We had an unusual experience last week, with President Obama participating in, of all things, a panel discussion on poverty with three leading public intellectuals, E.J. Dionne, Jr., Robert Putnam, and Arthur Brooks. The conversation ranged pretty widely, with a number of issues coming up, some of which didn’t get all that much attention. I know that there were some hot button moments, which received a good bit of radio and television air time, not to mention editorial and blogosphere commentary, but I’d rather take a deep breath and proceed just a bit more calmly.
Let me begin by observing that the President displayed flashes of the persona that made him at least somewhat appealing when he first appeared on the national scene. He at least said he wanted to get past the partisan divide where one side spoke only about economics and the other only about culture:
The stereotype is that you’ve got folks on the left who just want to pour more money into social programs, and don’t care anything about culture or parenting or family structures, and that’s one stereotype. And then you’ve got cold-hearted, free market, capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and…think everybody are moochers. And I think the truth is more complicated.
I think that there are those on the conservative spectrum who deeply care about the least of these, deeply care about the poor; exhibit that through their churches, through community groups, through philanthropic efforts, but are suspicious of what government can do. And then there are those on the left who I think are in the trenches every day and see how important parenting is and how important family structures are, and the connective tissue that holds communities together and recognize that that contributes to poverty when those structures fray, but also believe that government and resources can make a difference in creating an environment in which young people can succeed despite great odds.
And it seems to me that if coming out of this conversation we can have a both/and conversation rather than either/or conversation, then we’ll be making some progress.
I agree: let’s talk about poverty in terms both of the economic straits in which individuals and families find themselves and of the culture (embodied in the media, schools, and government programs, as well as in churches and other community institutions) that should, but doesn’t necessarily, encourage responsibility for oneself, for one’s partner(s), and for any and all children one brings into the world.
Here are some takeaways from the conversation. There was, in the first instance, a good bit of talk about the disparity of opportunities available to those at different ends of the economic spectrum. Robert Putnam set the tone here, alluding to evidence from his recent book that our poor kids get much less support and have much less to which to look forward than do their wealthy counterparts:
[Y]ou can see it in measures of family stability. You can see it in measures of the investments that parents are able to make in their kids, the investments of money and the investments of time. You can see it in the quality of schools kids go to. You can see it in the character of the social and community support that kids — rich kids and poor kids are getting from their communities.
The President responded to this opening by referring to an idealized portrait of community that Putnam draws in the book, one where, despite class differences, everyone shares in the same social and public institutions:
[W]hen I read Bob’s book, the first thing that strikes you is when he’s growing up in Ohio, he’s in a community where the banker is living in reasonable proximity to the janitor at the school. The janitor’s daughter may be going out with the banker’s son. There are a set of common institutions — they may attend the same church; they may be members of the same rotary club; they may be active at the same parks — and all the things that stitch them together. And that is all contributing to social mobility and to a sense of possibility and opportunity for all kids in that community.
Perhaps that was true in some ethnically and religiously homogeneous small towns and urban neighborhoods—Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Lost City is eloquent on this subject—but I have my doubts about it as a sweeping generalization. While, for example, private schools did not proliferate until the 1960s, they have long been available to Roman Catholics (as an alternative to the erstwhile weak-tea Protestantism of the public schools) and to the very wealthy (think Phillips Exeter, Andover, and Choate in the Northeast, as well as Westminster and Woodward here in Atlanta). And anyone who has lived in the South would know that there at least once was a socioeconomic pecking order among Protestant churches, with an enormous contrast between, say, the up-market Episcopalians and the down-market Primitive Baptists. (Indeed, if anything, the decline of the mainline churches and the rise of evangelicalism have served to counteract this phenomenon, so that a much broader socioeconomic spectrum is represented in the pews in many churches on any given Sunday).
Nevertheless, there are three ways community thus conceived can arguably promote social mobility. There are, first of all, the cultural norms of hard work and personal responsibility that can be shared across class boundaries. In this respect, so-called positive role models are not distant abstractions, but personal acquaintances. Peer pressure doesn’t come from (or only from) local gang members but—one hopes—from high-achieving classmates and neighbors. Second, the networks of opportunity readily available to the affluent become open to classmates and acquaintances who don’t have access to them on their own. Finally, because everyone participates in these public institutions, everyone cares about their continued vitality. Thus, for example, parents get involved in PTA’s, care about school board elections, and are active in promoting “investments” (one of the President’s favorite words) in public education. In the Georgetown conversation, we hear something about the last two considerations, but very little (and in any event not enough) about the first.
But if this talk about community isn’t simply to be a nostalgic reminiscence about or longing for something we’ve lost, it behooves us to ask what, practically, we can do to restore it (or preserve it where it still exists).
It would, for example, be impossible—not to say highly undesirable—to compel everyone to attend public schools. While I could imagine some political leaders succumbing to that temptation and trying to regulate private schools out of existence, to the degree that education remains primarily a state and local responsibility, I can’t imagine such a policy sweeping the nation. And even if—horror of horrors—private options were taken off the table, people have historically voted with their feet, exercising “school choice” by moving into a neighborhood whose public schools are attractive. Political efforts to negate the effects of private residential choices haven’t found favor with voters or, for that matter, with the Supreme Court.
This is where, I humbly submit, school choice programs that empower especially lower income people to place their children in better schools actually show some promise of making the aforementioned benefits of community available. Children can escape an essentially homogeneous peer culture that is inimical to achievement and move into schools where parents are involved and there are positive role models. Too bad the President and his party consistently oppose school choice, preferring all too often simply to demand more funding for public schools, as if government by itself can compensate for the social ills that inevitably accompany dysfunctional communities.
A similar statism is implicit in the President’s comments about the role of religion in dealing with the problem of poverty. Here’s what he said:
[W]hen I think about my own Christian faith and my obligations, it is important for me to do what I can myself — individually mentoring young people, or making charitable donations, or in some ways impacting whatever circles and influence I have. But I also think it’s important to have a voice in the larger debate. And I think it would be powerful for our faith-based organizations to speak out on this in a more forceful fashion.
This may sound self-interested because there have been — these are areas where I agree with the evangelical community and faith-based groups, and then there are issues where we have had disagreements around reproductive issues, or same-sex marriage, or what have you. And so maybe it appears advantageous for me to want to focus on these issues of poverty, and not as much on these other issues….
There is great caring and great concern, but when it comes to what are you really going to the mat for, what’s the defining issue, when you’re talking in your congregations, what’s the thing that is really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians, or as Catholics, or what have you, that this is oftentimes viewed as a “nice to have” relative to an issue like abortion. That’s not across the board, but there sometimes has been that view, and certainly that’s how it’s perceived in our political circles.
While President Obama didn’t go as far as Robert Putnam in mischaracterizing the relative weight of religious emphasis on poverty as opposed to social issues, these remarks do imply that, in his view, social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage play a distractingly large role in the outward-looking role of all too many Christian churches. He does hedge and qualify his statement a bit, but the larger point is that, so far as “our political circles” are concerned, the church’s witness on poverty takes a back seat to its positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. As many have pointed out, this is simply mistaken, but it reveals something about what sorts of actions matter to the President. Furthermore, I’ve argued elsewhere that the President’s principal interest in faith-based groups seems to be mobilizing public support for government action, rather than encouraging their activity as an alternative or supplement to government. He doesn’t see—or at least doesn’t want to highlight—what churches and other faith-based organizations can do as actors in civil society, as possible alternatives to government action. We aren’t supposed to help ourselves or help one another but through the instrumentality of the government. The national conversation on poverty should largely be devoted to what government can do.
I’d like to conclude with a reflection on perhaps President Obama’s most solid contribution to the conversation:
[W]e can all stipulate that the best antipoverty program is a job, which confers not just income, but structure and dignity and a sense of connection to community. Which means we have to spend time thinking about the macro-economy, the broader economy as a whole.
He’s right in every facet of his statement. Having a job is not just about the income, but also about the self-discipline that comes from having to meet obligations to employers, customers, and clients and the dignity that comes from being able to take care of oneself and one’s family. And these relationships are the backbone of every community. I do not mean hereby to deprecate the institutions of civil society—churches, neighborhood associations, and so on—but they don’t prosper without the dignified contributions (both personal and financial) of more or less self-reliant individuals.
While it is clear that our economy hasn’t in recent years generated enough good jobs to lift our least fortunate brothers and sisters out of poverty, I found little in President Obama’s remarks that gave me much confidence that he held the key to success in this regard. We can’t redistribute our way to a better future, so a simple—almost demagogic—focus on inequality won’t do. As Arthur Brooks argued—frequently and effectively, in my view—there is no substitute for a dynamic and productive economy as a generator of wealth. And, as he also argued, ensuring that everyone benefits requires making hard choices that our political classes haven’t demonstrated their willingness to make.
Perhaps conversations like the one that took place last week will provide an opening for further, deeper exchanges of views and for genuinely productive policy-making. But I’m sad to say that I’m not holding my breath.
A week ago today the city of Baltimore was set ablaze by its own citizens. The media storm following the protests and riots is the latest in a string of events that continue to orient our attention as a society to the lack of economic and social opportunity in America
David Brooks, an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, wrote an excellent piece on “The Nature of Poverty” a week ago. Brooks draws attention to the importance of the social dynamics that undercut attempts to improve the conditions of urban poor through increased spending and policy solutions.
What Brooks notes in his article, and many others recognize, is that when dealing with poverty, one must deal with the causes of poverty and the psychological and developmental effects of poverty. One-size-fits-all programs fail to do justice to the ways in which individual circumstances vary. Some people have short-term needs – such as gas to get to work – while others need more structured and long-term oriented assistance – such as acquiring the skills necessary to compete in a very competitive job market. This requires panoply of social programs specifically targeted to lift people out of poverty for good.
A safety net in good working order is crucial to a healthy economy, but poor families don’t just need help – they need the right kind of help. Giving people money really does make them better off. Yes, it’s better to have more money to buy groceries and other basic necessities, but improving inequality through handouts has no consistent correlation with upward mobility.
Baltimore is the perfect example of the fact that getting more money from the government doesn’t really make you less poor, and a testament to the fact that poverty is enabled to linger through the impoverishment of our social relations.
Click here to read Brooks’ article.
Image Credit: Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Row Houses, Baltimore, Maryland.
Today, poor children in America have a limited shot at moving up the economic ladder into the middle or upper class. A study in 2012 by the Pew Charitable Trust shows that “[t]hose born at the top and bottom of the income ladder are likely to stay there as adults.” Further, “More than 40 percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile of the family income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent remain below the middle.”
In terms of economic mobility, America is losing its identity as the “land of opportunity.”
In January 2014, Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez, economists from Harvard and Berkeley, released a study with interesting insights regarding this issue of upward mobility. Their study explores community characteristics that foster upward mobility for lower-income children. The study measures two outcomes: absolute mobility, or the way children progress up the income ladder into adulthood, and relative mobility, or the income disparity between children who grew up rich and poor in the same community as they reach adulthood.
The researchers in the study looked at households in “commuting zones,” or what are basically metropolitan areas, in order to compare the economic mobility of children in various communities. Interestingly, they found that kids who grow up in certain metropolitan areas are far more likely to climb into the top two-fifths of American household income distribution than kids from families with the same relative income from other metropolitan areas. This led them to look into what the specific community factors are that foster opportunity. Their research reveals some very telling patterns:
1. Family Structure
The single most important factor in communities that foster economic mobility is family structure. Chetty et al. found that children raised in communities with high percentages of single mothers are significantly less likely to achieve both absolute and relative mobility. As such, “[c]hildren of married parents…have higher rates of upward mobility if they live in communities with fewer single parents.”
What makes this finding particularly significant is that this is the first major study showing that rates of single parenthood at the community level are linked to children’s economic prospects over the course of their lives. Previous research has shown that children raised by two married parents are significantly more likely to climb the income ladder, but this is the first serious study to show that lower-income kids from both single and married-parent families are more likely to flourish if they are in a community with high shares of two-parent families.
2. Racial & Economic Segregation
Second, they found that children raised in communities that are racially and economically segregated – that is, communities that cluster lots of poor kids together – are less likely to achieve economic mobility. In fact, segregation and family structure are the only two community characteristics that had a consistent correlation with upward mobility in their study.
It is helpful to think of racial and economic segregation as isolation – that is marginalization from both the mainstream economy and the norms that allow middle-income people to flourish. These norms are often contagions that go unnoticed and unmentioned in middle-to-upper-class communities. What is missing for so many children stuck in cycles of poverty is social inclusion, which overlaps with the third factor.
3. Social Capital
Social Capital often goes unmentioned in conversations about economic mobility because it is so difficult to capture in social-scientific terms. Moreover, social capital highlights how complex and connected poverty is because it cannot be separated out from other community factors. The methodology of social scientists encourages that complex problems be broken down into distinct elements to make it easier to analyze and tweak through targeted programs. But to address the problem of social capital is to enter into the complexity of poverty and see how approaches that ignore social capital actually rob disadvantaged groups of the coherence of their experience.
Here is why social capital is so important: You could have two people with exactly the same income who actually live very different lives based on the different social networks they have. For some, achieving upward mobility is a perfectly compatible, even expected, progression within their networks and lifelong relationships. Being a part of their family and maintaining strong relationships with loved ones basically means moving up the economic and social ladder. When hard times hit, they have the support structure they need to get back on their feet. For others, achieving upward mobility means separating themselves from family and loved ones, which may cause them to lack the connections and support they need to withstand an economic crisis.
The breakdown of the social bonds in American communities actually hurts the poor the most. Many people talk about inequality, but this study shows that the problem is not inequality but a lack of economic and social inclusion. Social capital is intertwined with family structure since adults in two-parent families have a much easier time devoting themselves to the kinds of activities that build social capital in a neighborhood. Social capital is also closely correlated to access to quality schools, which leads to the fourth community factor that fosters upward mobility.
4. Access to Quality Schools
Though it is certainly not a new finding, Chetty and his colleagues found that poor kids are far more likely to succeed if they have access to high quality education. Though the study does not mention the need for school choice, it is clearly a necessity by the fact that too many schools are providing a poor education to children who have no other options available to them.
GCO believes that the best and most effective way to provide access to high quality education for children from low-income households is through a variety of school choice initiatives, particularly Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and Tuition Tax Credit Programs. Throwing more money at failing schools that lack competition and the ability to innovate is not the solution.
The study by Chetty et al. has a lot of other interesting findings worthy of consideration, but the four community characteristics that have been mentioned – two-parent families, racial and economic integration, social capital, and access to quality schools – are the ones with the strongest and most consistent correlation with upward mobility. These factors help to set those cloistered and marginalized from mainstream norms on a pathway to opportunity.
At GCO, we are committed to addressing limited social mobility in Georgia. We seek to identify barriers to opportunity and promote legislative, policy, and community solutions that allow people to achieve middle class by middle age. Our hope is that Georgia and America at large will once again become a “land of opportunity” for all people.