A Direct Way to Fight Poverty

April 9, 2012

For immediate release (532 words)

If Charles Murray, author of “Coming Apart,” is right, America’s poverty problem will not be solved by either economic growth or increased government spending on social programs.

Murray contends the moral habits that generate stable two-parent households and a strong work ethic are rapidly eroding among those with a high-school education or less. Illegitimacy, divorce and low labor-market participation rates, anathema to all social classes two generations ago, are causes of household poverty and are all too common among the high-school and less-educated class.

In contrast, stable two-parent households and a lively work ethic are alive and well in neighborhoods populated by college graduates. Graduating from high school, getting married and staying married and finding a job and keeping a job are the best insurance against household poverty. Young people who do these three things are rarely in poverty, and such behavior is well within the reach of all Americans.

To do this, however, one must have a sturdy value system that esteems hard work, prudence and self-control as moral habits. These moral habits do not emerge from nature; they are taught and learned in family, community and society.

Legislation and policy directives by governments are unlikely to be effective in generating such moral habits, despite the fantasies of social engineers on both the left and right. It would be nice if Hollywood offered better role models — but let’s not hold our breath. Nor are public schools going to be a reliable ally to this end as the endless quarreling between traditionalists and progressives means value inculcation is not likely to take front and center in the K-12 curriculum.

Progressives and traditionalist may disagree over food stamp policy. Yet there is one activity that all people of goodwill support: intentional one-on-one relationships between the more affluent and the less affluent. Such relationships are not a “policy.”  Private efforts in this direction are likely to do little harm and have the potential to do much good.

Murray’s title “Coming Apart” suggests this as it alludes to a national class-based divergence in values. The data he provides also supports this: Although the United States is less racially segregated than it was in 1960, it is more segregated by income class. Yet as we look in our communities in Indiana we find abundant opportunities for such interaction.

In my hometown and at my home church, a couple of programs are in place with this in mind. They do not pretend they will “solve poverty.” They are not about pious people lecturing the poor. Nor are they about guilt-tripping the more fortunate. The idea is relationship.

Although it is good to give money and occasional help to the soup kitchen, it is even better to be a regular server who knows the patrons by name. It is a good thing to provide school supplies for low-income children, but even better to be an individual child’s tutor. It is a good thing to provide a homeless family a place to stay, it is even better to incorporate the family into a wider religious community.

Are there pitfalls? Sure. Is this a cure all? No. But it is an effort that is worth trying.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University. Contact him at editor@inpolicy.orga>.


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