Santorum’s Easy Anti-Poverty Remedy

Once and future Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum set off a spate of interesting responses when he gave Republican conventioneers — and anyone tuned in at home — his prescription for avoiding poverty.

“Graduate from high school, work hard, and get married before you have children,” he said. If you do these three things, “the chance you’ll ever be in poverty is just two percent.”

Santorum was borrowing from a book co-authored by Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins, who played a key role in the original welfare reform legislation.

I remarked at the time that the magic three seemed over-simple — and dangerously close to blaming poor people for their plight.

But that isn’t what Sawhill and Haskins had in mind. From the get-go, they advocated public policies that would help children born in poverty climb the income scale.

They’ve since reiterated the need for such policies. At this point, they say, “our American economy tends to help those at the top stay there while making it difficult for those at the bottom to move up.”

This is hardly what you’d take away from Santorum’s speech, as Wonkblogger Dylan Matthews observes.

That two percent chance reflects a misreading, if not deliberate abuse of the unacknowledged Sawhill-Haskins study.

More importantly, the experts Matthews cites object — and rightly — to the notion that people have so much personal control over the three factors alleged to provide a virtual guarantee against poverty.

The recession certainly gives us a perspective that seems to have eluded Santorum. Millions of people lost their jobs — and still don’t have an opportunity to “work hard,” except at looking for work.

Graduation from high school may not be altogether under personal control either, adds Professor Harry Holzer, a prominent expert on low-wage workers and anti-poverty policies.

Shawn Fremstad at the Center on Economic and Policy Research attacks the magic three from a different angle. Look at the latest poverty data, he says.

In 2010, 70% of working-age adults below the poverty line had at least a high school diploma. And 64.3% of them were or had been married.

This doesn’t however, tell us anything specific about the anti-poverty antidote of postponing childbirth until after the wedding bells have rung.

That’s where Legal Momentum comes in with the first of its myth-busting fact sheets on single motherhood. No coincidence, I think, that the organization published it the day after Santorum’s speech.

The fact sheet puts together non-marital birth rates and child poverty rates from 17 countries around the world. The child poverty rates, I assume, can stand in for the poverty rates of the moms.

We see that non-marital birth rates are considerably higher in some European countries. But the child poverty rates are much lower.

It may be the case then that having children before marriage increases the probability of poverty here in the U.S. — though mostly for women.

But that’s a function of our public policies. And I’m not talking here about the putative “assault on marriage and the family” that Santorum suggests has something to do with difficulties climbing the ladder of success.

He claims that “marriage is disappearing in places where dependency is highest” — code, I suspect, for groups poor enough to qualify for public benefits, especially “welfare,” i.e., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

But the OECD report that Legal Momentum draws on tells us that countries with more robust family benefits programs have far lower child poverty rates.

It’s not dependency that’s responsible for poverty that passes from generation to generation. Nor the rise in the percent of children who aren’t being raised in “homes with married moms and dads.”

It’s policy choices we’ve made to let kids grow up poor. So less likely to graduate from high school. Less likely then to get jobs that let them live the American dream, as Santorum says we’ve all got a right to.

And all can if we’re just given “freedom” from those de-moralizing government benefits.

6 Responses to Santorum’s Easy Anti-Poverty Remedy

  1. […] Well, most of us in the great American public fret. And no wonder, given all the rhetoric about how poor people could pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they cared to — or would be poor if they’d made responsible choices. […]

  2. Noni Mausa says:

    I remember from elementary school, stories about a young Abe Lincoln cutting firewood and spending the evening hours laying on the hearth studying law books by firelight. And he did — he educated himself, worked hard, moved with his family, grew up and left home and worked his way up … he was the archetypal bootstrap lad.

    But that was almost 200 years ago. He was born in 1809. That was only 35 years after the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the US as a nation. Things have moved on a bit since then.

    The story that if you work hard and educate yourself used to be true, and both those things are helpful, but no longer sufficient. You can study at the public library till you’re blue in the face, that still doesn’t get you a degree or a job. You can work 70 hour weeks and still have income insufficient to afford an apartment in any American state.

    No, the predominant way to become wealthy now is to position yourself into a spot where you can harvest the productivity of the rest of the population. You don’t have to appear powerful or important, you can be practically invisible, so long as you can hold that spot.

    For the average guy to work harder, save, and soberly manage his finances might increase his prosperity by 50% (not necessarily, though.) But for certain, that effort will increase the prosperity of the peak predators a dollar for every dime he gains for himself.

    When someone tells you to live on less, just remember this: when you can live on less, they will pay you less.


  3. Kathryn Baer says:

    You raise good points, Noni. There’s been a growing gap between average worker compensation and productivity for some time now. This is in part because a greater share of the income generated is flowing to the owners of capital, i.e., investors. I glean this from a thorough, though very wonkish brief by the Economic Policy Institute

    It’s also the case, of course, that a larger share of total compensation is flowing to the front-office types—CEOs, senior vice presidents, etc. Here’s another, much simpler EPI brief on that:

    I’m not, however, persuaded that if we can live on less, we’ll necessarily get paid less. A revival of the private-sector labor movement would make a difference. So would a full employment economy. Here are some thoughts about these, based on what other experts have said:

  4. Noni Mausa says:

    “I’m not, however, persuaded that if we can live on less, we’ll necessarily get paid less…”

    Not instantaneously, I agree. But in a slow job market, like we have now, the worker who is able to settle for lower wages will gradually drive out those who cannot or will not.

    My back of the envelope calculations tell me that the average worker today receives about a quarter of the usable income that he could in the 50s and 60s. That is, a single worker supporting a spouse and five children unaided, needs a much higher income than at that earlier time.

    It doesn’t appear that bad because families compensated by raising 1/2 to 1/3 as many children, and sending a second worker (usually mom) out to work. And, they stopped saving.

    In addition, if the salaries don’t appear too bad (though they are) you also have to take into account the likelihood that for every year of solid work, your average worker will today spend a couple of months out of work. This brings down effective income also, and adds in complex ways to the family’s cost of living, decreased level of health, likelihood of losing assets like savings, home equity, and so on.


  5. Kathryn Baer says:

    All excellent points, though I think the averages can be misleading — at least when it comes to salaries and time without work. I’m finishing up a post on low-income working families now. Some of what’s there explains my comment and confirms what you say about our lousy job market. Stay tuned …

  6. […] held view, I think. In some cases, it’s a form of blaming. People are poor because they made bad decisions — didn’t finish high school (or go on to college), had children before they were […]

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