Behavioral Poverty

More than 50 years of social-sciences evidence demonstrates that behavior is highly predictive of many important life outcomes. Children who are temperamental, fussy, and aggressive often cause their parents to withdraw affection and to limit supervision, which leads to further bad behavior later on, along with subsequent struggles and frustration. Adolescents who verbally accost or threaten their schoolteachers are more likely to be suspended or expelled, as well as to spend less time studying, working on homework, and attending classes. And adults who engage in crime are the same ones who not only frequently end up in jail and prison, of course, but also remain voluntarily unemployed, and often find themselves at the bottom of the economic ladder. Behavior is predictive from one setting to the next, and consequences snowball. The body of research linking bad behavior to negative and cumulative consequences is remarkably robust, extends across countries, and has been replicated across academic disciplines with diverse samples, methodologies, and analytical techniques. These findings provide the basis for a range of policies and cultural narratives that could, if embraced, help people avoid many of life’s costly pitfalls.

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Behavioral poverty is reflected in the attitudes, values, and beliefs that justify entitlement thinking, the spurning of personal responsibility, and the rejection of traditional social mechanisms of advancement. It is characterized by high self-indulgence, low self-regulation, exploitation of others, and limited motivation and effort. It can be correlated with a range of antisocial, immoral, and imprudent behaviors, including substance abuse, gambling, insolvency, poor health habits, and crime.

While behavioral poverty’s causes are likely complex—involving the interplay between parents, genes, and culture—understanding its consequences is not complex: they are depressingly predictable. Because behavioral poverty can emerge early in life and remain stable over time, it’s not uncommon to see behaviorally poor children perform badly at school, compile arrest records as juveniles, and transition into adulthood with few or any skills outside those valued on the street. Few who work in the juvenile-justice system, for example, are surprised to find out that former clients get arrested as adults, or involved with drugs, or pregnant with no means of support.

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The ingredients to living a meaningful life involve self-restraint, tenacity, and personal responsibility.

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Behavioral poverty is perhaps most vividly illustrated in the lives of drug addicts. Here, adult responsibilities and even basic human needs, such as eating and sleeping, are subordinated to the compulsive ingestion of alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, or a mixture of these substances. We’ve interviewed offenders who reported staying mostly awake for ten to 20 days while on a binge. When drugs are not available, the addicts usually resort to crime. Drug offenders commit offenses at rates several times higher than their non-drug-using peers. Much of the incidence of crime, particularly burglary and theft, is tied to drug use.

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[M]any criminal offenders have no desire to engage in conventional, productive adult conduct. In our experience as criminal-justice practitioners, researchers, and clinicians, thousands of offenders have told us as much. All the rigors and responsibilities of adulthood—from paying rent and utilities to maintaining relationships—are fulfilled, free of charge, by the criminal-justice system. Conventional adults are horrified by the idea of imprisonment, but many offenders view jail as a refuge from the demands of life.

Behavior Matters: Why some people spend their lives in poverty and social dysfunction,” by Matt DeLisi and John Paul Wright, City Journal, Summer 2019

 



Angus Deaton: Measuring and understanding behavior, welfare, and poverty

 

We’ve known for a long time that unstable family life related to divorce, missing fathers, and communities with large numbers of single-mother households can be bad for kids. Deaths of despair are a red-flag warning that that these disruptions are similarly hard on adults. Though only 32% of the population, unmarried and divorced men account for a stunning 71% of opioid deaths. Emile Durkheim, one of the godfathers of sociology, found a link between suicide and family breakup over a century ago; the same link remains today. Divorce increases the risk of alcoholism for both men and women; so does checking “single” for marital status on government documents.

These numbers shed some light on why deaths of despair are concentrated among those with lower incomes. Higher income folks are more likely to marry and to stay married. They have closer, more sustained relationships with their children, relatives, and in-laws. In recent years, despite its one-time reputation as stalwart family traditionalists, the white working-class has diverged from its more affluent counterpart. As of 1980, about three quarters of white working-class adults were married; that was very similar to the 79% of high-income adults. By 2017, however, the working-class number had fallen to only 52%.

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It’s also true that many singles and divorced people, though unmarried, are not alone. Unmarried couples today frequently live together, sharing a roof, a bed, and meals. But these cohabiting arrangements tend to be short-lived and are often just a pitstop in a series of transitory, quasi-monogamous relationships. Fathers who split up with cohabiting partners are far more likely to visit erratically or disappear entirely from their children’s lives. Moreover, cohabiting couples’ ties to their significant others’ families and friends remain looser than do those of married couples.

The upshot of all of this is a growing subculture of loosely bound or even isolated adults. No wonder so many of them lapse into despair. Humans have always depended on close kin to love and care for them, especially when times are tough. The dismantling of kin networks is proving to be especially hard on the weak, ill, and elderly.

A nation dying in despair, and family breakdown is part of the problem,” by Kay Hymowitz, September 26, 2019

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