U.S. poverty can be seen as a conscious decision

Thursday, February 27, 2003 at 12:00am

If you're a poor adult in America, for the most part, it's all your fault. That's true, at least today, whether you're black, white, brown or polka dot.

According to the definition the U.S. Bureau of Census uses, a family of four with an income over $18,244 is not poor. The poverty cutoff for a single-person household is $9,359, and for a two-person household it is $12,000. With those definitions, the poverty rate was 11.7 percent, or about 33 million Americans living in poverty in 2001.

The greatest percentage of poverty is found in female-headed households. Over 70 percent of female-headed households are poor. A large percentage of poor people are children (17 percent); fully 85 percent of black children living in poverty reside in a female-headed household.

Is poverty pre-ordained? I think not. A married couple, both working full time at a minimum-wage job that pays $5.15 per hour, would earn an annual income of $20,600. Keep in mind that few adults earn wages as low as the minimum wage, and those who do, earn a higher wage after a few months on the job. If a married couple both working at the minimum wage had no children, they would not be poor; if they had two children, they wouldn't be living in the lap of luxury, but neither would they be below the poverty threshold.

Let's look at poverty in female-headed households. Divorce and death of the father might explain a small part of why there are so many female-headed households. But the bulk of it is explained by people having children and not getting married in the first place.

Having children is not an act of God. It's not like you're walking down the street and pregnancy strikes you; children are a result of a conscious decision. For the most part, female-headed households are the result of short-sighted, self-destructive behavior of one or two people.

These folks might have bought into the nonsense of "experts" like Johns Hopkins University sociologist Professor Andrew Cherlin, who said, "It has yet to be shown that the absence of a father was directly responsible for any of the supposed deficiencies of broken homes." The real issue, according to Cherlin, "is not the lack of male presence but the lack of male income." That's a call for fathers to be replaced by a government welfare check.

According to an NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy School poll, the leading cause of poverty identified by both the poor (75 percent) and non-poor (65 percent) was drug abuse. Again, it's not like you're walking down the street and you're struck with drug addiction. To use drugs is a conscious decision. Drug-users tend not to be very productive. They drop out of school, abandon their families, have scrapes with the law, and don't hold down jobs. Would anybody be surprised that poverty is one result of drug usage?

Most middle-class Americans, including black Americans, are no more than one, two or three generations out of poverty. How did they manage this feat? What's the secret for avoiding poverty?

I think it's a no-brainer. Finish high school and take a job, any kind of a job. Today, but not when I graduated in 1954, if a person graduates from high school, with even a C average, there is a college or some kind of skills training program somewhere for him, and often financial assistance to boot. So if a person doesn't take advantage of today's available opportunities, particularly those during the boom of the 1990s, and engages in self-destructive behavior, whose fault is it?

Walter E. Williams is a syndicated columnist.

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