Homogeneity And Reducing Child Poverty

In Monday's post, I took on the claim that some kind of uniquely American epidemic of single and unmarried parenting was to blame for our high rates of child poverty. Despite what you often hear, the fact is that the US family composition is not very different from elsewhere, and certainly not very different from the low-poverty social democracies. The low-poverty countries get to be low-poverty countries by distributing their national income differently than we distribute our national income, largely through the use of tax-and-transfer systems. In short, they choose low poverty distributive institutions; we choose high poverty distributive institutions.

This reality troubles many people who are committed to maintaining our high-poverty distributive institutions. This is especially true when you focus on child poverty because, as much as people hate poor people, they seem to temporarily sympathize with them before their 18th birthday for whatever reason.

So when someone presents very stark evidence that we could cut child poverty dramatically by adopting different distributive institutions, the opponents can't just shrug it away and say they don't care. Children are involved and so the opponents are forced to desperately scramble for some reason why all the evidence is somehow wrong. They don't care if it is actually wrong; they just need some words they can say.

One of the words they have all decided to say is "homogeneous." And I do truly mean that this is a word that they say. It's rarely if ever fleshed out as an argument. You don't see someone say "it is homogeneous, therefore X, therefore Y, therefore 1 in 5 American babies must be poor." They just say "homogeneous" and then move on like that constitutes a point.

Nonetheless, my best guess from what I've heard is this: because Nordic social democracies are homogenous, their hatred of people of color does not preclude them from putting in place anti-poverty distributive institutions. However, in America, where we have a great deal more people of color, our racism does operate to prevent us from putting in place institutions that would keep babies from being poor.

By itself, this is not a bad point. There are even papers written in this broad area with math and everything. But it's important to understand what this point does and does not say. It does not say that changing our distributive institutions won't reduce child poverty. It merely says that we won't change them. It does not say that these policies won't work. It says that, because of our racism, we will never put them into place.

Importantly then, the word "homogeneous" when used as a referent to the above argument is not a reason why anyone should be against the policies. It is just an observation about their political possibility. Political possibility matters obviously, but in the policy realm we also need to first get clear what would and wouldn't work. And altering our distributive institutions, for instance to include a child allowance program, would substantially cut childhood poverty. Period.