Over at Vox, Dylan Matthews wrote a very interesting article, Conservatives Love This Deeply Misleading Factoid About Poverty in America. In this particular case, he’s referring to Rich Lowry at National Review. He didn’t like Ta-Nehisi Coates new book, Between the World and Me. That’s just because, as Charlie Pierce would say, Coates must be wrong, because it isn’t about race because it is never about race. But in the “review,” Lowry claimed, “Among the people who do these things, according to the research of Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, about 75 percent attain the middle class, broadly defined.” The “things” are three norms: work full-time, graduate from high school, and be 21 years old and married before having children.
The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it is mostly question begging. It’s kind of like saying, “The problem with poor people is that they don’t have any money!” The three “things” aren’t as clearly tautologies. But as Matthews noted, full-time work is hardly a norm. It isn’t surprising that people with full-time jobs are more likely to be in the middle class! And Matthews argues that roughly the same is true for the other norms, which ought to be obvious to everyone.
The big thing here is that correlation is confused with causation. And it is even worse than that, because if there is causation, it almost certainly goes the other direction. We already know that America has some of the worse economic mobility of the advanced economies. Let’s look for a moment at high school graduation rates. There are lots of aspects of this. But let’s look at the economics of it. Schools are funded with property taxes. So rich students go to better schools and poor students go to worse schools. And then poor students end up leaving school more often. Who could ever have predicted that?!
The waiting and marrying is similar. Matthews pointed out that birth control availability is directly correlated with wealth. So it isn’t surprising that the poor would have more children out of wedlock. But in addition to this, there is the waiting question. Generally, young people put off marriage for one reason: college. Why should a young person with no real prospects wait to start a normal adult life? So all three of the “norms” beg the question to one extent or another. But that doesn’t stop conservatives from using such factoids.
What is perhaps most interesting about all of this, is that conservatives are only too happy to shove this in the face of the poor, “It’s all your own fault!” But when it comes to each of these “norms,” conservatives want to deprive the poor of easy access to them. They want a strong dollar and low inflation — both of which keep employment down. They want more inequality in education. Rich kids get trips to the museum and poor kids get metal detectors and another drill on how to take a multiple choice test. But not to worry, a poor child has an equal chance of being the next Einstein! And conservatives not only want to make birth control harder to get — they want to deprive children of even learning the science of sex.
Based upon all this, to be a conservative is to not care about anyone but yourself. Because they aren’t just willing to use questionable data to justify themselves. After all, everyone makes mistakes. But they clearly use faulty data that they know are only made worse by their own policy preference. It’s really vile.