Like Mr. Kain, I also found Will Wilkinson’s essay on how conservatives, liberals and libertarians view the role of outside forces vs personal agency in a person’s success very interesting. Wilkinson opens with this quote:
Harmon (2010a) built on these works by testing their conclusions against six U.S. public opinion polls. Secondary analysis found consistent and strong relationships. Conservatives and Republicans overwhelmingly attributed poverty to the personal failings of the poor themselves (lazy, drunk, etc.) while Democrats and liberals consistently offered social explanations like poor schools and lousy jobs for poverty. Later he looked at the inverse question, the reasons respondents give for others obtaining wealth (2010b). Generally he found that Democrats and liberals attributed wealth to connections or being born into a wealthy family, while Republicans and conservatives declared wealth comes from hard work.
Obviously there’s a lot of generalization in this quote. All but the most hard-hearted conservative must concede that the circumstances of one’s birth and upbringing play some role in one’s future success, and even the most bleeding-hearted liberal has to admit that personal choice and motivation can amplify the affects of social factors. Most of us would cite a combination of factors when trying to explain the origins of poverty in the United States.
My own feelings on the subject fall somewhere in the middle, and are informed in large part by working with economically depressed patient populations for many years in many settings. On the one hand, I can see how being raised in poverty (particularly after many generations) can make escape into a more prosperous life seem dauntingly difficult, if not impossible. At my last job, many of my patients came from a working class that had seen its jobs evaporate as the industries that had supported the state’s economy all went overseas. The prospects for many of them were bleak. That said, time after time after time I would see patients or their families make truly awful choices that only compounded the desperation of their circumstances. Manageable illnesses flared because of missed appointments, or utility bills went unpaid until the power was about to be shut off, which led to calls pleading with our office to contact the company and state an urgent medical need for the power to stay on.
What crystallizes the question for me is my son, affectionately referred to here as The Monkey.
Our bright, inquisitive and rambunctious son was born to a birth mother who recognized that she did not have the resources to provide the kind of life she would want for him, and chose to place him with a family who did. My husband and I are, of course, indescribably grateful for her choice, which allowed us to become the family we are today. That choice was, I’ll wager, the single greatest determining factor in his future financial success. Maybe he would have found a way into better circumstances for himself (he is a deeply awesome child), but his chances of avoiding lifelong poverty dramatically improved with one choice made on his behalf. Same kid, same native intelligence and intrinsic qualities, vastly different financial outcomes.
This has little to do with what kick-ass parents the Better Half and I try to be. It has everything to do with the advantages we have at our disposal. Some of these are the results of personal choices, but many are the results of our own upbringings. Both of us have completed grad school, and have stable careers with lots of professional connections. This confers all manner of benefits beyond just having a decent amount of money to spend on raising the little guy.
For example, my employer has invested a great deal in having me at my job. I generate a lot of revenue for my practice. Replacing me would be tedious, time-consuming and expensive. It is in everyone’s interests to accommodate the occasional request for days off should my son get sick. I don’t have to be worried about getting fired. I don’t have to worry about loss of wages. I don’t have to weigh the option of sending him to school sick because I can’t afford the alternatives. The same cannot be said for unskilled workers, who are all too easily replaced, and who can’t afford a day’s pay to stay home with an ill child.
I was also raised in a home where a premium was placed on my education, and there was never any doubt that I would go to college. I know how to write a decent college essay. I know the kinds of classes my kid should choose to prepare for college. I have lots and lots of friends in many different professions who can offer advice and mentoring for whatever career he might choose. The same cannot be said for most children born into poverty, who have few people to offer them the guidance to a more prosperous future.
Branching off a bit, anyone who hasn’t read Burt’s fantastic post from early this year on class in America should do so now. It is brilliant, and well worth your time. He writes:
What all of this demonstrates to me is that wealth and affluence are different things. There are those who do not need to work, those who do need to work, those who lack the ability to work. But one’s degree of poverty or affluence is a variable independent of one’s ability or need to work for a living. My observation is that there are three classes of people – those who do not need to work for a living because of their association with (although not necessarily personal possession of) capital; those who exchange their labor for money in order to survive; and those who get what they need to live by way of governmental entitlements. This is a continuum, not a stratification. One might have access to capital but still either need or want to work for a living in order to secure cash flow. One might have a background of life “in the welfare system” but genuinely seek real employment.
As I mentioned above, my little guy is bright. We try to provide an environment that allows this to flourish, but he’s clearly got a decent amount of native intelligence. In the kind of life we live, and hope he pursues himself, there is a clear relationship between intelligence, academic achievement and later career success. There are plenty of smart people who operate in within the entitlement system who know how to create a relatively comfortable life for themselves. Who’s to say in which direction he were to apply himself were he raised in an environment where the correlation between intelligence and career success was not nearly so clear.
It’s easy to view people who live their life entirely within the “welfare system” and see them as cheats, taking advantage of supports that were meant to provide the means of last resort for desperate people. As I’ve seen plenty of times, there are lots of folks willing to manipulate the system. I can understand (and to a great degree share) conservatives’ anger at this manipulation, which seems under-acknowledged among liberals to me. But it’s also important to remember that people learn the lessons that surround them, and if generation after generation have viewed their prospects for generating their own capital as sharply limited then it’s easy for me to see how that viewpoint is absorbed by their children. The nearest analogy I can think of is thin people who find it easy to turn down sweets or fun to hit the gym, and so they assume overweight people are that way simply because they lack the strength of will to change. Countless people who have struggled with being overweight have said (and I believe them) that it’s really not that easy. I have no doubt it’s very difficult for children raised in poverty to see themselves escaping it, and much easier to learn how to operate within the system in which they are raised.
All of this is to say that, for all the manipulation that occurs within the entitlement system, my own alignment tends toward liberalism. I believe it is in our collective best interests to provide a good education, reliable healthcare and good nutrition to all the bright, inquisitive and rambunctious children who, through an accident of birth, would otherwise have little access to them.