Journal Issue: Opportunity in America Volume 16 Number 2 Fall 2006
A primary goal of contemporary U.S. social policy is to reform the “culture” of poor parents to make it less likely that their children will grow up to be poor. Because the indicators of culture that policymakers usually emphasize are marriage, work, and religion, in this paper we assess how much poverty rates in the children's generation would fall if all children had married, working, and religious parents. Research in this area is less informative than one might expect. Little empirical research estimates the relationship between parents' marriage, work, and religion and children's eventual income as adults, and in our view much of that research is seriously flawed. Our own estimates show that changing these three aspects of family culture will reduce poverty in the children's generation much less than many policymakers, policy analysts, and voters seem to believe.
The public's concern about intergenerational economic mobility appears to spring from a desire to see that children are not condemned to a lifetime of poverty just because they were born to poor parents. Many public discussions assume (as the quote above suggests) that reducing poverty among future generations and reducing the intergenerational transmission of poverty are equivalent goals. They are not. The poverty rate in the children's generation depends not only on how many poor children grow up to be poor adults, but also on how many nonpoor children grow up to be poor adults. Reducing the chances that poor children become poor adults will dramatically lower future poverty rates only if most poor adults begin life as poor children. Even if parental work, marriage, and religion improve children's economic future as adults, getting all parents to work, marry, and attend religious services would not cause poverty to plunge in the next generation because most poor adults do not grow up in families headed by parents who are unmarried, do not work, and do not attend religious services.
Epidemiologists often encounter a similar problem in fighting disease.1 As Geoffrey Rose puts it, “a large number of people at a small risk may give rise to more cases of disease than the small number who are at high risk,” which limits what might be accomplished by focusing on high-risk cases.2 Public policies that seek to end tomorrow's poverty by changing today's parental culture encounter a similar problem. We call this the poverty-prevention paradox.