Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in Americaby Ronald J. Sider, Charles Colson (Foreword by), John J. Dilulio (Foreword by), Eugene F. Rivers (Afterword)
Just Generosity calls Christians to examine their priorities and their pocketbooks in the face of a scandalous tendency to overlook those among us who suffer while we live in practical opulence. This holistic approach to helping the poor goes far beyond donating clothes or money, envisioning a world in which faith-based groups work with businesses, the media, and the government to help end poverty in the world's richest nation. This updated edition includes current statistics, policy recommendations, and discussions covering everything from welfare reform, changes to Medicade, and the Social Security debate.
"Sider's most important book since Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger."--Jim Wallis, author, God's Politics
"Sider knows how to lift up people in need.... [An] important and challenging book."--John Ashcroft, former Attorney General of the United States
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What Does Poverty
How would I feel if I were a poor person living in the richest nation on earth and knew my comfortable neighbors simply did not care enough to offer me real opportunity?
In the United States, over 35,000,000 people live in poverty in the richest society in human history. Their income actually dropped from 1974 to 1996. That is true both in comparison to the well-to-do majority and also in absolute terms. From 1974 to 1996, the bottom 20 percent lost 10 percent in real income (i.e., after taking inflation into account). The top 20 percent gained 39 percent, and the top 5 percent gained 65 percent.
Who are the poor? Where do they live? What causes poverty in this land of unprecedented abundance?
Mrs. Onita Styles is a sixty-eight-year-old widow living in Dallas, Texas. In early 1997, she was in despair. The house that she and her deceased husband had owned since 1944 was collapsing around her, and she was barely able to survive on her monthly Social Security check.
Mrs. Styles had worked in the kitchen and laundry in two Dallas hotels for over twenty years, but when her employers discovered she had developed serious lead poisoning from the cleaning fluid used to polish the silverware, she was forced to leave. After that, she struggled but usually found full-time work in private homes, cooking and cleaning. Still, her modest income was not enough to keep her house in good repair. So in the early 1980s, Mrs. Styles took out a $3,500 loan from a nonprofitorganization that contracted to do much-needed repairs. The company began the repairs, pulling up the floor, but never completed the job. Unfortunately, they never returned any of the money! When that organization went out of business, the city took over the loan. Tragically, Mrs. Styles did not know her way through the system well enough to renegotiate the loan. She just kept making monthly payments as her house got worse and worse.
When my friend Kathy Dudley of the Dallas Leadership Foundation first visited Mrs. Styles in early 1997, her house was a wreck. The foundation was collapsing. Sections of the floor had rotted. The walls and ceiling were cracked. The tub and toilet had sunk below the floor level and were unusable, and there was no running water. Mrs. Styles cooked with a hot plate and carried water in gallon jugs from a neighbor's house.
That's what poverty means to one of our 36,000,000 poor neighbors. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Volunteers mobilized by Kathy's Dallas Leadership Foundation gave over $50,000 and hundreds of hours of donated labor to renovate Mrs. Styles's home in 1998. Most of the poor are not that fortunate.
In 1997, 35.6 million persons13.3 percent of the U.S. populationfell below the official poverty line. For a married couple with two children, the poverty level in 1998 was $16,530. This seems like a lot of money. In fact, it is if you compare it to the one dollar a day on which 1.3 billion people in the developing world live. On the other hand, the mean family income in the United States in 1997 was $56,902! I explained in the introduction what it means to scrape by on $16,530 a year in the United States. Financially, it means stretching every penny and having no budget for many things such as furniture, vacations, recreation, private health insurance, and so on that most of us take for granted. Poor people, of course, do have some of these things. Somehow, they manage to spend less on food and housing, beg from family and friends, or do part-time work that is never reported to the IRS.
This is what it means financially to live at the official U.S. poverty level. The vast majority of the 36 million people in the United States who are poor live below the poverty level. Forty percent of all poor families have incomes under 50 percent of the poverty level. Imagine a family of four living on $8,265 a year!
There are weaknesses, as many scholars have shown, in the way the government calculates the official poverty rate. The official calculation does not count noncash benefits such as food stamps (it should). Nor does it deduct taxes (it should also do that). Using a more precise measure of poverty recommended by the National Academy of Sciences, the poverty rate would be a little lower11.5 percent (1996). But that still adds up to 30.5 million poor persons in ever more affluent America.
Almost anybody reading this book would find it almost unthinkable to care for a family of four on $16,530 a year. Whether the number of people trapped in that agony is 30 million or 36 million, it is fundamentally unacceptable for anybody who cares about God's concern for the poor. Even if there were only 15 million, that kind of poverty in the richest nation on earth is morally intolerable.
Living at the official U.S. poverty level also means poorer education, higher risk of crime, lower self-esteem, and for many, no health insuranceand the fear that if illness strikes, one may not receive proper medical treatment. In 1997, 43.4 million people in the United States had no health insurance. Twenty-seven percent of the uninsured were poor. More than half of all workers who worked full-time but still fell below the poverty level in 1996 lacked health insurance. Poverty is dangerous to one's health.
Sam and Jane Mitchell are hardworking people whose British ancestors came to this country over 150 years ago. For decades, Sam and Jane worked hard and acted responsibly, but they still ended up with a huge medical bill they simply cannot repay.
Sam and Jane both enjoyed excellent health for most of their thirty-six years of marriage. Their modest income did not allow many luxuries, but they raised their two children, helped both finish college, and slowly paid off the mortgage on a nice little house they had lived in for twenty-five years.
Since 1986, they have operated a small furniture repair business. Until 1991, they were able to purchase health insurance, but after that they simply could not afford the escalating premiums on their modest income. When the premiums reached $800 a month, they simply had to drop their coverage.
Last year, disaster struck. The doctors discovered that Sam had cancer. Within twelve months, their medical debt climbed to $37,000. Sam and Jane have always paid their bills faithfully, so a huge debt weighed heavily on them. There was no way they or their children could pay off this high medical billand there will almost certainly be additional medical bills they cannot pay because at fifty-seven, Sam has eight more years before he is eligible for Medicare.
Does our rich society really want to allow millions of hardworking poor people like Sam and Jane to struggle with that kind of agony?
Who Are the Poor?
Mention poverty and many people in the United States instantly think of a single, black mom living in an urban ghetto with a bunch of little kids. Wrong.
Only 12 percent of the poor live in urban ghettos; only 27 percent are African American. In reality, 34.9 percent of the poor live in families headed by a married couple. Twenty percent of poor families have an adult working full-time year-round, and still they live in poverty. 37.2 percent of all poor children in the United States live in a family in which at least one parent is working full-time.
The elderly used to suffer the highest poverty rates (see fig. 1). Now it is our children. In 1960, one-third of the elderly were poor. Nowthanks to Social Security and SSIonly about 9 percent are poor. But 20.5 percent of all our childrenthat means 14.5 million!live in poverty.
Thirty years ago, half of the poor lived in rural areas. Today, only 25 percent do. Poverty is growing fairly rapidly in the suburbs (especially the inner suburbs) where 33 percent of the poor now live. The largest group live in our cities (43 percent), mostly in mixed-income neighborhoods. Only 12 percent of the poor live in urban ghettosdefined as an area in which at least 40 percent of all the residents are poor.
Mr. and Mrs. Perez live in Maricopa County, Arizonaone of the fastest-growing counties in the United Statesfilled with million-dollar houses, manicured golf courses, and magnificent malls. But the Perez family lives in Maricopa County's Guadalupe, a very poor town populated mostly by Yaqui Indians and Latinos, tucked in between wealthy neighbors like Phoenix, Tempe, Paradise Valley, and Scottsdale.
The Perez family lives in a shack of the sort we expect to see only in a poor third-world country. The walls are old doors, tar paper, chicken wire, and rotting boards. The ground provides a dirt floor. There is no bathroom, no running water, no electricity, no heat. Their toilet is a reeking outhouse across the street.
Andrew Cuomo, the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, visited the Perez's dilapidated home recently. He wanted to dramatize his plea to comfortable Americans to use this time of fantastic economic boom and the largest budget surplus in our history to reach out to those left behind in hidden places in Appalachia, Indian reservations, inner cities, and poverty-stricken towns tucked away in the middle of an affluent country.
Before he left, Cuomo asked Mrs. Perez if she had ever heard of the Dow Jones stock index, which had just roared past 10,000. "The Dow Jones?" she asked. "What does that mean?"
Although less than half of the poor are black and Latino, poverty rates for minorities are more than double those for whites. 28.4 percent of all African Americans and 29.4 percent of all Latinos were poor in 1996, while only 11.2 percent of whites were poor.
The largest single block of poor people (43 percent) live in single-parent families with children. Twenty-two percent of the poor are single adults not living with children. But that still leaves one-third (35 percent) of all the poor living in married-couple families. Figure 2 underlines the close connection between single parenthood and poverty. In 1996, only 8.7 percent of all married-couple families were poor, but 44.3 percent of all femaleheaded households with children were in poverty. And the rates were even higher for single moms who are black (45 percent) and Latino (49 percent). This important correlation between poverty and single parenthood is one we will explore in more depth in chapter 5.
The length of time a person or family experiences poverty significantly determines how much harm poverty causes. At any given time, about 6 percent of the poor are full-time students freely choosing a temporarily low income for future gain. A recent study showed that from 1979 to 1991, 66.4 percent of all people in the United States were never poor. Seventeen percent were poor for only one to three years. Only 5 percent experienced poverty for ten or more years. The figures, unfortunately, are radically different for African Americans. Almost two-thirds of all African Americansbut only one-quarter of whitessuffer at least one year of poverty. Seventeen percent of all blacksbut only 2 percent of whitesstruggle with poverty for ten or more years.
Is Poverty a Myth?
The picture just outlined reflects the mainstream analysis of U.S. poverty today. But some, especially Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation, have argued that the notion of widespread poverty in America is a myth. If poverty means not having enough nutritious food, clothing, and a place to live, according to Rector, "There are few poor persons remaining in the United States."
Rector cites much interesting data from U.S. government agencies about people below the official poverty line. In 1995, 41 percent of poor households owned their own homes. Seventy percent of poor households owned a car. Ninety-seven percent had a color TV, and two-thirds had air conditioning. Poor Americans have a lot more living space per person than the average person in Paris, Athens, Tokyo, or Warsaw. On average, poor children in the United States consume about the same amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals as middle-class children. Poor women are more likely to be overweight than middle-class women.
The Census Bureau (which develops the figures on poverty rates) only counts cash income. Using these figures, the lowest fifth of all households received $8,350 in income in 1995. But the U.S. Department of Labor reported in 1995 that the lowest fifth of all households actually spent $14,607indicating substantial unreported income. Furthermore, the Labor Department does not include housing subsidies and government medical programs. If those are added, the total "expenditures" of the bottom fifth of households rises to $20,335 in 1995. Hardly poverty, Rector concludes.
The real problem, Rector argues, is "behavioral poverty"single parenthood, a declining work ethic, and accompanying social decay due to drugs and crime. In America's Failed $5.4 Trillion War on Poverty, Rector argues that it is precisely the government's anti-poverty (welfare) programs that have destroyed the family, the work ethic, and poor communities.
Finally, Rector claims that the anti-poverty programs have not reduced poverty. Testifying before Congress, he said, "Since the onset of the War on Poverty, the U.S. has spent over $5.3 trillion on welfare. But during the same period, the official poverty rate has remained virtually unchanged."
Is Rector right? His statistics are largely accurateprovided one understands that he is talking not only about what people popularly mean by "welfare" but rather about all means-tested programs (i.e., all programs in which the amount of the grant or service depends on the person's income and/or assets). But his argument is internally inconsistent, he ignores important data, and his conclusions are fundamentally flawed.
For starters, Rector's use of the word welfare is not accurate. Most people use that word to refer to the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children plus related housing, job training, medical, and food stamps benefits. All those programs together make up one-quarter of the cost of all federal means-tested entitlement programs. Government spending for low-income elderly and disabledwhich few people consider welfare or want to abolishmakes up almost one-half of all means-tested entitlement costs. Furthermore, many means-tested programs provide benefits to people above the poverty level. Rector's language confuses rather than clarifies.
Second, even if there were only a third or a quarter as many people living in poverty as the official figures suggest, it would still be a tragic injustice that we must correct rather than explain away. According to Rector himself, however, one-fifth of all households spent only $14,607 in 1995. That meansaccording to his calculationsthat tens of millions of our neighbors in this rich land were at or below the official poverty level, which as we have seen means incredible hardship.
Third, Rector wants to include government medical programs in his calculation of income for the poor. We could do that, but then we would also have to raise the poverty level by the same amount. When middle-class citizens calculate their income for the IRS, they do not include health insurance premiums paid by their employers. Poverty guidelines have never taken health care into account. Therefore, adding medical assistance to the income of the poor confuses and distorts the discussion.
Fourth, Rector's charge that the official poverty level has remained "virtually unchanged" since the beginning of the War on Poverty in 1964 is simply untrue. It fell dramatically from 1964 to 1973 and then increased when the economy ran into trouble and President Reagan reduced benefits for the poor (see p. 39).
Fifth, Rector's blanket attack on government anti-poverty programs is simplistic and blind to careful research data. Some government programs have failed, but Rector blatantly ignores data that demonstrates that some have been highly effective. The Earned Income Tax Credit increases work effort (see p. 104). Serious malnutrition has largely disappeared in this country precisely because of food stamps, the Women-Infant-Children feeding program (WIC), and other government nutrition programs. In fact, every federal dollar spent on prenatal care for mothers in the WLC program saves from $1.77 to $3.13 in Medicaid costs. Without Social Security, 50 percent of all elderly Americans today would be mired in poverty. Thanks to Social Security, less than 10 percent are poor. Because of government programs, especially Medicaid, the poor receive much better medical care than they did thirty years ago, and they are healthier.
Sixth, the millions of poor neighbors living in households that Rector himself says spent only $14,607 in 1995 had this much income in part because of the very government programs that Rector denounces and wants to abolish. It is an astonishing argument to call for abolishing anti-poverty programs because there is allegedly no poverty when in fact it is precisely those very programs that have significantly reduced poverty.
Part of Rector's concern, to be sure, is valid and important. There is a tragic correlation between single parenthood, poverty, and a long list of social disorders that liberals have too often ignored. We must face this reality honestly.
To imply, however, that the entire government effort to combat poverty in the last thirty years has been a disaster is plainly false. So is the suggestion that the problem of poverty has essentially disappeared in the United States. Until Mr. Rector is ready to have his family join the bottom one-fifth of households who, he calculates, have $14,607 a year, we need not take seriously his suggestion that living at the official poverty level is not much of a hardship.
What Causes Poverty?
In the last few decades, political liberals and conservatives have fought harsh ideological battles over the causes of poverty. Liberals traditionally argued that structural changes and systematic injustice caused most poverty. They explained how globalization, technological change, and the shift from a manufacturing to a service and information economy reduced the demand for low-skill, well-paying jobs. Robots and machines replaced many factory workers. When possible, companies moved labor-intensive operations to developing countries where wages were dramatically lower. In addition, many jobs moved from central cities to the suburbs. Suburban industrial parks replaced crowded factories in decaying urban neighborhoods. Retail jobs moved to new suburban malls, and new suburban office complexes emerged closer to suburbanites' homes. Since public transportation to suburban locations was inadequate and the urban poor often lacked cars, there were simply not enough good jobs available to the urban poor. Woven through everything else was continuing racism.
Conservatives disagreed. Poverty has resulted from wrong moral choices exacerbated by bad government policy. They loved to point out that only a very small percentage of those who finished high school and avoided having children out of wedlock were poor. Soaring illegitimate births, divorce rates, and single-parent familiesalong with bad choices about drugs, alcohol, work, and sexwere the primary causes of poverty. And generous government welfare programs that allowed the state to replace fathers as the breadwinners simply made things worse.
Who is right? Both are partly right. I have lived and worshiped with the poor far too long to side either with the liberal who quickly dismisses the way personal choices contribute to poverty or with the conservative who ignores the way complicated structural barriers make it difficult for many hardworking people to escape poverty. If your factory closes because global economic forces prompted management to move production to Mexico and you can only find a much-lower-paying job, the problem is not lack of personal responsibility. On the other hand, if you lose your job because of poor work habits, drugs, or alcohol, personal choices are more clearly central to the problem. What Harvard's distinguished African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. says of the black community is generally true across racial lines today in the United States: "The causes of poverty within the black community are both structural and behavioral."
It is also essential to see how these two sets of causes are intertwined. In a recent essay, Glenn Loury rejects liberal attempts to explain inner-city poverty and inequality between blacks and whites exclusively or primarily in terms of economic factors, arguing that social and cultural factors are also important. But Loury insists that a long history of unjust political, economic, and racist structures are tightly interrelated with unhelpful cultural and benavioral patterns today William Julius Wilson on the other hand is more inclined to emphasize the economic causes of inner-city poverty but he also insists that there is much that these factors do not explain." Cultural factors do play a role.... We need a broader vision that includes all of the major variables."
I will argue that there are four broad causes of poverty: structural causes; personal decisions and misguided behavioral patterns; sudden catastrophes; and permanent disabilities. When analyzing nonstructural causes of poverty, it is important to distinguish between a basically healthy family who experiences a temporary setback (e.g., because of the death or extended illness of the breadwinner) and a family that has a complex set of destructive behaviors (e.g., drug use, abuse of alcohol, poor school performance, out-of-wedlock births, violence) and remains mired in poverty for years. We can help the first family with short-term cash assistance, job training, and new work opportunities. In fact, over 50 percent of all people who ever get public welfare receive it for three years or less, and 27 percent use it for only one year or less. The average length of time a family spends on welfare is approximately two years. Temporary assistance helps them move on to self-sufficiency. Twenty-three percent of all welfare recipients, however, stay on welfare for ten or more years. Over 50 percent of the heads of households below the poverty line are not working at all. The multiple causes of their poverty go well beyond temporary setbacks, and a long-term solution will require personal transformation as well as structural change and temporary assistance.
Decreasing number of low-skill, well-paying jobs. Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson is surely correct in seeing the loss of low-skill, decent-paying jobs as one major cause of poverty. Many formerly well-paying, low-skill, blue-collar jobs have moved to Mexico or China, and new service sector jobs often do not pay enough to support a family. Many employers have moved to the suburbs, but the public transportation system was not designed to enable inner-city residents to travel easily to such locations. The lack of jobs that pay a family wage, Wilson rightly argues, helps create absent fathers, increasing violence, and general social decay.
Falling wages. Changes in the global economy and technological changes that caused people to be replaced with machines have also produced failing wages for low-skilled persons. Wages for men without a college degree have fallen dramatically in the last twenty years even when such men work full-time all year. From 1979 to 1993, high school male dropouts saw a 22.5 percent decrease in average weekly wages; high school graduates, an 11.9 percent decrease (see fig. 3). Even men with some post-high-school training lost 5.3 percent of their wages. On the other hand, college-educated men gained almost 10 percent, and those with a graduate degree enjoyed an increase of 22 percent. The unemployment rate (which counts only people actively looking for work) is five times higher for high school dropouts than for college graduates.
Women have not fared as badly. Female high school dropouts saw a 6 percent decrease in their wages from 1979 to 1993. But female graduates gained a little (6 percent), those with some additional training gained more (11 percent), and female college graduates enjoyed a 27 percent increase in weekly wages.
A growing economy no longer helps the less educatedespecially men. The contrast between two similar periods of large economic growth is striking, In the 1960s, wages for everyone increased dramatically, and the poverty rate dropped from 22 percent to 13 percent. Every 1 percent expansion of the economy saw a jump in weekly wages of $2.18 for workers in low-income families. The economy expanded in a similar way from 1983 to 1989, but the poverty rate hardly declined at all. Even though people worked more hours, weekly wages for the poorest 18 percent actually dropped 32 cents for every I percent increase in the economy. The reason? Falling wages for less-skilled workers.
Not surprisingly, low-skilled men are simply not working as much as in the past. In 1970, 86.8 percent of all male high school dropouts were working or looking for work. By 1993, the number was only 72.3 percent. The trend for women is slightly different. Female high school dropouts earned less per week in 1993 than in 1970, but there was a slight increase (1.6 percent) in the number of those working. But female college grads, who were earning much more in 1993, were also far more likely (18.3 percent) to be working. Low pay discourages work.
Why this dramatic decline in wages for low-skilled people? We have already noted several crucial factors. Because of technological changes, machines have replaced many low-skilled workers, so businesses need fewer such workers. Because of the globalization of the economy, low-skilled American workers are competing with workers in China, Indonesia, or Mexico, where salaries are vastly lower.
Minimum wage. The falling real value of the minimum wage is another structural cause of poverty. When the minimum wage remains the same while inflation reduces each dollar's purchasing power, the real value of the minimum wage falls lower and lower. In both 1968 and 1975, a full-time, year-round worker paid at the minimum wage earned a salary at least equal to the poverty level for a family of three. By 1991, that same person's wages were only 74 percent of the poverty level, and in 1997, that same full-time worker's wages were just 84 percent of the poverty level.
One implication of falling wages for workers with low skills and, consequently, increasing poverty, is clear: It is no longer possible to solve the problem of poverty for less-educated people simply by expanding the economy. There are simply not enough jobs available that pay a family wage.
Welfare. The worsening situation for the poorest 20 percent of the population is also related to the fact that those dependent on welfare payments saw their income drop dramatically in the last two decades. The average monthly welfare payment per family (in 1996 dollars) fell from $734 in 1970 to $523 in 1980 to $470 in 1990 to $374 in 1996!
Unions and part-time workers. Other causes of declining wages have also played a part in the growth of poverty. Unions, which historically have been successful at raising wages, have lost members and power in the last few decades. In 1953, 26.9 percent of the U.S. labor force belonged to a union; by 1998, only about one-half that many (13.9 percent)/were unionized. Some scholars estimate that 20 percent of the increase in inequality in men's earnings in the 1980s is connected to this decline in the strength of unions. Also important is the fact that employers have consciously increased the number of part-time workers to avoid paying benefits.
Racism. The extent to which continuing racism contributes to poverty is difficult to measure, but it is certainly the case that the lingering effects of our racist past and racial prejudice in the present play a role in the poverty of minorities. A racist history means that African Americans inherit less wealth. Ongoing discrimination in housing, education, employment, and law enforcement limit their opportunities and lower their earnings. One study suggested that if we simply reduced discrimination in the sale and rental of housing by 13 percent, we would narrow the gap between blacks and whites in earnings and education by 33 percent.
Job audits provide one of the clearest indications of persistent racism in hiring. In a job audit, a white and black person with equal skills apply for the same job. The white person is 10 percent more likely to get an interview. If both are interviewed, 50 percent of whitesbut only 11 percent of blacksreceive a job offer. When both receive a job offer, the salary is 15 cents per hour higher for whites. Racism obviously still contributes to black poverty.
A quick review of the years from the mid-1960s to mid-1980s shows how broad structural factors reduce or increase poverty. After President Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1964, several important programs quickly followed: Food Stamp Act (1964), Economic Opportunity Act (1964), Medicare and Medicaid (1965). The economy was also booming. The result? The poverty rate fell from 19 percent (1964) to 11 percent (1973).
Then the huge jump in oil prices in 1973 and the severe recession of 1974 to 1975 halted economic growth. In 1981, President Reagan cut taxes, as well as social programs for the poor. The effective federal income tax rate for the poorest 20 percent increased from 8.1 percent to 10.4 percent from 1980 to 1985, and it dropped from 29.7 percent to 24.4 percent for the richest 5 percent. Reagan also restricted welfare benefits. What happened? From 1979 to 1983, the child poverty rate climbed from 16.4 percent to 22.3 percent. Structural factors obviously play a large role in the existence and perpetuation of poverty.
Personal Decisions and Misguided Behavioral Patterns
While the structural causes of poverty are many and varied, they alone do not explain all poverty. In fact, structural causes are often intertwined with personal decisions and misguided behavioral patterns. A young unmarried teenager who is sexually active, gets pregnant, and then drops out of school is certainly making personal choices that will very likely condemn her to extended poverty. But how much was her action shaped by the fact that her father had left her mother when he lost his job because the factory he worked in moved to Mexico, by the fact that subtle racism helped create an inferior high school, and by the fact that the best-paying job available to her boyfriend was selling drugs? Keep in mind this interconnectedness as we examine some of the personal decisions and behaviors that lead to poverty.
An increase in the number of single-parent families. Skyrocketing single parenthood is one of the major causes of growing poverty in the United States. Single-mom families are the poorest people in our nation. Half of all families headed by an unmarried mother have total cash income of less than $12,400. In 1996, 44.3 percent of all single-parent, female-headed families were poor; only 8.7 percent of all married-couple families were poor.
Single moms have always been poor, but now they represent a much higher percentage of the total population. This is due to a number of factors. The percentage of single adult women who have a child has not increased much for several decades, but far more women today decide never to marry, and married women have fewer children. At the same time, higher divorce rates are creating more single moms, and more teenagers than ever are having children today, and fewer are marrying the father of their child. The result is a skyrocketing number of single-parent families. In 1970, a single mom was the head of 11.5 percent of all families. By 1995, that number had jumped to almost 25 percent. And in the African American community, it escalated from 33 percent to 60 percent during the same years.
Out-of-wedlock births are the most important contributing factor to the growth of single-parent families. In 1960, 85 percent of all teenagers who bore children were married; by 1995, only 25 percent were. Of all the families in 1970 headed by a single mother, only 7 percent were this way due to out-of-wedlock births. By 1995, however, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, 34.6 percent of all children in single-mom families lived with a mother who had never married. (The figure was 54.7 percent for black children and 37.3 percent for Latinos.) The poverty rate for all single-mom families is high, but it is higher for families in which Mom never married than for families in which Dad died or the marriage ended in divorce.
Why this escalation in out-of-wedlock births? Society's abandonment of historic Judeo-Christian sexual moral standardsthanks in part to TV, popular music, and the moviesis one important reason. Decreasing job opportunities and lower wages for low-skilled men-especially inner-city minoritiesis another. A recent poll discovered that 77 percent of women listed a well-paying job as an essential requirement for a husband. Unfortunately, as William Julius Wilson points out, that is precisely what an increasing number of young minority men do not have.
Many of the reasons female-headed households experience more poverty are painfully obvious. Absent fathers provide little child support. With only one person to care for the children, there is less time to earn a living. When women do work, they get paid less per hour than men.
The poor single men who make up 9 percent of the poor also face a host of problems that contribute to the growing number of poor single-parent families. Many have fathered children out of wedlock and pay little or no child support. They are more likely than single women to be homeless and involved in drugs, crime, and violence. Thirty-seven percent of all black men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four are under the supervision of our jails or courts.
The impact on children of single parenthood and poverty is staggering. Growing up in a poor home frequently means inadequate health care, deficient nutrition, poor housing, bad schools, unsafe neighborhoods, extra stress, and diminished hopes. With one-fifth of all our children living in poverty, we are damaging millions of kids and undermining our nation's future.
Other behavioral patterns. The decisions and behaviors that lead to single parenthood are not the only ones that contribute to the existence of poverty. Drug use and sexual abuse are also important factors. A small but significant number of families are poor because one or both parents use illegal drugs or abuse alcohol. There is also a high correlation between sexual abuse and teen pregnancy. One study found that 61 percent of all teenagers who were pregnant or parenting had suffered sexual abuse earlier in life. Abuse creates low self-esteem, which fosters excessive craving for male affection. Poverty also increases the likelihood of sexual abuse. Female-headed households are more likely to have transient boyfriends who in turn often feel powerless and hopeless and sometimes compensate by asserting power over girls in the family. Tragically, that abuse increases teen pregnancy, which increases the chances of poverty.
Wrong choices, not merely unjust structures, cause poverty. As James Q. Wilson, one of America's premier political scientists insists, "A variety of public problems can only be understoodand perhaps addressedif they are seen as arising out of a defect in character formation."
Sometimes disaster strikes fast. Every day accidents on the road or at work kill or disable the principal breadwinner in solid lower-middle-class families. Every day long-term illness hits a person who, along with tens of millions of other people in the United States, lacks health insurance. Too often, the result is poverty. In these and similar cases, the cause is neither broader structural change nor misguided personal choices. But the result can be devastating poverty.
Finally, some people are poor simply because (often through no fault of their own) they have a condition that prevents them from working. This is true of the mentally and physically disabled. It is also true of the elderly who can no longer work but were not able to save enough money for retire-
Meet the Author
Ron Sider is the president of Evangelicals for Social Action and professor of theology, holistic ministry, and public policy at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than twenty books, including the well-received The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience and the bestselling Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.
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