Today’s most innovative ideas in the fight against poverty are more than a century old.
April 1, 1998
by Joel Schwartz
What folly . . . to make it possible for a man voluntarily to live without work! What more than folly to make it possible for the head of a family to do so! His children are born into a world where the father is inconsiderate and abusive of the mother; . . . where all the economic laws of the civilized world seem topsy-turvy; where things sometimes come miraculously, without any return for them in labor, and where they sometimes do not come at all. . . . How can we say that we “do not let children suffer,” . . . so long as into these homes thousands of helpless unfortunate babies are born every year?
Richmond and her allies argued that cash subsidies cannot compensate for absent, incompetent, or neglectful parents. They believed that familial responsibility was the real cure for poverty. In fact, they considered subsidization dangerous precisely because it makes it easier for men to shirk their responsibilities and may even provide an incentive to do so.
Josephine Shaw Lowell (the leading theoretician of New York’s Charity Organization Society from its founding in 1882 until her death in 1905) summarized that notion: “Deserted wives with children must not be treated as widows [that is, given “long continued relief”], for it has been found that to deal as tenderly with them as sympathy would dictate, leads other men to desert their families, trusting them to charitable care.”
Poverty Then and Now
Nevertheless, in retrospect the reformers’ understanding of poverty seems flawed in crucial respects. For example, note that in 1896 Lowell placed much responsibility for poverty on the poor themselves:
If it could be said that there were in the United States numbers of honest, industrious, intelligent, and energetic people who were in a chronic state of distress and suffering, that would be a horrible situation; and yet it would be a situation which would make the helping of them easier and more encouraging than is the helping of the people that now have to be dealt with; for since their distress is due to inherent faults, either physical, mental, or moral, it becomes very difficult to cure it.
Not long after that, however, Progressive reformer Robert Hunter challenged this premise in his 1904 book Poverty, demonstrating that there were indeed “numbers of honest, industrious, intelligent, and energetic people” who needed only to fall ill, lose work, or age to plunge into “a chronic state of distress and suffering.” But ironically, Hunter’s evidence meant that the problem of poverty—although more widespread than Lowell had supposed—was actually easier to solve, not harder. Because most of the distress of poor people was not caused by their own “inherent faults,” economic growth and expanded opportunities could reduce poverty dramatically.
That is exactly what happened, as contemporary political scientist Lawrence Mead notes. The nineteenth-century poor, he writes, “lived mostly in two-parent families, and children worked alongside their parents. The answer to poverty was higher wages, which economic growth eventually provided.”
In Mead’s view, moral reform is more urgent now: “The conditions in [today’s] ghetto are . . . worse in human, if not economic, terms than anything faced by earlier social controllers. The moral reformers wanted to keep men out of saloons, but at least most poor men were working in that era, and most families were intact. Today, even poor people have higher incomes than average Americans did then, but the family, crime, and drug problems are much worse than a century ago.”
Today “honest, industrious, intelligent, and energetic people” are highly unlikely to be poor—at least for any long time. Policy analyst Susan Mayer summarizes the situation:
As countries get richer, they often implement policies [e.g., survivors’ benefits, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance] to reduce poverty among families hit by random catastrophes such as the death of a spouse, protracted illness, or job loss. When nations do this, poverty declines, but those who remain poor also become less like everyone else. . . . As poverty rates are lowered and poverty becomes less dependent on bad luck, those who stay poor for long periods of time are increasingly likely to be those who suffer from multiple liabilities [the “physical, mental, or moral” faults to which Lowell alluded].
Those who remain poor in a rich country are harder to help than those who are poor in a poorer country. Lowell was not so much wrong as prematurely right: her analysis is more applicable today than when she made it.
The moral reformers were prematurely right in another important respect. They sought principally to reduce the dependency of the able-bodied rather than eliminate poverty. Poverty must have seemed—and indeed was—comparatively intractable a century ago, when there was so little wealth to go around. It was easier to reduce dependency, and it made sense to try to do so.
Today’s welfare policies have the same aim, but for the opposite reason: the problem of poverty is no longer insoluble but in fact has already been solved. Mayer writes, “[I]n the United States most poor families can meet [their] basic material needs through a combination of Food Stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies, government income transfers, and private transfers of cash, goods, and services. Under these circumstances the question is seldom whether money for basic necessities would help, . . . but usually whether money for goods and services beyond some [already attained] minimum would significantly” improve matters.
In short, the moral reformers were concerned with character formation because they could not—and did not want to—redistribute income to the poor. Today we worry about personal character because we have already redistributed vast sums to them. Robert Rector and William F. Lauber of the Heritage Foundation calculate that between 1965 and 1994 U.S. welfare spending totaled $5.4 trillion 1993 dollars—70 percent more than the inflation-adjusted cost of America’s victory in World War II.
Poverty is much easier to avoid today than in the past. A decade ago a group of welfare analysts (including liberals such as Robert Reischauer and Alice Rivlin and conservatives such as Charles Murray and Lawrence Mead) summarized what one needs to do to climb out of poverty:
The probabilities of remaining involuntarily in poverty are remarkably low for those who
Those who do these three traditional things may experience periods in poverty, but are quite unlikely to stay involuntarily poor.
These behaviors are indeed effective tools against poverty. A group of Berkeley sociologists found that “marriage affects the risk of poverty more than does any other attribute.” Studying one representative sample, they found that “being married reduced the chances that a man was poor from 23 in 100 to 1 in 100. Being married reduced a woman’s odds from 45 in 100 to 4 in 100.”
Thus social reform and economic expansion have brought us to the point where the simple rules espoused by nineteenth-century reformers—be diligent, sober, thrifty, and responsible—really do enable people to escape poverty. The paradox, then, is that Americans preached these virtues to the poor when most of the latter already accepted them (and before the virtues could guarantee an escape from poverty), and stopped preaching these virtues when the poor most needed to hear about them (and when they could come closer to guaranteeing an escape from poverty).
Decline of Virtue
They stopped because they grew increasingly skeptical toward traditional virtues, regarding them as old-fashioned and “bourgeois.”
Political scientist James Q. Wilson argues that the nineteenth-century “ethos of self-control” (promoting “temperance, fidelity, moderation, and the acceptance of personal responsibility”) gave way to a twentieth-century “ethos of self-expression” celebrating liberation from social constraints. Wilson notes, “Today, and for the last few decades, enlightened people scoff at moral uplift.”
This moral reorientation affected the poor because America’s elites refused to recommend virtues they were no longer so intent on practicing themselves. Unfortunately, whereas self-control benefits the poor, an ethos of self-expression can further impoverish them. Author Myron Magnet notes, “The Haves may pay a price for experimenting with sexual liberation or drugs or dropping out (almost always temporarily), but it is usually not a catastrophic price, nothing like the price the Have-Nots pay in ruined lives.”
Variants of Magnet’s argument are also made on the left. Sociologist Christopher Jencks observes that today we are “rich enough that affluent couples can afford the luxury of supporting two households,” and that consequently “elite support for the two-parent norm has eroded.”
Fortunately, there are signs that the traditional virtues are enjoying a renaissance among America’s elites. Charles Murray has pointed to “the partial restoration of traditional society”— the resurgence of traditional moral viewpoints that were rejected in the 1960s, particularly a return to traditional sexual and marital mores, efforts to raise educational standards, and signs of a religious revival.
Murray notes that these encouraging developments are not affecting all social classes uniformly—hence the danger that the restoration will be only “partial”—but he does suggest that aspects are apparent among all classes. Also, the return to traditionalism is most evident among the elites, and their “influence on cultural norms is vast.” Their values will ultimately “become the basis for the social sanctions and rewards that control behavior so much more effectively than laws.” He therefore speculates—most pertinently for our purposes—that “as these norms of the larger society change, one may plausibly hope that they will change behavior everywhere, including behavior in the underclass.”
Political analyst Michael Barone recently posited a second argument linking social indicators to attitudes among both elites and ordinary people. Barone argues that a new social consensus explains the recent decline in criminality and dependency in poor neighborhoods: according to the FBI’s crime index, serious offenses dropped by 13 percent between 1991 and 1996, and the welfare rolls fell by 23 percent between January 1994 and May 1997.
Barone contends that crime and dependency increased when social elites and ordinary people seemed to sanction them, they plateaued when elites but not ordinary people continued to sanction them, and they are falling now because both elites and ordinary people have withdrawn their approval. In the 1960s, elites welcomed the expansion of welfare rolls (believing that the poor were finally receiving the assistance they deserved) and saw disadvantaged criminals as victims undeserving of punishment. But welfare dependency and crime rates rose rapidly—and eventually lost their charm.
Thus, Barone suggests, a new social consensus—among both elites and ordinary people—has improved social indicators (and will continue to do so): “Crime and welfare rates did not change because incomes changed; they changed because minds changed.” These changes do not constitute an attack upon the poor; instead, they help them fulfill their aspirations. Able-bodied poor people are much better off, both economically and psychologically, when they find work, and reducing street crime improves life in poor neighborhoods radically.
Numerous such arguments and the widely supported welfare reform of 1996 may indicate a return to the understanding of the nineteenth-century moral reformers, whose central aim was to help the poor become virtuous and take advantage of whatever opportunities existed. Today’s social scientists are once again promoting the virtues proclaimed by yesterday’s moral reformers.
In the final analysis, however, virtues such as diligence, sobriety, thrift, and familial responsibility are more effectively taught through personal example than government edict. As Tocqueville noted regarding liberal democracies’ attempts to promote religion, although “it is ever the duty of [democratic] lawgivers” to further belief in the immortality of the soul, “it is far from easy to say what those who govern democratic peoples should do to make [spiritual conceptions] prevail.” His sole suggestion is that governments “daily . . . act as if they believed [in the immortality of the soul] themselves.”
If we really want to encourage virtues among the poor (as we should and must), we must practice them ourselves. That, too, will require a return to some ideas of the past—a moral renaissance, the first fruits of which we may already be enjoying.
Joel Schwartz is an Adjunct Fellow with Hudson Institute.
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