The ‘irresponsibility’ of the poor

Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed and well-fed.
                ==Herman Melville (1819-1892)

My circle of friends are mostly white, college-educated, middle-class people who call ourselves liberals.

Liberals are supposed to be the ones who make excuses for the short-comings of minorities and poor people, but this isn’t true of my friends.

poverty-and-marriage-650Instead, whenever the conversation gets around to social problems, the consensus is that poverty is bad and racial discrimination is bad, but “lack of personal responsibility” is a big thing, too.  Bill Cosby’s name comes up a lot.

I’m uncomfortable with these conversations because, on the one hand, there’s a certain amount of truth in what’s being said, and, on the other hand, I don’t think I have standing to make harsh moral judgments about people who face difficulties so much worse than anything I ever did.

There are people who are completely messed up—unable to hold a steady job, uninterested in marriage and family responsibilities—who wouldn’t be able to make it in the best of societies.

On the other hand, the few poor people I know aren’t like that.  They are people who are struggling bravely against great odds.

There’s one young black man I know.  He was convicted as a teenager for robbing a drug dealer.  For that one mistake, he basically has no future, even though he is hard-working, intelligent and well-mannered.

On the other hand, I have a distant relative by marriage, a middle-aged white man who was in trouble all through his teenage years, smoking dope and getting into trouble, and constantly being bailed out by his father.  He turned himself around, and is now a responsible adult with a good job.

It is fine with me that he got all these second chances.  But if his father had been poor, or black, or both, he wouldn’t have gotten them.

And then there are the young black men who, after each big snowstorm, come walking down the middle of my street with snow shovels across their shoulders, asking if I need my driveway shoveled out.  I usually hire them even when I don’t strictly need it.

They’re all polite and hard-working.  Maybe these qualities will be enough to raise themselves into the middle class.  But if the number of people with middle class incomes continues to shrink, the only way they’ll be able to do it is by bumping somebody else out of the middle class.

Conservatives say the Sexual Revolution and the disintegration of the family is the source of our problems.  They point out that during the Great Depression, families stuck together and single mothers were rare.

The problem with that argument is:  Solid family relationships helped people survive the Great Depression, but they didn’t end the Great Depression.  The end of the Great Depression was due to political and economic factors beyond anybody’s control.

The other problem with the argument is: What we college-educated white people see as irresponsibility may be adaptive behavior.

For example, if you give a child a piece of candy and promise a second piece of candy if the child doesn’t eat the first piece right away, chances are that the middle-class child will hold the candy and chances are that the poor child will eat it.

But the middle-class child would be operating on different assumptions than the poor child.  One is that the promise of a second piece is going to be kept.  Another is that nobody is going to come along and take their piece of candy away from them.

A high wage, full employment economy would make the middle-class child’s assumptions about life more likely to be true.   I don’t claim prosperity would solve all social problems, but it would make most social problems easier to solve.


The Cost of Relativism by David Brooks for the New York Times.

For David Brooks, the Rich Are People, the Poor Are Numbers by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

For Poorer and Richer by Ross Douthat for the New York Times.

Left and Right, Family and Economics by Ross Douthat for the New York Times.

Poor Stories from Brooks and Douthat by Helaine Olen for The Baffler.

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2 Responses to “The ‘irresponsibility’ of the poor”

  1. Holden Says:

    I really enjoyed your commentary on this post.

    While I’m typically a more libertarian minded person who likes to think, we make what we will with our lives, it isn’t very hard to find government and societal pressures that make it a lot more difficult for some groups than others. Or outright sabotage some groups.

    Consider the trend of fatherless families in the black community which was driven into place by the Welfare Department and it’s “men in the house” rules in the 60s.

    Still, I think at the end of the day, an individual has a choice. You can’t blame it all on the state.


    • philebersole Says:

      Holden, the way I think of things is this.

      In any situation, you have choices, but you don’t choose the choices what choices you have.

      In you go to a casino, you can gamble skillfully or unskillfully, but it is the house that sets the odds.

      No matter what your circumstances, you have the option to work hard, improve yourself and behave responsibly.

      I don’t want to deny you credit for your hard work and earned success, but I know other people who are doing all these things, and still are drowning or treading water economically.


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