The Public Interest

The moral environment of the poor

Joel Schwartz

Spring 1991

A FEW YEARS AGO James Q. Wilson observed that the most important change in American social policy lay in what he called the “deepening concern for the development of character in the citizenry.” Recent attempts to cope with poverty have been particularly marked by this shift: increasingly, measures are being proposed and implemented that explicitly present the restoration of moral order as a key to the reduction of poverty. Examples include experiments with boot camps, in which young felons spend weeks or months in a quasi-military atmosphere, receiving remedial education and learning to observe social norms; work requirements for welfare recipients; and the recent Wisconsin proposal to reward teenage welfare mothers who marry and penalize those who do not. These policies and others are premised upon an old-fashioned idea: if the poor are to escape poverty, they must somehow be encouraged to take responsibility for themselves—to hold jobs, to marry, and to obey the law.

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