Home > Uncategorized > Conservative Conundrum: If Culture Causes Poverty, How Can LESS Government be the Solution?

Conservative Conundrum: If Culture Causes Poverty, How Can LESS Government be the Solution?

July 8, 2017

Conservative columnist George Will’s recent op ed essay, Sequence to Success, describes the findings of researchers in both conservative and liberal camps that conclude that economic success if more likely when parents are married before they have children. He summarizes this formula as follows:

First get at least a high school diploma, then get a job, then get married, and only then have children. Wang and Wilcox (of the conservative American Enterprise Institute), focusing on millennials ages 28 to 34, the oldest members of the nation’s largest generation, have found that only 3 percent who follow this sequence are poor.

Predictably, Mr. Will and the AEI researchers attribute this to a cultural decline which they link to “the “intelligensia” and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. How was this link established, you ask? Here’s why the “intelligensia” are responsible for this problem:

…the intelligentsia see the success sequence as middle-class norms to be disparaged for being middle-class norms. And as AEI social scientist Charles Murray says, too many of the successful classes, who followed the success sequence, do not preach what they practice, preferring “ecumenical niceness” to being judgmental.

And how, exactly, did LBJ’s Wr on Poverty contribute?

In healthy societies, basic values and social arrangements are not much thought about. They are “of course” matters expressing what sociologists call a society’s “world-taken-for-granted.” They have, however, changed since President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed “unconditional” war on poverty. This word suggested a fallacious assumption: Poverty persisted only because of hitherto weak government resolve regarding the essence of war — marshaling material resources.

So… what are the solutions Mr. Will’s friends at AEI offers

Wang and Wilcox recommend education focused on high-level occupational skills, subsidizing low-paying jobs, and “public and private social marketing campaigns,” from public schools to popular media, promoting marriage toward the end of the success sequence.

Which leads to several questions:

  • What, exactly are the “high level occupational skills” education should focus on? Won’t the government need to decide this?
  • If these “high level occupational skills” require post secondary education and, if so, how will those who are raised in poverty afford them? Won’t the government need to provide funds?
  • As for subsidizing low-paying jobs, won’t the government need to provide those funds? And where, I wonder, will those funds for the necessary subsidies come from? Higher taxes?
  • Who will develop and write the “public” social marketing campaigns? It would seem to be a role the government would play!
  • And how will the government handle the fact that not all married couples are heterosexual?

As a conservative, I cannot imagine Mr. Will would endorse having the government defining the “high level skills” education should focus on— that would be socialist! Nor can I imagine him endorsing the need for more government funds for scholarships for those children struggling in school… and I certainly couldn’t imagine him ever supporting a government program that would subsidize low paying jobs. As for the government launching social marketing campaigns that promote social values… unless they are rooted in the Bible I doubt that any GOP conservative would endorse them!

As a conservative, I imagine Mr. Will and his AEI think tank colleagues would advocate for some sort of market-based solution that involves cutting taxes on businesses by developing incentives for them to make contributions into scholarship funds or offering some kind of bonuses to low-wage employees. As for setting the norms on marriage, I cannot imagine ANY way ANY conservative would willingly cede this to government.  All of the questions above and the paragraphs that follow describe a conundrum conservatives face when they try to address the seemingly intractable problem of “the intergenerational transmission of poverty” WITHOUT the government.

As a progressive democratic socialist I have no qualms about the government assuming the roles outlined above so long as they are responsive to an informed electorate and not a group of plutocratic campaign donors. My only conundrum is how to inform the electorate that a problem exists and to activate them to see that the problem cannot be solved without help from the government.


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