A nation of Do's and Do Nots

Digging up an article I wanted to highlight from way back, I point everyone to Jonathan Rauch's article from Sept 22 called No Slack: Forget about Haves and Have-Nots; think Do's and Do-Nots.

His point is one that seems common-sensical to libertarians, but is worth emphasizing to lefties- that adhering to a small handful of behaviors would reduce poverty (as currently measured) from 13% to 4%: [Emphasis mine]

Sawhill is a liberal, and a former Clinton administration official, who began studying the behavioral roots of poverty in the days when most liberals condemned all such thinking as "blaming the victim." Then came welfare reform, which "was far more successful than most people -- including me -- anticipated," Sawhill says. The strong economy helped, she says, but "we've also got to stop thinking of people as passive victims of the economy and whatever the social safety net provides. Liberals have too often emphasized the income-to-behavior link without also recognizing that there's a behavior-to-income link as well."

In their new paper, she and Haskins use detailed census data and statistical modeling to simulate what would happen if the poor worked as many hours as the nonpoor, at jobs matching the workers' actual qualifications. The result: Full-time work would reduce the poverty rate from today's 13 percent to 7.5 percent -- almost half.

Separately, they next ask what would happen to the poverty rate if the poor were as likely to marry and stay married as they were in 1970, to real-world partners of similar age, education, and race. (Contrary to a widely held assumption, Sawhill and Haskins found no shortage of marriageable men in most segments of the population, the important exception being in some African-American education and age categories.) Increased marriage alone, by combining two adults' incomes, reduced poverty to 9.5 percent.

Getting a high school degree and having no more than two children also reduced poverty, though not as much. And if the poor did all four -- worked full-time, got married, stayed in school, and stopped at two kids -- the poverty rate would drop to less than 4 percent.

The bigger surprise, however, was yet to come. Sawhill and Haskins then simulated a doubling of all welfare benefits, much more than anyone seriously contemplates. The result? Poverty dropped from 13 percent to 12 percent. The meter barely jiggled. Even a massive welfare increase would have less effect than any one of four kinds of behavioral change.

"If people did a few things -- graduated from high school, got a job, and delayed having a baby until they married -- our analysis shows that would eliminate a huge chunk of poverty in this country," says Sawhill, "and that would be far more effective than anything we could feasibly do through the welfare system alone."

The main point of the piece being that money is next to useless if it doesn't change the underlying behavior (the 'root causes'). Rauch stumbles a bit with his summation, though:

We know we have growing income inequality," Sawhill says, "but there's a lot less focus on another gap that's opening between rich and poor, and that's in the behavioral domain, and it involves both work and marriage." This new gap, she adds, "doesn't bode well for the future of social relations in America." Unchecked, it might lead to permanent class barriers, something America has, until now, been mercifully spared.

Forget about the haves and the have-nots. America now faces a divide between do's and do-nots. Coping requires conservatives to see that inequality threatens mainstream values, and liberals to see that mainstream values are the key to reducing inequality. Conservatives, Sawhill argues, will need to spend more generously on child care subsidies and wage supplements and last-resort jobs to get the poor working (jobs bring mainstream values as well as money). Liberals will need to accept that money without behavioral change is useless or worse.

The good news is that Congress is moving in the right direction: toward more emphasis on work, more child care support, and new efforts to promote marriage and deferred childbearing. What remains to be seen is whether the policy can outpace the problem.

America has always been, simultaneously, a land of great opportunity and a land of great inequality. The myth of a nation that is "one big middle class" is a recent invention of the post-WWII generation, where the unique circumstances of living in the only industrial country in the world not destroyed by war allowed the returning GIs to all live a middle-class lifestyle. Returning to a situation of increased wealth disparity is nothing new to the American experience, only the suggestion that such distinctions are or would be "permanent".

Furthermore, "mainstream values" came from the same America that, prior to the 1950s, was extraordinarily inequal in income distribution, so it doesn't necessarily follow that inequality threatens the values that lead to prosperity. The only concievable way that inequality could do this, is if it fostered and supported a mindset of dependence- which is precisely (and ironically) what the welfare state has done.

Rauch's apparent endorsement of Sawhill's position that "Conservatives will need to spend more generously on child care subsidies and wage supplements and last-resort jobs to get the poor working (jobs bring mainstream values as well as money)" undermines his main thesis- if increased spending of taxpayer dollars and welfare payments cannot create independence, neither can make-work jobs and cash handouts. If the research shows that extra government money handouts don't impact poverty, then it is puzzling to see how the conclusion can be "therefore, more handouts should be given; just in a different way".

Instead, our focus as individuals concerned about our fellow man should be on increasing opportunities, voluntarily supporting charitable organizations with time, talent, & treasure, and helping to foster a non-state, DIY mentality among the poor to help shore up and encourage the behaviors that lead to success. The state should concern itself with getting out of the way.

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It looks as if Sawhill

It looks as if Sawhill merely replicated the findings Charles Murray published in Losing Ground. You know, that horrible racist poor-people-hating tract from the early 1980s that started Dr. Murray on his career as America's Worst Capitalist Running Dog Lackey?

[sarcasm off]