For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.
— Matthew 26:11 (KJV)
In last week’s set of comments, a regular commenter observed:
Since blacks married themselves to the Democratic Party 50 years ago, the black family has been in steady decline.
He was asked:
Are you suggesting a causal relationship here?
Yes I am. Since Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society started giving money to black mothers who had babies out of wedlock, there became a disincentive for black men to marry black women and have children in wedlock. We then started moving blacks into the ghettos and taught them to become dependent on government. Then if any Republican ever suggests cutting back on welfare, there’s a backlash from those receiving government assistance and Republicans are accused of being selfish and not caring about people and being racists.
[Note: I corrected miswordings and misspellings, and simplified the above exchange.]
So what is the evidence for a causal relationship between government assistance and poverty, children born out of wedlock and multiple children born to fatherless families?
Let’s stipulate that the correlation exists. I’m not sure I accept the correlation outlined above, but it will become impossible to discuss if we don’t start somewhere. Remember that “[c]orrelation does not imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’.”
Are there other, more plausible, causal relationships that can be drawn between poverty and the dissolution of the family?
First of all, as a biologist, I am wary of using the term “race” or specify a particular race (“black”) because in biological terms, the word has no meaning. In other words, how many melanin granules per square millimeter of skin must a person have in order to be called “black?” In biological terms, the word has no meaning. I submit (and will argue below) that socioeconomic status has much more to do with human behavior than skin color.
Still, I’m forced to use the term below because many of the statistics we’ll need to rely on are broken down by race. The rest of the world refuses to conform to my disdain for race-based classifications, as one can see in the discussion here.
Stepping away from the “race bomb” for the time being, let’s discuss some universal aspects of human behavior, for I suggest that because we’re all human, we are all subject to the same “rules” of human behavior.
Evolutionary Psychology and Human Behavior
In 1975, E.O. Wilson and others advanced a new science that they called “sociobiology” which was used to explain many aspects of human behavior. Perhaps they overreached, or perhaps the foundations of the new science were not that strong, but after initial successes the sociobiologists met with stiff resistance.
The term “sociobiology,” now discredited by its political taint, has been replaced with “evolutionary psychology.” (Full disclosure: I have always allied myself with sociobiology, and now evolutionary psychology, which I find to have tremendous explanatory power.)
One key book which supported the revival of evolutionary psychology is The Moral Animal (subtitled Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology) by Robert Wright. Evolutionary psychology has something to tell us about poverty:
A second sort of light shed by the new Darwinian paradigm [in evolutionary psychology] may illuminate links between poverty and sexual morality. Women living in an environment where few men have the ability and/or desire to support a family might naturally grow amenable to sex without commitment. (Often in history—including Victorian England—women in the ‘lower classes’ have had a reputation for loose morals.) It is too soon to assert this confidently, or to infer that inner-city sexual mores would change markedly if income levels did. But it is noteworthy, at least, that evolutionary psychology, with its emphasis on the role of environment, may wind up highlighting the social costs of poverty, and thus at times lend strength to liberal policy prescriptions, defying old stereotypes of Darwinism as right-wing.
Maybe what the Victorians and others have called “loose morals” is just good sexual economics.
The Demographic Transition
There is ample evidence for this view in human populations, both across geographical boundaries and across time, as shown in this classic analysis from a high school geography class webpage:
Demographers call this the “demographic transition” model. Simply put, humans choose to reproduce more avidly when times are tough. You might lose your children; you can always put them to work in the fields (or, in an urban environment, stealing or running numbers, à la Ikey Solomon, the inspiration for Dickens’ Fagin); and the more children you have, the better chance one of them will support you in your old age. The problem is made worse by our psychological tendency to idealize parenthood, even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.
Note that there is a lag between the decline in the death rate (representing better opportunities, and fewer children dying of infantile diseases) and the corresponding decline in the birth rate. This is presumably the time it takes populations of people to “get the idea” that things are actually getting better. For example, a 1973 study of Sweden by Maurice Wilkinson is based on an analysis of demographics from 1870 to 1965. Then, as now, Sweden had only a tiny population of African descent. Wilkinson showed a lag of about 20 years between the decline in the infant mortality rate and a corresponding decline in fertility. This lag of about 20 years neatly matches the time it takes a child to grow up in a stable environment, then conclude that it is “safe” to lower her fertility rate, and begin to make decisions about her fertility on that basis.
On the basis of the above analysis it appears reasonable to conclude that economic constraints on the household have a significant effect upon fertility.
Incarceration rates for non-Hispanic black males are astronomically high. For example, Raphael estimates that one out of six black males (16.6%) is or has been incarcerated as of 2001. The incarceration rate for black males in 1974 was 8.7%.
Compare this to one in forty (2.6%) non-Hispanic white males incarcerated (now or in the past) in 2001. This rate has increased for both groups across time, but the ratio has remained constant. That is, in 2001 6.4 times as many black males as white males had been incarcerated; in 1974 it was 6.2 times as many.
“Fixed sentencing” policies instituted during the 1970s have increased, rather than decreased, incarceration rates, to approximately twice what they were in 1970, across all racial groups. Because blacks were already almost an order of magnitude more likely to be incarcerated, and this statistic has persisted, the effect of doubling the rate has been disproportionately strong on blacks.
There is widespread recognition, across the political spectrum, that the criminal justice system is broken. Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) has sponsored S.306 appointing a blue ribbon commission to study the problem and make recommendations. He has garnered support across the political spectrum: the National Sheriff’s Association, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Heritage Foundation, Sentencing Project, Fraternal Order of Police, NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union, Prison Fellowship, and 150 other organizations have endorsed his bill.
Effect of Removing Males from the Population
The effect of removing males from human populations is to change the economics of sex and reproduction.
Higher male imprisonment has lowered the likelihood that women marry, and reduced the quality of their spouses when they do, and caused a shift in the gains from marriage away from women and towards men. [Emphasis mine.]
This effect is seen across socioeconomic boundaries and across races; it’s a root human (and mammalian) characteristic. Humans behave pretty much like any other animals, with a thin veneer of society and morality laid delicately on top. Sperm is cheap and eggs are precious. Men have the incentive to spread their sperm far and wide. Women have the incentive to wait for a suitable, stable partner. In a stable society, neither has the upper hand and so neither “style” predominates.
For example, a recent article by Mark Regnerus in Slate (“Sex is Cheap”) makes this point for the “slacker” men now in their 20s and early 30s. (Notably, he doesn’t specify the race of his idealized slacker male but the accompanying art shows a white male and female.)
The idea that sex ratios alter sexual behavior is well-established. Analysis of demographic data from 117 countries has shown that when men outnumber women, women have the upper hand: Marriage rates rise and fewer children are born outside marriage. An oversupply of women, however, tends to lead to a more sexually permissive culture.
Therefore, I would submit that the destruction of the “nuclear family” ideal of the 1950s (which probably never really existed as such) is largely due to the changes in the sexual economics of the times. As men, especially high-quality men, became scarce, the biological imperative in males to spread seed far and wide without emotional entanglement exerts a stronger pull. Women can engage in sex without danger of pregnancy (at first) in an attempt to ensnare a partner. Both parties behave badly, but in their own self-interest. (“Men play at love to get sex; women play at sex to get love.”)
If we want to do something about endemic poverty, we could start by ensuring a more level playing field where there are (as closely as possible) equal numbers of men and women with equal economic opportunities. Across the world, humans have a lower birth rate and form more stable relationships when both men and women are empowered.
More importantly, men and women regardless of race or socioeconomic status need to feel that they live in a secure environment where their livelihood and ability to raise a family and participate in society is not constantly threatened.
Paradoxically, a stringent and unequal economic environment encourages people to have more children and ensures a continual downward socioeconomic spiral. Sure it’s stupid to do that, but humans (regardless of race) behave like humans, and are not always perfectly rational. The least we can do is to refrain from instituting government policies which weaken, rather than strengthen, the security of our citizens. A government which can “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty” will eliminate poverty for its citizens once and for all.