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.
This was before the uproars and disruptions that followed, the consequence of which was the exaltation of individual appetites over any cultural factors that restrained those appetites -- the longing for divorce, let's say; hostility or indifference toward "the products of conception," also known as unborn babies; the shrugging-off of responsibility for children actually born. Government actually conspired to satisfy these appetites by, among other things, authorizing no-fault divorce and daring defenders of unborn life to try and stop a woman bent on having an abortion. Pure grants of taxpayer money -- Aid to Families with Dependent Children comes to mind, a poverty-war artillery piece that overheated and blew up -- encouraged the very opposite of initiative. A client of government not always but too often comes to enjoy that status. And, in consequence, remains poor.
No human problem is older, or more tenacious, than poverty. Or more complex. Ages before Lyndon Johnson, haggard beggars squatted or slept in the streets of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The great mistake of "war on poverty" programs, except being tools to win votes, was the assumption that poverty equates to too little money. We may be learning that poverty of mind and of spirit can be as damaging a factor as an empty wallet or an overdue mortgage.
Murray's point about the family and its modern deterioration is urgent. "No matter what the outcome being examined," he writes -- including bad behavior, school problems and sexual attitudes -- "the family structure that produces the best outcomes for children, on average, are two biological parents who remain married."
No television Bible-swatter is talking here; a sociologist speaks -- an observer of behaviors, a sorter-outer of competing human claims. He isn't pleased by what he sees; and neither should the rest of us be. Fifty years into the all-out assault on economic dejection, the battlefield is distinguished mostly by shell holes. A few more birds sing now -- barely enough to be heard.