As always, political correctness has made us dumber in a very literal and practical sense.
In our 2009 book Creating an Opportunity Society, my Brookings colleague Isabel Sawhill and I conducted an analysis based on Census Bureau data on a representative sample of Americans. We asked the data to tell us how adult Americans were doing if they followed three elementary norms of growing up in a modern society: finish high school, get a full-time job, and wait until age 21 and get married before having children. The results were astounding: young adults who followed all three norms had a 2 percent chance of winding up in poverty and a 74 percent chance of winding up in the middle class (defined as earning roughly $50,000 or more). By contrast, young adults who violated all three norms had a 76 percent chance of winding up in poverty and a 7 percent chance of winding up in the middle class.
Again, young adults who graduate high school, work full-time, and do not have children before getting married and attaining the age of 21 have a 74% chance of becoming middle class.
But young adults who fail at all three of those cultural touchstones have a 76% chance of ending up in poverty.
This should surprise no one.
Our lives are the sum total of the choices we have made in the circumstances we’ve encountered. This is self-evident when you pull the scales from your eyes and examine the differing outcomes for people from the same economic class who differ mainly in their ability to persevere and to choose wisely from a list of actions in the face of any given situation.
We all know this innately, and every parent knows it from dealing with their kids. In fact, one of the simplest definitions of “growing up” is making fewer and fewer bad decisions and more and more good decisions. Consistently making good decisions can be seen as the essence of adulthood, what it “is”, what separates it from childhood and adolescence, in many important ways.
But in today’s world, we need a think tank study to tell us that finishing high school, getting a full-time job, and waiting to have children until after marriage is good advice.
Poverty, at least in America, is more about culture — and the inevitable choices embedded within it — than we are currently willing to admit. But the first step in fixing any problem is defining it properly, and we are too unserious a people to handle that right now.
- Choices Matter in Avoiding Poverty :: Minding the Campus
- “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do'” – New York Times
- Mobility is a problem – now what? – Brookings Institute
- Opportunity Society Presentation