Friday, September 28, 2012

And Two Makes Poverty

It is a blindingly obvious fact that a single person (of either gender) who is effectively a caregiver and financial support for someone who can't manage on their own (for any reason) is at a disadvantage when compared to a couple managing that same responsibility. Unlike a lot of issues, this concept is cut and dried enough that one wonders why we still see the need to talk about it. But when the NPR story "Can Marriage Save Single Mothers From Poverty?" actually asked, effectively "Would More Married Mothers Mean Less Poverty?" the answer that came to my mind was: "Well, maybe not."

(The title, of course, was pure click-bait - the suggestion that perhaps we should be looking to match single mothers with reasonably well-off unmarried men, let nature take it's course {or perhaps have the National Guard officiate a few shotgun marriages} and then sit back and watch the poverty rate fall is fairly boneheaded.)

Every time I read something like this, the first thought that comes to mind is that it's too bad that hormones, emotions, desires and personal and social expectations don't read statistics. The simplest way to reduce the number of families (with single and married parents) in poverty would be for impoverished people to decide that they won't have children until they're sure they can afford them. And for better-off parents to be more focused on making sure they stayed that way. Even if that means being childless for life. "Family" may be a right, but it's not an entitlement. That's the message that we have to promote. Sure, all kinds of people want children, but they're expensive, and they have to be carefully considered, in the same way you'd consider buying a home or anything else that costs a lot of money over a long timeframe. (In America gone by, and in many other parts of the world to this day, children are a source of labor; but in the modern first world, they're more akin to expensive luxury items.) Any bets on THAT becoming the norm? Yeah, I didn't think so, either.

It's all fine and good for people like Rick Santorum to say that people should marry before having children, but if they don't take that advice? What then? For the most part, the whole message is a waste of time, until people are more serious about the costs, benefits, opportunities and risks that children represent in the first place. Sexuality doesn't come with an switch that remains "off" until after the wedding. So that still leaves us with the question of what to do with people who won't or can't use contraception - whether it's out of a preference for taking the risks rather than being celibate or because they've chosen a partner who foists that risk upon them.

There is no viable method of ensuring that only those people who are financially (or physically, or emotionally) capable become parents. So we're better off working to broaden the population of capable people. In the long run, that means altering the income distribution. Which is just as tall, if not taller an order than breaking our societal love affair with the idea of parenthood. But in the end, poverty isn't as much an absolute state as a relative one - even poor people in the United States today see more nominal wealth flow through their hands than many people 200 years ago would have ever dreamed of. But their slices of the pie are so small, relative to the norm, that they have little purchasing power. Creating a society where it is easier for a single person to earn a living wage that provides a reasonable surplus without needing to work themselves to death is required. And besides, it sure beats moralizing.

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