With the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty at hand, the New York Times undertook a guided tour of the vast and murky battlefield, offering a surprising -- for the Times -- admission. To wit, poverty isn't just about what the government does, or doesn't do, for poor people. It's about, in part, how poor people live, voluntarily or otherwise.
The Times didn't make a big deal about what it called "sociological trends (that) help explain why so many children and adults remain poor, even putting the effects of the recession aside." That the story so much as acknowledged the impoverishing effects of family breakdown is the really big deal, given the broad commitment of American liberals to the notion of job-training, better education, minimum-wage hikes and so on as the keys to overthrowing "inequality."
"More parents," the Times story notes, "are raising a child alone, with more infants born out of wedlock. High incarceration rates, especially among black men, keep many families apart. About 30 percent of single mothers live in poverty."
So what? So everything -- razor-sharp and hard to grasp as the question may be to grasp. If the poor are always with us, never in modern times has the culture afforded them so few props and protections as those available today. The Times has brilliant company in asking readers to think about the consequences of letting -- or encouraging -- the culture to fall apart.
Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute has written on the topic with particular wisdom and with particularly painful insight. Two years ago, in "Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010," Murray took aim at the cultural factors that inform poverty and dysfunction. Of America at the time of the Kennedy assassination, he writes: "Marriage was nearly universal and divorce was rare across all races." The Americans of that time knew enough and understood enough to put the cultivation of virtue at the apex of their civic aspirations. Upon virtue depended liberty. With dedication to an overarching standard of behavior went acknowledgement of supernatural religion as the source of good.