The Importance of the Work Ethic and the Study Ethic: an exclusive interview with Robert E. Rector

Published November 1, 2003

In September, the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual poverty and income survey indicated that families headed by a single female were faring much better than anticipated in the current economic downturn. Indeed, following the 1996 welfare reforms, which required many single mothers to work, the poverty level among single parent families reached its lowest level ever in 2000, then increased just slightly over the past two years. Black child poverty reached its lowest point ever in 2001 and was still at its second-lowest level in 2002.

The crafting of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, and the design of welfare provisions of the Republican “Contract With America,” owe much to the involvement of Robert E. Rector, senior research fellow in domestic policy studies with The Heritage Foundation. A leading authority on poverty and the U.S. welfare system, Rector has conducted extensive research on the economic costs of welfare and its role in undermining the traditional family structure. He also has studied such related issues as marriage and illegitimacy, and tax reform to assist families.

Rector is the author of America’s Failed $5.4 Trillion War on Poverty, a comprehensive examination of U.S. welfare programs, and co-editor of Steering the Elephant: How Washington Works. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, National Review, Policy Review, Insight, Human Events, and Harvard Journal on Legislation. Rector also frequently appears on television and radio.

Prior to joining the Heritage staff, Rector worked as a legislative assistant in the Virginia House of Delegates and as a management analyst at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, he earned his master’s degree in political science from Johns Hopkins University. Rector spoke recently with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: What are the major causes of child poverty today, as compared to the 1960s when the War on Poverty was launched?

Rector: Forty years ago, we had a far less developed economy, and the major reason for child poverty was low parental wages. Today, the overwhelming reasons for child poverty are single parenthood and a lack of parental work. The typical poor family with children today has only about 800 hours of labor during the course of a year. It’s lack of parental work, rather than low wages, that is the major reason keeping these families in poverty.

Also, two-thirds of all poor families with children are single-parent families. Since the beginning of the War on Poverty, the out-of-wedlock child-bearing rate has grown from around 7 percent up to 32 percent. That, as well as a growth in divorce, is a huge contributing factor to poverty.

Clowes: What are the educational consequences of being raised in a single-parent family?

Rector: You have a compounding effect there, because women who give birth out-of-wedlock in general are poorly educated themselves. Beyond that, children who are raised in single-parent families are more likely to fail in school and are more likely to drop out. Then they, in turn, are more likely to have children out-of-wedlock, and perpetuate the cycle.

It’s important to understand that this is not a causal thing: Poverty does not cause a low level of education. In fact, a low education level is more likely to be contributing to the poverty than vice versa.

One way to think about this is to realize that, back in the 1920s, probably half of all Americans were poor. In the 1950s, it was around a quarter. Although these families were poor, it didn’t reduce their cognitive abilities, it didn’t erode their work ethic, and it didn’t make them more likely to be engaged in crime.

There’s a fundamental social science error when you take a cross-sectional viewpoint at any point in time and say, “Aha! Look–people who are poor are more likely to do all of these things. And therefore, if we could just artificially raise their income, they would do drugs less, drop out of school less, have fewer children out-of-wedlock, work more, and do better in school.” It doesn’t work like that.

Once you look at it in a historical sense, it’s quite clear that income status, for example, doesn’t have very much to do with completing high school, because a lot of children from very low-income families completed high school in the 1950s. Rather, it’s the study ethic and the work ethic that young people have that contributes to their success in school and in the workplace. In fact, efforts in welfare to artificially raise income actually erode that work ethic and erode the individual’s sense of the importance of getting an education to support themselves.

Clowes: What happened that changed the study ethic and the work ethic?

Rector: What you see, moving from the 1950s forward, are changes in a wide range of social norms, concerning work, criminal behavior, respect for authority, education, sexual activity, and marriage. You see an expansion of what I would call “the culture of the underclass.” That culture tends to have negative attitudes about work, about education, about marriage, and about self-control. It became cool to be sexually active without marriage and to have children without being married. Working at a reasonable job was considered to be the action of a chump, being a husband and supporting your family was being a chump, and clearly studying in school was being a chump.

Now, all of those attitudes existed in society prior to that point in time, but in the late 1960s, those values clearly exploded. In particular, there was a huge change in the norms concerning sexual behavior. In low-income, black communities it became commonplace that women would have children and not be married, and would support those children through welfare rather than through a husband.

Welfare provided a mother and her children with an income independent of a father. But once the role of the breadwinner and the husband disappeared, a lot of the rationale for the male work ethic and the male study ethic also disappeared.

If you’re not academically gifted, one of the main reasons you’re sitting in a classroom, slugging away, is the idea that you have to do reasonably well in school in order to get a good job and have a wife and support a family. But if you’re no longer thinking about having a wife and supporting a family, then school work doesn’t have much purpose, and getting and holding on to a job has far less purpose.

Clowes: So a prospective father-in-law no longer asks, “Can you support my daughter?”

Rector: Well, he’s not around any more, either. There’s a complete vacuum of responsible male authority figures in a lot of these low-income communities. This isn’t an issue that’s restricted to blacks; it’s just most pronounced in black communities. The same pattern occurs with low-income whites.

The change in the male work ethic and the male study ethic also was tied in with a certain current of radical feminism, which actively celebrated the disappearance of marriage in the black community, and said it was better for women not to have husbands but instead to have loose, cohabitational relationships. This sounds insane in retrospect, but it was very avant-garde thought in the early 1970s.

They wanted to wipe the married family off the map, and in some respects, they’ve succeeded. It’s just such a bizarrely counterproductive idea that it’s difficult to understand it today, but book after book after book was written by feminists on this subject–quite paradoxically, celebrating what most Americans regarded as a disaster, which was the disappearance of marriage in the black community.

Clowes: Something that Daniel Moynihan also had pointed out.

Rector: Right. But the napalming of Moynihan by the black left, the radical left, and the feminist left is very symptomatic of this whole issue. It was impossible for almost 25 years to talk about the collapse of marriage as it related to poverty, the underclass, and welfare. It was just politically incorrect to do so, even though it was quite obvious to anyone looking at these things that that was the predominant factor behind welfare dependence and child poverty.

Clowes: Are there any relatively modest public policy changes that could significantly reduce child poverty?

Rector: Two things have to be done in order to reduce child poverty in this country: Increase the work rate of parents, and increase the marriage rate.

If, for example, all of the families with poor children work for 2,000 hours a year–that’s one adult working 40 hours a week throughout the year–child poverty would be reduced by three-quarters. You’d virtually wipe out child poverty with that one change alone.

Secondly, if the women who have children out-of-wedlock married the father of their children, again about 75 percent of children would be immediately raised up out of poverty.

Now the question is: What can you do in public policy to increase the marriage rate and increase the work rate? To increase the work rate, we need to put work requirements onto all of the welfare programs that affect families with children. Right now, there are modest work requirements in the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program and they need to be strengthened. There are none in food stamps, and there are none in public housing. What we’ve learned from the 1996 welfare reform is that if you require a parent to get a job or to prepare for work as a condition of receiving assistance, that has a very significant effect in increasing real employment and in reducing poverty.

In terms of promoting marriage, that’s more a cutting-edge issue. We’re just starting to think about doing that. But clearly, this is an area where a number of policies–education about the value of marriage, education about relationship skills, and reducing some of the current penalties against marriage in welfare–all could be significant factors in very greatly increasing the rate of marriage in our society. Also, marriage skills training–educating couples on how to resolve fights, how not to escalate fights, and how to communicate–can be effective in reducing the divorce rate, which is another entryway into single parenthood.

Clowes: Explicit sex education in K-12 schools has been promoted as a means of reducing out-of-wedlock births. Has it been effective?

Rector: It’s not really sex education, it’s condom promotion, or safe sex education. Those programs may have some effect in reducing pregnancy–largely because they have a lot of material about venereal diseases that’s kind of scary, and that might move young people to be either a little less sexually active or to use contraception a little bit more–but it’s marginal, In general, those programs are sending a very clear message that society both expects and condones sexual activity in the early teen years. That’s the wrong message to send.

In general, if you want to reduce teen pregnancy, delaying the onset of sexual activity is much more effective than contraceptive use. For example, if you could shift up by two years the age at which young people become sexually active, you would cut the teen pregnancy rate in half.

More importantly, though, most out-of-wedlock childbearing does not occur in the teen years. It mostly occurs in the early 20s, with only about 15 percent of all out-of-wedlock births occurring to women under age 18. So this is mainly an issue of a crisis in the relationship between young adults. Clearly, in that context, handing teenagers condoms and saying, “Be careful when you’re fooling around,” isn’t going to help matters very much.

What is needed instead is education that will attempt to teach young people the importance of fidelity, of commitment, of long-term life goals, of love and intimacy. Promoting condoms doesn’t do that. What you see is that girls who become sexually active early on tend to develop a pattern of broken relationships that they carry with them through their whole lives. A girl who had been sexually active in her mid- and early teens is far less likely to have a stable marriage when she’s in her 30s. Early sexual activity has a negative effect in terms of relationship structure that will last a lifetime.

That’s one of the things we ought to be teaching. We should be teaching young people that those who are sexually active are far more likely to attempt suicide, they’re more likely to be depressed, they’re more likely to have all of these negative long-term effects that are not going to be cured by using a condom. This is the kind of message that needs to be sent out, and this is the kind of message that abstinence education has. Unfortunately, it’s only through these tiny little abstinence programs that young people are being taught anything truthful about sex at all. Certainly, they’re getting the opposite message through the media, and they’re not getting very much of a message at home, either.

Parents can have a huge effect in reducing teen sexual activity, but somehow they think that if they set a strong moral message, they will be ignored. The data suggest otherwise–that, in fact, teens will follow the norms that are set for them. Parents should be much more explicit and much firmer in the norms they’re setting.

Our society is not setting good norms for our children. We need to have a solid abstinence message in all of our schools. Those abstinence programs should teach young people the relationship between their current sexual activity and what’s going to happen to them across the course of their lifetime. They need to know that sexual activity today has long-term effects, that the choices they’re making now have psychological effects that endure a lifetime.

Finally, we should really make an effort to make the national media clean up its message. It’s absolutely scandalous that we let the music industry and television saturate young people with very negative messages. Any parent who allows a child to watch MTV has got to be crazy. Certainly, we could, as a society, put pressure on those media that are focused almost exclusively on young people to clean up the messages they’re sending.

We have a strong precedent in our society for collectively controlling the messages that go to young people in a very constructive and positive way. For example, that was done with the comic industry in the 1950s, where comic books were clearly sending alarming messages and the industry cleaned itself up as a result of public pressure. We need to put pressure on the music industry and television to clean up their acts, too.