As we evaluate the efficacy of the “war on poverty,” a single, unquantifiable factor stubbornly demands attention: luck.
When it comes to the fortunes of the rich and the misfortunes of the poor, we recognize the role that luck plays. Some are born lucky – either through natural gifts of appearance, athleticism, intelligence or musical talent. The really lucky ones are also born into stable, educated families with financial security and grown-up parents.
Then there are the unlucky, who, whatever their relative talents, are born into broken families, often to single mothers, in neighborhoods where systemic poverty, inferior educational opportunities and perhaps even crime constitute the culture in which they marinate.
How we level the playing field between these two opposing narratives – how we weave the social safety net – is the challenge for a society that wants to help those in need without perpetuating that need. Is the solution greater government intervention, as Democrats prefer? Or is the answer temporary taxpayer assistance tied to personal responsibility, as Republicans insist?
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The simple answer is both, but simple doesn’t cut it in Washington, D.C. You’d think these guys were being paid by the hour.
If I may. This is not a new idea but recently has fallen into disrepair if not disrepute, though it would help in the war on poverty: marriage.
Democrats avoid the M-word for fear of trespassing on important constituent turfs, especially women’s. For many women, the push for marriage is seen as subterfuge for reversing their hard-won gains.
All but evangelicalistic Republicans, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who recently “went there,” shy away from the M-word for fear of being tagged Neanderthals who are wedded to old-fashioned gender paradigms and who nurse secret desires to keep women pregnant, subjugated and in the kitchen where they belong.
Then again, perhaps it is the way some Republican men talk about women that is so off-putting, rather than what they are trying to say about the value of marriage. It is not helpful when, for example, they insinuate that single mothers are using welfare to avoid marriage. Or when some of the more nostalgic members of the GOP latch onto the idea of “welfare queens.”
But marriage, besides being the best arrangement for children, has the added benefit of being good for grown-ups. We know that being unmarried is one of the highest risk factors for poverty. And, no, splitting expenses between unmarried people isn’t the same. This is because marriage creates a tiny economy fueled by a magical concoction of love, selflessness and a permanent commitment that holds spirits aloft during tough times.
In the absence of marriage, single parents (usually mothers) are left holding the baby and all the commensurate challenges and financial burdens. As a practical matter, how is a woman supposed to care for little ones and pay for child care, while working for a minimum wage that is significantly less than what most fair-minded, lucky people would consider paying the house cleaner? Not very well.
Obviously, marriage won’t cure all ills. Every single parent could marry tomorrow and many still wouldn’t have jobs. But in the war on poverty, rebuilding a culture that encourages marriage should be part of the arsenal.
The luck of the draw isn’t nearly enough – and sometimes old ideas are the best new ideas.