Opinion: Culture’s role in poverty not new

March 24, 2014


— Critics of Rep. Paul Ryan’s remarks about cultural factors in the persistence of poverty are simultaneously shrill and boring. Their predictable minuet of synthetic indignation demonstrates how little liberals have learned about poverty or changed their rhetorical repertoire in the last 49 years.

Ryan spoke of a “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work,” adding: “There’s a real culture problem here.” This brought down upon Ryan the usual acid rain of accusations — racism, blaming the victims, etc. He had sauntered into the minefield that a more experienced Daniel Patrick Moynihan — a liberal scholar who knew the taboos of his tribe — had tiptoed into five years before Ryan was born.

A year from now, there surely will be conferences marking the 50th anniversary of what is now known as the Moynihan Report, aka “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” In March 1965, Moynihan, then 37 and assistant secretary of labor, wrote that “the center of the tangle of pathology” in inner cities — this was five months before the Watts riots — was the fact that 23.6 percent of black children were born to single women, compared to just 3.07 percent of white children. He was accused of racism, blaming the victims, etc.

Forty-nine years later, 41 percent of all American children are born out of wedlock; almost half of all first births are to unmarried women, as are 54 percent and 72 percent of all Hispanic and black births, respectively. Is there anyone not blinkered by ideology or invincibly ignorant of social science who disagrees with this:

The family is the primary transmitter of social capital — the values and character traits that enable people to seize opportunities. Family structure is a primary predictor of an individual’s life chances, and family disintegration is the principal cause of the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

In the 1960s, as the civil rights movement dismantled barriers to opportunity, there began a social regression driven by the explosive growth of the number of children in single-parent families. This meant a continually renewed cohort of adolescent males from homes without fathers; this produced turbulent neighborhoods and schools where the task of maintaining discipline eclipsed that of instruction.     

In the mid-1960s, Moynihan noted something ominous that came to be called “Moynihan’s scissors.” Two lines on a graph crossed, replicating a scissors’ blades. The descending line depicted the decline in the minority — then overwhelmingly black — male unemployment rate. The ascending line depicted the simultaneous rise of new welfare cases.

The broken correlation of improvements in employment and decreased welfare dependency was not just bewildering, it was frightening. Policymakers had long held a serene faith in social salvation through better economic incentives and fewer barriers to individual initiative. The possibility that the decisive factors are not economic but cultural — habits, mores, customs — was dismaying because it is easier for government to alter incentives and remove barriers than to alter culture. The assumption that the condition of the poor must improve as macroeconomic conditions — which government thinks it can manipulate — improve is refuted by the importance of family structure.

To say that poverty can be self-perpetuating is not to say, and Ryan did not say, that poverty is caused by irremediable attributes that are finally the fault of the poor. It is, however, to define the challenge, which is to acculturate those unacquainted with the culture of work to the disciplines and satisfactions of this culture.     

Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist and demographer, notes that “labor force participation ratios for men in the prime of life are demonstrably lower in America than in Europe” and “a large part of the jobs problem for American men today is that of not wanting one.” Surely the fact that means-tested entitlement dependency has been destigmatized has something to do with what Eberstadt terms the “unprecedented exit from gainful work by adult men.” 

Next March, serious people will be wondering why the problem Moynihan articulated half a century earlier has become so much worse while so much else — including the astonishingly rapid receding of racism and discrimination — has become so much better. One reason is what Moynihan called “the leakage of reality from American life.” Judging by the blend of malice, ignorance and intellectual sloth in the left’s reaction to Ryan’s unexceptionable remarks, the leak has become, among some factions, a cataract.  

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Ken Lassman 3 years, 8 months ago

Ho hum: quintessential George.

-Lambast the critics with a selective historical treatise on the topic-- check!

-Do so without adding the tiniest bit of additional insight on the selected topic that might actually contribute to moving the dialog forward -- check!


Scott Burkhart 3 years, 8 months ago

Do YOU have any fresh ideas on the topic? After all, the war on poverty, like the war on drugs, has been an abysmal failure. The same percentage of the population living below the poverty line is the same as it was in the 1960s. The statistics on the inner city are ghastly. 47% of the population is living on some sort of means tested government assistance. Any time someone suggests that we need to seek other solutions, the left screams racism and turns around and says we aren't throwing enough money at it. And your reply is Ho hum? The insight, on the topic, was provided by Rep. Paul Ryan. George Will was recapping the problem that you on the left refuse to admit is a failure. Where is your insight. Please, regale us with your socio-economic percipience!

Ken Lassman 3 years, 8 months ago

Firstly, Scott, I consider myself to be of the reasonable political persuasion and find that your polarizing label to be utterly unproductive just as I find labeling you as a right winger does nothing to help find the clearing somewhere in the middle where we can find common ground. I find there to be much more reasonable writers than Mr. Will who espouse what some would call the conservative persuasion, such as Mr. Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. He quotes statistics that of the the economic gains accrued since the Great Recession (i.e. since 2009), 95% of the gains have been accrued by the much vilified top 1%:http://www.aei.org/article/society-and-culture/free-enterprise/be-open-handed-toward-your-brothers/ and as a conservative, he takes offense at this. Furthermore, he has some interesting analyses on how to reduce the disparity instead of just making judgements about those who have given up and stopped looking for employment.

Now, Scott, I challenge you to find some similar incisive comments about the situation from someone you would like to label as coming from the left persuasion and bring it to the table. Surely your imagination is up to the task; I went to school with you and know you're intellectually capable of such an undertaking if you wanted to. I'll be waiting here in the clearing and then we can compare notes....

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