March 7, 2012 10:50:36 AM
Ever since I read about the legislative bills to require welfare recipients to be drug tested and do community service, I've been asking myself why people associate public assistance with laziness and drug use. At first, I thought the proposals were a way for people to live with poverty; thinking poor people are wasting money on drugs makes it a lot easier to think they don't need it for food, and thinking poor people should do community service reinforces the idea that they are out of a job because they don't want to work.
Then, I read a piece by New York Times columnist, David Brooks, and realized these proposals are based on out-dated ways of looking at poverty. In the column, titled "The Materialist Fallacy," Brooks claimed that since the 1970s there have been three dominant ways of looking at poverty. Liberals saw poverty as the result of bad math; no jobs equal no money and no prosperity. Economic conservatives felt the government caused the poverty by giving people a safety net; and, social conservatives blamed it on the breakdown of traditional middle-class norms.
Brooks, on the other hand, said new research shows poverty has a lot to do with social surroundings and peer pressure. He said sociological research shows people are stuck in communities surrounded by little opportunity and bad role models. This makes poverty difficult to rise above and easy to pass on to children. So, Brooks argued, society should try to find ways to give people the right incentives to rebuild themselves and their communities.
One way to start the construction is to focus on rebuilding parenting. As Brooks pointed out, many poor children don't have stable relationships their first 18 months, which makes it difficult for them to have stable relationships throughout life. Consequently, society should pay close attention to the stability of a child's parenting for that first critical phase of life.
Research also shows that parenting styles vary drastically based on class, and that the styles produce important differences. For example, studies show early age vocabulary is a strong indicator of future IQ scores and social mobility. By age 3, children of welfare recipients have vocabularies of about 525 words; whereas, children of professional parents have vocabularies of 1,100 words. This translates into a 38% higher IQ for the children with more words. To close this gap, low-income parents need to say 300 additional words to their child an hour, a fact unknown to most.
There are many minor, detailed ways to improve parenting and social mobility. The problem is the mindset of policy-makers. Policies aimed at testing for drug use and requiring community service ignore the causes of poverty and, instead, encourage the human instinct to blame people for their problems and pretend success doesn't have external influences, like positive role models and good schools.
The reality is drug tests don't stop drug use; if it did, rehab would be easy. Just as making people do community service doesn't help them find a job. (Don't believe me; check out the community service programs run by Courts for unpaid fines).
In reality, to reduce poverty, the state should test for and incentivize better parenting. Rather than having people pick up trash, parents should be forced to attend parent-teacher meetings and volunteer at school. And the government should test for information like the number of words a child hears a day or memory strength, or any number of measures that predict future success.
Critics may claim this is too paternalistic. But, ignoring generational poverty is as bad as drug testing it. Research shows that endemic poverty is partially the result of habits and behavior unconsciously learned from a child's parents. If a parent asks for financial assistance from the government, isn't in taxpayers' (and society's) best interest to make sure the child is receiving the best parenting possible? The best way to do this is to build people up by giving them the right information and direction, not tear them down by applying negative stereotypes.
Scott Colom is a local attorney. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Scott Colom is a local attorney.
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