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Conservatives love this deeply misleading factoid about poverty in America

It's not just a matter of working hard.
It's not just a matter of working hard.
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

National Review editor Rich Lowry has a bad and dismissive review of Ta-Nehisi Coates's latest book, Between the World and Me, in which he repeats my least favorite statistic in all of social policy:

Coates objects to the cliché that blacks have to be "twice as good." It’s closer to the truth that they, like all Americans, are in a much better position to succeed if they honor certain basic norms: graduate from high school; get a full-time job; don’t have a child before age 21 and get married before childbearing. Among the people who do these things, according to the research of Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, about 75 percent attain the middle class, broadly defined.

Conservatives like Rick Santorum have taken to using this factoid as definitive proof that structural factors behind poverty don't matter, that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and government action to help marginalized people is unnecessary. It does not prove that at all. If anything, it's a useful reminder of the fact that poverty is mainly a problem of systemic failure, not personal failure.

The stat comes from a 2009 book by Haskins and Sawhill called Creating an Opportunity Society. Haskins and Sawhill analyzed income data from 2007 and broke down households based on whether the head of household followed three norms:

  • They work full-time.
  • They graduated high school.
  • They waited until they were married and at least 21 to have a child.

They found that only 2 percent of persons in families that followed all three norms were poor, whereas 76 percent of persons in families that followed none were poor, and 73.8 percent of those who followed all three were at least middle-class:

Haskins and Sawhill data table

Haskins and Sawhill, 2009

Haskins and Sawhill aren't liars. They didn't make these numbers up. But the numbers don't imply that poverty is a choice, like Lowry asserts. Here are just a few reasons why:

  • Very, very few people obey none of these norms. Look at that table: Only about 3.4 million people, a little over 1 percent of the population, are in families in the "none" column. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research's Shawn Fremstad notes, there are more poor people who followed all three norms than followed none of them.
  • Describing full-time work as a "norm" is slightly bizarre, as plenty of people are out of work despite wanting a job. Sometimes you get laid off, or there are no job openings in your area for someone with your skill set, or your employer won't let you work more than 20 to 30 hours a week. Right now, 8.6 million Americans are looking for a job and can’t find one, an additional 6.8 million have part-time work but say they are trying to find a full-time position, and 6.6 million more have stopped actively looking for a job but say they would like one if the labor market were stronger. This is a particularly crucial point because Haskins and Sawhill identify work as the single most important norm. Shockingly, earning a steady income is a good way to not be in poverty.
  • Treating birth timing as a norm is also strange, as it implies that people have more control over when to have children than they often do. Access to birth control and abortion — and the cost of each — varies greatly by income, with poor women losing out. This is why Sawhill is a huge advocate of government programs to expand the use of IUDs and other highly effective, long-lasting forms of birth control.
  • Graduating from high school also isn't just a matter of individual norm-following. It's not exactly a secret that graduation rates vary considerably from school to school and district to district, affected both by the quality of the school and the amount of underlying poverty. Poverty brings with it hunger and food insecurity, neighborhood violence, periodic homelessness, and poor health, all of which are stressors that conspire to keep kids from poor backgrounds from making it out of high school.
  • This only captures income in one year, 2007. Because most poverty is episodic, and 2007 was when the economy peaked pre-recession, it's very likely that a greater percentage of people in families that followed all three norms have ever been in poverty.
  • Lowry doesn’t even cite Haskins and Sawhill correctly, since they arrive at their figures about the importance of behavioral norms by excluding big swaths of the population — households headed by people under 25, the elderly, and people on disability — from their analysis.

This isn't just a matter of choice

People wait in line for a retail job interview on October 2, 2014, in New York City.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The big problem with Lowry's statement is the illusion of control.

As Georgetown economist Harry Holzer told me the last time I debunked this stat, "When people make a statement like that, they act like people have perfect control over things like that." He explains, "In a recession, to say that people have perfect control over employment is absurd. There are so many reasons someone might lose a job beyond their control. I would argue the same thing for high school graduation." And I, for that matter, would argue the same for marriage and childbirth.

The truth is that low high school graduation rates in poor black communities are in part a legacy of systemic racism. Joblessness in poor black communities is in part a legacy of systemic racism. Single parenthood and family instability in poor black communities is in part a legacy of systemic racism. To say this isn't to reject the idea of free will. It's to acknowledge that if you're actually serious about solving these problems rather than waving them away, you need to tackle structural causes. Reasonable people can disagree about how best to deal with those causes, but just running around telling people to work hard and get married isn't a serious proposal.

VIDEO: There's a simple solution to poverty

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