Nothing separates the left and the right more dramatically than the issue of poverty.
Those on the right tend to believe that a person’s success or failure is determined mostly by whether or not they have ambition, grit, a willingness to work hard – things largely within someone’s control. Those on the left usually blame poverty on things outside a person’s control – external factors and “systemic forces.”
Which is why conservatives talk about a good work ethic and character and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” while liberals talk about class structure and racism and minimum wage laws.
Who’s right? In a sense, they are both correct. The ambitious person, who values education and sets goals and doesn’t let a few setbacks sidetrack them, is probably going to end up OK. They are unlikely to live in poverty. Score a point for those on the right.
But those attributes – valuing education, setting goals, not letting a few bumps defeat you – come from one’s culture and upbringing. Somebody raised in a poor and chaotic home, lacking the parenting, the structure, the guidance and mentoring that instill the qualities that lead to success, is much more likely to remain poor. And clearly, how you’re raised is something outside your control. Score a point for those on the left.
But here is where the left gets lost. Instead of including the poor themselves in the fight against poverty, the left focuses almost exclusively on government help. For example, the 2020 Democratic candidates have put forth at least 5 major poverty-fighting plans. The plans involve expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), giving financial assistance for rent, and paying “child credits” to lower-income parents. Maybe those will help alleviate some hardships. But there is little or nothing about helping the poor improve their own lives.
What if our leaders also talked about how to avoid living in poverty? As I noted in a previous blog, studies by the Brookings Institute have identified the 3 steps in the “success sequence” that will virtually guarantee you won’t live in poverty:
1. Graduate from high school.
2. Don’t get married until at least age 21, and don’t have a child until married.
3. Have a full time job.
Notice that the list does not include “Be born into a rich family” or even “Graduate from a four-year college.” Yet those who follow these 3 rules have less than a 2% chance of living in poverty, and a better than 70% chance of being at least in the middle class. Whereas those who violate all 3 rules have a 76% chance of living in poverty.
Yet those on the left seem reluctant even to mention the connection between life choices and poverty. Some even go so far as to deny that things like hard work matter much. “We may believe that anyone can succeed through hard work and determination,” says Paul Krugman in The Conscience of a Liberal, “but the facts say otherwise.” After hearing and believing that, would a poor person be more likely, or less likely, to sign up for job-training at a local community college? Why would they bother, if they have come to believe, thanks to folks like Krugman, that whatever they do will make no difference? (I wonder if Paul Krugman follows his own advice, and tells his children and grandchildren that hard work and determination are irrelevant?)
Imagine a family suffering from obesity and heart disease and diabetes because everyone smokes cigarettes, nobody exercises, and all they eat are processed, high-fat foods. If those on the left addressed the family’s problems the way they address poverty, they would put a defibrillator in the kitchen, stock the medicine cabinet with insulin, raise money for liposuction treatments – but never mention the family’s lifestyle. They would offer help for the consequences of unhealthy living, but not talk with them about quitting smoking, eating nutritious foods and getting exercise. The insulin is needed, but so is information about healthy living.
Perhaps my friends on the left don’t want to appear to be “blaming the victim.” But the poor can improve their lives in ways that would help keep them out of poverty. It’s never too late. “I know of no more encouraging fact,” wrote Thoreau from his cabin on Walden pond, “than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” Why not teach and encourage the things that lead to success, even when people were not lucky enough to have wonderful parents and a stable childhood? Knowledge about how to avoid poverty should be part of the fight against poverty.