The broken correlation of improvements in employment and decreased welfare dependency was not just bewildering, it was frightening. Policymakers had long held a serene faith in social salvation through better economic incentives and fewer barriers to individual initiative. The possibility that the decisive factors are not economic but cultural — habits, mores, customs — was dismaying because it is easier for government to alter incentives and remove barriers than to alter culture. The assumption that the condition of the poor must improve as macroeconomic conditions — which government thinks it can manipulate — improve is refuted by the importance of family structure.

To say that poverty can be self-perpetuating is not to say, and Ryan did not say, that poverty is caused by irremediable attributes that are finally the fault of the poor. It is, however, to define the challenge, which is to acculturate those unacquainted with the culture of work to the disciplines and satisfactions of this culture.

Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist and demographer, notes that “labor force participation ratios for men in the prime of life are demonstrably lower in America than in Europe” and “a large part of the jobs problem for American men today is that of not wanting one.” Surely the fact that means-tested entitlement dependency has been destigmatized has something to do with what Eberstadt terms the “unprecedented exit from gainful work by adult men.”