I don’t talk a lot about “personal responsibility” on this site. To do so, I think, makes me sound like a Tea Bagger. The truth is, though, I don’t think the government has the power, try as it might, to eradicate poverty. I think they can, and should, put safety nets in place, but, at the end of the day, it’s up to the individual as to whether or not he or she succeeds. So, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the delusional “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” realm of Ayn Rand and Horatio Alger, and 10 being a total welfare state, where no one works and the government does everything, I’d say that I’m about a 4.
I think we need to fund the hell out of education, and make sure that people have enough to live, but I’ve got issues with programs that essentially incentivize capable individuals to stay home, watching television. But, like I said, I generally keep my mouth shut about such things because it’s hard not to look like a total dick when talking about stuff like this. And, I should add, I realize that some people have the decks stacked against them. I realize that some kids grow up in environments where nutrition is non-existent, education isn’t valued, parenting is deficient at best, and schools aren’t working. And, because of that, I’m vehemently supportive of Head Start and other initiatives to reach kids early, feed them well and put them in smaller classrooms with teachers who have the skills and resources to help. But, at the same time, I don’t think we’re helping anyone by creating a permanent underclass that, from birth to death, is dependent upon the government… Anyway, I rarely write about it here, due to the fact that I, 1) lack the vocabulary to do so, and 2) don’t have alternatives to suggest. But, as I’m sitting here tonight, reading a review in the New Republic for Amy Wax’s new book, Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century (Hoover Studies in Politics, Economics, and Society), I felt compelled to start a thread. Here, in hopes that it will facilitate our conversation, is a clip from the review:
…Wax appeals to a parable in which a pedestrian is run over by a truck and must learn to walk again. The truck driver pays the pedestrian’s medical bills, but the only way the pedestrian will walk again is through his own efforts. The pedestrian may insist that the driver do more, that justice has not occurred until the driver has himself made the pedestrian learn to walk again. But the sad fact is that justice, under this analysis, is impossible. The legal theory about remedies, Wax points out, grapples with this inconvenience—and the history of the descendants of African slaves, no matter how horrific, cannot upend its implacable logic. As she puts it, “That blacks did not, in an important sense, cause their current predicament does not preclude charging them with alleviating it if nothing else will work.”
Wax is well aware that past discrimination created black-white disparities in education, wealth, and employment. Still, she argues that discrimination today is no longer the “brick wall” obstacle it once was, and that the main problems for poor and working-class blacks today are cultural ones that they alone can fix. Not that they alone should fix—Wax is making no moral argument—but that they alone can fix.
A typical take on race has no room for stories such as this one. In 1987, a rich philanthropist in Philadelphia “adopted” 112 inner-city sixth-graders, most of them from broken homes. He guaranteed them a fully-funded education through college if the kids would refrain from drugs, unwed parenthood, and crime. He even provided tutors, workshops, after-school programs, summer programs, and counselors when trouble arose. Forty-five of the kids never made it through high school. Thirteen years later, of the sixty-seven boys, nineteen were felons; the forty-five girls had sixty-three total children, and more than half had their babies before the age of eighteen. Crucially, this was not surprising: The reason was culture. These children had been nurtured in communities with different norms than those that reign in Scarsdale…
One of the most sobering observations made by Wax comes in the form of a disarmingly simple calculus presented first by Isabel Sawhill and Christopher Jencks. If you finish high school and keep a job without having children before marriage, you will almost certainly not be poor. Period. I have repeatedly felt the air go out of the room upon putting this to black audiences. No one of any political stripe can deny it. It is human truth on view. In 2004, the poverty rate among blacks who followed that formula was less than 6 percent, as opposed to the overall rate of 24.7 percent. Even after hearing the earnest musings about employers who are less interested in people with names like Tomika, no one can gainsay the simple truth of that advice. Crucially, neither bigotry nor even structural racism can explain why an individual does not live up to it….
And here’s a direct quote from Wax:
…The government cannot make people watch less television, talk to their children, or read more books. It cannot ordain domestic order, harmony, tranquility, stability, or other conditions conducive to academic success and the development of sound character. Nor can it determine how families structure their interactions and routines or how family resources—including time and money—are expended. Large-scale programs are especially ineffective in changing attitudes and values toward learning, work, and marriage…
And, just so we’re clear on this, I’m not saying that families on welfare should be put out on the street. I am, however, saying that, if we ever hope to solve the problem – and I don’t think it’s just a problem in black America, by the way – we need to acknowledge that money alone won’t fix it.