Acton Institute Powerblog

We Don’t Have a Poverty Problem, We Have a Dependency Problem

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will-work-for-food“There is no material poverty in the U.S.,” says the always-provocative Walter E. Williams. “What we have in our nation are dependency and poverty of the spirit, with people making unwise choices and leading pathological lives aided and abetted by the welfare state.”

The Census Bureau pegs the poverty rate among blacks at 35 percent and among whites at 13 percent. The illegitimacy rate among blacks is 72 percent, and among whites it’s 30 percent. A statistic that one doesn’t hear much about is that the poverty rate among black married families has been in the single digits for more than two decades, currently at 8 percent. For married white families, it’s 5 percent. Now the politically incorrect questions: Whose fault is it to have children without the benefit of marriage and risk a life of dependency? Do people have free will, or are they governed by instincts?

There may be some pinhead sociologists who blame the weak black family structure on racial discrimination. But why was the black illegitimacy rate only 14 percent in 1940, and why, as Dr. Thomas Sowell reports, do we find that census data “going back a hundred years, when blacks were just one generation out of slavery … showed that a slightly higher percentage of black adults had married than white adults. This fact remained true in every census from 1890 to 1940”? Is anyone willing to advance the argument that the reason the illegitimacy rate among blacks was lower and marriage rates higher in earlier periods was there was less racial discrimination and greater opportunity?

No one can blame a person if he starts out in life poor, because how one starts out is not his fault. If he stays poor, he is to blame because it is his fault. Avoiding long-term poverty is not rocket science. First, graduate from high school. Second, get married before you have children, and stay married. Third, work at any kind of job, even one that starts out paying the minimum wage. And finally, avoid engaging in criminal behavior. It turns out that a married couple, each earning the minimum wage, would earn an annual combined income of $30,000. The Census Bureau poverty line for a family of two is $15,500, and for a family of four, it’s $23,000. By the way, no adult who starts out earning the minimum wage does so for very long.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Drewl

    Williams seems right up your alley: talking-point conservatism that makes no mention of declining wages, generational poverty, depleted neighborhood effects, or a dysfunctional education systems and job markets. All problems can be fixed by a stern moralizing sermon about responsibility.

    A far cry from Arthur Brooks, David Brooks, Ross Douthat, who are calling for all kinds of concessions and developments beyond this type of thinking.

    You need to pick a side, Mr. Carter.

    • You need to pick a side, Mr. Carter.

      Actually, I don’t . . . because it’s a both/and situation, not an either/or problem.

      The indisputable fact is that even with all the structural problems you mention, a person is not likely to fall into poverty unless they engage in self-destructive behavior (have a child out of wedlock, drop out of high school, refuse to get a job, etc.). Even if we eliminated all of the structural issues there would still be (at least) 75% of the same people in poverty.

      Now that is not to say those issues are not problems that need to be rectified. They are indeed. But they mainly are problems that affect the working poor and prevent upward social mobility. They have relatively little impact on those in poverty.

      You also seem to think that I think a “a stern moralizing sermon” is the solution. I’m not sure what gave you that impression since everything I’ve ever written on the subject suggests just the opposite. I don’t think people stuck in poverty because of their bad choices can get out of it on their own. They need our help. But they have to want to be helped, and in a way that will lead to their flourishing rather than to their dependency.

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