Wealth & Poverty Review Thinking of Poverty in a Vacuum

“The first priority of any serious program against poverty is to strengthen the male role in poor families.” – George Gilder, Wealth & Poverty
What happens when government assistance displaces the role of the family? The effect of well-intended–but ill-conceived–welfare programs is illustrated in a recent NPR piece, “To Break Cycle Of Child Poverty, Teaching Mom And Dad To Get Along.” The article follows the efforts of an anti-poverty group in Ohio that works to strengthen families by helping mothers and fathers–most of them unmarried–work together to give their children more security. This means keeping the father engaged in his child’s life, and enlisting the support of the mother throughout the process.
There is a huge–and escalating–need for active fatherhood in the U.S. The past several decades have inarguably seen the breakdown of the family, as it has also seen the rise of federal welfare. Statistically, a black child today is more likely than not to grow up without a father, with 53% living in household headed by a single mother. Just in the 1960s, this figure was around 20%. Today, NPR calls single mothers “the modern face of poverty,” and I don’t think anyone would argue.
The decline of the family and the rise of absent fathers can be traced back to the backward incentives of ill-planned government programs of the 1960s. The need to keep the welfare checks coming have made it too expensive for both fathers and mothers to work, so that they have to intentionally limit their earned income. This behavior is not due to some lack of character–it’s simply common sense. “The poor choose leisure not because of moral weakness, but because they are paid to do so” (Wealth and Poverty, pg. 103). And when mothers are guaranteed a much bigger check if the father is not around, we start to see more children without fathers and more women financially reliant on the state. (For more on the impacts of welfare, see Chapter Two of Money, Greed, and God by Jay Richards.) The displaced fathers, now finding themselves untethered to family life, show greater tendencies toward crime, drinking, and drugs.

“You cannot think about fatherhood in a vacuum,” says Renee Thompson of Ohio State University, Mansfield, who’s helping lead the countywide outreach to fathers. She says you can link the lack of fathers at home to a whole host of problems that cost taxpayers money, from mass incarceration to poor job skills and unemployment.
“By seeing men more engaged in the lives of children, we’re hoping to see a decrease in delinquency,” Thompson says. “We’re hoping that some character things will start to be instilled: responsibility, accountability, just helping young people understand this is what it means to grow up.”

We can’t think of poverty in a vacuum, either. Before we ask what we can do to help the impoverished, we need to ask why they need our help in the first place–and, as this group in Ohio has recognized, chronic poverty isn’t just an issue of money. Chronic poverty is, at its roots, an issue of broken communities, estranged families, and severed relationships. These are central aspects of human experience that cannot be replaced by federal programs. Hopefully our next “war on poverty” will make conscious efforts to strengthen them, rather than undermine them.