Bryan Caplan  

When to Wash Your Hands

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Venture Capital and Loan Guara... Single Motherhood and Poverty:...
John Marsh replies to my critique of his most outrageous passage:
Bryan thinks single-motherhood is a choice, I think it is more or less a given. In other words, if, like me, you wanted to reduce levels of poverty in the United States, you could persuade more single mothers to marry the fathers of their children or never have children in the first place. I would probably support such efforts.
"Given" for who?  It's not given for childless unmarried women who will become poor if they have kids.  They can use birth control, which is both cheap and reliable.  I'm not blaming Marsh for failing to persuade poor single mothers.  I'm blaming poor single mothers for failing to be persuaded.

Marsh continues:

However, and this is the basis of my critique of Rector, I do not think you would have too much luck with that approach, either because you couldn't persuade people or, as someone above commented, perhaps this is out of their hands. Either way, in the end you would not reduce poverty all that much.

I'm not claiming I have much ability to reduce poverty via persuasion.  I'm claiming that the poor have massive ability to do so - or, to be more precise, that they had the ability to do so before having kids.

So, you would be left saying, well, we tried, it is their choice to have children or not marry and thus fall into poverty.  Let them be and let us wash our hands of it.

I'm saying something even stronger.  Women who are poor because they became single mothers didn't try to avoid poverty.  They didn't take a minimal precaution against it.  If total strangers can't wash their hands of this problem, who can?

I have to think that Marsh washes his hands of many problems in his daily life.  If a relative or friend is habitually drunk, late, rude, irresponsible, etc., you can try to persuade them to straighten up.  You can clean up their messes.  But eventually everyone says, "Why should I help you when you won't make a minimal effort to help yourself?"  Question for Marsh: If this is how you treat family and friends, why do total strangers deserve any better?

Last lines from Marsh:

I am of the try something else school. Bryan and probably most of his readers are not. That is a difference of politics, not an outrageous or equivocating argument.

It's clearly outrageous to equate using contraception with winning the lottery.  To quote Jules from Pulp Fiction, the two "ain't the same ballpark, ain't the same league, ain't even the same f***** sport."  And though it's not as clear-cut, it still seems outrageous to pardon someone in trouble because she failed to take minimal precautions - and condemn total strangers for failing to help her.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Shangwen writes:

And today, this from NBER:

The final section of the paper provides an empirical application in which we use variation in families’ travel distance to identify the causal effect of child care subsidies on children’s weight outcomes. Our instrumental variables estimates suggest that subsidized child care leads to sizeable increases in the prevalence of overweight and obesity among low-income children.

That's some helping hand. Notice they measured obesity, not increases in underweight.

Adam writes:

The most helpful bit of information we could have at this point is _why_ poor women sometimes fail to take these simple precautions. It might be a wash-your-hands moment, or there might be a solution out there, waiting to be found. Surely there are theories?

J Storrs Hall writes:

I think that Marsh's stance is a classic example of the hidden assumptions of the conventional wisdom of the political class and the wannabe political class (academics): namely that they are the only moral agents in the game, and that the hoi polloi are not -- responsible neither for their actions nor the condition in life that results.

It is Kafkaesque that these people are referred to, and think of themselves, as egalitarian.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

My family is run in strict communist style ('from each according to his abilities,...'), but the reason I don't like communism is that this doesn't scale. If I had an infinite amount of time to understand, monitor, and nurture everyone, and everyone else did as well, I would reconsider.

Dan Carroll writes:

I don't think the object is to necessarily reward women for making bad choices, but to prevent the children from bearing the brunt of the consequences of those bad choices ... ultimately leading to crime and/or further burdens on society, not to mention the needless human suffering that results. In being around institutionalized child service programs, I am continually surprised by how poorly poor children are treated in our society.

Jack writes:

Unless I missed something, it seems to me that Marsh insists on talking about single motherhood and poverty *ex post*, while Prof. Caplan talks about it *ex ante*.

Ex post, there isn't much to do (marrying the fathers probably wouldn't help; and unemployed fathers don't pay child support). But ex ante, Prof. Caplan is right that there are a few obvious rules of thumb to reduce the likelihood of future poverty.

Dan Hill writes:

I have to believe that poor single mothers are so by choice. Even supposing they don't know enough about contraception, or they don't know enough to know that they don't know enough, or enough to establish the reliability of a male partner before sex, and that therefore the pregnancy is some terrible unforeseeable mistake for which they therefore should not be accountable, they then choose to keep the child despite the ready availability of adoptive parents (no to mention the option of abortion). And yet somehow it's now my reponsibility as a taxpaying stranger to support the mother and child?

lemmy caution writes:

"I have to think that Marsh washes his hands of many problems in his daily life. If a relative or friend is habitually drunk, late, rude, irresponsible, etc., you can try to persuade them to straighten up. You can clean up their messes. But eventually everyone says, "Why should I help you when you won't make a minimal effort to help yourself?" Question for Marsh: If this is how you treat family and friends, why do total strangers deserve any better?"

This isn't anything like having a baby though. Have you ever told off a friend or relative to their face because they are going to have a baby. No. Of course, you haven't.

Lots of poor parents tell their kids not to have kids themselves until they get an education or get married. Until the kids get pregnant, at which point the parents switch to being supportive. Because, babies. Human beings like babies.

[comment edited--Econlib Ed.]

John Marsh writes:

Just two thoughts, and then it's off to watch baseball.

"If a relative or friend is habitually drunk, late, rude, irresponsible, etc., you can try to persuade them to straighten up. You can clean up their messes. But eventually everyone says, "Why should I help you when you won't make a minimal effort to help yourself?" Question for Marsh: If this is how you treat family and friends, why do total strangers deserve any better?"

Single mothers have not habitually failed us or me or even themselves. Each of them has made one or a finite number of arguably bad decisions. I would prefer to live in a community where one or more bad decisions does not doom you to a life of poverty. If paramedics arrive on the scene of a car accident and discover that the severely injured driver was not wearing his seat belt, they do not deny him care because of that very bad decision.

"It's clearly outrageous to equate using contraception with winning the lottery. To quote Jules from Pulp Fiction, the two "ain't the same ballpark, ain't the same league, ain't even the same f***** sport." And though it's not as clear-cut, it still seems outrageous to pardon someone in trouble because she failed to take minimal precautions - and condemn total strangers for failing to help her."

I think I see our confusion now. I am not equating using contraception with winning the lottery. I am equating the likelihood of ending--or even putting a significant dent in--poverty through contraception (or marriage) with winning the lottery. Both seem like the remotest possibilities.

Finally, am I condemning anyone? I suppose it must seem that way, but I am not sure I mean to. I think that the arguments Rector and others make let them off of a hook that they should not be let off of. That's all. I wish I could persuade them otherwise, but I understand their position. I just disagree with it.

Anyhow, for God's sake, can we agree that the Yankees-Tigers game starts in a few minutes?


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