Poverty, Culture & Marriage

Editor: The following essay by American Experiment Founder and Senior Fellow Mitch Pearlstein, “Poverty, Culture & Marriage,” was released as part of “The Tenth Annual Celebration of John Brandl and His Uncommon Quest for Common Ground,” on November 26, at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

The essay is one of four in a new anthology, Grasping and Reducing Poverty in Minnesota, with the other three by Stephen B. Young of the Caux Round Table, Angelica Klebsch of the Citizens League, and Dane Smith of Growth & Justice.  Featured speakers at the event were Tonya Allen of the Skillman Foundation, Robert Doar of the American Enterprise Institute, and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution.  

As a Humphrey School scholar and state legislator, John Brandl was a passionate and successful bridge builder.  After his death in 2008, leaders of several disparate Minnesota organizations created an annual forum in celebration of his embracing legacy.  


In the same spirit of bipartisanship and compromise that marked the writing of Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security, jointly released in 2015 by the AEI/Brookings Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity, I’m happy to endorse, to one degree or another, almost everything in that excellent report.  Given this all-aboard spirit, the most useful contrarian contribution I can make is to focus on matters of culture, which is to say on what is usually stressed only weakly, if at all, in other discussions about poverty.  This is not true, I’m pleased to report, of the AEI/Brookings paper, but it is usually case on most other occasions in Minnesota and the rest of the United States when the subject is poverty and perhaps especially opportunity.[i]

But before continuing, I trust it’s clear that ideas such as “bipartisanship” and “compromise,” along with the likes of “principle” and “amiability,” captured the character and career of the man whose life we celebrate with this collection of papers, our late friend John Brandl, and his “Uncommon Quest for Common Ground.”

I’m certainly not of the mind that public policies are largely irrelevant in reducing poverty; of course, they can help, often a lot.  Likewise, I don’t believe that “structural” or “institutional” impediments to economic and social success don’t exist; of course, they do, albeit not to the extent routinely argued.

What I do believe is that when considering how to lessen poverty and increase opportunity, not nearly enough attention is usually paid in public to culture, by which I mean elusive but critical things and traits such as values, norms, attitudes, and faith.  Or, if you prefer, personal responsibility, behavior, and grit.

To compensate for well-practiced skewing and discounting, what follows is a discussion purposely heavy on cultural themes, and purposely light (albeit not voiceless) on the kinds of political and policy arguments that regularly dominate public discourse and debate.  This includes both political campaigns and the actual ways in which governments, at all levels, seek to help people in economic need.

Let’s start by retrieving a metaphor I used frequently two and three decades ago but hardly at all more recently: the differences between “conference table” and “kitchen table” conversations when talking about the hardest social problems we face as a nation.

A conference table conversation can be thought to include combinations of business, labor, education, nonprofit, and foundation leaders; governmental officials, both elected and appointed; scholars, researchers, and concerned citizens, among other men and women.  Think of them as good and honorable people, because they usually are.

Whatever the societal ill under discussion, participants around conference tables generally focus on matters of policy, politics, and economics as major causes as well as means of possible reform.  They also focus on obstacles posed by embedded injustices, most notably racism as major ways of understanding complex and politically sensitive problems in the first place.

In contrast, kitchen table conversations can be thought to include family members, friends, fellow congregants and others from various segments of one’s life.  And instead of imagining “kitchen tables” in kitchens or dining rooms only, think of them in other settings too, including restaurants, coffee shops, undercrofts, and homes of friends.  If it’s a substantial and balanced kitchen table conversation, it certainly will cover matters of politics, economics, and the like, as well as historic obstacles that make it harder for some people to succeed.  But critically, people around kitchen tables also focus on the importance of initiative, drive, and personal agency; elusive but pivotal determinants.

Kitchen tablers (don’t bother looking it up) also frequently address the central role played by faith and religious institutions in motivating people to do what’s right more often than they otherwise might.  Not incidentally, a glass or two of wine may encourage some participants to talk more freely than they usually do, but that likely won’t subtract from the basic soundness of their arguments, which might be summarized as the impossibility making sufficient progress in any sphere if personal virtues aren’t celebrated in hard-working fact, not just easy rhetoric.

Over the years, I’ve used this two-table metaphor most frequently regarding what I’ve long described as the overwhelming social disaster of our times: The huge numbers of boys and girls who come into this life outside of marriage, and/or grow up in homes emptied by divorce, and who consequently suffer holes in their hearts where their daddies, or sometimes their mommies, or sometimes where both should be.  Not nearly enough progress will be made in reducing poverty so long as more than 40 percent of all American babies are born outside of marriage, with proportions well over 80 percent in various communities, including those (defined both geographically and demographically) in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.  This is more certain than any other point I can make.

So, how to fix a marriage-diminished culture that contributes to poverty and that many smart people believe has been beyond fixing for decades?  Some thoughts, some of which are, in fact, dependent on what politicians and policymakers devise and do.

I’m happy to acknowledge the AEI/Brookings paper is more forceful in talking about the importance of marriage than I remember it being when I first read it in 2015.  There are qualifications and caveats, surely, including references to how cohabiting parents, not just married ones, can provide stability for their children, even though the report simultaneously stresses how cohabiting relationships tend to be much shorter and less stable than married ones.  For example, “cohabiters are three times as likely to split by the child’s fifth birthday as are married couples (39 percent of cohabiters vs. 13 percent of married couples), with important consequences for the child’s development.”[ii]

The report is also strong, again to its great credit, regarding the pivotal role of culture in all of this.  Two brief excerpts[iii]:

So, what can be done?  We’ve said that marriage matters.  But past government efforts to encourage unmarried parents to marry have not proven very effective.  Promoting marriage to strengthen American families isn’t primarily an issue of specific policies or programs in any case: it’s in large part a matter of culture.  Political leaders, educators, and civic leaders – from both the political left and right – need to be clear and direct about how hard it is to raise children without a committed co-parent.

And a few seconds later:

It’s not a small thing for leaders to be clear in this way – cultural norms are influenced by the messages leaders send.  Major cultural norms have been changed many times before when leaders expressed firm and unequivocal views about even entrenched cultural attitudes, including norms surrounding civil rights and gay rights.  Presidents, politicians, church leaders, newspaper columnists, business leaders, educators, and friends should all join in telling young people that raising kids jointly with the children’s other parent is more likely to lead to positive outcomes than raising a child alone.

Question: Are political, religious, and other leaders doing any of this?  Barely and sporadically at best.

American Experiment on Marriage, Faith, and Silence

Most of the rest of this essay draws on three American Experiment publications released over the last three years:

  • The most recent is a paper by Lawrence M. Mead of New York University, “Restoring a Marriage Norm,” released in January 2018.[iv] Incidentally or not, Professor Mead, a political scientist who has written extensively about poverty and ways to reduce it, was one of the 15 members of the AEI/Brookings Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity.
  • A symposium featuring 30 writers, “Was Trump and Clinton’s Campaign Silence Regarding Family Fragmentation Golden?[v] Released in April 2017.
  • And a symposium featuring 36 writers, “Fragmented Families and Silence of the Faithful.” Released in March 2015.[vi]

The pertinence of each is often striking.  Let’s begin with the opening of Professor Mead’s paper, “Restoring a Marriage Norm.”

Marriage, he writes, “is in decline in America, to the detriment of individuals and society alike, and yet we do essentially nothing about it.  In this paper I contest the common view that little should be done.  Among the many causes of the problem, the most important is the erosion of marriage as a norm.  Marriage is still honored in theory, but this value is no longer morally binding.  For marriage to recover it must again become a norm that people feel they have to observe.”

But this is made more difficult, Mead continues, by defeatism.  “Most scholars of the subject describe the decline of marriage, but they are resigned about it.  Few if any suggest any solutions.  This reticence is surprising in light of the damage that the fall of marriage has done to America.”

Overcoming this reticence has been one of the strongest threads running through virtually everything American Experiment has published about marriage since the start of the Center in 1990.  A main reason for this, one that is most germane here, is that failing to embrace marriage as a societal good is tantamount to accepting poverty as a societal constant.  Encouraging more men and women fortunate to have followings to confidently and clearly speak up was the core animation behind “Fragmented Families and Silence of the Faithful,” as I asked symposium contributors to address why religious leaders are key to lifting the quietude and how they might help in doing so.  Here are three samples.

  • Stephen B. Young is Global Executive Director of the Caux Round Table. “The psycho-social sequence I see leading to either stable marriages or broken and dysfunctional marriages starts with the individual character and then flows to capacity for trust and commitment and then to the quality of relationships.  Because religious institutions, traditions, and leaders – or the lack thereof – shape the beliefs, virtues, and habits that constitute personal character, they load the dice for or against success in social relationships.”
  • Todd R. Flanders is headmaster of Providence Academy in Plymouth, Minnesota. “Religious schools have always taught and defended traditions of faith, which connect rational purposes of love, sex, and marriage with the transcendent.  It’s ironic that now religious schools must, virtually alone, teach and defend a traditional understanding of rationality itself.”
  • Ken Lewis retired after nearly 40 years of pastoral ministry in the Baptist General Conference: “Children need a family and a church, but they need families and churches that are more than mutely filling a slot. They need parents, pastors, mentors, and teachers who will talk to them and tell them the truth that will set them free.”

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, I asked another group of symposium writers to consider two questions: “Was Trump and Clinton’s campaign silence regarding family fragmentation golden?  Or was it leaden, especially when it comes to reducing poverty, improving education, and reversing crime?”  Here are three more acute excerpts.

  • Rhonda Kruse Nordin is a writer and an American Experiment Senior Fellow. “Indeed, today’s families come in all shapes, therefore, most people are loath to judge, especially those who need a vote.  Yet maybe the two candidates should have ventured more boldly into the topic of family fragmentation.  It surely touches all of us, if at least peripherally, and is at the root of most, if not all, the big issues the Brookings Institution listed that presidential candidates should have addressed in 2016.”
  • Ian Rowe is CEO of Public Prep in New York, a network of charter schools. “Both Clinton and Trump decided to capitalize on America’s growing culture of victimhood where individuals are rewarded for belonging to some wronged identity group.  Why bother to speak of root causes like family destruction when they could attract voters either by finding scapegoats to distract from personal responsibility or by reaffirming personal powerlessness by citing forces beyond the oppressed locus of control?”
  • William J. Doherty is professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. “As a moderate progressive with a keen interest in preventing family fragmentation I’m accustomed to being a lonely voice in my tribe.  I was able to count on conservative public officials to keep the issue in the public dialogue, as evidenced by President George W. Bush with his Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Initiative.  Now both sides seem silent.  Nowhere is this avoidance more evident than around the profound problems being experienced by working-class whites in Middle America. . . . I don’t have the prescription for the needed cultural change, but I know we have to begin with honest conversation that involves public officials and other leaders.”

So far, I’ve advocated speaking up as a main means of changing the culture.  Or, more precisely if implicitly, I’ve urged fortitude in speaking up.  While most of what I suggest is straightforward that doesn’t mean talking about it is simple and without risks, as fear of saying “insensitive” things about sensitive issues can be dangerous.  But let’s finish by recognizing another route to reducing poverty which draws on American Experiment’s multi-year “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree” project.  An initiative that enriches a culture of work in large measure by focusing on policy-grounded programs and activities.

To date, the project has focused primarily on high school students and the vital decision they must make about what kind of education route to pursue after graduating.  A four-year effort leading to a bachelor’s degree?  Or if they’re not interested in doing that for financial or other reasons, what about a two-year program leading to an A.A. or A.A.S. degree?  A one-year or two-year certificate?  An apprenticeship?  Or perhaps job training in the military?

But what about young men and women who have no interest in continuing their formal education after graduating high school?  Or what about people who drop out of high school entirely?  Especially regarding members of this latter group, what chances might they have of escaping, if not “official” poverty, then something close to it?   Might the education options promoted by Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree be of any use to those who assume their days of formal education are over while still in their teens?  Might such options expand painfully cramped opportunities?  Yes, of course, they might.

A final point and admission.

A careful reader may have noticed that words and terms such as “addiction” and “mental illness” have been missing until now.  This has been major omission insofar as homelessness, among other manifestations of poverty, is a frequent result of one of these afflictions, or both in debilitating tandem.  Obviously, this is not to deny other factors, but the degree to which addictions of various kinds and mental illnesses of various severity get downplayed and sometimes ignored completely is striking.  I would like to report I purposely dismissed them in preceding pages to make this very point.  But I’m afraid that’s not the case, as it didn’t occur to me for weeks they were nowhere to be found.

Perhaps my first time on MPR following the opening of Center of the American Experiment in early 1990 was as a responder to a recorded speech given a few months earlier in Rochester, MN by Mitch Snyder, a high-profile advocate for the homeless in Washington, DC, who had just committed suicide.  Homelessness, he seemed to passionately argue, had nothing to do with addiction and mental illness since he never mentioned either one of them, but a fair amount to do with Ronald Reagan, who he mentioned more than once, if I recall.  It’s hard to believe that a person as intimately familiar with homeless shelters, as Snyder was, could be as forgetful about addiction and mental illness as I was above.

Whatever one thought of Reagan and his policies, it was absurd to think they were the dominant cause of homelessness.  The fact, moreover, that I had just moved back to Minnesota from Washington, where my office was a few blocks from Snyder’s shelter, reinforced my view that more was at play then Reaganomics, or any kind of economics.

If I were to draw a lesson from this it might be that regardless of whatever vantage point one chooses to understand poverty and seek its alleviation – be it a mostly cultural lens like mine, or an economic frame, political frame, ideological frame, racial frame, or any other kind – pivotal matters of addiction and mental illness probably won’t fit any such template neatly.  But the two must be grappled with.  And, yes, I recognize how extraordinarily hard this usually is.


Mitch Pearlstein, Ph.D.

Founder & Senior Fellow

Center of the American Experiment

November 2018


[i] Thankfully, refusing to acknowledge serious questions of culture generally and family fragmentation specifically has not been the case among a diverse number of scholars and academically informed writers whom I’ve long drawn from and sometimes interviewed for books of mine.  Several also have written for American Experiment publications.  An abridged list of 15 might include Elijah Anderson, David Blankenhorn, Andrew Cherlin, Stephanie Coontz, Kathryn Edin, Bill Galston, Kay Hymowitz, Glenn Loury, Sara McLanahan, Ron Mincy, Charles Murray, David Popenoe, Isabel Sawhill, Judith Wallerstein, and William Julius Wilson.  I’m indebted to them all.

[ii] Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream, AEI/Brooking Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity (Washington DC: American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution, 2015, p. 21.)

[iii] Ibid., pp. 33-34.

[iv] Lawrence M. Mead, “Restoring a Marriage Norm,” Center of the American Experiment, Golden Valley, MN, 2018.

[v] “Was Trump and Clinton’s Campaign Silence Regarding Family Fragmentation Golden?” Compiled and with an Introduction by Mitch Pearlstein, Center of the American Experiment, Golden Valley, MN, 2017.

[vi] “Fragmented Families and Silence of the Faithful: How Religious Leaders and Institutions Must Speak Up and Reach Out,” Compiled and with an Introduction by Mitch Pearlstein, Center of the American Experiment, Golden Valley, MN, 2015.