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Personal Choices Shape Economic Outcomes

by JOHN HOOD

RALEIGH — What’s the matter with kids today? What makes them such noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy loafers? You can talk and talk until your face is blue, but they still just do what they want to do.

No, I’ve not suddenly become a clueless curmudgeon. But I could be auditioning to play one, since I’m quoting song lyrics from the 1960 Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie. In this song, “Kids,” a father is complaining about rock-music-obsessed teenagers while asking with a comedic irony, “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?”

Humans have complained about declining standards of decorum, education, and morality for about as long as other humans have been around to listen. The earliest writings we have, millennia-old clay tablets from Mesopotamia, include lamentations about youth culture. One depicts a stern father lecturing his son not to “wander about the boulevard” but instead to work hard, go to school, and behave himself. “You’re a man when it comes to perverseness,” the father observes, but “you are not a man at all” when it comes to personal responsibility.

Since things really haven’t been getting worse for humanity since ancient times, even though every generation appears to have doubted the wisdom of the next one, should we all just lighten up and stop dispensing advice?

That may be a fashionable answer at the moment, but it is profoundly wrongheaded. There really are principles and virtues that, if practiced, tend to help people live longer, healthier, happier, and more productive lives. Passing this knowledge from one generation to the next is what makes civilization possible. And when it comes to the topics I usually write about in this space — politics and public policy — offering and heeding this advice are critical tasks.

For example, if we want to improve the educational outcomes, job prospects, and living standards among the next generation, public policy can play an important role. Across the political spectrum, we may disagree about the precise combination of taxes, expenditures, programs, and regulations to implement. But we usually agree that high-quality schools and a business climate favorable to job creation will make a difference.

At the same time, though, if we are willing to following the empirical evidence wherever it may lead, we would have to conclude that personal choices play at least as important a role. What is now often called the “Success Sequence” — finishing high school, working full-time, and delaying childbirth until marriage — is strongly correlated with positive outcomes, both for adults and for their children.

Among Millennials who have followed the Success Sequence in their lives so far, only 3 percent have incomes below the poverty line. For Millennials satisfying none of these conditions, the poverty rate is 53 percent. The remaining Millennials lie in between these two poles. After adjusting for a variety of other factors, the link between personal choices and economic outcomes remains. Even for those who grew up in poor households, for instance, only 9 percent are poor as adults if they have followed the Success Sequence.

Responsible behavior isn’t just associated with upward mobility and life satisfaction among individuals. In a new peer-reviewed study, scholars from the Urban Institute, Cornell University, Brigham Young University, and the University of Virginia found that, all other things being held equal, states with higher-than-average marriage rates among working-aged adults had higher-than-average economic performance.

They also found that if marriage rates for households with children were the same today as they were back in 1980, median income in the average state would be nearly 11 percent higher and child poverty would be about 25 percent lower.

This is a complicated sociological story. Graduation, work, and marriage before children can be both causes and effects. And I’m not saying that people who make poor decisions when they are young can’t better themselves — or shouldn’t be assisted to do so. But no government program can ever fully substitute for strong families formed by educated, responsible adults. Saying so doesn’t make you a curmudgeon.

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John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30p and Sundays at 12:30p on UNC-TV.

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