This commentary is the latest in the series, entitled “Poverty and
Society: A New Inquiry into an Old Question.”
Please be sure to read Peter Edelman’s “Opening Thoughts” to
thinking through the best way to help truly disadvantaged Americans regain
access to the American Dream, it’s helpful to disaggregate the issue and
identify its shifting nature.
is, as there has always been, an economic component to poverty and opportunity
in America, including growth, access to capital, and mobility. And those things
remain crucial. But I want to submit for consideration a proposition which has
significant empirical backing: the main driver of poverty in America today has
to do with culture, mores, and lifestyle choices, not with economics.
former White House colleague Ron Haskins points
that “Census data show that if all Americans finished high school, worked full
time at whatever job they then qualified for with their education, and married
at the same rate as Americans had married in 1970, the poverty rate would be
cut by around 70 percent.” The best way to keep open the pathway to the
American Dream, then, is through a “success sequence”; graduate from high
school, get a job, get married, and then have babies.
what can we do to encourage more people to embrace this “success sequence”? By
providing children with stable, orderly environments in which to grow up and to
strengthen the institutions that shape the character and habits of the young.
practical terms, what am I talking about? First and foremost, it means we need
more stable, intact families. The theologian Michael Novak once called the
family the original and best department of health, education, and welfare. If
families fail, other adults can help fill the breach. But it is very nearly
impossible for other people and institutions to fully pick up the pieces.
who are raised in broken families are far more likely to drop out of high
school, use drugs, commit violent crimes, have children outside of marriage,
develop mental health problems, become homeless, drop out of the labor force,
go on welfare, and experience poverty. Indeed, the poverty rate for
single-parent families is almost six-times the rate for married-couple
families. “The best anti-poverty program for children is a stable, intact
family,” according to former Clinton administration officials William Galston
and Elaine Kamarck.
the news on the family front is fairly discouraging. More than 40 percent of
all births today are out-of-wedlock. America has the highest divorce rate in
the Western world. By the age of eighteen, over half of American children have lived
apart from their fathers for a significant portion of their childhood. “The
scale of marital breakdown in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent
and seems unique,” according to the late historian Lawrence Stone.
How do we repair the damage? Public
policies can help strengthen marriages at the margins. Laws can create
incentives and disincentives for certain kinds of behavior (welfare reform and
anti-drug policies are excellent examples). And society itself – through
popular culture and the words of its most influential citizens – needs to send
reinforcing signals when it comes to families. Families should not feel as
though they are fortresses besieged by the outside world.
Ultimately keeping families strong and
whole depends on the effort of individuals, on parents nurturing, disciplining,
and instructing children, and on fidelity, commitment, and a measure of
selflessness on the part of adults. If those things are missing, there is no
easy or obvious way to recreate them.
should eschew romanticism and a Hallmark Mentality. Marriage and parenting,
while deeply fulfilling, can also be challenging. They create stress points
along the way. The way to overcome them is through greater patience,
understanding, and self-knowledge. This in turn will have enormous social and economic
consequences. After all, it is parents and a community of committed adults
(including teachers, coaches, ministers and youth leaders, neighbors, and
friends) who instill in children discipline, self-control, persistence,
honesty, fidelity, respect for authority and for others, and the ability to
delay gratification. When children learn these things, success and human
achievement usually follow. When they do not, failure and even human misery
often come to pass.
know enough about neuroscience to know that character is a product of nature as
well as nurture, hardwiring as well as hard work. But we also know enough about
life to know that parents exert a huge influence on the moral beliefs and
actions of children.
central conservative truth is that culture, not politics, determines the
success of a society,” the late, great Daniel Patrick Moynihan said. “The
central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from
need both culture and politics engaged in this effort, which is as important as
any on earth.
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Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the
Ethics and Public Policy Center.