The other America

Posted: Jan 29, 2004 12:00 AM

It's the 1930s again. At least if you listen to the Democratic presidential candidates. John Edwards' rhetoric about "two Americas" -- one rich, one struggling -- has caught on. John Kerry now talks of "the economy of privilege." As Edwards puts it, invoking the 35 million poor Americans, "You and I together have a moral responsibility to lift these families out of poverty."

Edwards and the other Democrats deserve credit for focusing attention on the least fortunate, who are often forgotten in the rush of both parties to shovel government benefits at middle-class voters, especially if they happen to be elderly. Unless Democrats offer serious solutions to poverty, however, the poor only serve as props for their moral vanity.

Indeed, Democrats on the stump implicitly argue that if only more former Enron executives would be thrown in jail, the downtrodden would magically be lifted into affluence. This is preening nonsense. We know what causes poverty. It has nothing to do with corporations, and little to do even with other, more-relevant economic factors, such as wage rates.

Poverty in America is primarily a cultural phenomenon, driven by a shattered work ethic and sexual irresponsibility. Child poverty would be nearly obliterated if every household had one adult working full time and married parents. Unfortunately, only President Bush has a program that works to make these social conditions a reality, and it is resisted by the party of Edwards.

According to the Heritage Foundation's welfare expert Robert Rector, the typical poor family with children is supported by only 800 hours of work annually, or about 16 hours a week. This number holds in good economic times and bad, because it is a factor of attitudes toward work rather than the availability of jobs. If the amount of work in these households were equivalent to one adult working 40 hours a week, roughly 75 percent of poor children would be lifted out of poverty.

The problem is not, as liberals argue, low wages. If you are only working 16 hours a week, you will pretty much be poor unless you're a TV anchor. Raising the minimum wage isn't going to help someone working so few hours. It is the amount of work that matters. If a single mother works full time at the minimum wage -- factoring in such income supplements as the Earned Income Tax Credit and food stamps -- she will not be poor.

The other cause of child poverty is single parenthood. If single mothers married the fathers of their children, according to Rector, three-quarters of poor children would be lifted out of poverty. Again, economic factors are secondary. The average father of a child born out of wedlock is making $17,000 a year. He would be a good candidate for marriage, if the culture of marriage weren't so damaged. The key variable in whether an at-risk mother will marry the father of her child is not his wages, but the couple's attitude toward marriage and their relationship skills.

So, a common-sense anti-poverty program has two prongs -- restore the work ethic and encourage marriage. Work has been so devalued because people have been taught to rely on government support instead. The 1996 welfare reform tapped the brakes on this dynamic, but more remains to be done. Roughly half of adult welfare recipients are still not working, and work requirements don't exist for important government supports such as public housing. Bush wants to strengthen work requirements, but Democrats are balking.

As for marriage, the entire welfare system acts as a subsidy for single parenthood. With his proposal for marriage education and increased funding for abstinence programs, Bush wants to put a little government pressure on the other side of the scale.

You can argue with the particulars of this program, but if you're not talking abut how to increase work and marriage among the poor, well then, you're not serious about addressing poverty. You're just some guy with pretty hair saying pretty words because you like the way they sound.