In the NYT‘s “The Upshot,” TAI board member Tyler Cowen answers some questions about income inequality in America (which he wrote about here in our pages). When asked about how culture might be worsening the gap between the rich and the poor, Cowen responded like this:
Note that the observed stagnation in earnings has plagued male earners, not women. Women continue to do better in the work force and also in education, or if they choose not to advance this is often a voluntary decision, linked to childbearing.
Men are perhaps better suited for old-style manufacturing jobs, and women are often better suited for service sector jobs. A lot of men seem to have problems with discipline and conscientiousness.
If we are looking for a remedy, a greater interest in strict religions would help many of the poor a lot — how about Mormonism for a start? Just look at the data. Many other religions prohibit or severely limit alcohol, drugs and gambling. That said, this has to happen privately rather than as a matter of state policy.
There is an important conceptual distinction between types of poverty that emerges when you look at studies of inequality. There’s material poverty, which manifests itself in families not being able to pay for their grocery bills, or to afford even public transportation. And then there’s a poverty of social capital, which afflicts those raised in broken families, who receive little or no effective education, have few ties to healthy communities, and no connection to religious groups. These two types don’t always go together, but most often do. The left likes to point out that lack of financial capital hinders the accumulation of social capital: It’s hard to form a stable family or invest time in a local church if everyday existence is a struggle for survival.
But if there’s truth to that, there’s also truth in Cowen’s suggestion that lack of social capital can hinder the accumulation of financial capital. This chicken-and-egg question has provided lots of fodder for pundits and columnists, but that question is less important than a shared recognition that both kinds of poverty deserve attention. This presents a challenge both to the secularists on the left who think things like religion and the two-parent family can be left behind without any lasting damaging effects and to those on the right who think all poverty is rooted in cultural dysfunction.