What Causes Poverty: Economics or Culture?


Do economic conditions cause poverty, or does one's surroundings impact one's perspective about the prospects of moving up the socioeconomic ladder?

Social scientist Charles Murray believes that culture is as big, if not a bigger factor, in poverty than the current GDP report. One can have all the job opportunities available, but without learning about the value of work, those opportunities are not likely to bear fruit.

So what has driven poverty in the United States over the past several decades? Murray contends that the cultural changes of the 1960s changed things at an astounding level.

I believe—I've believed for 40 years—that the reforms of the 1960s and the sexual revolution combined to create a perfect storm. And that storm changed the rules of the game for poor people—especially young poor people. In 1960, if you were male, working age, and not physically disabled, you were in the labor force. You were either working or you were looking for work. If you were a woman in your 20s, you were probably already married and had children…

But then, at some point in the '60s, the rules changed.

By 1970, it had become much easier if you were a guy to commit a crime, get caught for it, and still not go to jail. It was much easier to slide through school, even if you were a troublemaker, and (to) end up with a diploma without having learned anything or having faced any pressure to learn something. If you were a young woman at the end of the 1960s, if you had a baby, you were not the only girl in your high school class who had one. There were probably half a dozen others. The stigma was pretty much gone. You could afford to take care of the child without a husband. And you could live with a boyfriend, which you couldn't have done before.

With that in mind, consider the state of the economy at this time. The job market was red hot, there were jobs almost everywhere one looked. However, the labor force participation rate began to fall in the 1960s; out-of-wedlock births and crime also increased.

In the 1990s, another time of economic growth, there were jobs available everywhere. The labor force participation rate did rise somewhat, but there was not a radical turnaround in the ratio of people working; the rate did not return to pre-1960s levels.

Some of the most depressing research has to do with chronic unemployment. Once you've been out of the labor force for a while, getting back in is really hard.

Economic conditions can be great, but if there is not a cultural mentality that drives people to work, they simply will not.

We've been trying 20, 30, 40 years—policy intervention after policy intervention. And most of what we've tried hasn't worked or worked only around the edges.

Something needs to change here. If we are going to help people escape poverty and hold gainful employment, there needs to be cultural change.

As we know, the educated middle class has been doing better and better in recent years—economically and maintaining the old norms. But that new upper class has been AWOL in the culture wars.

They get married. They work long hours. They're engaged in their communities. But they don't say, "This would be a good idea for other people as well." They're nonjudgmental. They don't preach what they practice.

I don't mean people should get bullhorns and go down to working-class neighborhoods and yell. That's not how it worked in the 1950s…

It's about policymakers and people who write TV shows and people who make movies. They need to start saying, "You know, it's really a good thing for kids if their parents are married. It's really important that guys get into the labor force and stay there."

It takes more than government programs to effectuate cultural change. It must happen naturally in our own communities, with individuals changing the hearts and minds of their family, friends, and neighbors. In other words, be the boss of your own environment, and take charge of the message you project.

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I was recently driving for Lyft and picked up someone from a local mission that helps the homeless. He talked about the fact that a lot of the guys there just have absolutely no motivation to work. They would much rather stand on a street corner and ask passersby for money. There could be all the work opportunities available, but many of them are simply not willing to work. That's a huge problem that we need to address at a cultural level.