Some see a link between poverty, moral issues affecting the family

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

Mark Pattison

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One inescapable issue that too many families around the world face is poverty.

Some say related to poverty are the moral issues affecting the family -- children born outside of marriage, the increasing rate of cohabitation and the overall disintegration of families.

Does one issue feed into the other? Is there a cause and effect?

The effect of poverty on family life will undoubtedly be one of the issues taken up by the upcoming extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family. The Oct. 5-19 extraordinary synod will prepare an agenda for the worldwide synod one year later.

Many voices -- including that of Pope Francis, who convoked the synod -- have weighed in on the role of poverty on family life.

Pope Francis, in an interview published in June in the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, said many of today's social ills are driven by a lack of adequate social policies and government support, not just selfishness and moral degradation.

"Raising a family is hard work, sometimes salaries aren't enough, [with paychecks] not lasting to the end of the month. People are afraid of losing their job or of not being able to pay rent. Social policies don't help," the pope said.

"Much depends on the economic crises and not just on a cultural deviation marked by selfishness and hedonism," he added.

Nearly 50 years ago, Daniel Moynihan, at the behest of the Lyndon Johnson White House, issued what is commonly known as the "Moynihan Report," which looked at African-American family life in the U.S. Its conclusions lit a powder keg of debate about poverty, its causes and effects.

Moynihan's central thesis was that the decline of the black nuclear family would significantly impede blacks' progress toward economic and social equality.

He described a "tangle of pathologies" negatively affecting African-American families -- disintegrating families, poor educational outcomes, weak job prospects, concentrated neighborhood poverty, dysfunctional communities, and crime and high nonmarital birth rates among blacks -- that would create a self-perpetuating cycle of deprivation, hardship and inequality. And with black men less frequently in the household, Moynihan predicted the pattern would repeat from one generation to the next.

A 2013 Urban Institute study, "Moynihan Report Revisited," looked at the differences between then and now.

"In the early 1960s, about 20 percent of black children were born to unmarried mothers, compared with 2 to 3 percent of white children. By 2009, nearly three-quarters of black births and three-tenths of white births occurred outside marriage," the study said.

"Declining male employment rates accompanied by higher female employment rates could be both a cause and effect of the decline in marriage rates. With greater economic opportunities, women may be less inclined to marry, especially when more potential marriage partners are struggling in the labor market. Alternatively, because marriage rates are declining, more women may be compelled to work to support themselves and their children," it added.

There are other statistical disparities -- the most affluent black families tend to live in areas with higher concentrations of poverty than the poorest white families, and one in six black men have spent time in prison, compared to one in 33 white men -- but "even 50 years ago, black poverty and social inequity was not simply a result of single parenting," said the "Moynihan Report Revisited."

"Today's more complex social milieu requires a much broader strategy and set of initiatives to address the multitude of factors impeding black economic and social progress," it said.

One cultural critic sees the issue in starker terms. "People who have less money than the average family can usually easily even the score with public funds, but the largest reason they are poor in the first place is because they live in fractured relationships and/or haven't developed the character traits necessary to stay out of poverty: good work ethic, personal responsibility, etc.," wrote Joy Pullmann, managing editor of a Web-based magazine called The Federalist and a research fellow on education policy for a Chicago-based think tank called the Heartland Institute.

In a 2011 essay, "How Moral Failure Causes Child Poverty," Pullmann identified "two major contributors to child poverty: divorce and premarital sex. ... But few people want to discuss this because divorce and premarital sex have become veritable constitutional rights."

In today's climate, "it's much more politically correct to tell people in poverty that this problem is probably someone else's fault," she wrote, but she argued that "poverty is the direct result of immoral decisions."

"For those of you who haven't heard," she added, "Christianity has for centuries said adultery, divorce and premarital sex are wrong. Looks like that standard isn't random."

But Gregory Acs, one of the authors of the Urban Institute's "Moynihan Report Revisited" took a different view.

"Let's pull the moral dimension out of it," he told Catholic News Service. "Did they make decisions because they had to make a compromise of long-term prospects ... to get by day to day? I think it would be very hard to say one caused the other. It's an inter-tangled web."

Acs added, "If you find yourself with a child that you have to support, you may choose to not complete or pursue additional education, and so you stay in unstable jobs and in and out of poverty, which creates stresses at home, not to mention lack of material resources, which affect your ability and which affect your child's ability to thrive.

"And when that child approaches adulthood, if they lived in an unstable family with limited resources, most likely also in a neighborhood that lacked adequate resources, they are also in a position to not likely thrive as adults. They might also make decisions that compromise their future or their children's future. It's called a chicken-and-egg problem, and it really is," Acs continued.

He added, "Creating economic opportunity won't solve it. Reducing nonmarital childbearing won't solve it. You have to work on different fronts."

For Pope Francis, standing up for the poor and disenfranchised is the mark of a true Christian.

"Poverty is at the heart of the Gospel," he told Il Messaggero. "You can't understand the Gospel without understanding real poverty, taking into account that there also exists a very beautiful poverty of the spirit: to be poor before God so that God fills you."

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