Santorum’s Easy Anti-Poverty Remedy

September 4, 2012

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.