Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The 'depravity of the poor'

Another reason I'm liberal—because, frankly, I don't want to be like this guy:
It is simply a fact that our social problems are increasingly connected to the depravity of the poor. If an American works hard, completes their education, gets married, and stays married, then they will rarely — very rarely — be poor. At the same time, poverty is the handmaiden of illegitimacy, divorce, ignorance, and addiction. As we have poured money into welfare, we’ve done nothing to address the behaviors that lead to poverty while doing all we can to make that poverty more comfortable and sustainable.
David French, I suspect, has the causation backwards. Being poor makes it difficult to make good life choices.
Last December, Princeton economist Dean Spears published a series of experiments that each revealed how “poverty appears to have made economic decision-making more consuming of cognitive control for poorer people than for richer people.” In one experiment, poor participants in India performed far less well on a self-control task after simply having to first decide whether to purchase body soap. As Spears found, “Choosing first was depleting only for the poorer participants.” Again, if you have enough money, deciding whether to buy the soap only requires considering whether you want it, not what you might have to give up to get it. Many of the tradeoff decisions that the poor have to make every day are onerous and depressing: whether to pay rent or buy food; to buy medicine or winter clothes; to pay for school materials or loan money to a relative. These choices are weighty, and just thinking about them seems to exact a mental cost.
There are certainly some folks who are poor due to their own poor choices. But there are many people who are born into situations in which making good choices is, in fact, extremely difficult.

Conservatives believe folks should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In some cases, they mock and taunt those who never had access to bootstraps in the first place. Rarely do the offer actual solutions; they choose to complain about the solutions others offer, instead. Liberals—often imperfectly—try to make sure that people actually have bootstraps to do the pulling.


deregulator said...

Read Charles Murray's Losing Ground. He's not as brusque as David French, but his research (though dated, mind you) is a lot more extensive and convincing than a sociological experiment involving Indians buying soap. And what Murray discovered -- what he did not expect to or want to find when he began his work -- is that as we have removed much of the cultural stigma associated with receiving public assistance, people have become more comfortable remaining on public assistance for long periods of time. And as they have done so, poverty has become intergenerational. Children grow up with no idea of the importance of self-sufficiency, why there are no shortcuts to independence, or why it's essential to take a lousy, low-paying job at first because it's a stepping-stone to something better. This may not be a conclusion that makes you comfortable, but it's one that no one to my knowledge has refuted.

deregulator said...

I will say that from what I've read of French's posts, he's not someone I would seek out for conversation over cocktails. OTOH, Joel, can I buy you a beer?

Joel said...

Coming to Philly? Sure!

Thing that makes me skeptical of Murray's thesis, as you relate it, is that European social welfare programs are much more developed than in the United States. And yet there's also much higher economic mobility. How to explain that?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Guys like French make me all stabby.

deregulator said...

Economic mobility? I'd need to see some data on that

As for your other question, how about using cultural differences as an explanation? Europe always has been more collectivist than the United States. The European welfare state predated the U.S. version by a half-century or more. There's no stimga attached to public benefits; it disappeared well before World War II.

Our traditions are more individualistic, which suggests (IMO) when we undermine the cultural foundations of individualism -- self-reliance, personal responsbility, private charity -- then an ethic of dependence can take root in a generation or two. Murray was finding skyrocketing rates of illegitimacy in communities that were welfare-dependent that crossed race and ethnicity.

Perhaps we're discussing different phenomena.

deregulator said...

I also need to say that I do not consider poor people who are on public assistance "depraved." That's uncalled for. There are pathologies that have exploded among low-income people since the advent of the Great Society -- mostly illegitimacy, illiteracy, and chronic unemployment.

There's little question that a child who grows up in a household with two parents, at least one of whom is gainfully employed, has much better odds of not being on public assistance than one who's grown up with a single parent or in a home where no one works regularly. People respond to incentives, and if there's no real disincentive to having kids out of wedlock and not working, then you'll get more of that behavior because keeping a marriage intact is difficult. And if you can get a subsistence level of income without working, then working at a low-wage job becomes less attractive.

My guess is, French would say that these people need Jesus in their lives, too. I'm an agnostic on that question.

Anonymous said...

The Pew Trust has a site with a lot of studies about income and wealth mobility. Search for "Intergenerational Income Mobility and Pew" or look back through my comments here. I'm sure I've referenced some time.

Tim said...

The conservative POV also assumes that nothing bad will ever happen to you, like, I don't know, getting sick or hurt, widowed or divorced, losing a spouse or a parent or a child or a business, or any of the other causes of bankruptcy and misery.

You can't walk that shit off.

deregulator said...

Tim, nice try. Thanks for playing.

Conservatives understand fully that bad things happen to people because life is not perfectable. People should make preparations for those events, and try to avoid them when possible. They should rely on themselves, their families, friends, neighbors, and communities.

Moreover, a safety net should be in place for those who are incapable of caring for themselves, but those resources should not be available for those who have that capacity -- in part, because a person capable of supporting himself has no claim on the property of others, but also because easy access to public benefits breeds dependence, laziness, and other habits that a civilized society should not encourage.

The modern liberal view is that government should take the lead in confronting these problems, to such an extent that it may crowd out private efforts to offer similar forms of relief. It also appears to presume that government can eliminate the possibility of failure, which in turn eliminates the possibility of success.