Opinion

A conservative anti-poverty agenda: Strengthening the family

Chapter two in a five-part series

(Read the first chapter in this five part-series on a conservative anti-poverty agenda here.)

Conservatives tend to prefer an indirect approach to fighting poverty. That means we don't have to have big government "anti-poverty programs" with "anti-poverty" branding in order to effectively fight poverty. There are other ways. Plenty of non-governmental initiatives may not be directly and comprehensively conceived to fight poverty, but they have that effect anyway.

By and large, this indirect approach is good, since government bodies typically lack the kind of specialized knowledge and nimbleness that it takes to fight poverty.

Consider the institution of the family. The family is perhaps the greatest anti-poverty fighting tool we have. It is, after all, the first safety net we all have.

Conservative politicians and pundits often say that if someone finishes high school, gets married and stays married, and works for minimum wage, they will almost certainly not be in poverty. Liberals typically take this line as an example of conservative callousness — if people are poor, that's because they made a bad choice somewhere, so tough. If people want to leave poverty, they should have finished high school, found a spouse, found a job, pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and if they didn't, well, too bad.

But for my fellow conservatives and I, this truth about a stable home and stable work shows the power of the family to lift us out of poverty. Each spouse is a safety net for the other — financial, but also moral, psychological, and spiritual.

And let's be honest: The worst gender of humanity is the male gender. Men have a tendency to break things and be stupid and hurt themselves and those around them. What curbs those tendencies, and what channels many men's energies into productive ends, is, well, having a bride, and being made by her to shape up. Johnny Cash spoke for countless men — particularly countless ex-cons — when he sang "Because you're mine/I walk the line."

Okay. But what can public policy do to fix marriage and thus fight poverty? Not everything. But it can do some things.

The obvious thing is to more heavily favor marriage and child-bearing through the tax code. The tax code now favors investment in economic capital, and in human capital through various tax breaks and subsidies for education. But the most important incubator of human capital is the family. Favoring it even more would strengthen the family and indirectly help fight poverty.

Longer term, Christians and conservatives should start a grassroots movement against no-fault divorce. This is not politically feasible today. But it is important. No-fault divorce is the most deleterious reform to the family and the fabric of society of the past 50 years. Rolling back no-fault divorce would reduce divorce rates, strengthen marriage, and reduce poverty. While we're at it, Christian conservative should start encouraging people to get married earlier.

The social science evidence is clear: The alarming epidemic of divorce, illegitimacy, and abortion has massively harmful effects on the people who are affected and society at large. It also mainly affects people at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. This ought to clearly convince us all of the need to put a pro-family agenda at the top of our minds, and should help us realize that it is one of our most important levers for fighting poverty.

(Read the first chapter in this five part-series on a conservative anti-poverty agenda here.)

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