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The Poverty of Moral Toughness

In his most recent column in The New York Times, David Brooks laments the results of a study led by Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, which demonstrate an “inequality of opportunity” between rich and poor children in America. The children of the rich and poor, we’re told, are raised “in starkly different ways and have different opportunities,” and rich parents “invest more money in their children” than poor ones.

Although this sounds a lot like observing that faces come with noses, Mr. Brooks considered the study noteworthy enough to write a column on it. He blames the calamitous situation of an increasing inequality of opportunity in America on “a long series of cultural, economic and social trends.” In particular, he singles out the demise of working-class jobs and the increase in out-of-wedlock births. To climb out of the bleak future where the gap between the rich and poor grows ever larger, Mr. Brooks says liberals and conservatives must seek a compromise:

Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.

The strength of marriage has always been connected to the chastity of women, enforced either from the outside (by law and family), or from the inside (by women feeling shame about having sex outside of marriage and especially being afraid of getting pregnant as a result). With modernity came the political, economic (well, to some extent, anyway) and sexual liberation of women, including the widespread dissemination of artificial methods of birth control. After the advent of the Pill, female chastity became less relevant; women could have premarital sex without getting pregnant or being shamed by being unmarried and pregnant and, eventually, without being shamed by it being known that they, like single men, were sexual beings with sex lives. In terms of marriage being enforced by female chastity, the horse, as it were, has left the barn.

So what, exactly does Mr. Brooks mean when he calls for liberals to be “morally tough” about marriage before childrearing? Is he suggesting we follow the draconian route, and deny unmarried mothers financial aid? Is he saying we need to make divorce more difficult? Society’s sacrificing a generation or two of children raised either by single mothers on minimum wage alone, or by warring spouses chained together–I suppose these things could work. If, that is, we have the stomach for it.

The problem of “the inequality of opportunity” between children of the well-off and those of the poor is simply the problem of poverty. Mr. Brooks wants to tackle this through being “morally tough.” How about tackling poverty through financially supporting public education for the poor (including birth control and sex education), and society-wide health care? Morality is a virtue, to be sure, but going at the poorest of the poor with the bludgeon of “moral toughness” mistakes cause for effect. The poor are not somehow inherently bereft of the morals of the well-off; the poor are simply trying to survive.

How about tackling poverty through public jobs programs, and a living minimum wage? That would require a different kind of “moral toughness”—the toughness required by those of us who are well-off to pay for those programs. The ball on this one is definitely in the conservatives’ court.

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