PBS had a segment on Saturday, anchored by Megan Thompson, called “Poverty rates surge in American suburbs.” Here’s how it starts out:
MEGAN THOMPSON: By all appearances, Leigh Scozzari is living a comfortable suburban life. She baked cookies one recent afternoon with her four-year-old twins at her mom’s place in Shirley, Long Island – about 65 miles east of New York City. Scozzari owns an SUV… the girls spend their days at a nice day care center …and Scozzari works a full-time job.
LEIGH SCOZZARI: A lot of people look at me and they judge me just by looking at me, like, “Okay, well, she has a job, you know. She– you know, she has a home and– you know, her kids look very well taken care of. Why would she need any help at all?”
MEGAN THOMPSON: Scozzari needs help because by official standards, she and her daughters live in poverty. Her job as a certified medical assistant pays just over 19,000 a year and offers no benefits. So Scozzari is on Medicaid, gets food stamps, and a government subsidy to pay for child care she could never otherwise afford. This 30-year old single mom lives in that two-bedroom house with her mother and pays rent. Her car has almost 200,000 miles on it and is in such bad shape Scozzari says she’s afraid to drive it.
Some things strike me as curious about this. One is a question in my mind how new the “poverty” aspect of this trend actually is. My own parents ran a household on an income below the official poverty level for the first 11 years of my life, back in the 1960s and early 1970s. In the last of those years, we might not have been below the poverty level if there hadn’t been five kids. But there were, and things were tight. In a time when everybody had less “stuff,” we had a lot less.
We considered ourselves middle class, if we ever thought about it. We lived in single-family homes, for the most part, whether as renters or mortgage-payers. We never used Medicaid or food stamps. Medical services cost a lot less then. (A whole lot less.) And we had the other big difference going for us: Dad and Mom were married, and ran the household together. Dad worked for a salary (except for the years he was in medical school). Mom mostly didn’t.
Leigh Scozzari’s situation underscores the point made by Ari Fleischer in an op-ed at the Wall Street Journal this weekend: that the ticket out of poverty, especially if there are children involved, is getting and staying married.
To say that poverty is surging in the suburbs is to look at the effect and not the cause. What have moved into the suburbs are the social patterns that foster poverty. At the top of that list is “fatherlessness” in all its forms, whether children are born out of wedlock; whether they are borne by teenagers or women in their 20s and 30s; and whether married parents divorce, with the mother getting primary custody – and very often falling promptly, with the divorce decree, into statistical poverty.
Marriage makes a difference. Heritage reports that among white married couples, the poverty rate in 2009 was just 3.2%; for white non-married families, the rate was 22%. Among black married couples, the poverty rate was only 7%, but the rate for non-married black families was 35.6%.
We don’t know for sure all the particulars of Leigh Scozzari’s situation. During the interview, we learn that state authorities are trying to find her twins’ father, who left before Ms. Scozzari knew she was pregnant. We can guess from the dialogue that the two of them weren’t married.
And the point isn’t to sit in judgment on her or the father, but to observe that, statistically, they would be far, far more likely to have a middle-class household if they had gotten married and then had children.
The question, in turn, isn’t whether others can force them to do that. The question is why others should subsidize their choice not to. Is it good for people to have “income redistributed” to them in order to make bad choices more attractive or feasible? Is it good for society?
Note the measures discussed in the PBS segment as ways of mitigating Scozzari’s situation: food pantries, public benefits, chasing down the “deadbeat dad” to wring money from him. The discourse seems to imply that public benefits should remain available even if Scozzari can earn more. There is a discussion of how much Scozzari’s mother can help (she can’t), and whether Mom should give up her current, modest home and move them all into cheaper living conditions elsewhere (Mom doesn’t want to).
Society needs restructuring because of the economic realities of Scozzari’s situation, which remain stubbornly “poor” rather than “middle class.” That’s the implication from the interview.
But in truth, all the vague implications are about “living down” to trimmed hopes and anxiously enforced rights, turning life into an endless series of anonymous, third-party-brokered material transactions. It’s all about life’s exigencies – children, work, transportation, living quarters – being a burden, rather than each of those things being a blessing, an opportunity, a path toward the future.
And that, in turn, is because everything is discussed in the segment except the one thing that would be overwhelmingly likely to lift Scozzari and her children out of poverty, get them off public benefits, relieve Mom of unfair pressures on her own life choices, and give Scozzari more choice about whether and how much to work for pay while she has young children. There’s one thing that can do all of that, and regularly does.
When you have that one thing, your material situation may not be very much different from Scozzari’s, at a given point in time. For some period of your life, you may still have an old car that’s scary to drive, not enough spending money, constant worry about your bills. But everything looks different, when you have that one thing. Your cares look like blessings; your burdens like investments in the future.
The state can’t simulate, by other means, that one, transformative condition. The state, meanwhile, is running out of other people’s money. America has seen a seminal loss since 2008 of nearly 92 million working-age people from our labor force, and we’re more than $17 trillion in debt today – counting only what the federal government owes. Even if there were some good reason to, it simply isn’t possible to “redistribute” enough income to artificially turn marriage-less-ness and fatherlessness into a middle-class-lifestyle choice.
We are comparatively fortunate in our poverty today. It looks very different from the poverty of a century ago, when someone like Leigh Scozzari would have been lucky to get a job as a laundry maid or soup-kitchen servant; might well have been deemed unmarriageable (or been forced out of desperation into a deeply unhappy marriage); and might even have had to give her twins up to a children’s home or orphanage.
We could also help the poor right now – mitigate the expense of everyday life – by getting rid of the crushing burden of regulation we have taken on over the last century. That would ease things up for Leigh Scozzari and her mother, as they struggle to keep a life going in suburban New York.
But if we want to see people like Scozzari in the middle class, we’re going about it the wrong way. Devalue men, women, marriage, and traditional sex roles long enough, and “poverty” – or at least socioeconomic stagnation – is what you get. Subsidize poverty, and you get more of it. Nobody even has to be mean or unfair to you to make that happen. That’s just how it is.