Skip to comments.Poverty and Culture
Posted on 09/07/2006 6:11:54 PM PDT by Jibaholic
The primary cause of poverty in America today is the breakdown of breakdown of marriage. Or to put it in a somewhat more sophisticated formulation to forestall some rebuttals, the primary cause of poverty in America today is a breakdown in culture, in which out of wedlock childbirths are the most visible symptom.
The raw Census data show that the rate of poverty for single mothers is about five times as high as the rate of poverty for married households. But this is a crude analysis; it could be the case that there is some underlying reason that makes people both poor and single mothers. William Galston, the former advisor to President Clinton, has found that in order to avoid being poor you have to do three things: (1) graduate from high school, (2) wait until getting married to have children, and (3) wait until age 20 to have children. Only 8% of people who do those three things are poor, compared to 79% for those who do not(1).
When we think about poverty we tend to think about entrenched, generational poverty. But poverty statistics do not account for duration in poverty. The 8% poverty rate for people who do these three things includes families in which poverty is only temporary, such as when the father loses his job. It also includes unskilled immigrants, who are poor because they are starting out at the lowest rung possible. But while these immigrants may be poor, they made a free choice to come to America for its opportunity, and in all likelihood their grandchildren will be middle class - provided that the next generations also meet Galston's three conditions (see this article about African immigrants and marriage).
Racism and Poverty
Racism still exists, and it means that blacks really do have fewer opportunities than whites. Nevertheless, racism is only a minor cause of black poverty. Racism does not explain the failure to meet the three conditions laid out by William Galston. As Bill Cosby said in one of his famous speeches, "What white man made you write a record calling women bitches and hoes?"
Here are some concrete arguments against the theory that racism causes poverty. As the economist Thomas Sowell points out in his book Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality, blacks of West Indian descent make 94% of what whites make, compared to just 62% for blacks as a whole (Sowell, p77). Similarly, married black couples with college educations and dual incomes actually make slightly more than whites (Sowell, p52, 77). And college educated black women slightly out earn college educated white women (Sowell, p101)
Another historical example is the success of Japanese immigrants. Racism against the Japanese in the early 20th century and during the time leading up to WWII was probably worse than what blacks today face. Whites tried to pay Japanese lower wages, but as it became apparent that the Japanese worked harder for less money, businesses with more white workers faced much higher labor costs than business with more Japanese workers. This led to a bidding war for Japanese workers until the Japanese were getting the pay gap was slightly reversed (Sowell, p114). And despite having their property siezed during WWII, the Japanese were once again wealthier than whites shortly after the war ended.
Another example is the success of the "middleman minorities" such as Jewish and Korean shopkeepers in predominately black neighborhoods. Businessmen from other ethnic groups are actually at a disadvantage when dealing with a predominately black clientele. If racism caused poverty then you would at least expect blacks to do well in businesses that cater to other blacks. That fact that there are unfilled niches in black communities being filled by members of other ethnic groups shows that black culture does not provide the necessary entrepreneurial spirit.
Of course, you might blame the success of middleman minorities on racist laws in banking and practices such as "redlining" in which banks do not do business in black neighborhoods. This is an objection that cannot be sustained for a few reasons. The first is that money from blacks is just as green as money from whites - as wages for Japanese immigrants show, racists value money more than they value racism. Secondly, many immigrant groups have been discriminated against. They get around this by forming neighborhood associations in which local business owners pool money and distribute it to local neighborhood members who are starting or expanding a business. This is common practice among immigrant groups. Italian immigrants were particularly motivated. As new immigrants, they were frequently denied credit so they started their own bank, the Bank of Italy. It became so successful that it went mainstream and changed its name - to the Bank of America. Even if redlining is racist, this should not been an insurmountable obstacle to blacks.
Economics provides a better explanation for redlining. It costs just as much to administer a small loan as a large loan. The administration costs are paid for out of the interest rate on the loan, so small loans must charge higher interest rates than large loans. Add in the fact that the poor are worse credit risks, and interest rates in poor neighborhoods should be higher than in the suburbs. Laws that force uniform rates will simply cause banks to pull out of poor neighborhoods. This is another example of how price controls - laws that regulate price - harm those who they are intended to help (more about economics, including price controls, here).
The Job Mismatch Theory
Very few liberal sociologists would seriously argue that race is a primary factor holding back black people. The best example of this is the black Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson who has written a book called 'The Declining Significance of Race.' Instead, Wilson is the leading advocate of the job mismatch theory, which states that the loss of manufacturing jobs in the cities has resulted in inner city blacks having few available jobs.
There is a wealth of arguments against this theory. First, immigrants have been going to the same cities, finding work, and moving up the economic ladder. Secondly, a lack of jobs does not explain the higher high school dropout rate for blacks compared to whites or Asians, and of black males compared to black females. A better theory is that a culture of underachieving is preventing blacks from succeeding in both school and work. Thirdly, blacks in the 1940's underwent a Great Migration from the south to the north for economic opportunity. It is hard to argue that blacks in the present day cannot move twenty miles out of the inner cities.
Finally, job mismatch does explain a failure to meet the three standards (graduate high school, marry before having children, wait until age 20 to marry) that William Galston found in his research about avoiding poverty. His study points to economic success as a result of education and healthy life choices.
Job Mismatch and Out of Wedlock Childbirths
The final twist of the job mismatch theory attempts to take on William Galston's research. It argues that black men without jobs do not have the economic prospects needed to attract women - the unmarriageable men theory. However, men and women still have a biological urge to reproduce, so this happens outside of marriage.
There is a glimmer of truth to this theory. The rate of out of wedlock childbirths do change with the economy. The famous Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the first to notice this. But in the early 1960's something happened - out of wedlock childbirths started to skyrocket even while the economy improved. The slight influence of the economy was being overwhelmed by a new trend. The sudden divergence between out of wedlock childbirths and the economy was called the Moynihan Scissors (see a graph of the Moynihan Scissors here. Read an interview about this trend in which Moynihan describes how the Democrats "went into denial mode" here.)
Another data point is the Great Depression. Blacks suffered from the one-two punch of the Great Depression and segregation. This did cause out of wedlock childbirths to rise, but only slightly. They peaked at about 19%. By contrast, during the height of the 1990's economy, and with the benefit of the end of segregation, blacks had a 69% rate of out of wedlock childbirths (see a graph here). The conclusion is clear: economics matters, but not nearly as much as culture.
Immigrants are another reason why the job mismatch theory does not hold, because immigrants have similar economic opportunities (or lack thereof) as blacks and yet have much lower rates of out of wedlock childbirths. Robert Lerman and others have shown that immigrants in the same urban neighborhoods as blacks have lower rates of illegitimacy. (see The Marriage Problem by James Wilson for a fuller discussion that gets into the minutia of things like sex ratios and out of wedlock childbirths. Summary and review).
Another sociologist, Christopher Jencks, has found that the marriage rate for black men with steady jobs declined from 80% in 1960 to 66% in 1980. So it was not that black men wanted to marry but did not have the economic resources to attract a mate. Instead black men became less interested in marriage. This is further strengthened because studies of black women show that they value marriage and would like to marry. The unmarriageable men theory has it backwards. The reality is that black women want to marry but cannot find men who want to make the commitment. A culture change happened in the black community.
The Effects of Welfare
Liberal researchers initially denied that welfare affected poverty rates. There were two reasons for this. The first reason is that welfare benefits compared to inflation had been dropping even as caseloads and out of wedlock childbirths increased. However, when you compare all forms of assistance including food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid, then benefits did keep up with inflation.
The second objection is more challenging to the economic determinists. Some states have high benefits and other states have low benefits, yet there did not seem to be any correlation between the size of a state's benefit and its rate of out of wedlock childbirths. There is no economic response to this objection, but when you consider that culture also plays a role, the variation makes more sense. For example, states like Minnesota had high benefits because of their Lutheran (the religion among the majority population of Scandinavian immigrants that settled Minnesota) sense of charity. They also had low rates of out of wedlock childbirths because of their Lutheran sense of family. Other states had very different cultures with much higher rates of out of wedlock childbirths. Once you examine how women from within a culture make their decisions, you find that the incentive effects of welfare play a role in deterring marriage.
comparing single-parent families and average spending levels neglects the real issue: how attractive is welfare to a low-income unmarried woman in a given locality? When economist Mark Rosenzweig asked this question of women who are part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youtha panel study of people that has been going on since 1979he found that a 10 percent increase in welfare benefits made the chances that a poor young woman would have a baby out of wedlock before the age of 22 go up by 12 percent. And this was true for whites as well as blacks. Soon other scholars were confirming Rosenzweigs findings. Welfare made a difference.
From Why We Don't Marry by sociologist James Wilson.
Robert Moffitt researched the issue in 1992 and only found a weak correlation between welfare and out of wedlock childbirths. But faced with this research, and the research of economists Jeff Grogger and Stephen Bronars, he revisited the issue again in 1998. His more comprehensive analysis found a significant correlation in benefits (see page 147 of The Marriage Problem by James Wilson). Yet you still find books quoting his 1992 research instead of his 1998 research, such as 'Poverty in America' by John Iceland.
Out of Wedlock Childbirths and Social Maladies
Many researchers still deny the importance of out of wedlock childbirths. Discussing how people became poor is like crying over spilt milk. What they need is economic assistance. That should be the focus of our anti-poverty efforts. There are two problems with this approach. The first is that for a group of people who like to find and eliminate root causes, liberals became strangely silent when the root cause is the breakdown of traditional marriage. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If we wish to prevent poverty then we must address the issue.
The second problem is that out of wedlock childbirths cause more than poverty. They are the leading cause of just about every social malady you can think of, such as bad grades and dropping out of school, drug use and abuse, depression and problems with self-esteem, early sexual activity, and lower future earnings.
It used to be argued that these poor outcomes were the result of poverty itself, so that with enough assistence form the government, single mothers could avoid these problems. But the liberal sociologists Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur showed in their book 'Growing Up With a Single Parent' that poverty could only account for half of the difference. The other half was explained by fatherlessness.
This means that the Swedish Model is not a good model for the United States. In the long run, we have to find a way to change our culture to embrace marriage. Sara McLanahan argues for something similar: we need to strengthen both the safety net and marriage.
A Paradigm Shift in Culture
Culture does not happen by accident. Our current anti-marriage culture is the result of a long process of intellectual attacks on marriage. Freud, Kinsey and other psychologists have argued that marriage is a source of sexual repression, that marriage creates our social pathologies. Marx argued that marriage was a means by which the bourgeoisie maintained their power over the proletariat. Consequently, marriage was abolished in the Soviet Union. Margaret Meade's influential hoax, 'Coming of Age in Samoa,' described a primitive society in which young girls were free to have nightly trysts with boys free of guilt and recrimination from others. This was a shocking idea back in the 1930's. The great philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a book called 'On Marriage and Morals' in which he argued that sex outside of marriage is moral provided that the two people loved each other. The fact that he was a notorious womanizer who married four times merely put him on the vanguard of an ongoing trend. Feminism has argued that marriage is a form of patriarchal oppression of women that should be abolished.
Many ideas of intellectuals never make it out of the ivory tower. But others do, even if it takes fifty years or longer. The tragedy is that as destructive as these ideas are, they become even more so as they filter their way down the socio-economic ladder. Feminism gives way to Madonna, who gives way to booty videos on BET.
Endnote 1. William Galston's findings are widely available on the internet, but there is surprisingly little by way of reference for it. So here is the scoop: as reported by the sociologist James Q. Wilson on page 11 (and the reference section) of his book The Marriage Problem, Galston's findings are actually based on the research study 'According to Age: Longitudinal Profiles of AFDC Recipients and the Poor by Age Group. Prepared for the Working Seminar on the Family and American Welfare Policy.' by Charles Murray and Deborah Laren, available here.
Good post. Mark for later read.
Good article, though I have one disagreement with the author. Meade's "hoax" was one which was perpetrated on her...the informants in her study, the young girls, came from a culture which prized joking, and she failed to see that. Interviews with the girls years later found this to be the case. As for Freud, well, it's pretty obvious that man had problems, and Kinsey was probably just looking for new things to try out! Marx, while he made valuable insights into the conditions of the working class in factories at the time, was flawed in so many ways its not worth discussing.
Great post - very well researched.
In a relatively free modern economy, the primary causes of poverty are broken families and substance abuse.
The two parent family is the number one greatest bulwark against entrenched trans-generational poverty.
The primary cause of poverty in America today is the breakdown of breakdown of marriage...
And I thought the primary cause was poor people.
I just shared the basic premise of this article with the students in my high school class. They all understood - through the unfortunate methods of exposure and experience - that the premise was sound. Well, if I can save at least one person from a life from poverty, it's worth it.
This information isn't new. I read the same data in "The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators," which was written by Bill Bennett, in 1993.