Healther Mac Donald, writing in the National Review (via Sullivan):

The Times offers several possible reasons for this recent rise in child poverty, including the high-tech, high-skills economy and the greater difficulties of going on welfare following the 1996 federal welfare-reform law. It never articulates, however, what is overwhelmingly the largest predictor of child and family poverty: The family is not a two-parent household. In 2007, single-parent families were nearly six times more likely to be poor than married-parent families; that ratio has not significantly changed. (emphasis added)

That’s an interesting claim. Is Mac Donald saying that single parenthood precedes non-poor people becoming poor people? Because that’s what a “predictor” would do. You see, if I point out that the Packers will open the season 2-0, that’s not a prediction because it’s already happened. Or if I say that winning the greatest number of games is overwhelmingly the largest predictor of NFL playoff seeding, that also is not a prediction.

Now I agree that single-income families are a problem when it comes to poverty, but it’s unseemly, as well as logically incoherent, for conservatives to insist that the only policy issue here is broken homes. Believe it or not, cutting WIC and food stamps leads to beneficiaries having less food and therefore being more poor. By the same token, making the EITC more generous puts more money into the pockets of working parents and therefore makes them less poor. This is not a matter of debate. It’s a matter of accounting identities. Cut transfers to poor kids = more poverty. Plain and simple. But not for the NRO crowd. Mac Donald insists:

There is a far more efficient solution to family poverty and the childhood problems associated with single-parent families: Revive the marriage norm among the poor. Public policy’s ability to restore the expectation that children be raised by both their parents is undoubtedly limited. But it is better to try than to do nothing.

Norm-revivification does not sound like an “efficient solution” to me, and in the next sentence Mac Donald basically acknowledges as much. We had eight years of “marriage promotion” as a goal of social policy, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask that this most elegant of all possible solutions show some results in this time. And yet here we are. And what choice is being framed by that last sentence? Surely Mac Donald is familiar with child support? The implication seems to be that all of these programs to feed, clothe, and house poor kids are just a waste of time unless we’re finding a way to shackle the menfolk to their marital beds. I’m all for marriage, and when it comes to family I’m a conservative at heart, but it’s not a serious statement to say that nothing else can do anything about child poverty. We have evidence to the contrary. Macroeconomic policies that promote robust demand and job growth are one; better infrastructure to facilitate employment is another; adequate subsidies for child care and education, so that people can have useful skills; and then all that tedious stuff like giving kids food, medicine, and a voucher for a freaking place to live.

Now if you’re really interested in riding the marriage-promotion hobby horse, you’d look at policies like these as a complement to the ring-on-it agenda rather than as a competing approach. People are likelier to get married and form households when they have a job; topping up wages and backstopping health care costs can help reduce divorce, and so forth. This was, I take it, the idea behind “compassionate conservatism”: we’ll try to make the poor better people, but we’ll do so without punishing them simply for being poor. The post-Bush right has decided that this was all wrong, and that giving a poor child free antibiotics is a way of rewarding her mother for having loose morals (and making someone pay for those antibiotics through progressive taxation is like slavery). This is all wrong, but it apparently has a kind of Malthusian appeal to some people.

Benjamin Dueholm

Benjamin Dueholm is a writer and Lutheran pastor working in Chicago.