A thin volume entitled “Poverty and what to do about it in America” arrived in my mailbox. It’s a compendium of essays and reports from scholars at the American Enterprise Institute.The Q & A with Brad Wilcox and James Pethokoukis (previously run online) is, I think, especially insightful. Wilcox explains that the word that shall not be spoken in the poverty discussion — “marriage” — is actually getting some recognition. He points to new research showing “the biggest predictor at the community level of mobility in America was the two-parent family. Communities like Salt Lake City and San Jose that do a lot better in promoting mobility for kids have more two-parent households. Cities like Charlotte and Atlanta have many more single-parent families and they’re struggling to advance the welfare of their poor kids.” Even a few liberals have conceded the point, but since marriage is not something they consider within the purview of government (and everything they care about in public policy that is not is by definition irrelevant), they lose interest quickly. (Perhaps if conservatives were savvy enough to make it about marriage — straight or gay — liberals would perk up.) Wilcox says this is a mistake:
I think we have to take a page here from the progress we’ve made on teen pregnancy in the United States, where we’ve cut the teen pregnancy rate by 50% in recent decades because of a concerted campaign that’s been supported by the government, by civic institutions, and by major cultural actors to get behind a common message to our younger Americans. You shouldn’t have a baby when you’re 16, for instance.
And if we can change that behavior, who’s to say we can’t also reconnect marriage and parenthood for Americans in their 20s, where now, today, most non-marital births take place. So, the view is that we can use the teen pregnancy campaign as a model for going forward to strengthen marriage in the United States. . . .
And so my view is let’s try to meet them where they’re at, to some degree, and figure out ways in which we can strengthen the economic foundations of their families with better vocational training, better apprenticeship programs, and a cultural message that speaks to them and their experience about how organizing your families around marriage first, childbearing second, will be good for them and for their kids longer term.
And then also trying to reduce some of the policy disincentives to marriage that are embedded in some of our programs targeting lower income Americans, things like Medicaid, or food stamps, for instance. So by tackling a variety of different issues that all work together to undercut marriage in this portion of the American population, I think we could make some headway here.
The sort of PR/mentoring effort Wilcox describes seems tailor-made for social conservatives and for the elements in civil society (churches, volunteer groups, local governments) that conservatives want to preserve. To the extent traditional marriage advocates are searching for a marriage issue, it would seem infinitely more productive to focus on this issue than on the inexorable march toward marriage equality.
That doesn’t mean there is no public policy element. Wilcox recommends:
I think there are two areas maybe of potential consensus.
One is that I think we should find ways to eliminate the marriage penalty embedded in many of our public policies. The Hamilton Project at Brookings actually has been working on a similar kind of effort, somewhat different focus but basically the same idea. I think that’s promising.
And the second thing I think we should is to focus on improving vocational training and apprenticeship programs for middle skilled jobs to be appealing to the kind of middle Americans that we’ve been talking about most of today.
So I think if we improve the economic prospects of working class, lower middle-class guys with better vocational training, better apprenticeship programs and connect them to decent jobs in factories or as plumbers or electricians or as IT professionals, that would be great for these guys that can have prospects, but, as importantly, for their sense of self-worth and their ability to sort of see themselves as marriageable men.
Certainly those elements should be part of any serious anti-poverty agenda. Now the agenda needs some champions.