Traditional Values Get New Packaging

October 15, 2009

The launch issue of National Affairs includes a lengthy and thought-provoking article by Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brooking Institution’s Center on Children and Families.

Basically, Haskins seeks to shift the debate on anti-poverty policies from income inequality to upward mobility. After all, he says, the American dream isn’t economic equality. It’s the chance to get ahead.

The first part of the article marshals economic studies to show that income inequality in the U.S. isn’t really as great as it’s commonly said to be–or increasing as much as alleged.

But this effort to correct the inequality story is just a preamble to the heart of the argument. Haskins dives into that with an account of what he and Brookings colleagues found when they analyzed long-term data on economic mobility together with data on employment, family composition, education and other personal characteristics.

These, he says, are what really matter because the reasons people are poor “have to do not only with economics but also with culture, history, and especially individual behavior and personal choices.”

Looking at the impacts of getting a four-year college degree, he concludes that mobility is “alive and well in America”–though not what it could be, given what we see in other industrialized countries, or what it should be, given the “enormous” investments in anti-poverty programs.

What we need, he says, is more public policies, like student financial aid, that support personal effort. But that’s only part of the agenda. Haskins and his colleagues recommend:

  • Expanding the “serious” work requirements and the work supports in TANF to include beneficiaries of the food stamp program and subsidized housing–this because they view welfare reform as a great success.
  • Expanding programs that focus on the early growth and development of poor children.
  • Promoting marriage and two-parent families because “the growth of female-headed families is like a giant poverty-generating machine.”

Much of this makes me very uncomfortable. No doubt that our traditional cultural values–education, hard work, marriage and responsible child-rearing–are correlated to prosperity. No doubt that personal responsibility–or lack of same–helps determine what income bracket we’re in. And no doubt whatever that expanding supports for low-wage workers and helping poor children get a good start in life are important and worthwhile.

But my sense is that Haskins’s agenda is about half a step away from blaming poor people for their situation–and maybe not even half a step away from a very rigid and conservative view of what a family should be.

And is economic mobility–the chance to move up (and down) the income scale–really the be all and the end all anyway? My dream for America is different.