Poverty, Conscientiousness, and Broken Families
By Bryan Caplan
Right-wingers should spend a lot more time reading left-wing ethnography of the poor. It may seem strange, but when leftist social scientists actually talk to and observe the poor, they confirm the stereotypes of the harshest Victorian. Poverty isn’t about money; it’s a state of mind. That state of mind is low conscientiousness.
Case in point: Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas‘ Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. The authors spent years interviewing poor single moms. Edin actually moved into their neighborhood to get closer to her subjects. One big conclusion:
Most social scientists who study poor families assume financial troubles are the cause of these breakups [between cohabitating parents]… Lack of money is certainly a contributing cause, as we will see, but rarely the only factor. It is usually the young father’s criminal behavior, the spells of incarceration that so often follow, a pattern of intimate violence, his chronic infidelity, and an inability to leave drugs and alcohol alone that cause relationships to falter and die.
Conflicts over money do not usually erupt simply because the man cannot find a job or because he doesn’t earn as much as someone with better skills or education. Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect. Some of the jobs he can get don’t pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to get along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.
These passages focus on low male conscientiousness, but the rest of the book shows it’s a two-way street. And even when Edin and Kefalas are talking about men, low female conscientiousness is implicit. After all, conscientious women wouldn’t associate with habitually unemployed men in the first place – not to mention alcoholics, addicts, or criminals.