Magazine February 6, 2017, Issue

The Myth of the Virtuous Poor

In defense of accountability

More than at any other time in recent American history, the political class is obsessed with the poor and the working class. The fact that Donald Trump rode a white working-class wave to the Oval Office would be notable enough, but this political upheaval occurred just as the social-science data indicated that only half of the youngest cohort of Americans have done better economically than their parents, and — at the same time — that the death rate for white poor and working-class families is actually rising, with the rise driven in part by increases in suicides and drug overdoses. The sad scent of despair is in the air.

Let’s begin with a series of simple, indisputable facts. If a person finishes his education, gets married, and stays married, his chances of either becoming poor or staying poor are small. Drop out of school, and the poverty rate skyrockets. Have children out of wedlock and raise them in single-parent families, and the poverty rate skyrockets. There are no guarantees, of course. There are people who make bad choices yet still achieve good outcomes. There are people who do all the right things yet still struggle. But on the whole, a simple series of good choices can have an extraordinarily positive impact on a person’s economic prospects.

Moreover, each of these important life accomplishments is available on the most limited of budgets. Students have access to free public education through high school. State and federal grants and private scholarship programs can extend the free educations, sometimes even through college. As for marriage, millennia of human history teach that families can exist at any income level. Simple math teaches us that two incomes are better than one, and one household is cheaper than two.

In other words, people can choose to do the culturally vital things that every serious social scientist knows will ease poverty and increase social mobility. Yet, on a mass scale, people choose poorly. They drop out of school and cheat on spouses and fiancés. These choices take a heavy emotional toll, leading men and women to compound their difficulties through drug and alcohol abuse. They make terrible, destructive choice after terrible, destructive choice, and they not only suffer, they inflict immense suffering on their children and grandchildren.

Yet whatever you do, don’t call these choices immoral. Don’t express or imply that the fate of the poor rests primarily in their own hands. To do so is “poverty-shaming.” It’s “elitist.” During a recent discussion of poverty on the NPR program To the Point, a liberal panelist responded to my recitation of these facts of life by saying, “For me, when I hear that instability in families can lead to poverty, I hear that’s some sort of moral failing on poor people. It feels like finger-pointing as to why people are poor.”

The liberal argument is simple: that failing families are largely the consequence of income inequality and poverty, not their cause. And it’s an argument that makes a certain degree of sense. Financial stress does place pressure on families. Yet the rate of single parenting — even among poor and working-class populations — was far lower during past economic shocks such as the Great Depression. Poverty may break up some families, but poverty by itself does not destroy families on the scale we see today.

An intact family and good moral choices can’t inoculate you against economic shocks such as the Great Depression or the Great Recession. There are economic tidal waves that can sweep aside even the most seaworthy boats. And even in times of prosperity, bad fortune can strike any family. But there is a vast difference between the often temporary poverty that results during widespread economic downturns and the persistent poverty that exists even during times of economic stability and growth.

Thus, the answer to the liberal panelist is clear. Yes, there are moral failings that can and do lead to poverty. Yes, we can and should “point fingers” at specific and identifiable reasons for poverty and income inequality. At last, after decades of a failed cultural and political war on poverty that was premised on a fundamentally flawed view of human nature, it’s time to tell the truth — that presumptions of human virtue are simply wrong, and that we cannot regard any class of Americans as inherently virtuous, including the poor. People make bad choices, and bad choices often have terrible consequences. G. K. Chesterton famously responded to those who questioned the Christian doctrine of original sin by arguing that man’s fallen nature was in fact “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” Prudent people spend their lifetimes building the habits and attitudes that guard against our inherent impulses toward expedience and self-gratification.

“No one wants to be poor,” poverty activists say. “Everyone wants to be successful.” And that’s true enough, but that’s not the question. No one wants to be poor, but few kids want to do their homework. Lots of people want sex without responsibility. And when faced with the choice between the short-term escape of a drug or a drink and the long-term battle to face down stress or anxiety, huge numbers of people choose the chemical response. It’s the lifetime accumulation of those small decisions (for yourself and for your children) that makes the big choice — between success and failure, between poverty and comfort.

A wise culture repeats this truth endlessly, and the well-meaning rich don’t sugarcoat this reality for the struggling poor. A responsible politics understands that large numbers of people can and will choose short-term expedience over long-term discipline. Yet our culture is foolish and our politics irresponsible.

Let’s take, for example, the Social Security disability system and its relationship to welfare. Confronted with persistent poverty and staggering waste, the Clinton administration and congressional Republicans together passed far-reaching welfare reform — implementing a program designed to get Americans off the federal dole and onto payrolls. Clinton boasted that he’d “end welfare as we know it,” and in some ways he (with GOP help) made good on his pledge.

Or did he? In a landmark 2013 report, NPR’s This American Life laid out some disturbing facts. Yes, the number of families on federal welfare programs declined significantly after welfare reform, from a high of 5 million in 1994 to fewer than 2 million 15 years later. At the same time, the number of low-income people receiving federal disability payments rose by almost 50 percent, to almost 7 million. Between 1990 and 2011, the number of children receiving federal disability payments skyrocketed from 300,000 to more than 1.2 million.

To quote Bloomberg’s Brendan Greeley, “Where jobs vanish, disability insurance is the safety net.” Talk to doctors who work with poor Americans in the so-called disability belt — the stretch of America in Appalachia and the deep South that makes and collects on disproportionate numbers of disability claims — and they’ll tell you that it’s the worst form of welfare possible.

Why? It’s simple. To collect disability, a person has to show that something is very wrong with him, mentally or physically. That means seeking and receiving treatment, often with narcotics and other powerful drugs. In 1961, only 8.3 percent of disability claimants were receiving payments for back pain or other musculoskeletal problems. By 2015, that number had soared to more than 30 percent. The percentage of payments for mental illness and “developmental disability” almost doubled in the same period.

That means drugs. Lots of drugs. In rural Tennessee, in the center of the disability belt, local doctors speak ruefully of the long-term effects of “Xanatab,” their term for the toxic combination of Lortab (for pain) and Xanax (for anxiety) that often leaves patients sick and disabled for an entirely different reason — drug addiction.

In other words, people are actively pursuing disability payments and using categories of ailments with highly subjective diagnoses to secure them. Fraud is rampant, doctor-shopping is common, and lawyers rake in piles of cash by taking disability cases in bulk. The diagnosis and compensation structures are so well known that claimants will often coach other claimants on how to describe their symptoms in a way calculated to receive payment. Real sicknesses are exaggerated, pain is magnified, and endurance and grit are discouraged. If you fight through your condition, you lose. Surrender, and you win. Perverse incentives abound.

Yet the negative cultural effects of transfer payments and other welfare programs pale in comparison with a policy that’s not often considered in debates about poverty. I’m speaking of the cultural cataclysm of no-fault divorce, perhaps the ultimate symbol of the nation’s decision to shed traditional restraints in favor of the unsupported (and unsupportable) belief that human flourishing is either independent of or even limited by the nuclear family.

Reformers worked assiduously to lift the cultural taboo against divorce and single parenting while also changing the legal system to render a marriage less legally binding than a refrigerator warranty. The result wasn’t so much individual liberation and self-actualization as it was a form of social Darwinism in which those families and communities that retained old-school cultural norms largely thrived and those that abandoned traditional family norms stagnated, floundered, and began to fail.

This is perhaps the most vital of the points made in Charles Murray’s seminal work Coming Apart. He found that upper-middle-class families tended to practice the forms of traditional American family life regardless of their political ideology, while poor and working-class families were fractured, again regardless of their political ideology. Prosperous, liberal urban enclaves feature intact families and much lower rates of illegitimacy. To borrow Murray’s formulation, they live red even as they vote blue. Conversely, many struggling working-class communities vote red and live blue.

Rich and poor alike are susceptible to temptation and capable of making catastrophic choices. It is the wise man’s recognition that he is vulnerable that leads to the first of the countless decisions that narrow and constrain his worst human impulses, both in himself and in his children. Exercise restraint and prudence long enough, and you can not only teach your children the same virtues, you can build firewalls and resources that help insure against the consequences of future mistakes.

To see children of the rich modeling the better values of the community is heartening, but it is expected. But to see a kid triumph in spite of his family and in defiance of his social milieu is inspirational. Who can stand proudly beside the kid who worked his way out of poverty, who overcame the challenges of growing up in broken homes, though surrounded by the most negative of examples? Harvard’s halls are full of wealthy young adults who simply don’t know their core character. They don’t know what they’re truly made of. They’ve lived lives with the worst and most destructive choices taken off the table by parents and by local cultures that constantly press them toward discipline, restraint, and achievement.

And it’s a good thing, too. If they hadn’t been constrained, then these same lives would be different indeed — full of conflict, strife, infidelity, crime, and abuse. How do we know? Because that’s how human beings tend to live in the absence of moral guidance and outside of healthy communities.

The moral imperative to care for the poor is eternal. One can’t read the words of Christ, the apostles, or the prophets without plainly seeing the divine command to care for the “least of these.” But that same scripture’s moral commands regarding honesty, fidelity, and sexual morality apply to rich and poor alike, and one is not being truly kind to the poor by exempting them from the commands that one applies without hesitation to one’s own family and community.

In this way, our moral squeamishness inhibits our culture and our politics from clearly sending a truthful message — that moral obligations and cultural responsibilities are reciprocal. In other words, while our culture has a moral obligation to do what it can to care for the struggling children of single parents, young men and women have moral obligations to get married and stay married. They have moral obligations to exercise enough self-restraint not to have children out of wedlock, and our public policies and cultural messaging should repeat and reinforce those truths at every opportunity. Government can never be as powerful as a man or woman’s personal choices. Any other message creates false hopes. Indeed, any other message is cruel. It helps trap generations in poverty, and it misleads those with resources to believe that their well-meaning programs help when they actually hurt.

The foundation of responsible policy toward the poor therefore must acknowledge that education and marriage are indispensable to economic advancement, and that politically popular initiatives to improve education while forsaking the now-controversial moral structures that built and sustained marriages are doomed to create and perpetuate a self-sustaining underclass.

The impediment to change, however, won’t be so much political as cultural. By the tens of millions, Americans have lost the ability to make a moral argument about sex and marriage. They simply can’t bring themselves to “judge,” and often their own behavior leaves them feeling hopelessly hypocritical.

Even if one moves beyond the fraught topic of sex, moral squeamishness endures. Witness, for example, the hysterical reaction when writers such as National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson have suggested that struggling working-class families follow the time-tested practice of moving to find new jobs. The temptation to prove that one is sympathetic to the poor — or somehow more in touch and less elitist — by telling people what they want to hear is irresistible to conservatives and liberals alike.

Millennia of human experience teach us there is no easy answer to poverty. Indeed, there is likely no final answer at all. Experience also teaches us that we harm poor Americans when we treat them as if their choices were beyond moral judgment. Anti-poverty policies and actions are doomed if their primary goal is to make a life of bad decisions more sustainable and comfortable. It has a chance to succeed if it presumes that poor Americans are just like everyone else — flawed and prone to sin and short-sightedness.

Rather than tell the lie of the “virtuous poor,” let’s grant our nation’s struggling citizens the dignity they deserve. They are moral actors capable of making moral choices. Any other message sustains human misery.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners


Politics & Policy

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