Academic journal article The Future of Children

"Culture" and the Intergenerational Transmission of Poverty: The Prevention Paradox

Academic journal article The Future of Children

"Culture" and the Intergenerational Transmission of Poverty: The Prevention Paradox

Article excerpt

Summary

Many U.S. policymakers support changing the "culture" of poor parents to encourage marriage, work, and religion as a means to end the intergenerational transmission of poverty. In this article Jens Ludwig and Susan Mayer review and evaluate research on how parental work, marriage, and religion affect children's socioeconomic status as adults, as well as on the likelihood that changing these indicators of parental behavior will reduce poverty in the next generation. They conclude that even if policymakers were able to ensure that all children had married, working, and religious parents, the result would be a far smaller reduction in poverty among the children's generation than many people believe.

The explanation for this "poverty-prevention paradox," say Ludwig and Mayer, is that the poverty rate in the children's generation depends not only on how many poor children grow up to be poor adults, but also on how many nonpoor children grow up to be poor adults. Reducing the chances that poor children become poor adults will dramatically lower future poverty rates only if most poor adults begin life as poor children. But most poor adults grow up as nonpoor children in the type of "pro-social" households that policymakers are pushing to attain. Moreover, little good evidence supports the idea that such parental behaviors as marriage, work, and religious adherence have strong causal effects on children's long-term economic success.

The authors argue that encouraging positive social behaviors in the parents of poor children is a worthwhile goal in its own right. But they stress that policymakers should recognize the limits of this strategy for reducing poverty among future generations. There may be no substitute for a system of social insurance and income transfers for those children who do wind up poor as adults.

**********

A primary goal of contemporary U.S. social policy is to reform the "culture" of poor parents to make it less likely that their children will grow up to be poor. Because the indicators of culture that policymakers usually emphasize are marriage, work, and religion, in this paper we assess how much poverty rates in the children's generation would fall if all children had married, working, and religious parents. Research in this area is less informative than one might expect. Little empirical research estimates the relationship between parents' marriage, work, and religion and children's eventual income as adults, and in our view much of that research is seriously flawed. Our own estimates show that changing these three aspects of family culture will reduce poverty in the children's generation much less than many policymakers, policy analysts, and voters seem to believe.

The public's concern about intergenerational economic mobility appears to spring from a desire to see that children are not condemned to a lifetime of poverty just because they were born to poor parents. Many public discussions assume (as the quote above suggests) that reducing poverty among future generations and reducing the intergenerational transmission of poverty are equivalent goals. They are not. The poverty rate in the children's generation depends not only on how many poor children grow up to be poor adults, but also on how many nonpoor children grow up to be poor adults. Reducing the chances that poor children become poor adults will dramatically lower future poverty rates only if most poor adults begin life as poor children. Even if parental work, marriage, and religion improve children's economic future as adults, getting all parents to work, marry, and attend religious services would not cause poverty to plunge in the next generation because most poor adults do not grow up in families headed by parents who are unmarried, do not work, and do not attend religious services.

Epidemiologists often encounter a similar problem in fighting disease. (1) As Geoffrey Rose puts it, "a large number of people at a small risk may give rise to more cases of disease than the small number who are at high risk," which limits what might be accomplished by focusing on high-risk cases. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.