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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press George Will: A Man Impervious to the Evidence In His Own Column

George Will: A Man Impervious to the Evidence In His Own Column

Saturday, 22 March 2014 07:37

There are many ideologues who have their own set of truths, who refuse to listen to any evidence that points in a different direction. However George Will is in a class all by himself. He refuses to pay attention to the evidence that he himself puts forward.

Exhibit A is a classic Will rant at the left for being unwilling to consider the cultural factors that affect poverty. The hero of this piece is Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

"In March 1965, Moynihan, then 37 and assistant secretary of labor, wrote that 'the center of the tangle of pathology' in inner cities — this was five months before the Watts riots — was the fact that 23.6 percent of black children were born to single women, compared with just 3.07 percent of white children."

Will then goes on to tell readers:

"Forty-nine years later, 41 percent of all American children are born out of wedlock; almost half of all first births are to unmarried women, as are 54 percent and 72 percent of all Hispanic and black births, respectively."

If we follow Will's link we find that 29 percent of non-Hispanic white children are born out of wedlock today.That's considerably higher than the 23.6 percent of black children born out of wedlock in 1965 that Moynihan thought was the explanation for their poverty. Yet the poverty rate for white children today is less than 10 percent. It was over 40 percent for African American children in the mid-1960s.

If black children in 1965 had a poverty rate that is more than four times the poverty rate for white children in 2012, despite their lower rate of births to unmarried mothers, this would seem pretty solid evidence that being born to an unmarried mother is not the main factor in determining child poverty.

The far more important factor is the earnings potential for the children's parent(s). This is determined by the factors that Will discourages us from considering, such as macroeconomic policy, trade policy, policies toward labor organizing, and other policy choices that will determine the health of the labor market facing parents of young children. Of course their access to health care and quality child care will also be important factors determining the children's well-being which are picked up in the Census Bureau's supplemental poverty measure. 

And it is easy to show that government policy has made poverty worse on this score. The fall in employment rates following the 2001 recession was associated with a rise in poverty. The much sharper fall in employment rates following the 2008 recession was associated with an even larger rise in poverty. The decision of Congress to run high unemployment budgets (i.e. lower deficits) also will predictably result in a higher poverty rate for children.

There is a different and trivially true point that perhaps Will is trying to make in his column. Children with two loving committed parents will fare better in life on average than children who only have one parent.

Many liberals don't find this very useful from a policy perspective because they don't think the government is very good at creating and preserving good marriages. However we do know how to run economic policies that will reduce the unemployment rate.

Comments (9)Add Comment
George Will Pines for the Days Before Economic Predators
written by Last Mover, March 22, 2014 10:37

Think of it this way. When George Will pines for what Moynihan said in 1965, he speaks from an economic era that existed before the wholesale takeover of America by economic predators that began several years after that period - specifically, before productivity gains were diverted from labor to increasingly concentrated owners of capital.

In this context consider giving Will a pass and accept the criticism as applied in 1965. What does it mean? It would mean in a period when there was a far closer relationship between what people produced compared to what they earned despite high taxes and the Satan of "big government" Will brandishes daily ... there were still those who failed to succeed for cultural reasons like being born out of wedlock, etc.

To compare that period to the current period to explain why the middle and lower class earn what they earn today if they're lucky enough to have a job at all ...

... would be similar to rounding up unemployed workers in the computer field of today and lecturing them for not going back to typewriters to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get a foothold on jobs at the bottom rung of the ladder rather than depend on government handouts due to their "cultural" upbringing.

There is no limit to the ignorance and arrogance of George Will when it comes to explaining away the cause of spiking inequality in America with "cultural" reasons.
written by Denis Drew, March 22, 2014 10:42
CUT AND PASTE (seem to be doing more of that these days) from an open letter to Oakland’s mayor on what’s really keeping people from looking for work in the inner city: wages so low that no American-born worker — black or white — will even show up for them.

Open letter to Oakland mayor Jean Quan:
The only legislation that can realistically end gun violence in Oakland – and Chicago – is a labor law: doubling the minimum wage to $30,000/yr. The Crips and the Bloods could not whip a decent paying Ronald McDonald.

Crackpot? More than doubling the federal minimum wage from $7.25/hr to $15/hr ($600/wk) would cause all of 3.5% direct inflation — almost no tradeoff at all:

Average $8000 raise X 2000 hours times 70 million employees ($15 is 45 percentile wage + 5% AT minimum wage who will double increment) = $560 billion out of $16 trillion economy = 3.5% increase in overall prices — not going to put 45% of employees out of work. :-) LBJ’s median wage was only 25% higher than his minimum – high minimum wages often approach median level in other economies).

Oakland won’t educate its way out of poverty and crime. Catch 22: political scientist Martin Sanchez-Jankowski, from neighboring UC Berkeley — who spent nine years in five poor New York and Los Angeles neighborhoods (and ten years before that researching street gangs) — explains in his 2008 book Cracks in the Pavement that ghetto schools don’t work mostly because students (and teachers!) don’t expect anything decent awaiting for them in the labor market, so think it pointless to put out extra effort.
http://www.amazon.com/Cracks-Pavement-Social-Resilience-Neighborhoods/dp/0520256751/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1360453299&sr=1-1& keywords=cracks+in+the+pavement+social+change+and+resil

In 1956 majority leader LBJ steered an $8.50/hr ($1/hr nominally) minimum wage bill through the US Senate. In 1968 (with wage increments and retail workers added in years between) president LBJ piloted a minimum wage of $10.75/hr ($1.60/hr nominally) into law — per capita income having expanded 25% in the dozen years intervening.

Per capita income has doubled in the two generations since 1968.

If a Hells Angels chapter won the lottery they would build a bigger club house. Half the Crips and the Bloods would go to college.
written by John, March 22, 2014 11:36
The pope spoke of people in the mafia will probably go to hell. Their worldly sins are are just too grave to be forgiven. Too bad the pontiff did not put dog whistlers in this category, which Ryan and Will fall into.
Title for Will's memoir:
written by Dave, March 22, 2014 2:11
12 Years a Knave
written by George Little, March 22, 2014 3:24
Single moms in WashDC are having kids young. This is hurting their ability to get an educ. and real job skills. I don't think your numbers translate young white moms are not as impacted due to economics you mentioned and broader support. I agree economics & opportunities are large factors but in the impoverish community I taught in (SE and NE) there are many uninformed ideas about STDs, pregnancy and intimacy. There is also pressure not to preform differently than your peers. There is so much more to this than can be covered here. Will is blaming one group, you another, it's too complex for that.Many local changes must be made along with enlightened economic policy especially concentrating wealth the cheif enemy of economic oppotunity.
correlation doesn't mean causation
written by bill, March 22, 2014 4:04
Great insight. I never thought of it that way before. Thx.
written by Kat, March 23, 2014 7:32
Culture of poverty-- not just for conservatives!
written by PeonInChief, March 23, 2014 12:49
The most important thing that has happened since 1965 is that wages have collapsed. Working now pays, for all but the 1%, about half what it did in 1973. So single parents are in the soup simply because they can't work the 80 or so hours each week that it takes to properly support a child or two.
written by Craig from San Leandro, March 24, 2014 9:33
Full employment should be a mass religion , maybe global. The Age of Aquarius as was mentioned in 1969 , in your book is as good as it could get in our life time.

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Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.