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Stop Trying To Fix Poor People



One of the two fundamental problems with American welfare policy is that at its core, it assumes that the poor are morally deficient and need to be fixed instead of just poor. So rather than just increase the money in these programs, politicians blather on about the morality of the poor, which is an excuse not to fully fund them.

We know growing up poor is bad for kids. But instead of focusing on the money, U.S. anti-poverty policy often focuses on the perceived moral shortcomings of the poor themselves. We don’t try to address poverty directly, or alleviate it; we simply try to change the way poor people behave, especially poor parents. Specifically, we offer two choices to poor parents if they want to escape poverty: get a job, or get married. Not only does this approach not work, but it’s also a cruel punishment for children who cannot be held responsible for their parents’ decisions.

Policy that addresses poverty by punishing the poor for their perceived misdeeds plays on some popular misunderstandings, especially about marriage and parenting. Many non-poor people mistakenly believe that our lax attitude toward marriage is behind the child poverty problem. That’s why a Heritage Foundation claim that marriage reduces the chance of living in poverty by 82 percent has been a staple on the Republican campaign trail this season, and welfare money has been diverted from alleviating poverty to promoting marriage among the poor.

First, single parenthood doesn’t just cause these social ailments, it also reflects them. Some of these problems are merely the consequence of whatever caused their parents to be single in the first place: poverty, illness, incarceration, weak relationship skills, and so on. In other words, successful people are more likely to raise successful children and to have successful marriages. Research on marriage among poor Americans clearly shows that the majority want to be married, but they aren’t for a variety of reasons related to their poverty. Faced with poor prospects in a marriage partner, some women reason, “I can do bad by myself,” as reported in the book “Promises I Can Keep,” by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. Some couples place marriage on a pedestal, and plan to postpone it until they are financially stable. As one young man with a pregnant girlfriend put it, “I’d rather get engaged for two years, save money, get a house, make sure … the baby’s got a bedroom.” For too many, however, that moment never arrives.

Poverty clearly lowers the chance of a successful marriage, even as being single may make it harder to escape poverty. This pattern is the subject of a long-running debate among social scientists. Although we can’t agree on the exact breakdown of cause and effect, any reasonable researcher will concede it runs both ways.

But the second answer is perhaps more important for today’s poverty debates. It is that the number of single-parent families doesn’t drive the poverty rate – rather, it mostly helps determine which families and children will be poor, not how many will be. How many people live in poverty is largely the outcome of our policy choices, about jobs and wages, and support for poor families. A key study compared poverty rates and family structure in 18 countries, finding that the United States had the highest rate of poverty among single-mother families – more than 40 percent, compared with 5 or 10 percent in the Nordic countries. No country had as large a difference in poverty rates between single mothers and the rest of the population as the United States – that’s our unique penalty for single parenthood.

This has always been a problem with the nation’s response to the poor. From the early charity programs of the antebellum period to Social Darwinism to the Salvation Army to the present, the poor’s poverty is consistently seen as their own fault and something that can be fixed if we intervene in the right way. So the problem becomes unwed mothers instead of a lack of economic opportunity. Why blame capitalists when you can blame 23 year old women who lack a GED?

Meanwhile what the poor actually need are good-paying jobs for people without college educations, which are fewer and farther between in our outsourced, automated, subcontracted, franchised, temp worker economy.

The other fundamental problem with our welfare policy is racism. While not all the poor are people of color or immigrants, many are. And if West Virginia and eastern Kentucky they are mostly white, we find ways to denigrate them anyway. The problem of the poor is also “the problem of black people.” Or Mexicans. Or the Irish in 1850. Or Italians in 1910. Or whatever. But always black people. Focusing on actual poverty alleviation would mean having to deal with the inequalities at the heart of our society, which means dealing with white supremacy and structural racism. And we can’t be having that, now can we.

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  • Davis X. Machina

    My Jesuit moral theology professor used to say “The number one cause of poverty in the US is not having enough money”, and then deal with the predictable chorus of counterarguments. He used to continue “Those are all interesting questions, but they’re other questions…”

    Drove people nuts…

    • Drove people nuts…

      In the coming brave new world, we will have self-driving nuts.

    • Peterr

      Jesuits often have that effect on people, including many non-Jesuit Catholics.

      See also “Francis I, Pope”

    • ThrottleJockey

      Sometimes people are poor by circumstance–suffered an illness, got laid off, permanently injured their back–and sometimes they’re poor because they lack get up and go or lack discipline.

      When my father was a firefighter he got hit by a car. After that we spent many years on food stamps, on welfare, and in the projects. Eventually he was able to find a job he could work and we got out of the projects.

      Some of my cousins on the other hand just gave up, or made spectacularly poor decisions–like having 5 kids by 4 different men, or selling drugs (multiple times!), or using drugs. Generalizing about the poor is about as fraught as generalizing about any other group. People end up poor for a whole variety of reasons.

      • DrS

        Rates of drug addiction are actually pretty similar across socio-economic lines.

        The differences are the consequences, where surprise, surprise, what is devastating to someone without money is easily survivable to the wealthy.

        Congrats TJ, you’ve managed to moralize against both drug addicts and the poor in a single comment, in a post about how shitty it is to demonize the poor for their circumstances.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Rates of drug addiction are actually pretty similar across socio-economic lines.

          The differences are the consequences, where surprise, surprise, what is devastating to someone without money is easily survivable to the wealthy.

          Yeah, I know wealthy people manage to get through it because they’re, you know, wealthy. That’s a, wait for it, “luxury” poor people don’t have. Most of the people I know who kept their nose clean have made it out of the hood just fine. They’re not necessarily rich, but they have productive middle class jobs.

          This is why Nancy Reagan said, “Just say no.”

      • DrDick

        In reality, “giving up” is often, if not generally, a rational choice for many of the poor. The poor have few real choices and escaping poverty is a herculean task. It is not helped by being systematically deprive of the resource, including public resources, needed to succeed. Growing up in poverty and in poor neighborhoods has life long impacts on health, cognition, and emotional stability, all of which make it even harder to succeed.

        • Cassiodorus

          Absolutely. I grew up in poverty, but have been able to pull together a decent middle-class living so far. There are plenty of people I grew up around who were as intelligence and resourceful who have had significant problems with drugs, alcohol, or both. If your best case scenario future still looks pretty shitty, I can see why the whiskey bottle is alluring. There’s certainly nothing special about me that helps avoid that fate.

          • DrDick

            My mother’s family were dirt poor Ozark hillbillies and her father never finished the sixth grade. Growing up in the 20s and 30s, they all suffered chronic malnutrition, but they also managed to escape poverty, get college educations (both uncles had graduate degrees) and live comfortable professional class lives. However, they were the only ones of the kids they went to school with who did so. All the rest remained mired in poverty. Urban poor face even greater obstacles.

        • ThrottleJockey

          There’s nothing rational about giving up, DrDick. It might happen out of a variety of circumstances, some of them even understandable, but giving up means you can’t even keep your head above water. And substance abuse tends to shred whatever safety net your family and friends are willing to provide you.

          This I know all to well. I have a cousin whose an alcoholic who will almost certainly end up homeless when he’s eventually released from jail because he has burned all his bridges among family members and the only one willing to put up with his foolishness is his grandmother. If it wasn’t for his long suffering wife my own brother would probably be homeless right now. I get it, I really do.

          • DrDick

            It is completely rational to quit expending hope and effort to achieve goals that you can never meet, even if in rare instances some few people manage to do it.

      • People from middle-class families in regions with a strong economic base who “lack get up or lack discipline” do just fine. They don’t end up poor; they just don’t go any farther than their parents.

        And that’s before we even get to the idle rich.

        • ThrottleJockey

          I’d disagree pretty strongly with that. It doesn’t matter how well your local economy is buzzing, if you lack get up and go, or discipline, you will struggle, struggle, struggle.

          I don’t like Trust Fund Babies anymore than you do, but that doesn’t change what the poor have to do to make it out of the hood.

          • MAJeff

            What you don’t seem to want to address about the larger discussion here is the system that produces “the hood.”

            The hood is filled with people working their asses off trying to get out. The bigger problem is that there aren’t enough jobs to allow the people who want to get out of the hood to do so. You want to hate the player who loses the game, but it’s the rigged game that’s the problem.

            • ThrottleJockey

              Both discussions are fair. The “game” can be improved upon as well as “player skill” (to drag out the analogy)…Both are problems.

              • Hogan

                So why is it that every time we talk about the game, you insist that it’s really about the players?

            • DrDick


          • Richard Gadsden

            Bullshit. I lack get up and go and discipline. I have a full-time job as a computer programmer and own my home.

            I fell into a job well below my capabilities, because I lack get up and go and discipline. I still earn twice the median income because I’m white and I came from an upper middle class home.

      • Origami Isopod

        Aaaaaand here’s TJ with his anecdata, right at the top of the thread.

        • ColBatGuano

          I was wondering what the over/under was. I was guessing second comment thread, but he outdid himself.

        • ThrottleJockey

          There’s lots of data on this, but the “anecdata” is more fun to discuss. The NY Times published an interactive map a few years ago looking at upward mobility by city.

          The study found, for instance, that about 8 percent of children born in the early 1980s who grew up in families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution managed to reach the top fifth for their age group today. The rate was nearly identical for children born a decade earlier.

          A child born in Chicago in the bottom 20th percentile will end up on average in the 35th percentile. But they have a 22% chance of ending up in the top 2 quintiles (and an 8% chance of ending up in the top quintile). http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/22/business/in-climbing-income-ladder-location-matters.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

      • SIS1

        And yet this response does not actually challenge what the Jesuit said – had your firefighter father had enough money to start with, even getting hit by a car and loosing his job would not have led to poverty.

        And if your cousins had enough money, they could easily have multiple kids with drug addictions and still not be poor.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Yeah, I get all that. The point is that poor people don’t have the personal safety net that rich people have, and that’s why we have to work hard and keep our nose clean.

          • Richard Gadsden

            The point is that poor people don’t have the personal safety net that rich people have,

            and that’s why it’s the state’s job to provide one.

            and that’s why we have to work hard and keep our nose clean.

            No. Because not everyone can. And I’m not going to drop people off a cliff.

      • LWA

        I knew a guy who was, to be blunt, sort of a layabout bum.
        Came from a good family, was given a fine education, but made bad choices and became a raging alcoholic, and flat busted and deservedly so.

        But he worked hard.

        OK, his dad got him a major league baseball team, but he worked real hard at it.

        OK, to be fair, other people worked real hard at it.

        But it paid off! In no time flat he was flush with money and would you believe, he ended up being President of the United States?

        True story, right hand to God. Really happened.

        So really, man, bootstraps.

      • Richard Gadsden

        Lacking get up and go and lacking discipline are both circumstances.

        Sure, they’re genetic or teratogenic or epigenetic or whatever, but given that some people are more driven that others, what do you propose to do about the ones that are less driven?

        Depression is a real illness, you know. Not just for rich people.

    • MAJeff

      We have poor people because of how we have organized our society and the distribution of economic resources. Societies create both poverty and poor people.

    • mcarson

      One of the big problems in talking about marriage and poverty is how small a difference there is between the poverty level for 1 or 2 person households. I don’t have the correct numbers, but if a single person’s poverty level is $11,000, a 2 person poverty level is only $14,000. So a low wage couple doesn’t have to make much more than 1 single person to be not poor.
      To me, this is an advertisement for room mates, not marriage, both cut your expenses. Many couples in long term relationships do not marry, they’re officially each poor, but in the same fix as their married neighbors, who are not poor.

  • Hogan

    Just don’t call it social engineering. Only leftists do that.

    • Anna in PDX

      I just had a rather stupid argument on Facebook with a libertarian friend who is mad that we now have opt-out voter registration. I called it social engineering and pointed out that there are lots of other things governments and others do that are meant to encourage or discourage behavior, e.g., opt-out 401K plans, which apparently a lot of employers have started offering – and that this should not be especially controversial and I don’t understand why he’s so mad about it when it comes to voting.

      He was happy I had said “social engineering” because it proved his point, or something. But I don’t think he really thought about the fact that we do social engineering all the time. Having those speed tracking things on the top of speed limit signs is social engineering. Garnishing your pay check for child support is social engineering. There are so many policies at all levels of government and in other sectors that are meant to encourage or disincentivize behavior, and usually no one bats an eyelash. But oh no, encouraging people to vote who might otherwise not have bothered, we are going to destroy our state and have done something really super intrusive.

      Boy, people are really weird.

      • Bill Murray

        isn’t it only social engineering when you do something I don’t like, but just plain common sense when I like the result?

        • Hogan

          It’s more like . . . if you’re doing engineering, then you’re planning for and expecting intended outcomes, and everyone knows that unintended outcomes are (a) the only ones that matter and (b) always evil, so we must instead do social bricolage, where we have no idea what the outcomes will be, but LIBERTY FREEDOM CHAOS LIBERTY I PROBABLY WIN.

          • N__B

            I thought social engineering was when I play jenga using a stack of sociologists. It’s not?


      • rea

        The idea that we should build something complicated, like a society, without any concern for outcomes, is rather odd. Just imagine if “construction engineering” were treated as a dirty phrase . .

        • Ahuitzotl

          … you’d be living in Greece

      • Thirtyish

        “Weird” is quite the euphemism. I would say “aggravating at best.”

  • it assumes that the poor are morally deficient and need to be fixed instead of just poor

    To a good first approximation, it’s a better assumption that it’s the rich who are morally deficient and need to be fixed. I’m certain that their moral deficiencies (whatever their prevalence in the group) cause much more of the world’s misery than those of the poor.

    • Blessed are the poor and the undocumented for without them the carpets will go unvacuumed.

      – The Gospel of Ivanna
      “Sermon on the Trump Tower”

      • Thirtyish

        Yes, she’s vile, but I note that she nonetheless still has carpet installed. A lot of my yuppie-aspiring friends and acquaintances regard hardwood floors as the answer to everything, and some of the looks I get when I announce that I dislike hardwood floors immensely…well, you’d think I had just announced that I have syphilis and intend to spread it.

    • creature

      It’s like that Internet meme of ‘I pity the rich people- all they have is money!’ I often thought that ‘the other’ would morph into just ‘poor people’, undelineated by race or origin. It looks like even those divisions are still effective to continue the syndrome. So long as rich folk can ‘pay half of the poor people to kill the other half’, they’ll be safe and sound.

      • Cassiodorus

        I imagine it’ll be a blend of that and old fashioned racism. The white serfs need something to rage against.

      • Richard Gadsden

        If you want to see poor people being othered with less regard to race, try Europe.

  • aturner339

    I guess the question is “How many people even on the left believe that poverty isn’t in some form or fashion the fault of the poor?”
    With a nod towards the Chait-Coates debates of years past in regard to black poverty in particular isn’t it almost an article of faith among the vast majority of Americans that “cultural pathologies” are a major cause of poverty?

    • Probably not many, as long as the media continues to promote that meme.

      • aturner339

        Which has been for what 500-ish years? I mean long before mass media hasn’t contempt for the poor been a constant presence?

        I suppose what I’m saying is I’m not even sure where one would start moving the needle on a prejudices that has survived countless reform moments and social models. How do you stop human beings from punching down, even on the left?

        • Part of it may be in removing the purpose of the poor in a caitalist society: namely, to scare the shit out of the middle class.

        • Phil Perspective

          How do you stop human beings from punching down, even on the left?

          If that were the case, why aren’t Dennis Miller and other right-wing comics not more successful?

          • efgoldman

            why aren’t Dennis Miller and other right-wing comics not more successful?

            Because there is no such thing as funny conservatism.
            It’s probably no coincidence that most of the great comedians of the 20th century came from immigrant, and often poor, communities.

            • UserGoogol

              There’s a whole lot of conservatism in comedy, it’s just that they rarely are down-the-line consistent conservatives. But look at how often comedians whine about “political correctness.” And the Patton Oswalts of the world are still in the grand scheme of things pretty liberal, from them you can move onto comedians like Adam Sandler or Larry the Cable Guy who base pretty much their entire career on punching down. Or South Park, which is pretty explicitly political in a right-leaning sort of way, although more libertarian than conservative.

              Comedy is full of punching down, and the hackier comedians like pandering to people’s preconcieved stereotypes. The area where conservatism and comedy is more prone to clash is most likely in terms of comedy’s irreverence. But comedy is still perfectly capable of making fun of those dumb Mexicans even if it can’t fully commit itself to embracing conservative authorities.

          • Richard Gadsden

            Because the most successful punching-down comedians appeal to Trump voters, and they mostly don’t have the same sort of money and cultural cachet as the UMC.

            I mean, I’m British so I’m going to pick different names, but Bernard Manning and Roy “Chubby” Brown have been enormously successful for years by punching down – and there are plenty more where they came from; they are the comedy that ‘alternative’ comedy in the 1980s was the alternative to. Their style is still out there; it just doesn’t get on TV or into the big comedy clubs.

    • Ronan

      I think there are limited arguments that could be made. Some of the new research shows ways specific norms and behaviours can establish or work against “cultures of poverty” in specific contexts. Worth Looking at the Boston review Jan 2011 article by Stephen Steinberg “poor reason” for a pretty convincing critique of the “new culture of poverty” arguments (can’t link as on a kindle)

      • Hogan
        • Ronan

          You complete me ….comments

        • Ronan

          Steinberg had another article reviewing Amy chua on “immigrant success” (which apparently claims culture as the cause)where he had this lovely thought

          “We learn that Chua was born in Illinois, the daughter of Chinese parents from the Philippines. Not much there to connect her with the Ming Dynasty, much less contemporary Chinese culture. Nor was she of humble origins. Her father was a doctoral student in electrical engineering and her mother was trained as a chemist but gave up her career to raise her four daughters. True, Chua’s parents had high expectations for their daughters’ success, but what is special about that? They also had the education and the capital to sustain and finance their aspirations for their children. Rubenfeld’s family roots were entirely different. His father, a successful psychotherapist, and his mother, an art critic, had both revolted against the Jewish orthodoxy of their youth. Thus Jed was raised not in Talmudic scholasticism but in the permissive dogma of Benjamin Spock, free to find his own path in life. “

          • Lurker

            I don’t really understand the point they are making here. Steinberg compares a Chinese American young lady of a wealthy background with a Jewish American of a wealthy background. Both were brought up in the mainstream American culture. Does Steinberg really think that being a child of practitioners of “soft” subjects instead of “hard” sciences is so life-determining?

            And Spock is definitely not “permissive”. Anyone who has read the “Common sense book” can state that. I was brought up using that book and I have my parents’ copy of its Finnish translation on nightboard. Whenever I have a child-rearing problem, I first turn to it. At least currently, my kids are some of the best behaved toddlers in the neighbourhood and also among my kinspeople.

            • Ronan

              I quoted it out of context, mainly because I found it rhetorically entertaining.
              In the review that the paragraph is taken from Steinberg claims that their argument in the book (it’s a joint book written by Chua and her husband rubenfeld), is that the “culture” immigrants bring with them explains their success. Steinberg is more materially minded, and has written a decent book on immigrants success in the US historically that shows (mostly convincingly) that what matters are primarily material factors. (The Education, wealth, connections etc thatimmigrants arrived with)
              In this quote he’s arguing back against the idea(though purposely in an exaggerated manner) that what explains Chua and rubenfelds success Is some vague “ethnic culture” (a culture that neither is really immersed in anyway) but instead the obvious advantages they had in class, education, parenting etc

            • Thirtyish

              To those with a strong authoritarian bent, Spock was indeed too “soft.” That doesn’t mean he actually was, of course–he was a product of his time and was actually more authoritarian in his perspective than what would be considered mainstream today–but the attitude does exist out there, and a sort of uninformed popular conception of him as a quasi-hippie emerged. In fact, I can’t produce a cite offhand, but I’m familiar with apocrypha of people “blaming” Spock for the Sixties generation.

              • Hogan

                Did that image of him coincide with his opposing the Vietnam war? That’s my impression.

  • Lurker

    I really wonder how the study that was cited defined “single mother” and poor. Even here in the Nordic countries, being a single mother is a good recipe to be poor. However, single mother and having children out of wedlock are pretty different issues. About half of Finnish children are born out of wedlock, but most of these are born in stable common law marriages. If you use a wrong defintion for single mother, your results can be pretty skewed.

    Could someone with access to that article linked by WP check the issue?

  • Personally, I think the money is better spent on robot cars. Just think how much better off the poor would be with the robot chariots.

  • Rugosa

    The fix-the-poor crowd simply doesn’t want to help people, partly because they don’t want to pay taxes, but mostly because of a lack of basic empathy. The failure to see that life chances are not doled out equally is willful blindness. The right wing does understand that the capitalist system funnels the money to those who start out with advantages, and they like it that way.

    • so-in-so

      They also want someone to feel they are superior to, and the more superior the better. I’m sure many would love to know people are literally starving – although actually seeing such people might be distressing in person, so they must be segregated.

      • Pat

        Many charismatic christians believe that their god personally intervenes in their lives on a daily basis to help them in ways large and small. Although their religion preaches charity all the time, they may respond to people in need by pushing them to embrace the same religion.

        After all, the reason that they have so many unmet needs is likely because god doesn’t want to help them as much, right?

        • MAJeff

          Ah, the “prosperity gospel.” What evil garbage.

        • so-in-so

          Right, as in Ben Carson’s stories about finding/being given $10.

    • gmack

      The “fix the poor” motif appears in both conservative and progressive varieties. They focus on different issues and often propose different remedies for poverty, but often, their logic is quite similar.

      For instance, the 19th and early 20th century social workers who would go into poor people’s homes to teach them the proper ways of cleanliness and diet (including efforts to get them to stop using garlic, since garlic was un-American) very much “cared about poor people.” The problem is that they, like the conservatives who argued that the poor just need to exercise more personal responsibility, also believed that the poor were poor due to some personal/cultural failing that needed to be fixed through the social workers’ benevolent intervention.

      • Origami Isopod

        You don’t have to go back to that era of history. You still see that attitude in action with things like the NYC soft-drink law. Or the “earthy-crunchy” types who wonder why everyone can’t just go vegan, bring home 20-lb. sacks of beans and rice, and live off those all month.

        • Lester Freamon’s Tweedy Impertinence

          I just had this argument with my increasingly conservative younger brother who was bitching about seeing poors buy lots of soda with food stamps. Not everybody has time, space or money for a deep freeze, time space or energy to shop for whole foods (let alone AT Whole Foods), time, space or energy to cook those foods in between jobs and/or job-hunting or whatever and finally, you don’t know what their life is like, you son of happily married middle-class white people in Kansas! We had a fucking stay at home mom and parents who worked their asses off at raising us. Check your goddamn privilege (I wanted to say to him but didn’t) and have some imagination and empathy for other people!

          • Steve LaBonne

            Orwell actually did quite a nice job of skewering that kind of BS in The Road to Wigan Pier.

        • Schadenboner

          I’d go further and say that a lot of false consciousness (although perhaps not all) stuff is essentially “fix the poor [whites]” rhetoric with leftish affectation.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      Meh. That case wasn’t important at all. It was trivial even. I know that because Loomis and Lemieux have assured us many times that only unimportant cases are decided by bipartisan majorities of the court, let alone quasi unanimous ones.

      • ?????

        • Just_Dropping_By

          Sorry, did someone else post this under your name?


          I am more than a little skeptical about the Supreme Court rejecting the openly racist arguments in Evenwel v. Abbott . . . . Like most everything else, it looks like a vacillating Kennedy is the only hope and this will probably at least open the door to more challenges to representation for the many people Republicans don’t deem worthy of it.

          I guess the biggest chance this gets held off is that if we throw out counting everyone for representation, what actually replaces it is unknown and that would open a huge can of worms. Do I think that these Republican judges will let that get in the way of their own political preferences? No, not really.

          And I know that when commenters have pointed to examples of “bipartisan” Supreme Court rulings as rebutting the contention that Supreme Court only vote according to the interests of political parties, I’ve seen people respond to those examples by dismissing them as “unimportant” or “inconsequential” cases. If I was mistaken that you were one of the LGM posters who has taken that position, I apologize (I can’t immediately find post you have made to that effect), but your earlier Evenwel post that I quoted above makes me think I was correct in attributing that position to you.

          • I’m more than happy to be wrong. I’m not real sure why you bragging about it is relevant. I guess I didn’t know we were playing a dick-swinging game around here.

            I’m very, very glad to be wrong.

            • Denverite

              I guess I didn’t know we were playing a dick-swinging game around here.

              It’s not a game so much as pastime or hobby.

              • Woodrowfan

                for some it’s kind of a calling.

                • Lurker

                  I see it as volunteer work: performance of a necessary and noble civic duty. :-P

                • Schadenboner

                  As Milton said: “They also serve who only stand and wank”.

          • tsam

            Care to link to your prediction of an 8-0 decision?

          • Hogan

            the contention that Supreme Court only vote according to the interests of political parties

            I’m pretty sure that’s not the actual contention.

  • BGinCHI

    It’s amazing to me how bad at capitalism the Fuck the Poor rich people are, especially the corporate ones.

    How is it they don’t see that more money and opportunity would allow demand to rise?

    Even Henry Ford understood that, and he was a racist.

  • The problem–not with the argument, but overall–is that culture fixes do work on a very small scale. You can take a few of the more resilient kids away from their poor families and put them in boarding schools and support them until they’re adults and can successfully join their adoptive community, but obviously those fixes aren’t going to scale up, and they’re not sustainable. The history of very small scale successes is taken wrongly as proof that culture fixes are a real solution.

    • Rob in CT

      I see this as a micro/macro split. If you’re dealing with an individual, talking about the choices and opportunities that individual has makes sense. When you’re talking about a large group of people, talking about individual choices makes essentially no sense.

      • Richard Gadsden

        As the last thirty years of unemployment legislation in the UK have proven, getting unemployed people to work harder at getting a job doesn’t generate more jobs.

        At a micro level, if you work harder at getting a job relative to other people then you’re more likely to get one. But at a macro level, if everyone works harder at getting a job, there are still the same number of jobs.

        As I once explained it, if you train harder before running a race, you’re more likely to win it. But if everyone trains harder, there’s still only one winner.

        [And no, this isn’t the lump of labor fallacy]

    • Srsly Dad Y

      Yes, sadly I wrote an undergrad thesis 30 years ago in which I was fooled by that disjunction.

  • I am completely opposed to “culture of poverty/poverty of culture” arguments. And it ought to be clear just from reading people’s accounts of their own lives that poverty-lack of income, lack of resources, underserved locations, environmental injustice (synonymous with geographic poverty) crushes people and keeps them off balance and unsuccessful where the same exact person, chosing the same exact path, would succeed in a better environment or with slightly more money.

    However it is also the case that there are many, many, many familial and personal dysfunctions and disregulations, addictions and abuses (of self or of other family members) which are extremely dangerous for people, whatever class they belong to. Upper class people can pay to have the effects ameliorated (you can pay someone to do your math for you if your parents drank so much you have fetal alcohol syndrome), they can pay a nanny to take the kid to school if the parents are blotto, the kid can go to college even if he flunked a course or two in high school…etc…etc…etc… When you are poor, and your family is poor, every bad decision one person makes can crush you or steal your future from you. One bad car loan, one car accident, one failed course, one missed payment.

    If we seriously wanted to help people–which we don’t–we would work on creating massive transfers of money to poor people and also work on getting the children in poor families they help they need (medical, educational, therapeutic) to make up for the bad decisions/addictions/poor choices their parents make. Just like middle and wealthy people can rely (more or less) on someone stepping in to help the kids when the parents are fucked up.

    This would not be every poor person or poor family. But someone who got removed from their parents and placed in foster care needs more than just money when they turn 18 and get booted out of the state’s control. They need a ton of support. And we don’t give that because of the culture of capitalist indifference.

    • DrS

      Well stated, Aimai.

    • efgoldman

      If we seriously wanted to help people–which we don’t


    • Thirtyish

      Precisely. Why actually work to help people when it’s so much easier to imagine that you can finger-wag and scold them into submission, and when that doesn’t work, then at least you can maintain a smug sense of certainty that you’re morally superior to them.

  • Nobdy

    Are you also against Medicaid?

    A lot of the dysfunctions of poor people are caused by poverty, no doubt, and I don’t think the poor have MORAL failings as a group.

    However sometimes people are poor because they are dysfunctional, or because they are dysfunctional and have other issues like mental illness or health problems or whatever. And sometimes these dysfunctions need to be addressed in ways beyond just cash transfers.

    I am all for cash transfers to poor people but I think insofar as their behaviors are dysfunctional we should also try to help them chsnge, not through blame and criminalization but through support and resources.

    If someone is uneducated we should help them get an education. If someone is an alcoholic we should help them get sober. If someone is beating his wife or kids we should intervene.

    Some of these behaviors would go away if the poor had more money, but not all, and I see no reason to only give cash assistance. I have known a fair number of mentally ill poor people who need more support than just dollars to get their lives on track. Not all. Not even most. But some. And we should, as a society, offer that help.

    • Are you also against Medicaid?


      • Nobdy

        Drawing a comparison between physical illnesses that poor people need treatment for and mental/circumstantial conditions.

        Some people are poor because they are too sick to work. They need money but also medical care.

        Some people are poor because they are mentally ill or have other dysfunctions (low impulse control for example.) They need money but also assistance with those issues.

        What I am saying is that recognizing that poor people are not all morally screwed up does not mean we should stop trying to “fix” people if by fix we mean offer necessary services and interventions. Cash transfer can exist hand in hand with drug treatment and parenting classes (for those who may need them.)

        • leftwingfox

          But those are separate problems.

          Eliminating poverty will not eliminate all health problems, mental illness or individual dysfunction.

          Eliminating all health problems, mental illness and individual dysfunction will not eliminate systemic poverty.

          A system like Medicaid/Medicare is a useful stopgap, but is hampered by the means testing and eligibility requirements. It would be more useful if it was available to all, rather than restricted to the “deserving” poor and elderly.

  • libarbarian

    Poverty clearly lowers the chance of a successful marriage, even as being single may make it harder to escape poverty. This pattern is the subject of a long-running debate among social scientists. Although we can’t agree on the exact breakdown of cause and effect, any reasonable researcher will concede it runs both ways.

    I do think that recognizing this is an important corrective to the “blame the single mothers” tendency in our society …. but I suspect it will also veer into making excuses for deadbeat dads (ie. dads who willfully refuse to make a good faith effort to contribute to the extent that they are able).

    “I don’t have enough money” is the universal refrain of deadbeat dads. More often than not, what they really mean is “I don’t have enough money left over after I pay for all my own amusements and everything else I prioritize over my kids”.

    The problem was seen as poor character rather than poor income, and the solution was imagined as a matter of replacing the dependency of so-called “deadbeat” parents on the state with dependency on a spouse.

    Jeez. “So-called” as a way to attack the concept of the deadbeat parent (usually dad) as though it were illegitimate or an illusion. Parents who refuse to contribute to their kids are deadbeats and there is nothing so-called about it.

    • Anna in PDX

      I am reading a book right now put out by the CFED on financial security for US families (by the way it is available for free download here, it’s called “for what it’s worth”)

      Anyhow, it went into some detail about the correlation between marriage and doing better financially and it was very interesting but I don’t think it discussed the fact that there are built-in “social engineering” reasons for this in our system (tax breaks most notably – access to dependent health care – lots of other things that are easier to access for married people). The system was set up to encourage people to marry by giving them special benefits and now we notice that married people do better and we act like it is because marriage made them moral. Hmmm.

      • libarbarian

        Deadbeat is not the same as “not married”. Unmarried parents can still do their fair share to support a child. “Deadbeat” means someone who willfully refuses to do this.

        • Anna in PDX

          Oh yes, I was not arguing against that. Sorry, I was just thinking about the correlation between “marriage” and “financial success.”

        • Cassiodorus

          Yes, and your argument assumes there is so large population of people unwilling to help take care of their children. Even people making median wages would have a hard time covering the necessities of living, much less providing for a child on top of that.

          • Anna in PDX

            See below in my answer to Ronan – I have a personal “anecdata” about this!

  • DrDick

    the poor’s poverty is consistently seen as their own fault and something that can be fixed if we intervene in the right way.

    Yes, but admitting that poverty is not the fault of the poor would mean admitting that the system is rigged and that the wealthy get that way by systematically exploiting and abusing the rest of the population. It also calls into question the self-congratulatory moral superiority of the affluent.

    • TroubleMaker13


  • muddy

    I read about a study done on rats, one of those ones where they let rats pick food or drugs and 10% (let’s say) will just sit there pushing the cocaine lever all day and night. Meanwhile the study rats are living in their little box with nothing better to do, so maybe it’s surprising that only 10% are addicts.

    So the scientist I was reading about gave the rats an enriched living environment when they offered the drugs. They had a variety of little nests, and toys and things to do. They ended up spending more time hanging out in that area, playing and socializing. The percentage of rats who kept going back to the cocaine too often plummeted to like 1-2% or something.

    Amazing what living in a decent environment can do. Less need for escape I suppose. Better things to do were presented. Sorry I don’t remember where I read it, because it was really interesting. The guy doing it thought the numbers would go down, but they were all amazed by how much.

    • Lester Freamon’s Tweedy Impertinence

      Rat park is what you’re thinking of and it was morphine. I’m a critical care RN and I frequently give people serious fucking narcotics, at least some of whom are drug-seeking. I try really hard to bear in mind the implications of that experiment and live by the rule that the patient is the only person who can judge their pain level, subjective experiences being what they are and all. I also try to remind my co-workers, many of whom can be REAL judgy and paternalistic.

      • muddy

        Thank you!

        • Lester Freamon’s Tweedy Impertinence

          You’re welcome. It tends to make me uncomfortable when I’m thanked for my work (I do get paid for it, after all) since I think of myself as someone who works as a nurse rather than it being a core part of my identity (in my heart I’m a blacksmith) but I do try to be good at it.

        • Lester Freamon’s Tweedy Impertinence

          Gaack! You’re welcome, full stop. Didn’t check your nym and assumed you meant for nursing. I will now exile myself from commenting for the ritual 30 days to ameliorate my shame.

          • muddy

            Well thanks for that too, I’ve had more than my share of medical attention and appreciate how hard it is. Also have nurses in the family and heard the weird stories from the other side of the equation.

            And I did google it, no worries. I was just glad to know what to google.

      • Lester Freamon’s Tweedy Impertinence

        Dammit, I’m flailing with the links today. Just Google it, you’ll be glad you did.

      • The Dark God of Time

        My sister once got pinched on her behind by one of the patients once in the hospital.

        She calmly turned to the patient and told him that the next time he did that, his next pain shot would be a half hour late.

        “I was just kiddin’ around.”

        “I’m not!”

        • Lester Freamon’s Tweedy Impertinence

          I’m 6’4″ 220 lbs and have a beard like Grizzly Adams so I don’t get my backside pinched too often. But that’s MY privilege right there! My female co-workers often regale me with stories of horrifyingly sexist treatment by physicians, patients, family members, etc. I mostly just listen (rather than offer advice) because I know I’m lucky not to have that shit happen to me.

  • Anna in PDX

    I was having an interesting conversation yesterday with my partner who remarked that he thinks that a lot of our focus on individual blame for things is because we canonize individuals in our national mythologies to the point where we cannot use utilitarian ways of solving collective social problems as we (a) resist seeing the problem as a collective one and (b) can’t get over the idea of the individual. So whenever we propose a utilitarian solution to a thing like poverty (e.g., let’s just give poor people money) we get a bunch of people saying no that is a bad idea because I know this individual poor person who’s irresponsible.

    • efgoldman

      we canonize individuals in our national mythologies to the point where we cannot use utilitarian ways of solving collective social problems

      Yes! So many of our myths and legends are about individuals – generals, explorers, cowboys, law officers, pioneers, politicians, even criminals. 19th-century histories, especially, are full of them.
      Hundreds of thousands of soldiers fought the war of slave secession, but what do we all remember? Lincoln, Grant, Lee and some other guys.
      Part of that is easy shorthand, part is the American mythos.

  • SIS1

    To accept that someone could be poor through no fault of their own is essentially the same as accepting that someone can be rich through no achievement of their own and people in general are loath to accept the centrality of chance in their own outcomes, as they feel this robs them of agency and control.

  • TroubleMaker13

    In addition to what others are saying upthread, I think it’s important to note how poverty in this country is a self-reinforcing equilibrium. Once you get in, there are powerful economic forces arrayed to keep you from ever getting out. Bank fees for below-minimum balances; usurious fees on check-cashing and payday loans; late fees on utility bills and large deposits required to resume service; credit checks on job applicants that serve to discriminate against long-term unemployed; extra-high car insurance premiums for “bad” zipcodes and lapses in coverage. The list of ways in which the low-income are nickled-and-dimed into place goes on and on.

    It’s incredibly expensive to be poor in this country.

    • Anna in PDX

      This is so important. This is why cash transfers to the poor would be a great idea. This thing I am reading about personal finance for US families (I mentioned it upthread, it’s put out by the government) mentioned programs opening accounts for poor people at tax time when they may have refunds, and that kind of thing would really help people like my elder son who is in one of these traps through his child support situation, which he pays through state garnishment but the fact he was unemployed for a while means there’s a debt and for many years he’s been unable to open a checking account and direct deposit his minimum wage paycheck such as it is. This means every time he has to do a financial thing like pay rent he has to pay fees to get money orders or whatever. So difficult.

      • Ronan

        Mehrsa Baradaran has written a history on this “how the other half banks”, claiming that as the banking sector deregulated and banks homogenized they stopped serving nearly half the US population as they were no longer profitable, which opened up markets for payday lenders and other sources of expensive credit. I’ve only read bits and pieces of the book, and reviews interviews etc, but it’s meant to be good .
        Afaik, her solution is the development of govt backed postal banking to provide affordable credit for people locked out of normal markets. Do you have credit unions in the US? I thought you did?

        • Anna in PDX

          Yes we do, and his brother and I have banked at one for years. This credit union (and others we’ve tried) needs two forms of ID to open an account. He has a driver’s license, the other forms that would count are (a) credit cards and (b) a passport. No one will give him credit (because he has debt) and the state department would not issue him a passport (because he’s a flight risk because of the child support debt according to them). Again he has been paying back child support debt for the past year and a half. It will take him time to pay it all off because he makes minimum wage and his paycheck is garnished to pay current child support and a tiny amount on back child support owed. Meanwhile any financial transaction charges him yet more of this money he does not have enough of. It’s kind of maddening. I’ve tried to cosign so he can have an account, that does not work either. It’s quite frustrating for him.

          • Ronan

            It sounds crazy, that as as practical matter they can’t accommodate him, and as a matter of risk assessment this is a concern. Difficult to realise how important small things like having access to a bank account or to affordable small amounts of credit can be until you don’t have them.

        • Schadenboner

          My understanding (and I’m not actually sure where I picked this up from) is that the free checking model was actually designed to do the reverse: to bank the previously un-banked so as to collect money from overdrafts.

          Why ignore the poor when you can leach off them?

          • Ronan

            You’re probably right. I only have the argument of the book half assed as is. Its Interesting though the different ways different groups access and use credit, and the amount the poor spend servicing debt. I started into James Ferguson’s New book “give a man a fish” recently which is an anthropological look at cash transfer systems in southern Africa, how it works through kinship systems, transforms gender relations between unemployed men and the women who overwhelmingly receive and use the money. Pretty interesting so far

  • AMK

    The overwhelming proximate cause of being poor today is being born into poverty…..because poor parents and families simply do not have the time and resources necessary to invest in the welfare of their children.

    I agree completely with Erik and others that the ultimate fix for this is good jobs and a living wage for everyone (plus affordable/accessable healthcare and education). But it also seems dumb to pretend that a responsibility factor is not involved as far as having kids goes: people at a point in their lives where they are simply not in a position to take care of children deciding to have them anyway is an obvious part of the problem that perpetuates the poverty cycle.

    The “single mother” trope is right for the wrong reasons….not because there’s anything wrong with being an independent woman (I’m a marriage skeptic myself), but because deciding to have a child when you’re barely getting by as a waitress or cashier or student or whatever is a really bad life decision that should be discouraged. That’s part of the reason I’m pro-choice too…because aborting a pregnancy when you know you can’t give the kid the life start they need is a responsible decision for everyone involved. .

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