Shorthand is convenient, but sometimes it confuses. In the game of telephone, by which ideas evolve through repetition and iteration across generations, words can take on new meanings that diverge from the arguments they once advanced, and come to stand for ideas that lack support altogether. This has happened in the debate over “economics” and “culture,” which emerged during the last half-century’s War on Poverty, to provide the lens through which partisans view many of America’s most pressing social issues. It is a lens that now distorts more than it focuses—especially for conservatives, who draw from a problem’s designation as “cultural” the conclusion that public policy is powerless, when in fact it might often play a constructive role.
Already in 1965, as the Great Society programs were being established, cultural and economic analysts competed to explain why communities or entire socioeconomic classes fell into a vicious cycle of declining social and material conditions—unstable families, poor educational outcomes, weak labor-force participation, rampant substance abuse, crime, and low social capital—that left the next generation worse off than its parents. That year, Daniel Patrick Moynihan published The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. He would later write of that controversial study that it “began in the most orthodox setting, the U.S. Department of Labor, to establish at some level of statistical conciseness what ‘everyone knew’: that economic conditions determine social conditions. Whereupon, it turned out that what everyone knew was evidently not so.”
Research and debate initially focused on urban areas and their nonwhite residents. But data now show that less-educated white Americans are following a trajectory similar to the one outlined by Moynihan. By the 2010s, the conditions of the so-called “underclass” had come to correlate more closely with education and occupation than with race.
In their diagnoses and solutions, liberals have emphasized the obvious and immediate challenges facing struggling families: material poverty and, especially given the focus on nonwhite populations, systemic racism. Doubtless these factors are obstacles to opportunity. “The simplest—and at the same time, the most significant—proposition in understanding poverty is that it is caused by a lack of money,” wrote William Ryan in Blaming the Victim (1971). “The solution seems rather obvious—raise their income and let their ‘culture,’ whatever it might be, take care of itself.”
The War on Poverty adopted this strategy, using government funds to meet the immediate material needs of low-income households and flood their communities with resources. The Civil Rights movement, affirmative action, and multiculturalism sought to counteract sources of race-based disadvantage. But today we find that this approach has not produced the promised results. In the face of concerted social spending and undeniable progress in race relations over the past two generations, problems deepened in the inner cities and then, in recent decades, metastasized nationwide.
So while liberals pursued ever-larger programs to stem the tide and continued to argue that redoubling their efforts would work where merely doubling them had not, conservatives arrived at different conclusions. Yes, material poverty is a problem. And certainly, the widespread racial discrimination in mid-twentieth-century America required redress. But what ultimately determines the success or failure of an individual, the strength of his family, the health of his community, comes down to people’s decisions. Dropping out of high school, dropping out of the labor force, having children outside of marriage, committing crimes, and abusing drugs and alcohol—those things matter much more than dollars and cents. And data show that these kinds of bad decisions have become more prevalent even as material well-being has improved. This leads to the conclusion that something else, something in people’s values and beliefs and thus their decision-making, must be the culprit.
President George W. Bush cited Myron Magnet’s The Dream and the Nightmare (1993) as crucial to his thinking. In it, Magnet argued, “The cultural values and aspirations that individuals and groups hold go a long way to determining their economic condition.” He went on to say, “What chiefly ails the individuals who compose the underclass is that the cultural inheritance essential to generate fully developed, fully humanized, fully individualized selves is not getting transmitted adequately.” In short, it’s not an economics problem; it’s a culture problem.
Over time, the “lack of money” and “cultural values” explanations became well-trodden paths that turned into ruts and then trenches in public debate. Liberals almost always focus on “economics,” whereas conservatives emphasize “culture.” More than fifty years after Moynihan’s report, if you sit down with a bipartisan group of the nation’s most prominent experts to discuss questions of intergenerational poverty, within minutes they will fall back into a fight along these battle lines.
From afar, the debate can seem silly. The explanations are hardly mutually exclusive. Isn’t the answer “both”? The stakes are high, however, because the policy prescriptions conflict. If we assume, as liberals often do, that material poverty is the cause of social dysfunction, then more spending on social programs and a larger safety net are needed. And yet every such expansion of the safety net softens the consequences of self-destructive behavior, because it makes more palatable the very decisions that lead to the bad outcomes that the spending is meant to address. If you can drop out of school or not work at all and still make ends meet, if you can abandon your children and trust they will still be provided for, then you are more likely to engage in these behaviors. Furthermore, if support is most generous to those in the worst situations, and if this support declines as one becomes more self-sufficient, then the system will create incentives to persevere in bad choices and will discourage the decisions that lead to better outcomes.
Each outlook has conflicting views of social norms as well. Should single-motherhood be accommodated and even valorized, so that the experience becomes as easy and unexceptional as possible, thus creating cultural conditions in which the children of single parents can flourish? Or should single motherhood be stigmatized in an effort to deter women from going down that path? Are drug users victims in need of assistance, or do they deserve punishment? Do underperforming students benefit more from racial preferences or from neutral standards? The liberal identifies the obstacles typical of life in the underclass and proposes ways to lower them; the conservative identifies the dysfunctional behaviors that sustain the underclass, seeks to remove public subsidies encouraging those behaviors, and works to reinforce social norms that push people toward better ones.
Branding one of these views “economics” and the other “culture” makes some sense, but also introduces confusion. Liberals seek to ameliorate economic hardship, but what is the charge of “systemic racism” if not a claim about culture? Conservatives attend to cultural questions and reject the notion that giving people money will solve their problems, but the conservative analysis is fundamentally economic as well. It focuses on government programs that alter incentives and thus influence behavior in negative ways.
Consider Losing Ground, Charles Murray’s influential analysis of how welfare programs created and compounded the problems of the underclass. “The most compelling explanation for the marked shift in the fortunes of the poor,” wrote Murray, “is that they continued to respond, as they always had, to the world as they found it, but that we—meaning the not-poor and un-disadvantaged—had changed the rules of their world. Not of our world, just of theirs. The first effect of the new rules was to make it profitable for the poor to behave in the short term in ways that were destructive in the long term.” That analysis is fundamentally an economic one.
We need to put behind us the false distinction between “economic” and “cultural.” It is better to think in terms of “resources” and “decisions.” The liberal explanation takes material resources as fundamental and seeks to alleviate hardship through government transfers. With greater resources, this model presumes, decision-making will improve. The conservative explanation takes people’s decisions as fundamental and seeks to encourage better ones by altering both social and economic incentives. Through better decisions, material conditions will improve.
Superficially, the resources-based argument has appeal. Aren’t parents who can’t make rent less likely to provide a stable home for their children? Perhaps, but efforts to provide affordable and public housing have shown little capacity to make a difference. Doesn’t underfunding of schools prevent even the most talented kids in poor communities from accessing educational opportunity? The evidence suggests not—indeed, the poorest urban communities often receive the most generous funding, and robust studies in both the 1960s and 2010s reached the same conclusion about the determinant of educational outcomes: “It’s all family.”
A massive influx of resources over the last two generations has coincided with worsening decisions and thus conditions. Government spending on safety net programs quadrupled from $73 billion in 1965 to $271 billion in 1975, and quadrupled again to more than $1 trillion in 2015 (all figures in 2015 dollars). As proponents take pains to highlight, this strategy did work if the goal had merely been to meet material needs. Taking all these transfers into account, vanishingly few Americans would qualify as still “in poverty.” And yet the official poverty rate, which measures whether households earn sufficient income to support themselves, barely budged: The 2010s had a higher average poverty rate than the 1990s, which in turn had a higher rate than the 1970s. Family stability and community vitality plummeted. The underclass’s afflictions spread upward through the working class. Even if safety net spending did not worsen the problem, one would be hard-pressed to make the case that it contributed to a solution, or that yet another expansion will do the trick.
Instead, social science research supports the primacy of decisions over resources. The Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves has shown that children raised in households in the bottom income quintile (the poorest fifth of the population) have almost perfectly equal chances of landing themselves in any of the five quintiles as adults—if they are raised by married parents. Material plenty has benefits, but it is far from necessary. A child raised in the bottom quintile by a never-married mother, by contrast, is ten times more likely to remain there than to reach the top. Harvard’s Raj Chetty has found that knowing the proportion of children with single parents is the best predictor of upward economic mobility in a region, whereas the region’s level of income inequality is not a significant predictor.
The process of upward mobility itself refutes a resources-based thesis. The Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have documented the success sequence: completing high school, getting a job, and waiting until marriage to have children. Achieving all three virtually guarantees an escape from poverty. At the American Enterprise Institute, Brad Wilcox has shown the dramatic progress of black men in reaching the middle class despite their disadvantaged starting point.
This research supports an account in which personal agency and family circumstances play the central role. Lack of material resources does not pose an insurmountable barrier, such that alleviating the condition is a necessary prerequisite to expecting better decisions. Likewise, because people do have personal agency, they can be held accountable for the decisions they make, and it is reasonable for them to bear the consequences of bad ones. Maintaining personal responsibility as a cultural norm has positive real-world consequences because it influences decision-making for the better by reminding individuals that their choices matter.
But a simplistic recital of “culture” as an explanation for social problems is inadequate. An emphasis on personal agency should not foreclose consideration of the many factors influencing how that agency is exercised. Policymakers eager to affirm personal responsibility should be equally eager to inquire why individuals make the choices they do—the design of safety net programs is one such consideration, but hardly the only one. People in similar circumstances make different choices, confirming the central role of personal agency. But we can also observe that people tend to make choices in accord with information and incentives that change over time, factors that are often influenced by public policy. A man who abandons the labor force always has the option of looking for work. But his decision will surely be affected by the education and skills he has accumulated (a factor influenced by educational policy), the wage he can hope to earn and career trajectory he can hope to travel (factors influenced by economic policy), and the difference his holding a job will make in his ability to provide for a family (a factor influenced by anti-poverty policy).
Conservatives eagerly look beyond personal agency when the topic is family. No one waves away the concern that broken families leave children ill-prepared to succeed by noting that a child from such a family may still succeed. Nor do conservatives regard a toxic culture as benign, so long as people are theoretically capable of tuning it out, as indeed some do. In a special subset of cases, conservatives even subject public policy to much-deserved scrutiny. When the combination of safety net programs and labor-market conditions makes the dole more attractive than working, we rightly call for reform, even though it remains always in the power of a person facing bad incentives nevertheless to choose work.
Genuine conservatism seeks to maintain social conditions that encourage the good decisions that help individuals, families, and communities thrive. For most decisions that matter, both economics and culture play a role. Take, for instance, the question of “marriageable men.” The decline in men’s relative earning power represents a change in economic conditions that intersects with cultural changes that have scrambled older expectations about gender roles within marriage. Both contribute to a social problem of unstable families. Tangled in this, or any, complex social phenomenon are three different dimensions, which any serious social analysis must consider.
Rewards encompass the costs and benefits, monetary and otherwise, associated with a particular choice. When deciding to accept a job or not, a prospective worker might consider the offered wage and the desirability of the work, and weigh these against any losses of government benefits as well as other productive or enjoyable uses of his time. A comprehensive account of the objective rewards requires consideration of both economic and cultural factors. What jobs are available, and at what wages? What is the likely career trajectory in each? What trade-offs exist in earning income versus receiving safety net benefits? These are fundamentally economic questions. But the rewards of work extend much further. How are workers perceived in their communities? Are they respected for their efforts and applauded for pursuing self-sufficiency? Conversely, what if any stigma accompanies a choice not to work? Do some jobs earn more respect than others, and which kind is this one?
Evaluation includes the tools and processes a person uses to identify the costs and benefits of their decisions. We make decisions on the basis of the information available to us, which we gather most often from personal experiences and relationships. These help us not only to anticipate the outcomes a decision is likely to produce, but also to recognize the existence of a decision to be made and the set of choices to consider. Information in hand, our tolerance for risk and willingness to accept short-term costs in pursuit of long-term benefits will also vary widely. Sometimes the issue is one of impulse control; in other cases, a lifetime of expectations fulfilled or dashed will have taught that planning ahead yields either a payoff or only disappointment. All of this presumes that we take the time to employ reason-based evaluation instead of just plunging ahead.
The factors that influence decisions have roots that are themselves both “cultural” and “economic.” Children raised in households and communities lacking workers with stable employment, young adults whose networks lack people who have attended college or pursued non-college pathways that led to successful careers, women hearing that their married peers regret walking down the aisle—such circumstances create distinct environments for decision-making, in which people will tend to make decisions quite different from those they would make in a different environment, personal agency notwithstanding. The influence of the decision-making environment has a recursive element as well. How the current generation makes decisions depends heavily on decisions made by previous generations. An analysis therefore has to consider how those earlier decisions were made, what set off the downward spiral, and what (if anything) might interrupt it.
The third dimension, preference, adds an element of individual freedom to the economic and cultural analyses. For example, two similarly situated people can face objectively equivalent labor market opportunities, evaluate them similarly, and yet choose differently. One person might simply find interesting and enjoyable a task that another detests. Physical labor appeals to some who would find sitting behind a desk loathsome, and vice versa. A recent high school graduate might aspire to upward mobility, which his classmate considers not worth the investment, or less important than other goals such as starting a family or preserving his neighborhood ties. Some people care what others think of them; others take pride in ignoring or defying expectations.
These differences between individuals emerge regardless of cultural and economic conditions—they are attributable instead to that other classic dichotomy, “nature” and “nurture,” to which analysts have likewise discovered the answer is almost invariably “both.” Some people choose to have more or fewer kids, pursue higher- or lower-paying jobs, live in bustling metropolises or on quiet mountain roads. Generally, variety of this sort contributes to the vitality and interest of a society, and a normal social system strives to accommodate it.
Problems arise when preferences conflict with the prerequisites of a healthy and productive life. The zealot who forgoes regular employment and human connection to live in the woods may find himself with no means of support in old age. Yet the attribution of poor decisions to invalid preferences should be met with careful scrutiny. It is certainly true that people often misapprehend the availability of options and the consequences of their choices. They fail to recognize the longer-term economic and cultural rewards for good choices or the penalties for bad ones. They may be ruled by their impulses or held under the sway of a dangerous ideology. But rarely do individuals adopt a self-destructive course for its own sake.
The burden of proof should be high for the claim that people want something other than to build good lives for themselves and their children. A woman choosing single parenthood might really prefer it. It might, however, be the case that she has given up hope of finding a viable partner and decides that a child without a husband is a better option than loneliness—a sometimes rational evaluation of the options, given today’s economic arrangements and cultural regime. As always, personal agency plays a central role. But no serious social analyst can deny that when outcomes are consistently bad across large groups, counterproductive economic and cultural forces are contributing. People are making bad choices because they perceive those choices, often for good reason, to be the least bad choices available.
Another illustration of a seemingly destructive preference is the widespread tendency of people to remain in economically depressed areas rather than relocate. Assuming they understand the choices available to them, and that better job prospects and healthier communities exist elsewhere, the decision to stay put—whether because of familiarity and risk aversion, a connection to friends and family, or the stress associated with moving—can seem irrational. “Culture” appears the obvious culprit.
But a further question is crucial: What has changed? The preference for remaining near home is nothing new. It is embedded in, and central to, the preservation of long-standing tradition, which speaks to a basic human need for stability and belonging. The preference for staying near one’s birthplace and relatives appears destructive today only because economic changes have made its fulfillment economically untenable. Yet millions of people, aware of the rewards offered by oil drilling in North Dakota or catering corporate lunches in Charlotte, nevertheless decide to stay put. And they believe the choices they have made are the best available. The economic imperative to find well-paying work is at odds with the cultural imperative to remain rooted, and people’s preferences in the face of this conflict do not align neatly with what economic analyses would predict or endorse.
Many economists and pundits have a standard response to this quandary: Blame the people and communities for failing to get with the program. Economic forces are taken to be unquestionable and irresistible. A culture that refuses to adapt is described as backward, its members exhibiting an irrational fear of change. Proposals abound to decimate struggling places by helping residents of de-industrialized parts of the country “move to opportunity,” typically with subsidies designed to sharpen the economic incentives until their decision-making changes. This mindset holds that the economy simply “is,” that people should behave efficiently within it, and that a culture that influences them to do otherwise bears responsibility for bad outcomes. This makes sense within a purely economic frame of reference. But it disregards human needs and treats human nature as subservient to the market and its logic. That cannot be what conservatives mean to say.
In the face of this complexity, the easy way out is to throw up our hands. The standard policy tool kit seems incapable of helping a demoralized working class, reversing the social dysfunction creeping into the middle class, stemming the decline in marriage, or reducing drug- and alcohol-related deaths. Conservatives fall into the old habit of warning that only the vainest of social planners would even attempt to make sense of so many intersecting forces that defy description or analysis, let alone formulate government policies to remedy the situation. That is exactly the wrong response. Of course skepticism of social engineering rings true if “solving” the problem means isolating and counteracting every insidious influence. But our task is not to bring every force into harmonious alignment, thus ensuring good decisions made by all people in all cases. It is merely to alter the balance.
If trees begin to overgrow stop signs at an intersection and cars begin regularly to collide in icy conditions, the trees should be cut back and additional warning signs posted. It will not do merely to lament that people often drive with insufficient care, that no one can control the weather, and that no amount of maintenance and signage will eliminate car wrecks.
The key for policymakers, as in so many things, is to think at the margin. Certain cultural trends and economic burdens push people toward harmful decisions. We cannot simply reengineer those trends or eliminate those burdens. But there are positive factors at work in our society. Behaving responsibly, planning for the future, holding a job, sacrificing for a family—people in twenty-first-century America remain aware that these things make for a better life, and they exert a powerful pull, too.
It is also important not to accept doomsday predictions about “inevitable” cultural and economic changes. Negative and positive influences are always at work in society, waxing and waning as the economy, technology, culture, and public policy evolve. The America of the latter half of the twentieth century was an industrial society like our own. In that society, many critical factors influencing people’s decisions were not all that different from those at work today, and yet people made better decisions. Whatever shifts changed outcomes for the worse, some can cause just as much change for the better.
Certainly, many factors are cultural, and many factors—whether cultural or economic—are beyond policymakers’ control. But there are many major factors, including cultural ones, on which policy can have an effect. Leaders exhibit wisdom not by professing their incompetence, but by seeking out the areas where they might help to tip the scales.
The labor market offers a good example. If more and better jobs are more accessible, more people are more likely to work. The social safety net operates in accord with the same economic logic, though in reverse. Where more generous benefits are available without work, and where benefits are rapidly withdrawn from people who begin to earn income, work becomes economically unattractive and in many instances culturally devalued as well.
The same logic applies to education and skill development. Our current system funnels more than $150 billion per year to higher education, while offering virtually no support to those who move from high school into the workforce—a stunning imbalance, given that most young Americans do not earn even a two-year associate’s degree. If we concentrate funding instead on making non-college pathways accessible and effective, economic incentives and cultural perceptions will change, and with them decisions and outcomes. The result would benefit exactly those high school–educated Americans who have fallen furthest behind over the last generation. Likewise, private-sector organized labor has declined in the face of numerous economic, cultural, and policy-related forces, depriving workers of a crucial source of economic power and social support. Here, policymakers can exert direct control over the shape that organizing takes and the prospect for greater worker solidarity. This kind of thinking should implicate globalization as well: The trade and immigration policies by which a country defines who can produce for its consumers will help to determine how the domestic workforce fares.
Concrete economic issues like work can also offer pathways to reach softer, more cultural phenomena like family formation and stability. The availability of jobs paying above-poverty wages to high school graduates contributes to family formation and stability, according to research by Johns Hopkins’s Andrew Cherlin. Research by MIT’s David Autor finds that regions with higher job loss from exposure to Chinese import competition also see higher shares of children born to single mothers. In September, Cornell’s Daniel Lichter published striking estimates of the earnings, employment, and education levels that single women seek in spouses, based on whom their married peers have chosen. The results showed that the characteristics of actually available men lag far behind what potential female partners want, data that do not bode well for the life satisfaction of women in the coming decade—or the life satisfaction of men, for that matter.
All Americans swim, broadly speaking, in the same cultural pond. The most radical rejections of personal responsibility and accountability, coupled with the most libertine social mores, infect the nation’s college campuses. And yet, for those who successfully complete college, the data paint a picture, nearly unchanged for half a century, of stable marriages, steady work, and children equipped to succeed. Today’s cultural mores seem entirely compatible with a healthy society—where the labor market is strong.
Meanwhile, Americans swimming in the same cultural pond, but on the side with a stagnant labor market, have experienced a precipitous decline of marriage, departure from the workforce, and social dysfunction. Perhaps, unlike in the past, college completion has become, somehow, innately tied to self-discipline. Or perhaps it is just by coincidence that cultural forces are acting destructively on the people facing economic pressure. The more likely explanation is that the diverging economic circumstances play a major role in the divergence of behaviors—that is, decisions—and thus outcomes. And this means that, whatever the amorphous national culture may be doing, policies that improve economic conditions for less-educated Americans have the potential to help them make the kinds of decisions that would improve not only their own lives but our society as a whole.
People often make bad decisions when better decisions are available. Available choices have gotten worse, so making good decisions has gotten harder. Both these propositions can be true. Acknowledging the importance of context does not absolve people of responsibility for their own lives. But neither does acknowledging the importance of personal responsibility absolve policymakers of their responsibility to consider how policies affect the decision-making of their fellow citizens. A coherent conservatism holds these views together. It affirms human freedom and responsibility, including the freedom and responsibility of good leaders to make good decisions about how to shape public policy.
Oren Cass is author of The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America.
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