‘Culture of Poverty’ Makes a Comeback reads the headline from this past Sunday’s New York Times. Patricia Cohen goes on to report: “[I]n the overwhelmingly liberal ranks of academic sociology and anthropology the word ‘culture’ became a live grenade, and the idea that attitudes and behavior patterns kept people poor was shunned. Now, after decades of silence, these scholars are speaking openly about you-know-what, conceding that culture and persistent poverty are enmeshed.”

At first, this may seem like the left is finally ready to make a major concession to reality about their decades-long War on Poverty. But a closer reading of Cohen’s source materials, a recent symposium on poverty in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, shows the opposite is true. The left is just as clueless about poverty as it has ever been. Heritage Foundation Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies Robert Rector writes at National Review Online:

One might imagine that experts researching the “culture of poverty” would examine how marital collapse, eroded work ethic, and indifference to academic study contribute to financial poverty. Guess again.

Instead, editors of The Annals firmly declare that the main cause of poverty is “material deprivation itself.” In other words, the cause of poverty is poverty: The cure for poverty is to artificially boost the incomes of the poor through welfare payments, free food, housing, medical care, and so on.

This is nothing new. Liberals always have insisted that poverty causes dysfunctional behaviors rather than vice versa. But, if having a low income caused problem behaviors (such as illegitimate births and eroded work ethic), then most Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries (whose incomes were far lower than those of today’s poor) should have been drowning in dysfunctional behaviors. Of course, they were not.

As Rector has amply documented before, the left’s continued blindness to the cultural underpinnings of poverty have undermined civil society and bloated our federal budget. Since 1964, the U.S. has spent $15.9 trillion on means-tested welfare programs. After adjusting for inflation, welfare spending is 13 times higher today than it was in 1965. Welfare spending has grown more rapidly than Social Security, Medicare, education, and defense. And what do we have to show for these efforts? According to the Census Bureau, a record high 3.7 million Americans fell into poverty in 2009. The out-of-wedlock birthrate is now 40% and the African American out-of-wedlock birthrate is 72%. When the War on Poverty began the out-of-wedlock birthrate was just 7%.

The collapse of marriage is the root cause of child poverty in the U.S. today
. It is far past time to reboot our poverty programs to promote work and encourage marriage in order to control costs and promote greater self-reliance. Among Rector’s recommendations:

  • Slowing the growth of the welfare state: Congress needs to establish reasonable fiscal constraints within the welfare system. Once the current recession ends, aggregate welfare spending should be rolled back to pre-recession levels. After this rollback has been completed, the growth of welfare spending should be capped at the rate of inflation.
  • Promoting personal responsibility and work: Able-bodied welfare recipients should be required to work or to prepare for work as a condition of receiving aid. Food stamps and housing assistance, two of the largest programs for the needy, should be aligned with the TANF program to require able-bodied adults to work or to prepare for work for a minimum of 30 hours per week.
  • Ending the welfare marriage penalty and encouraging marriage in low-income communities: Current means-tested welfare programs penalize low-income recipients who get married; these anti-marriage penalties should be reduced or eliminated.

During the administration of President Bill Clinton, conservatives successfully reformed one welfare program in the 1990s: replacing the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with the new Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). But President Barack Obama’s failed economic stimulus gutted those reforms. And his budget proposal would spend $10.3 trillion on means-tested welfare over the next decade. Before the current rise in poverty, that was enough to give $250,000 to each person currently living in poverty in the U.S., or $1 million for a poor family of four. Our nation can’t afford another 10 years of failed War on Poverty thinking.

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