For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.

— Matthew 26:11 (KJV)

In last week’s set of com­ments, a reg­u­lar com­menter observed:

Since blacks mar­ried them­selves to the Demo­c­ra­tic Party 50 years ago, the black fam­ily has been in steady decline.

He was asked:

Are you sug­gest­ing a causal rela­tion­ship here?

The answer:

Yes I am. Since Lyn­don John­son and the Great Soci­ety started giv­ing money to black moth­ers who had babies out of wed­lock, there became a dis­in­cen­tive for black men to marry black women and have chil­dren in wed­lock. We then started mov­ing blacks into the ghet­tos and taught them to become depen­dent on gov­ern­ment. Then if any Repub­li­can ever sug­gests cut­ting back on wel­fare, there’s a back­lash from those receiv­ing gov­ern­ment assis­tance and Repub­li­cans are accused of being self­ish and not car­ing about peo­ple and being racists.

[Note: I cor­rected mis­word­ings and mis­spellings, and sim­pli­fied the above exchange.]

Image via xkcd​.com

So what is the evi­dence for a causal rela­tion­ship between gov­ern­ment assis­tance and poverty, chil­dren born out of wed­lock and mul­ti­ple chil­dren born to father­less families?

Let’s stip­u­late that the cor­re­la­tion exists. I’m not sure I accept the cor­re­la­tion out­lined above, but it will become impos­si­ble to dis­cuss if we don’t start some­where. Remem­ber that “[c]orrelation does not imply cau­sa­tion, but it does wag­gle its eye­brows sug­ges­tively and ges­ture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’.”

Are there other, more plau­si­ble, causal rela­tion­ships that can be drawn between poverty and the dis­so­lu­tion of the family?

Both jour­nal­ist Soledad O’Brien and First Lady Michelle Obama self-​​identify as “black.” Sources: cnn​.com; white​house​.gov

First of all, as a biol­o­gist, I am wary of using the term “race” or spec­ify a par­tic­u­lar race (“black”) because in bio­log­i­cal terms, the word has no mean­ing. In other words, how many melanin gran­ules per square mil­lime­ter of skin must a per­son have in order to be called “black?” In bio­log­i­cal terms, the word has no mean­ing. I sub­mit (and will argue below) that socioe­co­nomic sta­tus has much more to do with human behav­ior than skin color.

Still, I’m forced to use the term below because many of the sta­tis­tics we’ll need to rely on are bro­ken down by race. The rest of the world refuses to con­form to my dis­dain for race-​​based clas­si­fi­ca­tions, as one can see in the dis­cus­sion here.

Step­ping away from the “race bomb” for the time being, let’s dis­cuss some uni­ver­sal aspects of human behav­ior, for I sug­gest that because we’re all human, we are all sub­ject to the same “rules” of human behavior.

Evo­lu­tion­ary Psy­chol­ogy and Human Behavior

E. O. Wilson

In 1975, E.O. Wil­son and oth­ers advanced a new sci­ence that they called “socio­bi­ol­ogy” which was used to explain many aspects of human behav­ior. Per­haps they over­reached, or per­haps the foun­da­tions of the new sci­ence were not that strong, but after ini­tial suc­cesses the socio­bi­ol­o­gists met with stiff resistance.

The term “socio­bi­ol­ogy,” now dis­cred­ited by its polit­i­cal taint, has been replaced with “evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy.” (Full dis­clo­sure: I have always allied myself with socio­bi­ol­ogy, and now evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy, which I find to have tremen­dous explana­tory power.)

One key book which sup­ported the revival of evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy is The Moral Ani­mal (sub­ti­tled Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Sci­ence of Evo­lu­tion­ary Psy­chol­ogy) by Robert Wright. Evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy has some­thing to tell us about poverty:

A sec­ond sort of light shed by the new Dar­win­ian par­a­digm [in evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy] may illu­mi­nate links between poverty and sex­ual moral­ity. Women liv­ing in an envi­ron­ment where few men have the abil­ity and/​or desire to sup­port a fam­ily might nat­u­rally grow amenable to sex with­out com­mit­ment. (Often in history—including Vic­to­rian England—women in the ‘lower classes’ have had a rep­u­ta­tion for loose morals.) It is too soon to assert this con­fi­dently, or to infer that inner-​​city sex­ual mores would change markedly if income lev­els did. But it is note­wor­thy, at least, that evo­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy, with its empha­sis on the role of envi­ron­ment, may wind up high­light­ing the social costs of poverty, and thus at times lend strength to lib­eral pol­icy pre­scrip­tions, defy­ing old stereo­types of Dar­win­ism as right-​​wing.

Maybe what the Vic­to­ri­ans and oth­ers have called “loose morals” is just good sex­ual economics.

The Demo­graphic Transition

There is ample evi­dence for this view in human pop­u­la­tions, both across geo­graph­i­cal bound­aries and across time, as shown in this clas­sic analy­sis from a high school geog­ra­phy class web­page:

The Demo­graphic Tran­si­tion model. Source: Mike Relf, High School Geog­ra­phy Online

Demog­ra­phers call this the “demo­graphic tran­si­tion” model. Sim­ply put, humans choose to repro­duce more avidly when times are tough. You might lose your chil­dren; you can always put them to work in the fields (or, in an urban envi­ron­ment, steal­ing or run­ning num­bers, à la Ikey Solomon, the inspi­ra­tion for Dick­ens’ Fagin); and the more chil­dren you have, the bet­ter chance one of them will sup­port you in your old age. The prob­lem is made worse by our psy­cho­log­i­cal ten­dency to ide­al­ize par­ent­hood, even in the face of over­whelm­ing con­trary evidence.

Note that there is a lag between the decline in the death rate (rep­re­sent­ing bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ties, and fewer chil­dren dying of infan­tile dis­eases) and the cor­re­spond­ing decline in the birth rate. This is pre­sum­ably the time it takes pop­u­la­tions of peo­ple to “get the idea” that things are actu­ally get­ting bet­ter. For exam­ple, a 1973 study of Swe­den by Mau­rice Wilkin­son is based on an analy­sis of demo­graph­ics from 1870 to 1965. Then, as now, Swe­den had only a tiny pop­u­la­tion of African descent. Wilkin­son showed a lag of about 20 years between the decline in the infant mor­tal­ity rate and a cor­re­spond­ing decline in fer­til­ity. This lag of about 20 years neatly matches the time it takes a child to grow up in a sta­ble envi­ron­ment, then con­clude that it is “safe” to lower her fer­til­ity rate, and begin to make deci­sions about her fer­til­ity on that basis.

Wilkin­son states:

On the basis of the above analy­sis it appears rea­son­able to con­clude that eco­nomic con­straints on the house­hold have a sig­nif­i­cant effect upon fertility.

Incar­cer­a­tion Rates

Incar­cer­a­tion rates for non-​​Hispanic black males are astro­nom­i­cally high. For exam­ple, Raphael esti­mates that one out of six black males (16.6%) is or has been incar­cer­ated as of 2001. The incar­cer­a­tion rate for black males in 1974 was 8.7%.

Com­pare this to one in forty (2.6%) non-​​Hispanic white males incar­cer­ated (now or in the past) in 2001. This rate has increased for both groups across time, but the ratio has remained con­stant. That is, in 2001 6.4 times as many black males as white males had been incar­cer­ated; in 1974 it was 6.2 times as many.

“Fixed sen­tenc­ing” poli­cies insti­tuted dur­ing the 1970s have increased, rather than decreased, incar­cer­a­tion rates, to approx­i­mately twice what they were in 1970, across all racial groups. Because blacks were already almost an order of mag­ni­tude more likely to be incar­cer­ated, and this sta­tis­tic has per­sisted, the effect of dou­bling the rate has been dis­pro­por­tion­ately strong on blacks.

There is wide­spread recog­ni­tion, across the polit­i­cal spec­trum, that the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is bro­ken. Sen. Jim Webb (D-​​VA) has spon­sored S.306 appoint­ing a blue rib­bon com­mis­sion to study the prob­lem and make rec­om­men­da­tions. He has gar­nered sup­port across the polit­i­cal spec­trum: the National Sheriff’s Asso­ci­a­tion, Inter­na­tional Asso­ci­a­tion of Chiefs of Police, Her­itage Foun­da­tion, Sen­tenc­ing Project, Fra­ter­nal Order of Police, NAACP, Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, Prison Fel­low­ship, and 150 other orga­ni­za­tions have endorsed his bill.

Effect of Remov­ing Males from the Population

The effect of remov­ing males from human pop­u­la­tions is to change the eco­nom­ics of sex and reproduction.

Higher male impris­on­ment has low­ered the like­li­hood that women marry, and reduced the qual­ity of their spouses when they do, and caused a shift in the gains from mar­riage away from women and towards men. [Empha­sis mine.]

K.K. Charles and M. C. Luoh

This effect is seen across socioe­co­nomic bound­aries and across races; it’s a root human (and mam­malian) char­ac­ter­is­tic. Humans behave pretty much like any other ani­mals, with a thin veneer of soci­ety and moral­ity laid del­i­cately on top. Sperm is cheap and eggs are pre­cious. Men have the incen­tive to spread their sperm far and wide. Women have the incen­tive to wait for a suit­able, sta­ble part­ner. In a sta­ble soci­ety, nei­ther has the upper hand and so nei­ther “style” predominates.

For exam­ple, a recent arti­cle by Mark Reg­nerus in Slate (“Sex is Cheap”) makes this point for the “slacker” men now in their 20s and early 30s. (Notably, he doesn’t spec­ify the race of his ide­al­ized slacker male but the accom­pa­ny­ing art shows a white male and female.)

The idea that sex ratios alter sex­ual behav­ior is well-​​established. Analy­sis of demo­graphic data from 117 coun­tries has shown that when men out­num­ber women, women have the upper hand: Mar­riage rates rise and fewer chil­dren are born out­side mar­riage. An over­sup­ply of women, how­ever, tends to lead to a more sex­u­ally per­mis­sive culture.

There­fore, I would sub­mit that the destruc­tion of the “nuclear fam­ily” ideal of the 1950s (which prob­a­bly never really existed as such) is largely due to the changes in the sex­ual eco­nom­ics of the times. As men, espe­cially high-​​quality men, became scarce, the bio­log­i­cal imper­a­tive in males to spread seed far and wide with­out emo­tional entan­gle­ment exerts a stronger pull. Women can engage in sex with­out dan­ger of preg­nancy (at first) in an attempt to ensnare a part­ner. Both par­ties behave badly, but in their own self-​​interest. (“Men play at love to get sex; women play at sex to get love.”)

If we want to do some­thing about endemic poverty, we could start by ensur­ing a more level play­ing field where there are (as closely as pos­si­ble) equal num­bers of men and women with equal eco­nomic oppor­tu­ni­ties. Across the world, humans have a lower birth rate and form more sta­ble rela­tion­ships when both men and women are empowered.

More impor­tantly, men and women regard­less of race or socioe­co­nomic sta­tus need to feel that they live in a secure envi­ron­ment where their liveli­hood and abil­ity to raise a fam­ily and par­tic­i­pate in soci­ety is not con­stantly threatened.

Para­dox­i­cally, a strin­gent and unequal eco­nomic envi­ron­ment encour­ages peo­ple to have more chil­dren and ensures a con­tin­ual down­ward socioe­co­nomic spi­ral. Sure it’s stu­pid to do that, but humans (regard­less of race) behave like humans, and are not always per­fectly ratio­nal. The least we can do is to refrain from insti­tut­ing gov­ern­ment poli­cies which weaken, rather than strengthen, the secu­rity of our cit­i­zens. A gov­ern­ment which can “estab­lish Jus­tice, insure domes­tic Tran­quil­ity, pro­vide for the com­mon defence, pro­mote the gen­eral Wel­fare, and secure the Bless­ings of Lib­erty” will elim­i­nate poverty for its cit­i­zens once and for all.