25 August 2011

Root Causes Of Poverty: Choice or Misfortune

David French at National Review Online speaking about poverty:

"It is simply a fact that our social problems are increasingly connected to the depravity of the poor. If an American works hard, completes their education, gets married, and stays married, then they will rarely — very rarely — be poor. At the same time, poverty is the handmaiden of illegitimacy, divorce, ignorance, and addiction. As we have poured money into welfare, we’ve done nothing to address the behaviors that lead to poverty while doing all we can to make that poverty more comfortable and sustainable."

French here is committing the sadly common sin of assuming a correlation indicates a causation, and he's doing so in a way that conveniently reinforces his worldview. It is certainly true that people who complete an education and stay married are less likely to be poor. But it is not obvious that the former leads to the latter. Note that the second sentence quoted above:

"If an American works hard, completes their education, gets married, and stays married, then they will rarely — very rarely — be poor."

can easily be reversed to say the following:

"If an American has money, they will complete their education, get married, stay married, and find meaningful employment."

From Enik Rising.

There is strong empirical evidence that access to higher education for people who otherwise are academically able to go to college is greatly influenced by family wealth. On this point, Seth at Enik Rising has hit the problem on the nose, and there is an obvious solution that has nothing to do with the "depravity of the poor." Fully fund scholarships based on financial need for everyone who meets merit standards necessary to have a good likelihood of success in higher education.

More generally, some people are simply more functional than others. Jobs, education, marrying and staying married are not unilateral choices. They are choices that require someone else's consent on a long term basis to a relationship, and some people aren't capable of doing what it takes to sustain those kinds of long term relationships, be they with an employer and co-workers, with teachers and fellow students at a school, or with a spouse.

Not everyone can complete the academic work necessary in an educational program successfully. At some point, a lack of academic aptitude, whatever its cause, becomes obvious and insurmountable. In any education system that has any meaningful expectations of students, somebody or other is going to fail to meet those expectations, and the people who fail are likely to disproportionately include the least able people in the system. Some people will always be incapable of providing for themselves without assistance from someone. Absent welfare or a wealthy family, these individuals will necessarily end up in poverty in any reasonably well functioning market economy. Categorical welfare programs rather than means based ones might be better, but they need help and our basic sense of community obligation to all of its members justifies help for them.

Another common reason to drop out of school is that a girl is pregnant and decides to have the child. It isn't impossible to finish an education in this situation, but it is much harder and it takes a quite compelling reason to devote large amounts of time and energy away from your infant child when any other possibility is available. It also doesn't necessarily make sense for society in the long run to encourage a new mother to put a young child in day care so that the new mother can toil away at a low wage job that barely covers the cost of day care, if that, rather than taking intense care of a child and preventing a cycle of poverty from continuing. Some of this is due to weak sex education (i.e. lack of contraception knowledge and knowledge about how one gets pregnant and how to deal with pressure from a boyfriend to have sex), but lack of hope, that is lack of alternative prospects for the girl's future that look promising, is also a major factor.

The plausible way to address this is to provide sex education and do everything possible to allow girls to see the possibilities open to them (ideally, ones that actually exist and are not just propaganda), rather than to vilify girls who do get pregnant, which is an abstinence only approach that has been empirically proven to fail.

In any case, once what is done is done, the issue is how to create the right incentives and some people are always going to get pregnant without getting married, sometimes with someone that they can bear to cohabit with and shouldn't be expected to cohabit with. The most critical issue is to not create biases in welfare program eligibility that discourage marriage, and to instead to be at least equally supportive, if not more supportive, of couples that enter into shotgun marriages.

A third reason that a person (the vast majority of the time, but not always a boy) drops out after a long history of disciplinary issues in school, despite having the academic ability to do the work and finish school. A life of crime frequently follows. Inadequately treated mental health issues, substance abuse problems (which have a strong hereditary component), learning disabilities, economic pressures and personal safety concerns arising from living in poverty, and an absence of any effective parents in life all contribute. Moreover, simply getting a GED frequently doesn't solve the behavior issues that led to the dropout situation in the first place, and a criminal record that often soon accumulates, aggravated by a tough on crime light on rehabilitation oriented criminal justice system, makes it very hard for someone in this situation to get a job with or without a high school degree. Some kids wouldn't thrive in any circumstances. Other kids are "orchid children" who can be brilliant in ideal circumstances, but will fail to thrive otherwise.

Higher mandatory attendance ages and stronger enforcement of truancy laws in a constructive manner can help. So can greater access to mental health treatment and a treatment rather than punishment oriented approach to substance abuse. A better social safety net for kids can also help to discontinue cycles of poverty.

Of course, it is also much harder for an unemployed or marginally employed high school drop out with a criminal record and a bag full of issues to get married and stay married than it is for other people. And, if someone like that is the father of a child that you have chosen to keep, it may not make sense for you to keep that person in your household.

Needless to say, getting decent job is something that lots of people can't manage to do at least some of the time. Unemployment levels do not rise and fall with tides of personal virtue. Apart from rare instants in economic history, our economic system does not naturally result in a full employment economy, and in any non-full employment economy, somebody is going to be unemployed and the less economically valuable skill and behavioral set that someone has, the more likely it is that they are going to be the one who is unemployed. Someone who doesn't play well with others, or lacks an education or job skills is going to spend time employed now and then, especially during economic downturns. You can create decent and comprehensive unemployment insurance, create "make work" government jobs, give employers incentives to create jobs that they otherwise wouldn't create, and create a better welfare system, but somehow or other, if you don't give people an opportunity to provide for themselves or work when they don't have jobs, they will have no choice but to end up homeless or take on a life of crime that only makes the hole deeper in the long run.

The very expensive option of last resort in our society is the corrections system, or having someone live on the street as a vagrant (which causes all sorts of other problems), or economic stimulus like additional defense spending or "stimulus programs" intended to boost the economy like the new home buyer's credit or cars for clunkers programs. But, every single one of these options turns out to be much more expensive and less effective than simply hiring people who don't have jobs to do something, or simply providing for the basic needs of the unemployed directly without regard to work efforts.  People evaluating the appropriate size of the welfare state because they are concerned about overall levels of government spending need to look at it as a choice of evils problem.  Failing to spend funds on welfare has consequences that lead to other kinds of government spending and other negative societal consequences.

There is nothing wrong with making life more comfortable for someone who is utterly incapable of doing anything to not be poor. Not everyone can find someone to marry them. Not everyone can convince a spouse to stay married to them. Not everyone can find a job. Not everyone is capable of obtaining a meaningful high level of education. Some people are predisposed to be much more vulnerable to drug and alcohol addiction than others or simply are addicted now and lack the personal grit to beat those addictions on their own.

No amount of incentive can get someone to leap over a thirty foot pole without assistance, and there is no virtue in making people who are economically inadequate suffer because they aren't worthy. No matter how good of an investment I think it would be to buy a downtown office building and manage it better, I can't do it without the support of people who are going to invest immense amounts of cash in that venture.

There is good reason to doubt that we have as French claims excessively "poured money into welfare" in a way that makes poverty "comfortable and sustainable." The welfare system in United States is remarkably stingy. No other developed country in the world lets people fall as far down as we do. The punishment for failing economic in the United States and the rewards for economic success are more extreme in the United States than almost anywhere else. Moreover, in the places were the political sentiment against welfare is being express welfare is most meager already. Mississippi is not at the bottom of state rankings on every imaginable statistic of socio-economic well being because its welfare programs are too generous. Complaints about excessive welfare spending mostly aren't coming from places like San Francisco, Boston and New York City that have relatively generous welfare systems.

Rather than focusing on austerity and cutting government spending on welfare, we need to look at ways to better enable people to find work, to have worthwhile alternatives to crime, to have the economic means to survive as a family unit, and to identify and obtain help dealing with substance abuse and mental health problems.

Also, often poverty has no root causes that can be addressed. We learned as a nation a long time ago that aging is an incurable disease. Rather than floundering around looking for an immediate cure for old age, we acknowledged that it doesn't make sense to insist that seniors who had failed to amass enough savings to work on pain of starvation and homelessness, and instead created Social Security and Medicare. This may have encouraged millions or even tens of millions of seniors who would otherwise have kept working to quit their jobs or scale back their hours thereby reducing the GDP. But, it also means that we have almost no seniors in dire poverty, and tens of millions of seniors who are lifted out of poverty and live longer as a result.

Part of a sensible welfare state is not only encouraging people to change what they can change, but recognizing that some people aren't capable of enough change to lift themselves out of poverty.

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