Tuesday, 30 March 2010

"Great Society" Liberal

Missing the Mark

Tapu Misa is evidently a "Great Society" liberal--an appellation she would probably wear as a badge of pride. The fundamental concept held by Great Society liberals is that lots and lots of bad social problems result from poverty. Consequently, the best way to overcome these social problems (debauchery, crime, drug abuse, alcoholism, violence, illiteracy, etc) is to provide decent paying jobs and pathways to rising incomes. The "provider", of course, must always be the state, in the first instance.

The lack of a decent job with an adequate wage is said to be the "core problem" of poverty, that in turn produces many social problems, including welfare dependency. So Misa argues in a recent Herald column. Therefore, she suggests, the recent government announcements requiring solo mothers to return to the work force are ignoring the "core" problem. In particular, poor men are unable to get jobs with a wage sufficient not only to live upon, but to support a wife and children. Therefore, they prefer not to marry. Meanwhile, women are left as solo-parents, having to take care of both themselves and their children.

Misa then argues that the proposed stricter benefit eligibility criteria for solo-mothers are misplaced. The core problem is adequately paying jobs for men. If they were in place, then men would marry the women they bed and commit to taking care of them and their children. Apparently there is plenty of research to "show" that marriage rates increase when men have good jobs.

To buttress her case, Misa cites a recent analysis by William Julius Wilson in his book entitled More Than Just Race which deals with the issue of the black underclass in the United States. She summarises one of Wilson's central hypotheses as follows:
Wilson writes that there is no evidence for the claims that welfare payments provide incentives for childbearing, or discourage marriage.

With nearly half of all black families headed by a single woman, he says it's the sharp increase in black male joblessness since the 1970s that "accounts in large measure for the rise in the rate of single-parent families". The less men earn, the evidence shows, the less likely they are to marry.
The evidence, huh. Right, well that will explain why solo female parenthood is epidemic in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Tonga, Cambodia. Well, actually no. However, throughout the world, particularly in the East, millions upon millions of people live in squalid, impoverished circumstances--far, far worse than any ghetto in the United States and New Zealand--yet without high rates of single woman families with large numbers of children to multiple, transient fathers.

So, sorry Misa (and Wilson) the alleged causal connection between men not having an "adequate" living wage and an explosion of solo female families would seem to be just far, far too simplistic.

All this smacks of Marxist materialistic determinism recycled--that is, people are the way they are because of their cluster of material goods or income. Human nature, culture, beliefs, habits, and actions are deterministically changed by having access to adequate materialist wealth or property. Give a ghetto member a middle class income and hey, presto he or she will suddenly adopt a whole cluster of "middle class" cultural attributes. In particular, men will become one-women guys, with fidelity, loyalty, commitment; their women will become willing and loyal marriage partners, forsaking drugs and drink, promiscuity and so on. Just to describe the alleged moral transformation serves to display the silliness of the argument.

Or maybe things are far, far more complex than that. Take just one example, the desire for education:
The poorest Hebrew knows--the poorer he is, the better he knows it--that knowledge is power, and power as the means of getting on in the world that has spurned him so long is what his soul years for. He lets no opportunity slip to obtain it. Day- and night-schools are crowded with his children, who learn rapidly and with ease. Every synagogue, every second rear tenement or dark back-yard has its school and its school master, with his scourge to intercept those who might otherwise escape. Robert A Woods, The Poor in Great Cities (New York; Scribner's, 1895), pp. 102-3. Cited in Edward C. Banfield, The Unheavenly City Revisited (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1974), p.66
Hmmmm. It would seem that in this case a lack of a living wage did not prevent a compulsive longing for betterment through education. For Misa to argue, then, that a lack of decent living wage means that men will not commit to marriage nor will they be responsible for the children they fathered, leaving the mothers dependant upon state welfare is both superficial and trite.

We say confidently that if the "welfare reforms" announced by the New Zealand government ignore the core of the problem (and let us concede that Misa is right in her criticism) what she in turn proposes is equally superficial and is far, far away from the core of the real causes of perpetual dependency on state welfare.

As for the research which shows that stable monogamous families and decent living wages for men go together, no causal connection is necessarily to hand. It is entirely possible that the same cultural beliefs and commitments which led a man in the first place to marry and take responsibility for his family, also led him to be a dedicated, hard-working, ambitious employee. In other words, something far more profound was at work that increases both the incidence of stable marriages and adequate living wages.

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