Magazine article The Public Interest

The Behavioral Aspects of Poverty

Magazine article The Public Interest

The Behavioral Aspects of Poverty

Article excerpt

In a famous exchange between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Fitzgerald is reputed to have said, "The rich are different from the rest of us," to which Hemingway replied, "Yes, I know, they have more money." Liberals have long contended that Hemingway had it right. There is nothing wrong with the poor that a little more money wouldn't cure. This view is, I believe, profoundly misguided. Money can alleviate the harsh conditions of poverty, but unless it is used to leverage changes in behavior, it will have little lasting effect.

Not only does behavior matter, it matters more than it used to. Growing gaps between rich and poor in recent decades have been exacerbated by a divergence in the behavior of the two groups. No feasible amount of income redistribution can make up for the fact that the rich are working and marrying as much or more than ever while the poor are doing just the reverse. Unless the poor adopt more mainstream behaviors, and public policies are designed to move them in this direction, economic divisions are likely to grow.

A tale of two families

In the 1990s, two journalists independently chronicled the lives of two inner-city families in Washington, D.C. Both journalists would eventually win Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting, but the portraits they painted could not have been more different. One of them, Leon Dash, a reporter with the Washington Post, followed the life history of Rosa Lee Cunningham and her family. At the time, Cunningham was a 52-year-old grandmother who had had her first child at age 14 and dropped out of school. The daughter of North Carolina sharecroppers, she grew up near Capitol Hill, and then supported herself by waiting tables, working as a prostitute, selling drugs, and shoplifting. She became addicted to heroin and spent time in prison for drug trafficking. She had eight children fathered by six different men and all but two of them became, like their mother, involved in drugs, crime, and teenage parenting.

Contrast this with another story of the inner city, told by Ron Suskind, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal. Suskind followed the life of a teenager named Cedric Jennings, who at the time lived with his mother in the same kind of inner-city neighborhood as Cunningham. But Cedric's mother, Barbara, had three children and had worked for 11 years at a five-dollar-an-hour job as a data-input clerk for the Department of Agriculture. She attended church regularly, lived frugally, supervised her children closely, and had instilled in her son a fierce desire to succeed. Cedric not only became an honor student at Ballou High School but eventually gained admittance to Brown University.

As these stories suggest, people living in poverty are a diverse group. Some are poor primarily because, like Cunningham, they persist in perverse and antisocial behavior. Others, like Jennings, have done the best they can with limited resources. Thus the two contending views of what causes poverty--people's own behavior or their adverse circumstances--will have some validity at least some of the time. Most poor people are neither as down and out as Cunningham nor as hard-working and dedicated to their children's success as Jennings. But what more systematic research shows is that behavior matters and must be taken into account if we are to reduce poverty and inequality.

Ideology vs. reality

My own involvement in this debate began in the late 1980s, when the Rockefeller Foundation established a program of research on what it called "the underclass." The underclass was commonly defined as those families living in areas of concentrated poverty, usually in neighborhoods where at least 40 percent of all households were poor. At the time, I was a scholar at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, and I suggested an alternative definition, one that was more behaviorally oriented. It was based on the idea that in order to achieve a middle-class life, an individual must do a few specific things: graduate from high school, defer having a baby until marriage, and obtain steady employment. …

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