Sex, Poverty and the Recession

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The following article was published in The Washington Timeswomanshoe.jpg

Last week’s Brookings Institution briefing on the just-released poverty estimates by the Census Bureau began with one of the panelists stating that there are “more poor persons today than ever.” Her carefully worded statement ignores the fact that the rate of poverty has declined – the 2009 poverty rate of 14.3 was less than the 15.1 percent rate in 1993 or the 15.2 percent rate in 1983. The panelist also accurately claimed that the recovery from the recession of 2001 did little to lower poverty rates before they began to rise sharply from the effects of the current recession in 2008 and 2009. The Brookings panel set the stage for this week’s Senate Finance Committee hearings, “Welfare Reform: A New Conversation on Women and Poverty,” another event in the left’s never-ending effort to promote increased welfare benefits.

The Brookings panel did not explore the economic and demographic circumstances that produce poverty, nor did it explain any of the reasons for the lack of progress in reducing poverty during the recovery from the 2001 recession. Note that from 2003 to 2007, the number of persons who were employed increased by 8.3 million, which lowered the unemployment rate from 6.0 percent to 4.6 percent. While this is not quite as large as the 9.3 million increase in the period from 1993 to 1997, it cannot be characterized as anemic.

At the same time the economy was adding millions of jobs, however, cultural and demographic factors were at work to increase the number of poor. First, the number of persons living in female-headed households rose by 2.6 million and, second, the number of unrelated individuals rose by 4.1 million from 2003 to 2007. It is precisely this demographic undertow that negated the effects of the recovery on the poverty rate.

Given the financial difficulties that unmarried mothers face in trying to raise a family – their poverty rate is four-to-five times that of other families – it is no surprise that during the period from 2003 to 2007, three-quarters of the 1.4 million increase in the number of poor persons (that kept the poverty rate from declining) are accounted for by the growth in the number of poor persons in those female headed households and the rest by growth in poor unrelated individuals. It is worth noting that the poverty rate would have actually increased more had there not been a decrease of 240,000 in the number of poor persons living in all other types of families (i.e., those not having a female head of household).

With the economy mired in recession since 2007, the number of unemployed, plus those who have left the labor force has increased sharply, particularly among males. With the loss of over six million jobs from 2007 to 2009, plus the continuing cultural and demographic undertow, the number of poor has jumped dramatically in all categories. The economy will eventually recover, but cultural and demographic changes make the challenge of combating poverty daunting due to the continuing growth in the high-poverty sectors of the population (i.e., unmarried mothers and unrelated individuals).

The question, then, is: What accounts for growth in the segment of the population that remains unmarried and economically isolated? David Gelertner provides an answer in his review of Martin Amis’ “The Pregnant Widow” in the Weekly Standard. The change in women’s attitudes about sex took their opening position from “no, unless I love you” to “yes, unless I don’t like you.”

The conventional wisdom these days is: “Non-marital sexual relations are inevitable given that young people delay marriage in favor of getting an education and becoming established in a career. Besides, biology being what it is, men can hardly be expected to marry when female sexual partners are readily available without the accompanying responsibilities of marriage.” Moreover, there is a never ending stream of novels and movies these days celebrating the unmarried pregnant women who choose to go it alone independent of the biological fathers. Hence, it is no surprise that non-marital births now comprise 40 percent of all births, which feeds the growth in the number of economically vulnerable single mothers.

This brings us back to the demand that the economic safety net be strengthened. Critics, like me, contend that this is the wrong approach. Resources should be focused on jobs programs that will bring the poor to the point of self-sufficiency; making poverty more tolerable in the welfare hammock only increases the problem. Given the growing body of research – including my book, Children at Risk – showing the adverse effects on children of growing up in fatherless homes plus the billions upon billions in taxpayer costs, the need for a more extensive economic safety net can be debated, but the need for a stronger moral safety net to protect women and children is indisputable.

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