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4 Bogus Right-Wing Theories About Poverty, and the Real Reason Americans Can’t Make Ends Meet (Hard Times USA)

We have an economic crisis that is kept out of sight and out of mind.

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3. The poor are actually rolling in money.

A new and equally distorted argument entered the conservative discourse just recently. It holds that poor families receive $168 per day in government benefits – more than the median weekly income in this country. If that were true, low-income households in the United States would enjoy quite comfortable living standards.

But as I noted last month, that number is inflated by around eight-fold. The claim originated with Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation and then underwent some revisions on its journey to Republican congressional staffers, and finally to the conservative media. It gets to that number by counting things like federal aid to rebuild communities after natural disasters as “welfare,” including programs that assist the middle class and the wealthy and then dividing the costs of all these programs by the number of households under the poverty line, despite the fact that many more families benefit from them.

4. It’s just how they are.

And then there are the ever-popular cultural explanations for poverty. This is a storyline based on confusing correlation with causation – a rookie mistake in any introductory college class.

The Heritage Foundation, for example (it's Robert Rector again), sees a lot of poor, single-parent households, and would have you believe that “the main causes of child poverty are low levels of parental work and the absence of fathers.”

But this gets the causal relationship wrong. The number of single-parent households exploded between the 1970s and the 1990s, more than doubling, yet the poverty rate remained relatively constant. In fact, before the crash of 2008, the poverty rate was lower than it had been in the 1970s. So, as the rate of single-parent households skyrocketed, poverty declined a little bit. Saying single-parent homes create poverty is like claiming the rooster causes the sun to rise.

As I've noted in the past, this is an essential piece of the “culture of poverty” narrative, and it is nonsense. Jean Hardisty, the author of Marriage as a Cure for Poverty: A Bogus Formula for Women, cited a number of studies showing that poor women have the same dreams as everyone else: they “often aspire to a romantic notion of marriage and family that features a white picket fence in the suburbs.” But low economic status leads to fewer marriages, not the other way around.

In 1998, the Fragile Families Study looked at 3,700 low-income unmarried couples in 20 U.S. cities. The authors found that 90 percent of the couples living together wanted to tie the knot, but only 15 percent had actually done so by the end of the one-year study period. And here’s the key finding: for every dollar that a man’s hourly wages increased, the odds that he’d get hitched by the end of the year rose by 5 percent. Men earning more than $25,000 during the year had twice the marriage rates of those making less than $25,000.

Writing up the findings for the Nation, Sharon Lerner noted that poverty itself “seems to make people feel less entitled to marry.” As one father in the survey put it, marriage means “not living from check to check.”

Why People Are Really Poor

During a period of less than 20 years beginning in the early 1980s, the American economy underwent dramatic changes. It was a period of policy-driven de-unionization and the offshoring of millions of decent manufacturing jobs. The tax code underwent dramatic changes, as CEO pay sky-rocketed and the financial sector came to represent a much larger share of our economic output than it had during the four decades or so following World War II.

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