Ari Fleischer has a surprising column in today's Wall Street Journal. His claim is that if we are concerned about poverty and income inequality, then we should focus our efforts on addressing 'the breakdown of the family,' since these two phenomena tend to correlate. I think that Fleischer at best mistakes a case of bidirectional causation for a case of unidirectional causation, and at worst privileges a case of weak causation at the expense of a case of much stronger causation. Either way, the mistake vitiates his policy advice.
It is widely observed in the social science literature that people experience much greater difficuly in forming and maintaining stable families when they are in dire poverty. It is also widely observed that 'cultures' of child-bearing outside of stable family structures tend to develop in desperately poor communities. Even apart from the social science literature, many of us hear anecdotally or directly experience the near truism that one of the primary sources of marriage- and family-imperiling stress in contemporary society is 'money trouble.' And it is not difficult to imagine why families in which one or two parents must work very long hours, often at multiple low-wage fast-food or retail jobs, tend to be families in which children have little time with or guidance from their parents. This is precisely why many of our peer nations in Europe and East Asia not only work to ensure that the national income is distributed more equitably, but also mandate and/or directly subsidize generous family leave provisions in their labor laws.
Against this backdrop, Mr. Fleischer's column could have been titled 'Want to Be Able to Afford a Family? Then Fight Income Inequality' at least as plausibly as it is presently titled.
I suspect that there's a good bit of symbiosis at work in these correlations. Poverty renders family stability much more difficult to maintain, and unstable families in turn can render poverty more difficult to escape. When it comes to public policy, however, I suspect that it is much more difficult for a government directly to effect more familial stability in impoverished communities than it is to improve employment rates, incomes, family leave provisions and educational opportunities. That, then, might be the best way to improve family stability, and Mr. Fleischer would do well to consider that likelihood.