HOME SHORT TAKES OUR ESSAYS PODCASTS LINKS ABOUT US CAU  Subscribe MTC on Facebook  Find us on Twitter

SHORT TAKES


July 16, 2012

Choices Matter in Avoiding Poverty

As many critics have noticed, the gap between Page One news coverage of social issues in the New York Times and the editorial response inside is often not a spacious one. Yesterday the Times ran a huge news article (more than two full pages), "Two Classes, Divided by 'I Do,'' on the economic and social plight of single mothers in a society marked by rising income inequality.

Coverage of the facts, by the knowledgeable reporter Jason DeParle, is solid. The problem is that single mothers are presented as victims of a tsunami of inequality that has little or nothing to do with their own behavior. The language is passive. Two-income families are presented as a sort of unfair advantage that descends on some married women more often than on single ones. One featured woman had "a troubled relationship that left her with three children..." and "marriage and its rewards (are) evermore confined to the fortunate classes." Who does this confining? We never learn.

The article does have one strong line about choices: "I am in this position because of decisions I made."

But no study is mentioned to support this common sense view. However, here is FactCheck.org citing a Brookings study:

"Ron Haskins, co-author of the Brookings study, which looked at Census Bureau data on a sample of Americans, wrote that the analysis found that young adults who finished high school, worked full time and got married after age 21 and before having kids "had a 2 percent chance of winding up in poverty and a 74 percent chance of winding up in the middle class (defined as earning roughly $50,000 or more). By contrast, young adults who violated all three norms had a 76 percent chance of winding up in poverty and a 7 percent chance of winding up in the middle class."

Finding full-time work is, of course, now very difficult, but the other factors are powerful ones that affect outcomes. They continue to count.

Comments (14)

DaveJ:

I have to wonder if the relationship between the identified factors and the outcome is causal or correlative.

Do the choices cause the outcome, or is it simply that people who tend to make these choices due to other circumstances, also tend to make other, unexamined choices that lead to the identified result?

It could simply be that individuals who finish high school, hold down a job and delay marriage are also likely to have a good work ethic, a belief in following through on committments, ability to accept deferred gratification, and a well developed sense of responsibility and ethics.

These more general emotional and philosophical traits, derived from heritage and upbringing, could matter far more than simply driving a reluctant teen to meet the three identified norms. They are also less likely to be found in what is becoming a permanent underclass.

Andrew:

DaveJ, there's no point in bringing the "correlation does not equal causation" refrain to bear here. If our schools and culture made it a point of emphasis to instill in teens the necessity of achieving these three norms in order to avoid poverty, far fewer people would suffer. Case closed.

Pete EE:

DaveJ:

The causation/correlation wrinkle is always interesting and, of course, nearly impossible to answer. But in this case it is hard to see the relevance. Any conscious effort a student makes to finish school, get a job ,get married and have kids in that order will contribute to "a good work ethic, a belief in following through on committments, ability to accept deferred gratification, and a well developed sense of responsibility and ethics."

Whatever the real key factor is, the basic formulation is a recipe for success.

mamawolf:

In other words, culture matters. Some cultures create the necessary values and attitudes that will insure their children will be successful. Other cultures create a chaotic family life that leads to dependency on government agencies for food, shelter, etc. However, it is politically incorrect to suggest to people that the cultures that do not create good outcomes are not as good as cultures that do create good outcomes. Common sense would suggest that people who want their children to better themselves should follow the cultural values and attitudes that lead to success. Unfortunately, those people who do suggest changes in family life are called racist. Until this attitude changes, children will continue to be harmed.

chemman:

I think I am going to agree with DaveJ. Finishing high school, getting a job and marriage before kids are all markers of a deeper philosophy. As we found with the housing bubble and now the college bubble getting more people to acquire the markers doesn't necessarily improve their life choices.

JorgXMcKie:

I loved the part about the "fortunate classed." Yep, just like Obama's businessman who only succeeded because the government builds bridges and roads and pays teachers, I [like many other in the "fortunate class"] only made it out of poverty due to extreme good luck.

The years of living poor and having two or three jobs at a time while pursuing higher education and borrowing extremely little money, the decades of showing up early for every appointment or meeting, the hard work and the extra studying, and missing of fewer than two weeks total of work or classes in more than a 20 year period, luck, all just plain damn good luck.

And those who didn't do any of the things I did and still live in poverty, why they just had bad luck. No doubt about it. We are helpless and can do nothing but hope for good luck [or a government handout of resources taken from someone with "good luck"].

Voyager:

Having and raising kids requires a very large investment of time and money, and that investment does not care whether there is one person, or two providing it. That's the first thing.

Second thing is, establishing a career also takes a large investment of time and money, but the highest pitch parts are done in about 4-6 years. Raising a kid eats out of the same budget, but the kid takes about 15-20 years before they are reasonably developed. Longer if you're trying to put them through college.

You just don't have time to do both at the same time, and doing that while flying solo would drive most people into heart failure by the time they're 30. There is only so much you can do in the day, before you're burning the bone.

DH:

"I have to wonder if the relationship between the identified factors and the outcome is causal or correlative."

I suspect it's both. Finishing high school means higher-paying jobs are available (causal). Working full time obviously pays more than working part time or not working (causal). But, as you implied, people with the discipline to finish high school and hold a job are also more likely to have the discipline to save money, not become junkies, use birth control, etc. (correlative)

glenn:

Several years ago I had a revelation about this. After a 47 year working life I formed a consulting partnership with a former coworker. We had a client who needed some help with globalizing his business and expanding his new product development. It was hands on, we designed and made samples of new products and developed the methods of making them in a small and not well equipped factory. One morning at about 7:30 we were on our way to a home center to pick up some stuff we couldn't source in the plant. Crossing a freeway overpass we saw a couple pushing a shopping cart likely filled with all their possesions. They didn't look beaten just slightly used and I said something like "Ever wonder about that final decision that got them there?" Because like military battles I really believe lives have moments like that. My partner said "Glenn, they don't have a care in the world" You know what, he was right. Not having a care got them to that overpass and that shopping cart. It was the best they were ever going to do.

Naif Mabat:

"Two-income families are presented as a sort of unfair advantage that descends on some married women more often than on single ones."

Something scary about that. I can see a new "marriage tax" (or is it a mandate?) by which married couples have to pay their "fair share" to singles.

Steve W from Ford:

"Do the choices cause the outcome, or is it simply that people who tend to make these choices due to other circumstances, also tend to make other, unexamined choices that lead to the identified result?"

Guess we will just have to let God sort out what is unknowable to us mere humans.

Is this actually just a clever way to say that "the poor" are not responsible for the choices they make because some unknown "circumstances" made them do it? Do you really want to remove free agency from the human condition? People have choices. Some people make bad ones. To absolve them of any responsibility for these choices removes any hope that they might redeem themselves and dooms these poor souls to a worldly perdition. That is not compassion it is cruelty of the highest order.

Troll Feeder:

Dave J:

There is no permanent underclass in this country. Everyone can choose to work hard and to weather adversity rather than wallowing in self-pity.

You own your choices. You own the results. Blaming others for your failure to get out of bed is all on you.

BobF:

Our preacher tried to help a family by getting the husband and the wife a job so as to get off of the Dole. He was able to get them both jobs as security officers. When he told them what he had done, they got mad and said they made the same amount if they didn't work. He explained they would make more over time but they refused. He told us this story in a sermon and said that people become addicted to this life style.

richard40:

One thing you need to be careful of here though, as Glenn Reynolds already pointed out in other articles, dont confuse the markers of the middle class with the underlying factors that produce those markers. For example, do people who finish HS, delay childbirth, get married, and get employment, avoid poverty because they do these things. Or do they do these things because they have good personality characteristics, like desire to work hard, maturity, ability to delay gratification, ability to plan for the long term, ability to get along with people, being dependable, etc. And is it these underlying personality and character factors, rather than these outward markers, that really distinguish the middle class. The reason you need to avoid this confusion, is using gov policy to subsidize the Markers of the middle class, just devalues the markers, while doing nothing to encourage the personal character factors that produce those markers. The way out is not to subsidize markers like marriage or HS graduation, but to let the market punish people that behave irresponsibly, and reward people that behave responsibly. The real distinguishing feature of the middle class is not any outward marker, it is middle class morality, and gov cannot subsidize or impose the individual character features that underlies that middle calss morality. Only the market, and possibly the churches, can.

Post a comment

Leave comments here. Unless they are vicious or obscene, they will be printed.


MONTHLY ARCHIVES:

Published by the Manhattan Institute
The Manhattan Insitute's Center for the American University.