Poverty Advocates Show Poor Reasoning
Let the hyperventilating begin.
Expect critics of the Bush administration to seize on the U.S.
Census Bureau's annual report on poverty. Look, they'll say,
poverty's up. They'll blame tax cuts. Or the war in Iraq. Or the
gap between rich and poor. Heck, they may try to pin it on
They're right about one small thing: Child poverty did rise -- very
slightly -- in 2002. But the increase is minimal compared to prior
recessions. Over the first two years of the latest recession, child
poverty has increased by only one half of 1 percent.
While any increase in poverty is lamentable, this is a very modest
one by historic standards. At the start of the previous three
recessions (going back to the 1970s), the average rise in child
poverty was 2.5 percent -- five times the latest increase.
The Census report shows that more than 12 million children (or 16.7
percent of all American children) experienced poverty last year.
The more fundamental issue is why, in our prosperous nation, any
children are poor -- in good times or bad.
Essentially, there are two reasons. First, they're poor because
they're raised without a father in the home. Second, they're poor
because their parents work little or not at all. The lack of work
and marriage remain the predominant factors behind child poverty,
year after year, in good times and bad.
For example, in 2000 (before the recession), more than 4 million
families with children were poor. The typical poor family was
supported by 800 hours of paid work during that year. That's only
16 hours per week. In one out of every three poor families, the
parents did no work during the entire year.
Well, cynics might argue, the wage rates of poor parents are so low
that, even if they work full-time, their families would still be
poor. Census data show this isn't the case. Besides, the government
supplements the earnings of low-wage parents through programs such
as the Earned Income Tax Credit. These subsidies are enough that a
single parent can raise her family's income above poverty by
working full-time, even at the minimum wage.
A low level of work, not low wages, is the main cause of child
poverty. If yearly work were raised to 2,000 hours per family (the
equivalent of one parent working 40 hours per week for 50 weeks)
the child poverty rate would plummet: About 75 percent of poor
families would rise out of poverty.
But isn't it useless to talk about increasing work when jobs seem
scarce? This argument seems plausible. But the work levels of poor
parents remain consistently low even in the best economic
conditions. In the long term, the earnings of poor parents are hurt
more by an eroded work ethic than by a lack of jobs.
The second major reason for child poverty is the collapse of
marriage. Nearly two thirds of all poor children live in
single-parent homes. Each year, an additional 1.3 million children
are born out of wedlock. Social science data show that these
children are seven times more likely to live in poverty than those
raised by married couples.
Critics argue that unmarried fathers earn too little to support
families. The facts show otherwise: If poor single mothers married
the fathers of their children, nearly three fourths would be lifted
out of poverty immediately.
Clearly, work and marriage are the keys to ending child poverty.
Yet for decades, the welfare system has rewarded idle dependence
and has penalized marriage. The anti-work, anti-marriage incentives
of welfare have trapped multiple generations in a cycle of
Fortunately, in the mid 1990s the welfare system was partially
reformed. Many beneficiaries of cash aid were required to search
for jobs or prepare for work. The result was an unprecedented drop
in dependence, a surge in parental employment, and a dramatic
decline in child poverty. But reform has been severely limited.
Currently more than half of the parents in the Temporary Assistance
to Needy Families program (TANF) are idle. Major welfare programs
such as Food Stamps, public housing and Medicaid remain unreformed.
We can't reduce child poverty still further under these
Future reforms must also strengthen marriage. President Bush has
proposed a new initiative to do that by reducing the anti-marriage
penalties in welfare and providing low-income couples with the
skills needed to sustain healthy marriages.
The challenge and the opportunity are clear. Marriage and work are
reliable and indispensable roads out of poverty. In the long term,
we can't significantly reduce child poverty except by increasing
Rector is senior research fellow for welfare and poverty
issues at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire