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A word about Personal Responsibility

Last week’s column on crime in St. Louis prompted a nice amount of email my way. In my discussion of possible solutions to the St. Louis crime problem, the phrase “personal responsibility” didn’t come up. Readers wondered at the omission, as it is an obvious foundation for good life choices and outcomes. In response I ask: Who teaches children personal responsibility? Parents do. And they do it better when fathers are present in the home.

U.S. Census data for 2015 show a population of just over 315,000 in St. Louis. The federal poverty level is defined as a family of four living on $23,550, which covers 29.3 percent of St. Louis City’s population. That’s nearly one of every three residents living in poverty with children being disproportionately represented. In St. Louis, below-poverty-level households with children and only a mother present represent more than half of the total families living in poverty.

This isn’t a problem unique to St. Louis. According to the Heritage Foundation, “The government has spent some $22 trillion on means-tested welfare programs since the War on Poverty began (in constant 2012 dollars). Adjusted for inflation, this is three times more than the nation has spent on all military wars combined since the American Revolution.”

The implication is that, across the nation, we have a constant influx of dollars, initiatives and programming to fight poverty, but very little to show for it. Or is that the case? When the government surveys America’s poor about their living conditions, the findings don’t bear that out: 8 out of 10 have air conditioning, nearly 75 percent have a car, and almost 60 percent have cable or satellite TV.

So in comparison to the start of the War on Poverty, America’s poor have come a very long way. Poverty for us is middle class living for many other parts of the world.

Being poor in America is largely a result of poor lifestyle choices – mainly the decision to have children out of wedlock before completing a high school education. Making this decision virtually dooms children in single-parent households to poverty.

Fixing what’s wrong among fathers, mothers and the home isn’t popular or fun, because government officials cannot ride in on a “program horse,” funded by taxpayers with zero accountability, to correct the deficit left by absent fathers. Children who grow up without the daily influence of a loving, involved father face far greater chance of being poor, scoring below grade level in school, dropping out of school, becoming involved in gangs, being arrested before they reach adulthood, and being imprisoned.

Attempting to teach personal responsibility to a kid who has had very little positive reinforcement or tough parental guidance is a daunting prospect. America’s prison system is ill equipped to handle that parenting responsibility.

This is where welfare reform comes in. We must remove the “no father present requirement” that makes families choose between getting help with food and shelter and having an intact family. Children need their fathers in the home.

For those who oppose this idea, what do we have to lose? Record numbers of Americans are out of the workforce and already receiving benefits. Simply applying the same failed prescription without regard to results is folly.

Nick Horton, senior research fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, had this to say about their work eradicating poverty in Missouri: “One of the most powerful things states can do to reduce poverty is to promote work. Just 2 percent of those who work full-time live in poverty. Thankfully, Missouri passed legislation in 2015 that puts work requirements for food stamps into state law. Other states that have gone down this same path, like neighboring Kansas, have seen individuals leave dependency and more than double their incomes, making more than enough money to offset their lost welfare benefits. This is a success story that Missouri can expect to see play out as well, thanks to this good policy that was put into place.

He added: “Another key thing states can do is reject welfare expansions that create new welfare traps and punish people who try to leave poverty. Missouri has gotten this right as well by rejecting the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. Ultimately, the key to reducing poverty is promoting work and Missouri has been pursuing good policies that do just that.”

All roads to financial security begin with intact families. Fewer children end up reading below grade level, joining a gang, or going to prison. Personal responsibility is important. As a matter of public policy we must remove the barriers to people owning the consequences of their actions.