The Corner

Liberals Reexamining the Culture of Poverty? Guess Again

An article in the October 17 New York Times lauds liberal academics who are reexamining the “culture of poverty,” noting a recent symposium on the topic in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Beware, though: Those looking for bold departures from liberal orthodoxy should search elsewhere.

One might imagine that experts researching the “culture of poverty” would examine how marital collapse, eroded work ethic, and indifference to academic study contribute to financial poverty. Guess again.

Instead, editors of The Annals firmly declare that the main cause of poverty is “material deprivation itself.” In other words, the cause of poverty is poverty: The cure for poverty is to artificially boost the incomes of the poor through welfare payments, free food, housing, medical care, and so on.

This is nothing new. Liberals always have insisted that poverty causes dysfunctional behaviors rather than vice versa. But, if having a low income caused problem behaviors (such as illegitimate births and eroded work ethic), then most Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries (whose incomes were far lower than those of today’s poor) should have been drowning in dysfunctional behaviors. Of course, they were not.

One of the goofier notions behind the War on Poverty is the idea that that those in the underclass behave differently than the middle class because they have less money — and, therefore, the way to improve behaviors is to give the poor more income. The U.S. already has “invested” over $15 trillion in anti-poverty spending based on this idea, and the problem has gotten markedly worse.

It just plain troubles liberals to forthrightly examine the behaviors that lead to poverty. Following tradition, The Annals’ experts tiptoe circumspectly around the main cause of child poverty today: the collapse of marriage.

In low-income communities, the overwhelming majority of children are born outside marriage and raised by single mothers on welfare. If these single mothers were married to the actual fathers of their children, two-thirds would immediately be lifted out of poverty. But, despite these obvious facts, the Left is reluctant even to mention the connection between marital collapse and poverty.

The main problem for liberals in talking about the “culture of poverty” is that any honest examination of behavioral roots of poverty will, almost certainly, diminish public support for the welfare state. Thus, any clear discussion of the links between poverty and behavior is to be scrupulously avoided.

The “new thinkers” cited by the Times march boldly down this pathway of silence.

Robert Rector is senior research fellow in domestic-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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