Poverty has become a huge political issue in the developed world. From New Zealand and Australia to Britain and the United States parties of the left, academics and advocacy groups are talking about child poverty, the unaffordability of housing even for working couples, the widening gap between rich and poor.

It certainly is disgraceful that rich countries have a third to half of children living in families below the poverty line, while the wealth and comfort of the top layer of society is ever more on display in some suburbs and in the media. And there is no doubt that government policies play a part in both creating and alleviating these trends.

But “the economy” and welfare policies are not the whole story. A important part of it is how individuals and families arrange their lives, and how this is reflected in community norms.

In particular, economic wellbeing is shaped by what some family scholars are calling “the success sequence” for growing into adulthood: education, job, marriage, children. That is: getting at least a high school degree, then working full-time in your twenties, then getting married and having kids. Of course, you don’t have to get married and have kids to succeed; but if you do want a family, you are likely to be better off if you marry first.

There’s hard evidence for the success sequence – most recently a report about Millennials and Marriage published by the Institute for Family Studies and the American Enterprise Institute.

In an interview with AEI last week Professor Brad Wilcox, co-author of the report, responded among other things to the left’s argument that poverty is about wealth distribution rather than behaviour (the success sequence). He stressed not only character (behaviour) but also culture (community/social norms) noting it’s the upper middle class who tend to stick to the success sequence.

Here’s the excerpt:

The big criticism from folks on the left would be: “You’re making an argument about poverty that’s about behavior, when what we should be looking at is about wealth and income and how they’re not fairly distributed in this country.”

I think the problem with the left argument — that it’s all about structures and economics — is it denies the importance of two things. One is culture, and the second thing is character.

On the cultural front, as I say in the report, there are many cultures in this society including the upper middle class who tend to inculcate certain kinds of norms. For instance, we can see in the research that upper middle class kids are much more likely to be ashamed to have a pregnancy as a teenager, compared to kids from the working class. And that in turn predicts their odds of having a baby outside of marriage. So my point is that culture is playing out in various ways that actually advantage upper middle class kids. We also see, for instance, that family trends are profoundly different in Utah, for cultural reasons. So there is evidence on the ground that culture matters — in terms of class, region, religion, race, and ethnicity.

But, it’s also the case too, beyond that point, that character matters. We have to respect the idea that agency exists. I think the problem is the left’s view is profoundly disempowering. For instance, we can see in the data that kids in poor families are less likely to make it, but if they follow the sequence their odds are much higher. So we need to let people know that there are certain kinds of decisions, behaviors, and strategies that can protect people from poverty and put you on the path toward the American dream.

I think the left is right to be concerned about failing schools, poor neighborhoods, and any number of factors that disadvantage African Americans and younger Americans from poor families. But it is still the case that we can’t deny the importance of character and the importance of making better decisions versus poor decisions.

Of course, no-one wants to lecture people on their poor decisions, and they don’t have to. It’s the young people in high school and college (and of course at home) who need to hear about the success sequence so they can make informed decisions.

It’s striking how often poverty stories in the media showcase single mothers and  broken families. It’s time they aired the other side of the poverty/wealth story.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet