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Rich Lowry: The poor have only themselves to blame

I wondered where National Review editor Rich Lowry was going with this. He spends the bulk of his column conceding that, yes, the American Dream is "raggedy around the edges," that if you're born poor in America, you're all too likely to stay poor, that "picking the right parents" seems to make more of a difference here than it does in (say) Finland for your future economic prospects.

So, God bless Lowry for providing some conservative reality-based pushback to Paul Ryan's fantasy of an economically mobile society.

But Lowry arrives at the end of his column—just two paragraphs to go!—and concludes that despite all this, one shouldn't blame America's economic structure—really, the poor have only themselves to blame:
This stagnation is less a statement about the structure of America’s economy than about its culture. As Ronald Haskins, also of the Brookings Institution, wrote in an essay for National Affairs, “economic mobility is constrained above all by personal choices and behaviors.” He argues that society’s leaders “should herald the ‘success sequence’: finish schooling, get a job, get married, have babies.” If Americans finished high school, worked full-time at a job that matched their skills, and married at the rate they did in the 1970s, the poverty rate would be cut by 70 percent.

These old-fashioned bourgeois virtues, and particularly marriage, rarely figure in the public debate. Everyone is more comfortable talking about taxes or the banks, as the America Dream frays.
Let's unpack this a bit, using Finland—Lowry's comparison—as our guide a bit.

First of all, marriage, since that's the item that got my attention. While it's true that the marriage rate in the United States had declined in recent decades, it's also vastly truer that the marriage rate in the United States is much higher than in Finland: 7.5 marriages for every 1,000 people in the population in 2005, compared to Finland's rate of around 5 marriages per 1,000 people in the same year. The decline in marriage rates has happened in just about every developed country around the world (except Sweden, where the rate wasn't that high to begin with) but the United States remains one of the most marrying countries of them all. To a great extent, "old-fashioned bourgeois virtues" have held on tightly here—only it doesn't seem to make much of a difference in our economic mobility rates.

Maybe it's just the poor who aren't married? Nope. A 2004 study from the MDRC suggests that "through their early 30s, economically disadvantaged adults actually are more likely to marry than advantaged adults." The poor are attempting, at least, to embrace old-fashioned bourgeois virtues—but it's also true that those marriages more often end in divorce. That does give rise to a chicken-and-egg question, I suppose: Are the poor economically disadvantaged because they can't build stable marriages? Or can they not build stable marriages because they're economically disadvantaged? I don't know the answer to that question, but I have a hunch. But the overall point is this: The United States is a marrying country, and our poor are a marrying people. The evidence seems weighted against Lowry's point.

I'm going to skip the baby-making part, except to note that having a kid hasn't done anything to improve my economic prospects. Kids eat!

Let's focus on education, instead: It's true that the high school graduation rate in the United States is shamefully low—72 percent, compared to Finland's 92 percent. (It's worth noting that Finland also has a much higher rate of college graduates: 48.5 percent compared to America's 36.5 percent.) I'm skeptical Lowry and his fellow conservatives would recommend adopting the Finnish education system—it's European!—but I could be wrong.

For those who do graduate high school, how easy is it to find a "full-time job that matches their skills?" It's much more difficult these days than it was in the 1970s to find such a job that will pull you out of poverty. We already know that between the 1970s and now, the American economy shifted pretty radically, shedding manufacturing jobs and pushing more people to the service industry. Generally speaking, that's meant a shift to not-as-well-paying jobs: In September, a manufacturing-sector job in the United States paid $980.98 per week; a private-sector service job paid $756.96—provided you weren't in retail, which paid $496.12 per week. These are average wages, not median wages—which would provide a better picture of what a typical worker in those sectors make. Generally speaking, though, the type of full-time job that matches the skills of a high school graduate has shifted away from well-paying to not-as-well paying. That's assuming the jobs exist; the high unemployment rate suggests that's not always the case.

Making babies won't change that dynamic.

Maybe it doesn't make sense to blame taxes and bankers for that shift, but the issue is definitely one of economics—not just or even mostly, as Lowry tries to suggest, about poor people having bad habits. The numbers indicate that the poor are trying; the opportunities aren't there. Whose fault is that?


Notorious Ph.D. said…
To add to your point about the disparity between manufacturing jobs and retail jobs: the former are (or at least were) more likely to be unionized, and perhaps as a result, to provide benefits such as health care, sick leave, family leave, and retirement plans. It strikes me that these would also be fundamental to providing the foundation for a sustainable life in the middle or working class.

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