Kim Holmes

As Butler, the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray and Harvard’s Robert Putnam have shown, the causes of poverty and low income mobility are due much more to the decline of habits and attitudes that once fueled the upward rise of American households. The key building blocks of advancement, such as industriousness, the habit of savings, marriage and civic associations, are crumbling and in some cases even non-existent. The cause is not insufficient redistribution of income by government, but the destruction of the social and personal capital of people by that distribution system—namely, the welfare state.

The dependency and life style created by it is not some temporary thing, as the president pretended it was in his speech. Rather it has become the culture of a government-sponsored underclass. The dependency not only deprives lower-income people of a future, it destroys the habits, attitudes and positive outlooks needed to get ahead in life. It takes what may have been a “run of bad luck,” as the president put it, and institutionalizes it into a debilitating way of life.

There are indeed income and social divisions in American society today, but they are driven not by a run-amok free-market economy. America’s falling score on The Heritage Foundation’s and The Wall Street Journal’s Index of Economic Freedom shows that the U.S. has steadily been moving away from free markets. In other words, there’s been more government intervention in recent years, not less. And yet the economy continues to flounder, and President Obama still insists we need more government to solve problems which government itself created.

We have economic problems to be sure, but when it comes to inequality, it’s not the free market, but the “culture, stupid.” It’s a yawning gap in habits, education and attitudes that underlay the divisions of rich and poor.

On the one side are wealthy Americans with Harvard MBAs and strenuously honed work ethics, many of them socially liberal and increasingly dependent in their businesses on government support. On the other side are low-income people who, regardless of race, find themselves without the skills, habits and education to get ahead. Some are stuck because they are too dependent on government benefits. But most are trapped by a culture that ignores the value of marriage and fails to teach the hard virtues of industriousness, discipline and personal responsibility.

The sad truth is this: If there are “two Americas,” it is a divide in economic opportunity caused largely by different cultures. Economic inequality is mainly the result of the “stickiness” (as Butler calls it) of cultural values determining the outcomes of economic behavior in America.

So to put the knockout game in perspective, it may or may not be true that the criminal perpetrators were denied economic opportunities. It’s no excuse even if they were. But if so, it is more likely the result of a dysfunction in values than anything else—the very anti-social attitudes which caused them to attack innocent people to begin with.

Kim Holmes

Kim R. Holmes is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation ( He is the author of the book Rebound: Getting America Back to Great, which can be found at: