The politicizing of poverty

Posted: Mar 27, 2007 9:41 AM
The politicizing of poverty

It’s one thing to write policy recommendations; it is quite another to develop effective policy. Ironically, some of those who develop policy recommendations oppose those same ideas when implemented into policy –– especially when the wrong party does the implementing. For instance, the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families just released a report, “Attacking Poverty and Inequality: Reinvigorate the Fight for Greater Opportunity.” Here’s how the press release for their paper begins.

The nation’s poverty rate is higher now than it was in the 1970s and there are large and growing gaps between the rich and the poor. No President since Lyndon Johnson has made fighting poverty a major plank of his campaign or goal of his administration.

Are these statements true? Yes. Do the statements give a fair and insightful representation of the facts? Hardly. Such statements will get the media’s attention, but why should top rank analysts like Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill pander to the media? The Brookings Institution ranks as one of Washington’s most prestigious liberal think tanks. Brookings is a big, top-drawer operation with $302 million in assets and is extremely well-funded by foundations with $56 million in operating revenue. By comparison the largest conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, has only about half as many assets, $160 million, and operating revenue of $40 million.

The first two sentences in the press release (which compress the first paragraph of the Haskins-Sawhill report) significantly misrepresent the facts of the situation. To see why they were inserted, ask whether readers, particularly reporters looking for a story, would have gotten the same sense of conditions under the current administration in the 2000-2005 period as compared to the 1970-1975 period if the opening sentence had read: Poverty rates for both unrelated individuals and persons in all family subgroups of the population, with one minor exception, are lower in 2005 than they were when the overall poverty rate reached its historic low of 11.1 percent in 1973 under the Nixon administration.”

Alternatively, what would the reader have come away with if the lead sentence had read as follows?

The poverty rate for children living in female-headed families was nearly 10 percentage points lower in 2005 than it was in 1973 when the overall poverty rate was at its historic low.”

Why focus on this particular rate? Because, in some sense the poverty rate for children living in female-headed households (without a spouse present) represents the gold standard for measuring the effectiveness of federal, state and local government programs aimed at alleviating economic hardship of one of the most vulnerable groups in society.

So why, if poverty rates for the various groups have gone down since 1973, has the overall poverty rate gone up? The Brookings report states, “A major factor in both generating and fighting poverty is the state of the economy.” That answer is wrong. The answer, though full of tedious statistics, is not all that complicated: the increase in the overall poverty rate is due to the decline in the percentage of the population living in married-couple families whose poverty rate is a fraction of that of any other group.

In 1973, persons in married-couple families made up about 79 percent of the population, persons in female-headed families were 10.5 percent, and unrelated individuals were 9 percent. In 2005 persons in married-couple families had declined to only 63 percent of the population, persons in female-headed families (whose poverty rate is 5 to 6 times that of persons in married-couple families) had increased to 14.4 percent, and unrelated individuals (whose poverty rate is 3 to 4 times that of persons in married-couple families) had nearly doubled to 17 percent. Persons in male-headed families with no spouse present (whose poverty rate runs about 20 percent) had grown to 5 percent of the population in 2005.

These facts are important to establish in order to make the following point: If the family structure of the population had not changed from 1973 to 2005, the overall poverty rate – instead of increasing to 12.6 percent – would have decreased to 9.8 percent in 2005. Thus, it is not purely or even primarily weakness in the performance of the economy that has produced the increase in the overall poverty rate in 2005 as compared to the historic lows of the early 1970s.

A headline about changing family structure wouldn’t be effective, however, for two reasons. One, it would make reporters’ eyes glaze over, and two, it does not lay the blame for increased poverty at the door of the current administration and its so-called “tax cuts for the rich.” A third reason is that the problem relates to irresponsible sexual behavior. Much of the poverty problem is related to the growth of single-parent families, a fact that is recognized further down in the Brookings report in the following statement. Three of the most effective ways to reduce poverty are to increase work levels, reverse the growth of single-parent families, and improve educational outcomes.

Note that even liberal social analysts must come to terms with the negative outcomes of dysfunctional sexual behavior. They try to formulate policy proposals to deal with the consequences of non-marital sex in terms compatible with their world view that sees social structures as the sources of problems and government programs as their solutions. So, they seek funding for yet another iteration of government programs rather than acknowledge the root moral-values issues, which, to be fair, are the purview of today’s religious leaders, many of whom have forsaken the true message of their calling.

We know, too, that ever-larger funding for education is not going to change the reality that children who grow up without a father present often turn a classroom into barely controlled chaos where learning is a very difficult proposition. But these realities have not yet penetrated the culture. The downward trend in the marriage rate among unmarried women age 15-44 continues. The marriage rate today is a little less than half of what it was in the mid-1960s. Also the unmarried birthrate of women 20 and older continues to rise year after year.

The charge has long been wielded that the rise in unwed birth rates was the consequence of poverty. Yet, with the advent of the abstinence movement, the rise of the unwed birthrate among American teens miraculously stopped climbing in the early 1990s after rising almost every year since WWII. The unwed teen birthrate has since declined by 25 percent. Funny, after listening to the left incessantly sing the song that youths could not control their raging hormones, yet another myth has been swept into the trash can.

Thus, changes in social values –– the decline in marriage and increase in divorce ––rather than the performance of the economy or the particular economic policies pursued by government account for the increase in the overall poverty rate. This is not to say that some government policies are not better than others. Certainly welfare reform has been a tremendous success, a success however that is waning as liberal bureaucrats have found loopholes that they are using to revert to their old ways. In the end, for the most part, personal choices regarding sexual behavior, not government policy, determine marriage and child bearing, something over which (in our free society) government has only limited influence.

Ordinary people know from their experience trying to deal with cumbersome government bureaucracy that government solutions are inherently inefficient; only dreamers and liberal policy analysts think otherwise. Even the Brookings report noted that the over $580 billion spent by the government on means-tested programs designed to assist the poor (four times that spent in 1968) has failed to address and has even made worse the main causes of poverty. Sometimes in the wake of events like Hurricane Katrina, the citizenry’s frustrations with mismanaged government programs, to say nothing of the deliberate fraud and abuse, make them wonder if the best that can be hoped for from legislatures is that they not levy taxes that discriminate against marriage. These are unpalatable realities for those hopeful researchers and policy advocates with their faith that heaven is possible on earth if we just get the right mix of government policies . . . and, of course, elect politicians of the “left” sort.

Sadly, it’s not politically correct to focus on moral values and responsible sexual behavior but as the public relations folks at Brookings recognize, there is always a good market for yet another press release full of hopeful promises about governmental programs.