Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"Poverty is a choice"

That seems to be the conclusion of Charles Murray, a scholar of the libertarian American Enterprise Institute and author of the controversial book, Coming Apart which looks at the growing divide among white Americans from 1960 to 1910.

After asserting in the Bell Curve a book he co-authored with Richard Hernstein that it was their inherent lack of intelligence or IQ more precisely that reduced African Americans to the bottom of the social and economic ladder, he now claims that poverty among white Americans is a result of the decline of civic culture, a result of changing preferences rather than structural policy imbalances.

Back in 1994, the unknown civil rights lawyer Barrack Obama, as a guest commentator at NPR spoke plainly regarding Murray's work then, that
He's interested in pushing a very particular policy agenda ... With one finger out to the political wind, Mr. Murray has apparently decided that white America is ready for a return to good old-fashioned racism so long as it's artfully packaged and can admit for exceptions like Colin Powell.
It doesn't seem as though there is a role for government either in closing the divide between upper middle class white Americans and their blue collar counterparts. According to Murray, the cure for this malady is for the wealthy "to drop their nonjudgmentalism and start preaching what they're practicing" (a case for cultural imperialism?). Perhaps, in Murray's policy brief, they deserve in exchange for exercising such noblesse oblige or civic duty tax cuts on top of the ones they already receive (?).

The person who could model this kind of behavior the best among the candidates is Mitt Romney. The introduction of the book comes at an opportune time as he recently stumbled over the issue of income inequality and as many independents within the party (blue collar teaparty Republicans) cast a suspicious eye at the 'Washington/Wall Street establishment' that he seems to represent. The 'non-Romney' candidates, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul have all railed against these 'fat cats' and sought to capture the protest vote.

It turns out, these so-called elites share many of the religious and cultural preferences as the party base according to Murray (upper middle class whites more frequently go to church, marry and stay married for longer). Of course the recent research on happiness and income explains why that may be. In the end, Murray may have tried to establish a false causation here.

Given the stagnation of income and productivity in America, the 'choice' faced by ordinary Americans isn't the same as the one they faced in the 1950s when GDP and employment were rising. Consequently, people don't 'choose' to become poor because they have lost their work ethos; the lack of a work ethos comes as a result of people being poor or unemployed for an extended period of time.


  1. The sad truth is nothing will improve for quite some time. With globalization, there will be continuous trend toward equalizing the wealth of all nations. Wherever there is the most poverty, they will have the lowest wage and the most growth. The existance of lower wages elsewhere will stangnate the wages of the wealthy states. Earning power in US is in complete decline.

    1. You're right. They say productivity is the best way for rich countries to counteract that, but according to Tyler Cowen (author of The Great Stagnation), that has been in decline as well.