Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institutions says that a principal cause of inequality and poverty is the failure of the poor to marry and form stable families, leading to adverse consequences for their children. This failure occurs because these parents are irresponsible:
The most shocking failure of individual responsibility is the decline of marriage and rise of nonmarital births. Brookings data show that if the same share of adults were married today as in 1970, poverty would be reduced by more than a quarter. And yet young women who have a high school degree or less education increasingly do not marry, and about 40 percent of their babies are born outside marriage, quadrupling the chance that they and their babies will live in poverty. Children from single-parent families have, on average, more developmental problems, including lower educational achievement, than children of married parents. This perpetuates poverty and lack of mobility into the next generation.
Yes, the nation needs its safety net, but improvements in personal responsibility would have a greater and more lasting impact on poverty and opportunity. This is the message that our presidential candidates, media and educational institutions should emphasize — not the misleading focus on the lack of opportunity in America.
Heather MacDonald, writing in the City Journal, agrees and thinks that single moms should be called on it:
It is time, therefore, to tackle the problem of out-of-wedlock births head-on. And that means remoralizing the discourse around child-bearing. When DeParle [in The New York Times] profiles a 21-year-old mother of two as a victim of welfare reform because she is allegedly forced to live with an ill-tempered boyfriend now that her welfare payments have run out, conservatives can legitimately ask what has become a taboo question: “Why didn’t you think of that before you had the children?”
So, there is something to this. Social skills, self discipline, and the ability to exercise self-control are critical skills for educational success, economic success, and avoidance of criminal behavior. These traits also contribute to delaying childbearing and, I will speculate, finding and keeping a spouse. Maybe it will help if elites start lecturing the poor about having children out of wedlock. It's unlikely that it will be news to a poor kid that his or her betters think that its necessary to have a job and a spouse before having children, but frequent reminders might help. A tiny bit.
However, cultural norms are just one factor affecting children's acquisition of self-discipline. Poor kids are less likely to receive supportive parenting -- so how about placing visiting nurses in communities to counsel young parents on how to provide a nurturing environment for their children? Good pre-schools help kids get a taste for learning and skills at how to comply with positive group norms -- so how about providing pre-schools in every neighborhood in the country? We can best shape character by cultivating environments where children get morally authoritative yet supportive parenting and good early preparation for schooling.
So, yes, children's personality and character, shaped by family environments, are important determinants of how will those children will do. And, yes, parents who make poor choices are part of the problem. Let's definitely re-moralize the discourse around families and children. And when we do that, let's ask ourselves whether lecturing parents about their irresponsibility actually benefits the children. The irresponsibility of parents may be a relevant reason to oppose welfare payments to those parents. It is not a relevant moral reason to oppose investments in early childhood development.