Sunday, September 11, 2005

Poverty and Katrina

As I said, Jane Galt is on a bit of a roll the last couple of days. She has a great post about the immediate cultural influences that contribute to the difficult of pulling oneself out of poverty.

Sure, I go to work every day, pay my bills on time, don't run a credit card balance and don't have kids out of wedlock because I am planning for my future. But I also do these things because my parents spent twenty or so years drumming a fear of debt, unemployment, and illegitimacy into my head. And if I announce to my friends that I've just decided not to go to work because it's a drag, they will look at me funny--and if I do it repeatedly, they may well shun me as a loser. If I can't get a house because I've screwed up my credit, middle class society will look upon me with pity, which is painful to endure. If I have a baby with no father in sight, my grandmother will cry, my mother will yell, and my colleagues will act a little odd at the sight of my swelling belly.

In other words, middle class culture is such that bad long-term decision making also has painful short-term consequences. This does not, obviously, stop many middle class people from becoming addicted to drugs, flagrantly screwing up at work, having children they can't take care of, and so forth. But on the margin, it prevents a lot of people from taking steps that might lead to bankruptcy and deprivation. We like to think that it's just us being the intrinsically worthy humans that we are, but honestly, how many of my nice middle class readers had the courage to drop out of high school and steal cars for a living?

That said, what do we do about it?

That leaves us in a rather awkward place, because while I don't agree with conservatives that the poor are somehow worse people than we are, I also don't agree with liberals that money is the answer. Money buys material goods, which are not really the biggest problem that most poor people in America have. And I don't know how you go about providing the things they're missing: the robust social networks, the educational and occupational opportunity, the ability to construct a long-term life instead of one that is lived day-to-day. I think that we should remove the barriers, like poor schools, that block achievement from without, but I don't know what to do about the equally powerful barriers that block it from within.

As they say, read the whole thing.


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