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The truth about poverty: Bad choices, not a bad economy, are to blame
Ferbruary 4, 2007
The release of the U.S. Census Bureau's mid-decade look at the population late last year sparked the usual outpouring of misinformed reporting on poverty. The familiar story line charged that our economic system isn't working well. The evidence? The poor are getting poorer, as one headline had it, and poverty rates remained unchanged, as another declared. In an editorial headlined "Downward Mobility," the New York Times explained that the Bush agenda, emphasizing tax cuts and economic growth, wasn't adequate for helping the poor, who need a wide range of government interventions, from a higher minimum wage and a more progressive income tax to undefined "labor protections." But the very same census study that provoked these headlinesthe "American Community Survey"also reveals the true nature of much poverty in America, telling a story that the press either ignores or can't bring itself to write. Poverty in America results increasingly from the choices that people make, not our economic system's supposed shortcomings.
The census's profile of poverty is especially revealing in big American cities like New York and Chicago. With their wealthy families living side by side with a larger than average number of the poor, New York and Chicago often appear in press accounts as damning examples of our society's inequities. Places like Manhattan, above all, seem the embodiment of former vice presidential candidate John Edwards' "Two Americas," with both a poverty rate and an average household income higher than the national average.
Yet behind the differences in economic performance lie startling disparities in social behavior, usually unacknowledged by critics of our economic system. For instance, the latest community survey tells us that single parents head more than two-thirds of all of New York's and 72 percent of all Chicago's poor families. The vast majority of these are female-headed households. In New York, the median family income of female-headed households with children is just $21,233 annually, a stark contrast with the nearly $65,000 brought home by married couples with kids in New York.
No wonder that economists from the University of California at Davis found in a recent study on poverty in America that "changes in family structurenotably a doubling of the percent of families headed by a single womancan account for a 3.7 percentage point increase in poverty rates, more than the entire rise in the poverty rate from 10.7 percent to 12.8 percent since 1980."
FAILURE TO WORK
It's not that the adults who head families in poverty don't earn enough; they don't work enough. Left-wing critics often charge that nowadays "work doesn't work" in our "broken" economic system, by which they mean that wages are so wretched that the poor can't lift themselves up, even when employed. But the community survey informs us that an adult working full-time heads up fewer than 16 percent of all impoverished New York households, and only 18 percent in Chicago. Among single-woman-headed households, just 14 percent work full-time in New York and 11 percent in Chicago.
True, it may be hard to work full-time as a single mother unless you can afford child care. Yet in both New York and Chicago, ever more womenespecially poor womenare choosing to have kids without a husband. The census shows that about 33 percent of all births annually in New York and 43 percent in Chicago are out of wedlock, though the data vary widely by race. In Chicago, for instance, Asian Americans have the lowest out-of-wedlock rate (6 percent) and blacks the highest (71 percent). Most shocking, perhaps, is that more than half of women having children out of wedlock in New York, and 60 percent in Chicago, are already in poverty or wind up there within a year of giving birth. Those births to poor, unmarried women partly explain why both cities have a higher than average overall poverty rate; since their illegitimacy rate is above the nation's, a greater percentage of children are born directly into poverty in both New York and Chicago than nationwide.
POVERTY OF EDUCATION
The second great demographic characteristic of poverty today is education, or the lack of it. The ranks of the impoverished overflow with high school dropouts, who are at a great disadvantage in today's increasingly knowledge-based economy, which demands a sheepskin. In New York, where manufacturing jobs have given way to a white-collar economy, the lack of a high school education is the felt most acutely: almost seven in 10 high school dropouts live in poverty, the community survey reports. In Chicago, 40 percent of dropouts live in poverty, a rate that is similar to the nation's. In both cities, many of those dropouts are also single parents, a double whammy that practically ensures poverty for themselves and their children.
Sociologists will point out (at least in their candid moments) that most people can stay out of poverty in America by doing just a few simple thingsmost important, graduating from high school and not having kids without a spouse on hand. The latest census survey reinforces this basic wisdom. Sooner or later, the press will get it.
Adapted from an essay in the winter edition of City Journal.
©2007 Chicago Sun-Times
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