as long as it is temporary help rather than a lifelong or intergenerational trap—but that we basically believe that a great deal of the ills in our society have cultural roots, prime among them the breakdown of the family.
George Will had a great column yesterday on this issue, pegged to ruminating about the Moynihan report ("The Negro Family: The Case for National Action"), which was issued fifty years ago.
Moynihan had come to recognize that the family is the “primary transmitter of the social capital essential for self-reliance and betterment.” He was alarmed that the illegitimacy rate among blacks then was 23.6 percent (today it is 72.3 percent). Will writes:
We still are far from fully fathoming all that has caused the social regression about which Moynihan was prescient. There has been what he called "iatrogenic government," an iatrogenic ailment being one caused by a physician or medicine: Some welfare policies provided perverse incentives for absent fathers. But the longer Moynihan lived, the more he believed that culture controls more than incentives do.
"The role of social science," he would write, "lies not in the formulation of social policy, but in the measurement of its results." Not in postulating what will work but in demonstrating what does work. And, increasingly, what does not work.
Many of the policies that don't work stem from the refusal of our liberal elites to recognize that there are cultural causes to the our social crisis. They are afraid to be “judgmental” about the bad habits of the under class (Charles Murray has encouraged being judgmental as a way to help people who are not flourishing in society because of their own choices). Douthat writes:
But recognizing that culture shapes behavior and that moral frameworks matter doesn’t require thundering denunciations of the moral choices of the poor.
Instead, our upper class should be judged first — for being too solipsistic to recognize that its present ideal of “safe” permissiveness works (sort of) only for the privileged, and for failing to take any moral responsibility (in the schools it runs, the mass entertainments it produces, the social agenda it favors) for the effects of permissiveness on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents turning off the television or firewalling the porn.
All of this has particular relevance right now in the light of the deaths and subsequent protests the tragic deaths of of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Nobody as far as I can tell commented on the family structures in which Martin and Brown grew to undisciplined and ultimately tragic young adulthood: it was obvious from news reports that neither was brought up in a married, two-biological parent household.
Beyond that, however, I could not ascertain from news reports if either young man had spent a significant portion of childhood in a household led by his two parents who were married at the time. The press didn’t seem to regard this as worth noticing (or perhaps this aspect of the story was ignored because it cut against the racism narrative?). It is highly likely, given a household in which to develop more stable habits, however, both these young men would be still alive.