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Jennifer Marshall
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Jennifer Marshall

Missing the mark

Q&A | The $20 trillion War on Poverty has barely dented the poverty rate. Expert Jennifer Marshall says we can do better

Issue: "China's abortion regime," July 26, 2014

Jennifer Marshall is vice president for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., where she directs domestic policy research. With 2014 bringing the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a “War on Poverty,” we talked about his pledge that government programs would abolish poverty. 

How close are we to winning the war? Sadly, we have missed the mark entirely. We’ve spent $20 trillion, more than all our other wars combined, and have hardly reduced the poverty rate. We’ve got to go deeper and ask questions like, “Why this stubborn resistance of the poverty rate? What should citizens be thinking? What should Christians be doing?”

Given that the rate is nearly the same, does poverty now look like it looked 50 years ago? In many ways no, because not even the federal government can spend $20 trillion and have it not make a dent. We have seen an increase in the material living standards of the poor. We can be thankful that the kind of absolute poverty we see in some developing nations, with people fearing for their lives, has been all but eradicated here.

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What kind of poverty do we have here? Relative poverty. Relational deprivation, including erosion of the family and the collapse of marriage. When President Johnson announced the War on Poverty the rate of unwed childbearing was about 6 or 8 percent. Today it’s 42 percent. Then, one of four black children was born to an unwed mother. Today it is three of four. Among blacks, unwed childbearing was 25 percent, but today it is more than 72 percent.

Libertarians complain that social conservative talk of marriage is getting involved in personal matters. How do you react to that critique? Marriage, and the family centered on marriage, holds back the state and protects the individual. So those concerned about individual rights and limited government, those fighting government spending and centralization of power in Washington should be concerned about the stability of the family. There is a very extraordinary link between the collapse of marriage and dependence on welfare. A child born outside of marriage is five times more likely to be poor than a child raised in an intact family. 

So one of the reasons that the poverty rate really hasn’t moved is family nonformation and malformation. What about education, which is crucial for social mobility? In 1965 the big federal intervention into local education came with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—today that’s known as No Child Left Behind. All the reauthorizations of that law, one after the other, have led to further and further intervention from Washington. So the big story of the last 50 years in public education has been the centralization of policy-making. Right now we’re debating whether there will be a common core, a set of national standards and tests. We’re seeing less of an opportunity for a community to design education according to the needs of the children there, and more centralization where bureaucrats in Washington do not know the names of children in need and how to design education fitting to them.

Homeschooling is one reaction to that . The zip code assignment system we use for education policy often locks children into failing public schools. The critical new idea on the block in the last 25 years has been parental choice in education. Homeschooling is up to about 3 percent of students now, and we have probably about 225,000 students participating in private school choice programs across the country. We’ve seen lots of innovation in terms of the mechanisms that provide for school choice, whether they be vouchers, tax credits, or education savings accounts. That’s encouraging to see, because they are making our education conversation child-centered, not system-centered. 

Let’s talk Washington-speak: What is your major policy proposal? The most important is not even a policy proposal: It’s tapping those institutions in society that have relational capital. By that I particularly mean families able to give relational mentoring to other families. Marriage mentoring where older couples go into neighborhoods where perhaps a young person has never been to a wedding. Last weekend I heard a store vendor say she had never been to a wedding—that will happen more and more as the marriage rate declines. We need to help people form a vision for marriage and gain the relational skills. 

How can government be useful here? We need elected officials to use their leadership capacities to point to the connection between marriage and poverty-fighting. President Obama is in a terrific place to be doing this. He has a beautiful family and by all accounts has been a great father to his two daughters. If he could be calling attention to the need for fathers to be committed to the mothers of their children in marriage, and to be devoted to the lives of their children by being present in a married family, that would be an enormous, enormous benefit to us. We’ve heard one or two statements on Father’s Day, but not a real sustained focus on the importance of marriage as a contributor to the common good.

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