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Behind the willingness of Republicans (and many other Americans) to impose cutbacks in major government programs to help the poor (e.g., Medicaid, Head Start, food stamps, affordable housing) is the idea that people who are poor deserve it because they haven’t taken responsibility for themselves. In other words, they have made bad choices and are living with the consequences. Thus it follows that taxes paid by the better-off shouldn’t be used to help them.

individual responsibility

Of course it’s true that people make bad life choices: we all do that from time to time. But the ideology of individual responsibility ignores two critical background factors. First, what are the options available to any given person? And second, what are the resources available to that person if their choice turns out badly?

The ideology of individual responsibility ignores two critical background factors. First, what are the options available to any given person? And second, what are the resources available to that person if their choice turns out badly?

In our highly unequal society, if you are born poor, you actually have very limited options for escaping poverty. This applies whether you are a laid-off white coal miner in Appalachia, an African American in a bad neighborhood in New York City, or a Latino seasonal agricultural worker. The only readily available work is low-wage, and often part-time, so it gives you no means to escape poverty.

The schools available to you are likely substandard, so you won’t get the kind of education that would be a ticket out. You could deal drugs or pursue other criminal activity, and you might prosper for awhile, but your life expectancy would be short—and if you survive, you'll likely be in jail. Or you could qualify for some government program such as disability payments from Social Security, or food stamps, but you won’t get un-poor that way, either. The brute fact is that there are, for you, no good choices.

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Contrast this with how you would fare if you were born into a comfortably middle class family. You would live in a safe neighborhood surrounded by other kids of similar backgrounds. Your schools would be good enough to prepare you for college and a good job that would keep you in the middle class. And there would be options available that might put you on the road to real wealth. You might choose to work part time while in school, or not: your needs would be met either way.

Most of your options are good, but you might still make bad choices, like blowing off school, getting pregnant, or getting into drugs. But there will almost always be ways of escaping the worst consequences of those bad choices: you can go back to school, you can get an abortion without risk of dying, you can get into a drug treatment program (poor kids that do drugs go to jail; middle class kids get treatment). The fact is, most middle class kids have good options, and they take them. Those that make bad choices usually get a second chance.

There will always be individual cases of people who manage, through some combination of virtue and luck, to make it out of poverty; think of Ben Carson or J.R. Vance. They usually owe a lot more to luck than they’re willing to acknowledge. And there are certainly cases of people—the black sheep of the Carter and Bush families come to mind—who start with great advantages and mess up. But the broad pattern is very strong, and it governs the lives of most of us.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard and try to improve our lives. Most people born into poverty are doing just that. But it’s hard to get much traction when you’re poor. For some of them, food stamps, or Head Start, or affordable, decent housing could make the difference. Cutting those programs, as the Trump budget proposes, will just lock people in poverty, with no good choices.

john peeler

John Peeler

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