Catherine Seipp at NRO writes about Barbara Ehrenreich’s new documentary Waging a Living. (I haven’t seen it but I have read other Ehrenreich works so I feel confident in my analysis based on Seipp’s summation.) I think Ehrenreich’s body of work showcases the Left’s blindspots when it comes to fighting poverty.
Speaking in broad terms, the Left and Right approach poverty from different angles. The Left approaches poverty latitudinally, taking a snapshot of all poverty at any one time and then trying to rectify the material deficits that they find. The Right approaches poverty longitudinally, seeking to reveal the sequence of events that result in any given person becoming or remaining poor. In the case of any given poor individual, leftists act like emergency first responders at a car wreck. They want to put out the fire, rescue the trapped, and transport the injured. Rightists act more like accident investigators or engineers. They want to understand how the wreck came about in the first place so that they can prevent others. (In the cases of war and crime, the positions reverse. Rightists want to act. Leftists want to analyze.)
Barbara Ehrenreich seeks to draw our attention to the day-to-day suffering of the working poor by profiling five subjects. Clearly, she approaches the problem from the leftist perspective. She seems completely unaware of the rightist perspective at all. In the lives of each of her subjects, someone made a bad choice that left themself or someone else in distress. They all have one or more factors such as divorce, out-of-wedlock children or drug abuse that severely impacted their lives. The impact is so significant that it’s fair to say that had they never made those choices they wouldn’t have suffered enough to be included in the documentary. Yet going by Ehrenreich’s previous writing, she does not examine the role that poor personal choices play in poverty.
No honest person can deny the empirical evidence. Divorce causes poverty. Having children out of wedlock causes poverty. Drug abuse causes poverty. Social conservatives harp so insistently on traditional morality because such moral codes prevent real-world harm. People’s individual moral codes create their behavior and behaviors have real-world consequences. Leftists usually completely ignore this fact in formulating social policy. They treat matters of personal choice like acts of nature. Divorces just happen. Out-of-wedlock births just happen. Drug abuse just happens. Asking how an individual’s choices led them to poverty makes as much sense to leftists as asking how an individual’s choices led them to be struck by a meteorite in their living room.
Modern poverty no longer results primarily from a lack of material resources or political oppression. As our society grew increasingly materially wealthy, egalitarian and merit-driven poverty resulted more and more often from individual dysfunction. Once most of the population lived in poverty, and even if we had redistributed all the material wealth in the world most people would have still gone hungry. Once law and culture trapped people in the social strata of their birth regardless of their individual choices, drive or merit. Now none of these conditions apply. Most people experience poverty, especially persistent poverty, due to the individual decisions they or their parents made.
Emphasizing personal responsibility is not a panacea but it is important. The welfare reform of the ’90s succeeded precisely because its designers started with the assumption that poor people made choices and that we could configure social-welfare programs to encourage them to do so. In the long run, no matter how materially wealthy, redistributionist or egalitarian we become, bad personal decisions will still result in suffering.
No one chooses to be poor but many make choices that result in poverty. We should always design social policy with that in mind.
38 thoughts on “Choosing Poverty”
I basically agree, but there *are* policy choices that can help or hinder social mobility. For example, the increasing obsession with “education” (really meaning “credentialism”) has now reached the point at which it is often a barrier to qualified and motivated people. There are plenty of jobs that could be a ladder up for a sharp high school grad but are defined as “college required”..and the same thing is now happening at the grad school level.
Arrgh. I can’t rememebr which site, but I think it was America’s Second Harvest, where they used to have biographies of the people that they helped. They are no longer there, but I looked at a couple and thought to myself that these people did not need a handout, just a whack with a cluebat. One family claimed that breakfast was too expensive for their kids. By my calculation, bulk generic milk and cereal and a glass of milk cost about 80 cents per kid. If you can’t afford 80 cents to feed your kid breakfast, don’t have one.
Then there was the woman who finally got a job and got off welfare. The company moved, and now she spent so much money on her commute that she needed food assistance. What, was she so inept that this was the only company that would take her in the entire metropolitan area? The whole site reeked of excuse making, I can see why they took those bios down.
The way you define a problem presupposes, or preselects, the form of your response.
If the problems of people in poverty are purely structural, without any elements of personal responsibility that might indicate poor moral or practical choices by the individual(s) involved, then any remedy should also be structural.
Lo and behold, that is exactly the analysis, and method of response, of the collectivist left.
First, the assertion that poverty is the result of cruel and heartless capitalist excesses;
Second, the assertion that there is no alternative to major state action to relieve the problem;
Third, the construction of an elaborate beaurocratic structure whose ostensible purpose is to solve the problem;
Fourth, when the program fails, or makes things even worse, the only acceptable response is more and more costly and complex programs.
The analysis of personal responsibility is rejected precisely because it short-circuits this process.
Since the actual purpose of statist policies is the extension of state power and influence, any approach that does not satisfy this specific goal, regardless of its efficacy on any other scale of measurement, cannot be admitted as plausible.
The illusion here is the idea that poverty programs are instituted to alleviate poverty. After several decades, it must be painfully obvious to any non-ideological analyst that the asserted intentions of state action have nothing whatever to do with their results.
Playing Devil’s advocate here for a moment, is it possible that the sources of poverty might be partly social, if not suggestive of the standard left-wing prescriptions? Allow me to explain. Consider some of the thinking on development coming out of NYU (disclaimer: I’m an MBA student there and thus biased). The preconditions for development seem to be largely absent from the day-to-day life for much of America’s poor. Non-predatory government? Not there; many poor neighborhoods are grossly underpoliced and what government they have is hopelessly corrupt. Financial revolutions? The social “reformers” seem intent on quashing what little access to capital the poor enjoy. Open access to markets? The literature on the minimum wage, occupational licensure, and the underprivileged is pretty well established. This doesn’t even touch on how DeSoto’s issues regarding property rights might apply. In short, rather than having failed the poor, capitalism could be pointed to as one of the few ideas that haven’t been tried on the poor
This harping on minimum wage is also ridiculous. The fact is most people earning minimum wage are teenagers working part-time who do not support a family. And lefties always assume that once a person takes a minimum wage job, he’s doomed to be earning minimum wage for the rest of his life. Thus, if we don’t raise the minimum wage, he’ll live in poverty.
But even an unskilled worker who starts a job at minimum wage can advance, either at his current employer or by changing jobs.
Absolutely. Ironically, most of the evidence seems to suggest that the minimum wage amounts to an income transfer from the genuinely poor to the lower middle class. The poor, after all, would be the most willing to undercut that floor in order to get on the economic ladder you point to.
I think all the factors you list do still play a role in creating and maintaining poverty. Factors like racism and sexism still play a role as well. However, the relative weights that different factors have on the final outcome have change significantly in the last century and especially in the post-WWII era. Now, I think personal choices outweigh all other factors.
I recall one study, which I now can’t find, that said that if both parents graduated high school, did not marry until they were 20, did not have children until after they married and remained married, there was only a 15% chance that the child would ever be poor. How hard is that even for someone born poor?
The major problem today with poverty is dysfunction, not lack of opportunity or a social safety net. We should continue to remove all barriers to class mobility but that will do little good unless people make the right choices when opportunity presents itself.
Well, if poverty these days is largely the result of dysfunction, I think it’s fair to say that there will always be poverty. Regrettable, but unavoidable. This may be the real difference between the left and the right: They think you can legislate against human frailty; conservatives don’t.
It’s noteworthy to realize the Left is full of baloney on the best of days. The fact many of them exude oft-noted characteristics of never smiling, being miserable, grumpy, headachy, full of cramps, is testimony to my assertion. But, I digress. Ms. Ehrenreich’s efforts should be given high marks (or is it Marx?). Just the temerity needed to go “out there,” undercover, so to speak, is a measure of her literary worth. A true proletariat! Boots on the ground, and all that! Perhaps, Earth shoes?
Let’s remember that a lot of people are trapped in public schools that are completely dysfunctional. It’s a very high hurdle for parents who aren’t themselves very well-educated to overcome, regardless of how dedicated to their kids they are.
Shannon, thanks for your post.
Ehrenreich has always upset me. Those of us in the liberal arts often got low-paying jobs. That’s okay. We made our choices. But all work is honorable & should be honored.
My daughter just quit at Dairy Queen because of her school activities. In another age (and quite appropriately) she would have been apprenticed at a first job: she developed work habits, time management, developed some grace under fire. These are important skills. People like Ehrenreich don’t appreciate what the managers at places like that do. Minimum wage, hell, we should probably have paid them for the experience it gave her. (My parents always said they thought they lost money on the paper routes we had in grade school but they were important learning situations. The people who had them in our community tended to grow up to be professionals.)
When the caterers screwed up at my daughter’s wedding reception, my family looked around and started clearing tables. The uncles of the bride (one a quite successful businessman, one a world expert on no till) scraped barbecue plates for over two hundred guests; my other brother’s girlfriend and the matron of honor, with good cheer, went around picking up stuff from tables. They were happy to do it; they all felt useful. People like Ehrenreich don’t seem to have a sense of how important feeling useful is.
On a more scholarly level, exactly why do we have to keep reinventing the wheel? This is the kind of stuff that Gertrude Himmelfarb has been saying & proving for years.
“she developed work habits, time management, developed some grace under fire”…these are what I would call metaskills, and what earlier generations would probably have classified under the heading of “character.”
When I’ve seen people fail in the business world, it has usually been because of deficiency in metaskills, rather than specific skills (like knowig how to calculate a discounted cash flow or design a circuit.) With our societal obsession with “education,” too many people have lost sight of the importance of metaskills.
Poverty is a Three Card Monty game in politics. They cite the arbitrary percentile that a government bureaucrat decides constitutes the level of poverty in the population with out explaining that such a level includes people whoíd be considered middle class by even European standards. However, the image the advocates present is traditional poverty which is a much smaller number in America. When they want to make a point or gather power they cite the big statistical number but donít show who that really is. However, they make every effort to show the traditional poor. Itís a show. Itís about power.
The core of real poverty in America is predicated upon three major factors, though again, the advocates will deliver the image of exception rather than the image of standard. The choices we all have are 1) substance abuse, 2) single head of household, and 3) blowing off oneís education. Each of those choices have harsh consequences. Color me heartless, cause choices should have consequence. In each group that the population is divided by color, race, creed, etc there are those who make the bad choices and those who make the right choices. Some two thousand and five hundred years after Aesop and people still havenít learned the admonition of the ant and grasshopper. Each element is predicated upon human choice, that is free will. At some point, each person made a choice. Now if the advocates wish to argue that people really donít have free will, then there exists no basis for democracy, juries, or contract. No need to proceed any further in the game of power. Just take it.
One of the most ridiculous assertions of the collectivist/progressive faction in our society is the charge that anyone who disagrees with their social agenda is disinterested in helping those on the lower end of the economic scale, or actually engaged in an evil plot to hold them down. (Of course, capitalism itself is an evil plot for many collectivists, to be opposed on principle, regardless of the costs)
This allegation is part of the approach which attempts to discredit any but a state response, labelling every aspect of any problem a crisis demanding immediate, massive response and resources.
The prophecies of disaster when any reform or reduction is suggested are based on a fundamental error on the part of the progressive philosophy—that any person is better off being a ward of the state rather than a free standing adult who is responsible for his or her progress through life.
And yet, any examination of the fate of those in that condition, from orphans to the mentally disturbed to Native Americans on reservations to welfare recipients, regardless of race, would show a relentless deterrioration of their well being, significant abuse and neglect, mismanagement and abuse of authority, (the unfolding saga of the enormous amoounts of money supposedly held in trust for N. Americans which now cannot be accounted for is a powerful example).
All in all, it is beyond bizarre for anyone to claim that such dependency is desirable, or to claim to be surprised that the multi-generational involvement of many people in the welfare system has led to an almost total collapse of the family, neighborhood, community, and social structures of those unfortunate enough to be the “wards” in this highly destructive system of bureaucratic indentured servitude.
It is dishonest, then, when these structural failures are documented repeatedly in study after study, for the collectivist lobby to reject out of hand any truly systemic reforms, and demand only more of the same in response to any and all shortcomings.
The current collapse of education is, when viewed in this context, not only understandable, but inevitable, as funding and control is repeatedly taken out of the hands of local constituencies, and transferred to state and federal initiatives.
It is disheartening that the same failed philosophical approach that decimated several generations of poor and minority citizens is now the fundamental underlying rationale for expanded statist control of our socities’ children and their education.
The wreckage of multi-cultural, PC, dumbed down , and grade inflated schools is now standing in the way of, instead of affording any assistance to, the development of a huge school age population, estimated to exceed 55 million students this year, with increases predicted for several years to come.
It is ominous that these children are entering a system which has abandoned any pretense of teaching them to read, perform fundamental math, or understand scientific theory, but apparently believes that some sort of educational magic will be enacted on the students due to their exposure to “diversity”.
Oh yeah, that’s a sure formula for success. Look out 21st century, here they come.
I am delighted to find that there is only proverty for those that are dysfunctional or taking a part in dysfunctional systems, ie, education. Now I no longer need worry about when the last time the minimum wage was passed; how much in the way of money CEOs at oil filrms are making; why so many are without adequate health insurance; or why college costs continue to rise each year beyond the cost of living increase. Draft all those slackers into the military! as for women, of course, as noted, a bit of sexism prior to WWII accounts for bad condtions and that has continued up till now. But heck, am I responsible for their being women or not white?
The sarcasm of the triumphantly oblivious.
Good point. Let me add some flesh to the bones. When I was looking for a part-time assistant, I received a number of applications from people I consider “Lifestyle Underemployed.” A typical resume: BA from college. A corporate job. Then a promotion. Then the next position is waitress in Aspen. Then personal trainer in Montana. Currently seeking massage therapy training. These people have had the middle class corporate life, and rejected it. I have no problem with that–it’s a great country when people can subordinate financial gain to lifestyle. But don’t call it a public policy crisis when they do.
You completely missed the point which I find very common. I think people like you are more interested in proving your own moral superiority than helping people. If you really cared, you would consider all the factors that cause poverty and each factors relative contribution.
Think of the problem this way. Have we made progress in the last century in reducing the artificial barriers to peoples economic success? Is our society more egalitarian and merit driven. If so, it follows that as our society becomes more and more fair and free, then the ratio of poor people who remain poor due to poor choices must rise. At some point, most people who remain poor will do so because they made a bad decision that resulted in significant economic consequences.
I think we have long passed that point. Both my own direct experiences and numerous biographies of poor people such as in the documentary, demonstrate that we have reach a state where the most significant factors causing poverty lay within the control of individuals.
I am not advocating kicking anyone out in the cold because they made a mistake but I am advocating that we should design social welfare programs such that they strongly encourage good decision making. That has not always been the case.
I to have seen people like this. I get the sense from many that they feel they have more status in the fields you mention than they would in the hierarchal world of business.
Why did you decided that the causality runs only in that direction? How about poverty causes divorce, poverty causes having children out of wedlock causes poverty, and poverty causes drug abuse.
Why did you decided that the causality runs only in that direction?
Because when you look at the problem longitudinally and control for all other variables it does.
One of the most basic mistakes one can make is to take a snap shot of a phenomenon at one point in time and then assume that correlations between two factors within the snapshot implies causation. (A great deal of sociological research does just that because its the cheapest type of research to carry out. All you need is census figures.) Noting a correlation between the income of a population and divorce rates, for example, tells you nothing about causation. You can’t tell if the stress of poverty causes divorces or the severe economic consequences divorce causes poverty or if (most likely) they cause each other in a feedback loop.
The only way to measure causality is to follow the same people over time and see how their outcomes correlate with their choices or life-events. So if we want to understand the effect of divorce on poverty, we select a population of individuals who are as identical as possible and then track them over the course of their lives from say age 15 to 40. Such studies are rare due to the difficulty, time and expense involved, but the handful that do exist show that causation goes divorce->poverty and not the other way around. People born poor are far more likely to rise out of poverty if they get and stay married than otherwise identical people who do not. People who are at risk of poverty are more likely to drop into poverty after a divorce than otherwise identical people who remain married. The same effects can be seen in out-of-wedlock births, drug use and other such factors.
To much of our thinking on sociological matters lacks any concept of time or evolution. We want everything to be about the here and now when in reality the state we reach at any particular point in time results from our long term histories. A person’s decision to blow off high school in 1970 will profoundly affect their income 36 years latter in 2006.
We need to design social programs with all this in mind.
I could never afford to be a drug addict, I didn’t make enough money. Since I didn’t make much money I was unattractive as a mate, so no divorce was forthcoming – and no kids. I had low paying jobs in a creative industry, Theater, despite (or because) a BA degree in Anthropology. When I finally had a institutional/corporate-type job in University fundraising making pretty good money I hooked up with my mate, but I had already abandoned the wasteful habits of a dissolute, self-indulgent, drug-prone college-kid.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s anecdotal socioeconomics aren’t representative of mainstream American liberalism.
As far as I know, her work is without effect at liberal think tanks and among policymakers who consider themselves liberal and/or leftist. Of course, it is an open question as to where there are any American policymakers worthy of the label “leftist,” but that’s another discussion.
If you want to seriously, honestly debate the economic programs advocated by American liberals versus those advocated by American conservatives, I can’t think of a more meaningless place to start than Ehrenreich’s books.
If you want to seriously, honestly debate the economic programs advocated by American liberals versus those advocated by American conservatives, I can’t think of a more meaningless place to start than Ehrenreich’s books.
I think Ehrenreigh’s works are more art or journalism than research but I do think her attitudes fall well within Leftist mainstream. Leftist near universally ask first what external factors cause people to fall into or remain in poverty. In fact, Leftist have long waged war on anyone who even suggest that individuals choices might play a significant or even controlling role in contemporary poverty. (Look at nate zuckerman’s post above)
Look at the hysteria that the 96 welfare reform prompted from major Leftist politicians. Leftist are terrified of the day we reach the point where poverty becomes mostly due to dysfunction and not a lack of resources or artificial barriers. They fear it as much as they fear an end to racism. To much of their power depends on the electorate and the poor themselves viewing the poor as hapless victims of external forces.
I really wish that most Leftist thought about poverty sprang from a sincere desire to help the poor. Unfortunately, I think that since the 60’s the primary motivations have been selfish.
My gut reaction to Ehrenreich is that she is a snotty, vindictive elitist with little respect nor affection for the people she claims to view with sympathy. While that doesn’t mean she’s a leftist, it does seem to me characteristic of statist condescension of which we saw so many examples in the twentieth century.
Her books may not be central to the thinking in leftist think tanks, but are required in countless classes. In addition, the book has been chosen by several schools for campus-wide reading (Slippery Rock, North Carolina & some Illinois Greek association showed up in the first ten on Google.) Such works are seldom rigorous nor theoretical, but they are chosen to give her ideas the widest possible circulation.
–Now I no longer need worry about when the last time the minimum wage was passed; how much in the way of money CEOs at oil filrms are making; why so many are without adequate health insurance; or why college costs continue to rise each year beyond the cost of living increase.–
Don’t almost 1/2 the states have a higher wage than the minimum? Are you comparing MS and NYC? Why would they need the same minimum wage?
You want a piece of the oil pie, buy stock.
Each state decides what its own “adequate health insurance” is. If I’m young and immoratal, why do I need it? Why do those who make $75K and above and are young decline it? Don’t I have a choice?????
College costs continue to rise because Uncle Sam (we taxpayers) have unlimited deep pockets. Remove the risk from US (you and me) and return it to the banks and families and prices will fall. (There is a correlation, there’s a study or 2 out there about this topic.)
What else can I help you with? Should foods stamps be cut? The answer is yes.
Shannon Love: While I agree that many on the left get economics wrong, your attempt to generalize Ehrenreich’s positions to one entire side of the ideological spectrum lacks substance.
The same goes for your sensationalist approach to generalizing about leftist attitudes toward poor people and left-wing motives in supporting programs aimed at helping poor people.
Your one-sided approach on this reminds me a lot of Ehrenreich’s work.
I have no doubt personally that divorce and drug abuse and a whole host of other things are causal factors in poverty. As you mentioned correlation does not imply causation. When two things are correlated it’s possible for causality to run in either direction, both directions, or neither direction. Are you sure that poverty is not a possible causal factor in for things like drug abuse? You didn’t present any evidence showing this is not the case. (Actually you didn’t present any evidence that divorce, etc. causes poverty either. But that’s okay because like I said I’m already convinced.) You vaguely referred to some research when you said, “People born poor are far more likely to rise out of poverty if they get and stay married than otherwise identical people who do not. People who are at risk of poverty are more likely to drop into poverty after a divorce than otherwise identical people who remain married.” I have no idea what studies you are referring to, but this of course would be some causal evidence that divorce, etc. are causal factors in poverty. However, your sentences are not evidence either for or against causality also flowing the other way.
Not only do I believe that divorce, etc. are causal factors in poverty I also agree with you that there is an element of conscious personal choice and intention in divorce, drug abuse, and having children out of wedlock. But this is true to a greater and lesser degree depending on a lot of factors. For instance I would say very few pregnant 14 year olds made a conscious personal choice with intention to have a baby. Obviously some other things are going on there. And so putting the blame and responsibility squarely on them doesn’t make sense to me. This is where I think conservatives have it wrong. It always seems to me that they feel people chose their lot and deserve what they get. I always feel conservatives are saying, “Well who cares, they deserve it. After all that wouldn’t be their situation if they didn’t deserve it.” And even “The fact that someone is struggling means they must deserve it.”
Homelessness, one form of poverty, had been provoking complaints from some of the merchants in the city where I worked.
The shopkeepers formed a group and petitioned the local police to crack down on “vagrants.” The police readily complied, diverting resources from pursuing drug dealers, armed robbers, rapists, etc.
In a few months, the merchants association discovered that police enforcement of vagrancy laws and low-level harassment of homeless people did solve the problem of dirty, smelly, menacing men scaring customers off.
But shoplifting, armed robberies and other crimes increased, and patrolmen began to complain about having to roust the dirty, smelly menacers as a daily chore. And the offending homeless people merely relocated to an adjacent neighborhood.
It then occurred to some of the merchants that they had reflexively sought a law-enforcement solution to a social and economic problem. They had done so because while the government was willing to make law enforcement resources available, it was not willing to provide social services that could have helped get the homeless people off the street longer term.
Not all the merchants were disappointed with this experience. Some took the view that poverty is a natural condition and relying on an ineffective, or at least inefficient, law enforcement solution was better than tainting the morals of the community by denying the homeless men the suffering they had “chosen,” even if that suffering also in some ways afflicted the merchants themselves.
For other merchants, it was something of an epiphany. They joined local homeless outreach organizations, participated in campaigns to steer homeless people into what social services were available and began to take a dimmer view of the applicability of law enforcement to social problems.
Rightists like to say a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged. In the example above, a liberal is a conservative who’s been forced to solve a problem rather than just assign morally correct blame for it.
A lot of liberals have much to learn from some conservatives about the role of personal responsibility in economic results. Many conservatives, though, have much to learn from liberals about the benefits of preventing social problems from metastasizing into costlier, more troublesome law enforcement problems.
Bunkkerbuster, What city are yu describing? This example seems to go against the eneral broken windows theory and I’m curious about why and how.
Downtown Los Angeles
–They had done so because while the government was willing to make law enforcement resources available, it was not willing to provide social services that could have helped get the homeless people off the street longer term.–
In short, charity. Any of the homeless orgs they worked with faith-based? But I would think some funding, depending on the org, came from local, state or federal monies.
Seems to me they realized gov’t can’t solve everything.
“Seems to me they realized gov’t can’t solve everything.”
or, more specifically, and more to the point, that law enforcement is an inefficient way to deal with social and economic problems. But if shoehorning that into a broader, more cliched conservative talking point makes you more comfortable with it, go right ahead.
Broken-windows policing has worked well in NYC, which has a generally well run police department. That a similar (or ostensibly similar) initiative hasn’t worked as well in LA, which has long had a poorly run police department, is not conclusive. Could be poor implementation. Could be that the LA police weren’t doing what they said they were doing. Could be that something special about LA makes programs fail there that work in NYC. What are the odds that the correct answer is closer to the last possibility than to the first two?
Some minor googling found several discussions of the application of the “broken windows” theory in LA. Not surprisingly, Bratton’s July 17 speech was positive. On the other hand, the ACLU’s take was negative. Another account, that of the ContraCosta Times argues the police have been stymied by the ACLU. Indeed,
This does not seem to indicate merchants have found the homeless routed from their doorsteps. This isn’t something I’ve read much about, but the story appears a good deal more complex than Bunkerbuster implies nor is the trade-off as he describes. (I kept myself to the first 10 googles for these references; someone less lazy than I may find a more definitive analysis.) These, however, tend to support Jonathan’s speculations.
While it is true that the homeless may be as unappealing as graffitti and they are likely to commit crimes like turnstile jumping, the major cause of homelessness is seldom discussed: the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. The vast improvements in medicine in the last forty years have made life less of a hell for many of those suffering from severe illness, but for those for whom the medicine doesn’t work (or for various reasons do not take the appropriate meds), life has become a good deal shorter & more brutal on the street.
I realize some pr campaigns and charities want us all to feel that certain terrible fates can happen to any of us. They appear to worry (probably correctly) that we are more generous when we understand & sympathize with the victims, when we can’t distance ourselves from them. However, this can also mislead us & direct us to less useful solutions. Mental illness is not someone’s fault; nonetheless, the needs of the mentally ill are seldom served by merely building inexpensive housing.
For instance I would say very few pregnant 14 year olds made a conscious personal choice with intention to have a baby.
She will if poorly designed welfare programs create a powerful incentive for her to do so. Back in the 80’s when I was in college, my home state (not a bastion of welfare indulgence by far) would pay a poor 15 year old girl 16,500 dollars a year in cash and benefits if she had a child out of wedlock. Thats on top of all the payments and benefits she received (such as education & health care) for being poor. Getting pregnant effectively gave a young woman income and “a room (actually an apartment) of her own.” What teenager wouldn’t be tempted by such an offer?
Its as if we we decided that the problem with corporate polluters was that they didn’t have enough resources to provide pollution control and we set up a system wherein the more a company polluted the more subsidies it got and we never checked to see if they used the money to clean up the pollution. No one would be shocked and amazed to find companies polluting more or even to find companies that hadn’t had pollution problems previously suddenly developing them.
The welfare programs of the Great Society were designed with a studied indifference to the potential negative incentives they provided. Those who argued that the poor respond to incentives just like everyone else (including many New Deal Leftist) were mocked and derided as cruel, selfish and racist.
I am not arguing that moral rectitude will solve poverty with a snap of the fingers. Neither am I arguing that we don’t need a social safety net. I am arguing that we should be extremely careful in the design of social welfare programs such that they don’t provide negative incentives. The first step in doing that, is realizing that poor people can and do make choices and that those choices profound impact their economic lives. We should also not be shy about educating against teen pregnancy and for stable marriage.
The same goes for your sensationalist approach to generalizing about leftist attitudes toward poor people…
I admit I paint with a broad brush and that I used Ehrenreich’s work as a springboard. However, given the medium we are conversing in and the practical constraints of time and resources I ask you to over look these inaccuracies of generalizations.
I do stand behind my assertion that a systemic fault of Leftist is that they do not consider the poor (and many other people) to be active decision makers. The idea that most of the people in the world are just passive victims who bounce around life in a kind of brownian motion is a concept of such long standing and so pervasive that most Leftist don’t even realize they think that way.
The worse thing you can do to anyone is to convince them that they have no control over their own fate. Even if in the most dire circumstances, such as concentration camps, those who believe or even just imagine they have some control come out better than those who do not. I think the Left’s near maniacal obsession with thinking of everyone in bad situations as passive victims becomes an environment of “killing with kindness.” In this context, pity is not a virtue.
Leftist may lavish material resources on the poor but what good will that do if they simultaneously convince the poor that no decision they make has any effect, positive or negative, on their lives? Convince someone they are helpless to affect their fate and they will fail no matter how much money they start with.
If you doubt the effect that personal decisions have on poverty look at the recent history of immigrants to America. Literally millions of people arrive in America every year who don’t speak the language, have no education even in their native tongue, have no first-world economy job skills and are separated from their family support. Yet these people not only survive without government assistance but exhibit extreme class mobility. They easily outperform any native born Americans regardless of class. Immigrants survive poverty and rise out of it because they are highly functional individuals. They have discipline and focus on the long-term. They eagerly throw themselves into work. They create and maintain strong families and communities.
We desperately need to address the role that personal decisions and individual dysfunction play in creating and perpetrating poverty. Ignoring those factors isn’t kindness.
“I am arguing that we should be extremely careful in the design of social welfare programs such that they don’t provide negative incentives. The first step in doing that, is realizing that poor people can and do make choices and that those choices profound impact their economic lives.”
I totally agree with you.
I wish our leaders more interested in stopping the cycle of poverty. There’s a lot of potential but our government usually vaccilates between indifference and idiocy.
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