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.