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The Great Inequality Debate
The "Mormon Solution" to Poverty?

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.

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  • rheddles

    Doesn’t seem like a chicken egg problem to me. Social capital is a necessary condition for earning financial capital. Financial capital is not a necessary condition for gaining social capital.

    • Fat_Man

      The whole notion that lack of money makes people misbehave is risible. Drugs and alcohol are not free. Babies are not created by lack of money. The things that destroy the lives of our urban poor can be avoided by self control. Religion teaches self control, reenforces it among its members, and provides help to those who feel weak. It should be encouraged.

    • FriendlyGoat

      Wasn’t there once a guy named Abraham Maslow, whose Hierarchy of Needs pretty much contradicts what you’re saying here?

  • ShadrachSmith

    I am not a Mormon, but the LDS church is an excellent place to escape from the hedonism of modern culture. The only down sides are the tithes, and the Jello…lots of Jello.

    • Corlyss

      Once you get used to tithing, you don’t miss the money. IMO, “funeral potatoes” are worse than Jello to get used to. The day I found them in a deli here, I told the manager, “That’s not a great marketing strategy. Don’t you think “scalloped potatoes” would be more appealing?” And don’t get me started on the ubiquitous casseroles . . .

  • CaliforniaStark

    Have to chuckle at an article entitled ‘The Mormon Solution” to Poverty’ would have the following quote: “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.”

    Given the history of Mormonism, and not sure I would attribute their success to two-parent families. What Mormons do have is a rock hard work ethic, which looks sloth as unacceptable, and personal responsibility as the norm.

    • Corlyss

      What Mormons never lost was the middle class work ethic that used to be known as the Protestant Work Ethic. It’s not Mormon; it just sticks out in Mormons because it’s absence is so evident elsewhere.

      • FriendlyGoat

        AND THEN there are those who realize that they do not have to conform themselves to weird theologies in order to belong to some group—- BECAUSE they have no internal compulsion to get their self-identity by being “approved” by such groups.

        • Corlyss

          Right! They are secularists who self identify with that set of beliefs so they can advertise to everybody they want stokes from that they are nobody’s fool. LOL

          • FriendlyGoat

            You just told us that the Mormons, the Catholics and the Orthodox Jews have the exclusive corner on not being “claptrap”—-and you think there is something wrong with ME for declaring myself free of your patent nonsense?

  • Boritz

    “The left likes to point out that lack of financial capital hinders the accumulation of social capital”

    The Left’s concern for the accumulation of social capital among the impoverished is limited to a desire that they feel a connection to and gratitude for the Left. &nbspAs far as the accumulation of financial capital it is discouraged in numerous ways because it threatens the desired social capital.

  • Duperray

    During past 4 decades, the “rich” became richer and the “poor” poorer. US GOP is growing but the poverty class is expanding, same thing in Europe.
    The most visible proof of this is 2008 economic collapse:
    Banks so close to fail that Governments were obliged to provide them with huge public funds to prevent further devastation. But, in less than 2 years, banks have recovered, reimbursed public money, still making huge profits, managers incomes double-digit grew, while most of rest of US and world population is still struggling to survive.
    This is immoral, although legal.
    The algebric sum of all cash injected or extracted from Wall Street and similar places is zero. As some become richer, necessarily many others become poorer.
    This cannot last for ever. The poor, becoming withot hope, will gradually lose courage, willingness to work, accepting to survive like beggars with automatic alcohol, drugs, theft surges, closer and closer to animal society.
    Many youngsters already question the usefulness of high diplomas “why, if I have no job?”.
    Is it de-industrialisation?
    Is it globalisation?
    I have no solution for.

    • FriendlyGoat

      I believe the situation you are describing is caused to a large extent by income/estate tax cuts, and the race by corporate leaders in competing countries to attract capital with yet more tax cuts—-a “race” to the bottom for most of the mere citizens.

      Without the predictable ills of resorting to “one world government”, I believe the goal for people is to get their countries to join each other in non-compete-on-taxes agreements.
      “Entrepreneurial Federalism” is a crock for citizens of competing states in the USA, and the same scheme is a bigger crock on the world level.

      • Corlyss

        “Race to the bottom” is sloganeering Progressives’ dismissive mantra for successful tax and regulatory reform that might serve as a model to other jurisdictions. As such it is usually devoid of facts and economic history which might reveal how little the speaker knows about formulating a convincing argument!

        • FriendlyGoat

          I know Walgreen’s is trying to move its tax home to Switzerland to achieve lower taxes—-while getting tons of its revenue from American consumers and American government. That’s a race to somewhere than should not be happening.

          • ShadrachSmith

            You want to discuss the moral implications of corporate taxation? You will lose that argument anywhere that logic counts. Corporate tax is double taxation of the same income stream. Tax the money once, and get out of the way. Let customer service replace tax avoidance as a primary corporate survival strategy 🙂

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “than a shared recognition that both kinds of poverty deserve attention.”

    Excuse me! Shared by who? The only kind getting any attention or money is the Leftist’s welfare programs, which have destroyed poor families, and filled our prisons with single parent raised people (also known as Bastards). As an example take the condition of poor families before the implementation of Johnson’s evil Great Society welfare programs: 95% of the population was raised in nuclear families with both a father and a mother, the population was law abiding and people rarely locked their cars or homes, few people ever went to prison, and this social utopia cost the taxpayers nothing.

    • Corlyss

      Ironic isn’t it, that the point Pat Moynihan publishes his department’s analysis describing the collapse of the black family unit, Johnson hits on the way to replace white voters lost to desegregation with the black welfare dependents! Why, it couldn’t have worked out better if Dem strategists had planned it, eh? [evil grin]

  • Joe Eagar

    “. . .and to those on the right who think all poverty is rooted in cultural dysfunction.” I’m not so sure about that. Outside of libertarian activist circles, I don’t think people on the right are terribly threatened by the idea that both culture and economics matter. If that were true, we wouldn’t support policy measures that target both, like the EITC or the ’97 welfare reform.

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