One of the two fundamental problems with American welfare policy is that at its core, it assumes that the poor are morally deficient and need to be fixed instead of just poor. So rather than just increase the money in these programs, politicians blather on about the morality of the poor, which is an excuse not to fully fund them.
We know growing up poor is bad for kids. But instead of focusing on the money, U.S. anti-poverty policy often focuses on the perceived moral shortcomings of the poor themselves. We don’t try to address poverty directly, or alleviate it; we simply try to change the way poor people behave, especially poor parents. Specifically, we offer two choices to poor parents if they want to escape poverty: get a job, or get married. Not only does this approach not work, but it’s also a cruel punishment for children who cannot be held responsible for their parents’ decisions.
Policy that addresses poverty by punishing the poor for their perceived misdeeds plays on some popular misunderstandings, especially about marriage and parenting. Many non-poor people mistakenly believe that our lax attitude toward marriage is behind the child poverty problem. That’s why a Heritage Foundation claim that marriage reduces the chance of living in poverty by 82 percent has been a staple on the Republican campaign trail this season, and welfare money has been diverted from alleviating poverty to promoting marriage among the poor.
First, single parenthood doesn’t just cause these social ailments, it also reflects them. Some of these problems are merely the consequence of whatever caused their parents to be single in the first place: poverty, illness, incarceration, weak relationship skills, and so on. In other words, successful people are more likely to raise successful children and to have successful marriages. Research on marriage among poor Americans clearly shows that the majority want to be married, but they aren’t for a variety of reasons related to their poverty. Faced with poor prospects in a marriage partner, some women reason, “I can do bad by myself,” as reported in the book “Promises I Can Keep,” by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. Some couples place marriage on a pedestal, and plan to postpone it until they are financially stable. As one young man with a pregnant girlfriend put it, “I’d rather get engaged for two years, save money, get a house, make sure … the baby’s got a bedroom.” For too many, however, that moment never arrives.
Poverty clearly lowers the chance of a successful marriage, even as being single may make it harder to escape poverty. This pattern is the subject of a long-running debate among social scientists. Although we can’t agree on the exact breakdown of cause and effect, any reasonable researcher will concede it runs both ways.
But the second answer is perhaps more important for today’s poverty debates. It is that the number of single-parent families doesn’t drive the poverty rate – rather, it mostly helps determine which families and children will be poor, not how many will be. How many people live in poverty is largely the outcome of our policy choices, about jobs and wages, and support for poor families. A key study compared poverty rates and family structure in 18 countries, finding that the United States had the highest rate of poverty among single-mother families – more than 40 percent, compared with 5 or 10 percent in the Nordic countries. No country had as large a difference in poverty rates between single mothers and the rest of the population as the United States – that’s our unique penalty for single parenthood.
This has always been a problem with the nation’s response to the poor. From the early charity programs of the antebellum period to Social Darwinism to the Salvation Army to the present, the poor’s poverty is consistently seen as their own fault and something that can be fixed if we intervene in the right way. So the problem becomes unwed mothers instead of a lack of economic opportunity. Why blame capitalists when you can blame 23 year old women who lack a GED?
Meanwhile what the poor actually need are good-paying jobs for people without college educations, which are fewer and farther between in our outsourced, automated, subcontracted, franchised, temp worker economy.
The other fundamental problem with our welfare policy is racism. While not all the poor are people of color or immigrants, many are. And if West Virginia and eastern Kentucky they are mostly white, we find ways to denigrate them anyway. The problem of the poor is also “the problem of black people.” Or Mexicans. Or the Irish in 1850. Or Italians in 1910. Or whatever. But always black people. Focusing on actual poverty alleviation would mean having to deal with the inequalities at the heart of our society, which means dealing with white supremacy and structural racism. And we can’t be having that, now can we.