Poverty: All in the Family

President Bush and other Republicans seeking, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for an answer to the poverty that is manifestly concentrated in some of the areas worst affected by the storm should recall the values of family and limited government that they touted when they were elected.

According to Census Bureau data, the relative levels of poverty in America are best predicted not by race, but by family makeup.

Want to find a relatively poor person in this country? Look for a broken family. Want to find a child growing up in financial adversity? Look for a family where one parent has been left to raise a child without the help of the other parent. You will especially find poor children in families where the father is not around.

Where racism persists in American life, it should be resisted and condemned. But even if we succeed in completely eradicating the evil of racism from our society, poverty will persist where families remain broken.

In 2004, according to the Census Bureau, only 6.4 percent of Americans in married-couple families lived below the poverty level, which the bureau defined as ranging from $12,334 for a family of two to $39,048 for a family of nine or more. There was some difference between the percentages for blacks and whites, but it was not large: 9.9 percent of blacks in married-couple families lived below the poverty level, while 6 percent of whites did.

On the other hand, 13.8 percent of all Americans who lived in households headed by a man without a wife present lived in poverty, while 30.5 percent of those who lived in households headed by a woman without a husband present lived in poverty.

Broken families were financially bad for adults, but they were worse for children and worst of all for young children. Of Americans under 18, only 9 percent of those living in married-couple families were below the poverty level last year. But 19.2 percent of those in a household headed by a male with no wife present lived in poverty, and 41.8 percent of those in a household headed by a female with no husband present lived in poverty.

If you were an American child 5 years old or younger and your father was not around, it was more likely than not that you lived below the Census Bureau’s poverty level: Last year, 53.8 percent of all under-5-year-olds who lived in a household headed by a woman whose husband was not present lived below that financial threshold.

The trend was basically the same among blacks and whites. Among whites, 52 percent of children under 5 living in fatherless households lived below the poverty level. Among blacks, it was 58.1 percent.

Clearly, if you want to defeat poverty in America, you should start by defeating any bias in our society against the traditional family. This should be a cause that unites Americans, rather divides them. But it should not unite them in favor of a bigger government.

The original civil rights movement was not sparked by politicians in Washington, D.C. It was a grassroots movement, inspired by traditional religious values, that was first and foremost aimed at reversing laws and acts of government that discriminated against people because of their race.

The successful movement to defend traditional family life — and, thus, attack poverty at its source — will be similar and, of course, has already been launched by many groups and organizations across the country. This movement, too, is grassroots, is inspired by traditional religious values and, where engaged politically rather than culturally, aims not at creating more government, but in reversing laws and policies — whether they bear on local schools, federal court decisions, welfare programs or the tax code — that discriminate against the family.


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