Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Another Variable

Demographers and statisticians have produced seemingly endless numbers about poverty and economics in the United States. Studies reveal correlations, but proving causation is, of course, a much more difficult task. To further complicate the matter, politicians tend to use statistics in a most unscientific way, and the additional matter of race is added to the mix, because race is both a correlate to economic variables and a politically explosive topic.

Although adding other factors to the discussion may seem to complicate beyond reason an already-complex situation, it also may be that additional variables can bring clarity. To this end, some researchers are looking at population growth in relation to poverty and race.

The population growth variable may explain why some anti-poverty programs failed to yield significant benefits - or even worse, seemed to actually increase poverty. Although students may view FDR's New Deal as the first big wave of such social legislation, other measures pre-dated Roosevelt's 1933 initiatives. The largest mass of bureaucratic systems aimed at reducing poverty arose starting in the 1960's, under LBJ's "Great Society" slogan.

The middle class was hit with a crushing onslaught of taxation as new programs mixed with significant increases in already-existing programs: Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, etc. Yet the 1960's and the 1970's saw economic stagnation and increased poverty, often in inner-city areas - precisely those areas targeted by the programs. Why did these programs fail to reduce poverty? Why did these programs in some cases correlate to an increase in poverty?

An examination of population growth trends may help to answer these questions. Social engineers and the bureaucrats who organized these programs labored under a series of assumptions which were fashionable in the 1960's: that planet earth was nearing a population crisis, that population control was necessary for the macroeconomy, and that a reduced birth rate would help individual micro-economies.

Since then, it has become clear that macroeconomies function best when population is growing steadily and moderately, that the planet has a carrying capacity far beyond what the demagogues of the 1960's thought, and that individuals who become parents tend to experience economic stability relative to those with few or no children. When population growth is stable, not erratic, at a level slightly above replacement rate - perhaps 2.3 to 2.6 children per woman - economies are more likely to experience sustained expansion. With sustainable, responsible, and renewable resource management, the carrying capacity of Earth is well above ten billion. Childlessness is a variable which correlates strongly with poverty, despite the stereotypes and cliches surrounding the image of a "welfare mother" - there are racist overtones in the phrase. Childbearing correlates not only with economic well-being, but with general satisfaction in life, and better physical health.

But in LBJ's "Great Society" programs, the assumptions went along these lines: reducing the birthrate would increase prosperity. To those ends, government programs fostered contraception, birth control, and sterilization of those in poverty - again, with racist overtones. Thus, in an attempt to reduce poverty, social programs were discouraging one of the variables which might lift people out of poverty: childbearing. This points to a solution to the mystery of why programs designed to reduce poverty actually increased poverty. Sheryl James writes:

Few social programs in U.S. history loom larger than President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Launched in the social-domestic cocktail mix known as the 1960s, the War on Poverty introduced programs such as Medicaid and Medicare in an effort to boost opportunity by reducing poverty.

We have no reason to doubt LBJ's sincerity: he certainly wanted to reduce poverty. Whether out of pure altruism, or whether because he hoped to gain more voters for himself and his political party, his intentions, and the intensions of the Congress which passed the legislation in question, were certainly bent on reducing poverty. But unintended consequences are ubiquitous in history, and the "war on poverty" was no exception. Given the bureaucracy's eagerness to promote contraception, birth control, and sterilization among poor - and Black - women,

from 1964 to 1973, among the populations the federal funding served, the overall birth rate dropped by just under two percent — but a whopping 19 to 30 percent among poor women.

During those years, not only did inner-city poverty increase, it also became more intractable. Understanding the exact correlation between childbearing and individual economic stability is murky: various mechanisms emerge as candidates. Perhaps those with children are more like to seek and hold steady employment; perhaps those with children enjoy more networking within their local community; perhaps those with children are supported better during the aging process. More clear on a macroeconomic level is that children create both a steady demand for consumer goods and a steady supply of new wage-earners entering the workforce.

University of Michigan Professor Martha Bailey exposes and articulates some of the assumptions with which the social engineers of the 1960's were working:

The architects of the War on Poverty thought that family planning programs were integral to reducing poverty, and would promote opportunities among poor women and their children.

Sadly, those assumptions proved to be false. Economically, programs based on those assumptions did not alleviate poverty; in fact, inner-city economic devastation worsened in the decades after the appearance and implementation of such "war on poverty" programs. Racially, these programs amounted to a war on the African-American family. By all metrics, conditions worsened: divorce, out of wedlock births, abandonment, failure to pay child support, etc. The non-quantifiable variables worsened as well: the societal cost of living in such circumstances exacted a toll on mental and emotional well-being.

Ironically, programs aimed at reducing the birthrate among Blacks, in addition to being blatantly racist, had the unintended effect of increasing illegitimacy. The out-of-wedlock birthrate actually rose. Deneen Borelli, an African-American political activist, writes:

Welfare in the United States began in the 1930s during the Great Depression. But in the sixties, following Great Society legislation, Americans who weren't elderly or disabled could collect a check from the government on which to live. Single mothers became the biggest users of the system. In general, it became so ingrained in the fabric of the nation that many view welfare as a right. In other words, there are people that think we have the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and hard cash from the political establishment.

It is necessary to emphasize the word "unintended" in regards to the outcome of such social legislation. There is no doubt that some voters and some in Congress had genuine and sincere concerns for those in poverty. But unanticipated effects arise from their causes with no regard for altruistic intentions.

Many like-minded thinkers are clear: Welfare has negative, unintended consequences for the black community. A 1984 book called Losing Ground by Charles Murray demonstrates that welfare has perverse unintended consequences for blacks. He argues that the system was created by elites with good intentions. They believed that the blacks population was was discriminated against and that government aid would help to redress the wrongs. He said that the rationale behind the plan was that "they system" - not the individuals - was at fault. People could not get ahead in life because of the way in the country had operated in the past. Murray's solution to the situation was, however, deemed impossible to execute: He wanted to abolish welfare altogether. Critics chastised him.

Instead, federal and state governments have hoped that various attempts at reforming the welfare system would yield a new type of program which would give the hoped-for benefits without the negative and unintended consequences. So far, this has not happened. Despite experimentation with differing configurations of entitlement programs, inner-city poverty seems intractable, and the social misery experienced by the African-American family continues.

In a four-year period, from mid-2009 to mid-2013, average real income, average net worth, and the general standard of living in the United States fell for all groups, but for African-Americans living in inner-city neighborhoods, they fell further and quicker than for other groups. After fifty years of "war on poverty," many Americans, and specifically many Black Americans, still live in poverty.