As I wrote in an op-ed for the Daily that came out today, it's all too common for well-meaning middle class people to think that if the poor just had the same stuff we do, they wouldn't be poor any more (where "stuff" includes anything from a college education to a marriage license to a home). But this is not true.
You silly liberals might think that the poor just need money and then they wouldn't be poor anymore but you are wrong.
There is a cesspool of underlying assumptions built into Miss Megan's worldview. She assumes that the poor is made up entirely of Black women and their (presumably illegitimate) children, who actually make up 41% of the families in poverty headed by a single mother. (She could always look up the information but that would cut into her "me time." )
Welfare reform, by pushing mothers into work, produced real if modest improvements in most measures of average well-being. But as Jason De Parle documents, it didn't make them act like middle class parents. They were still single mothers with a lot of kids and no very helpful men available, and their kids did not start going to school more--in fact, more work hours meant the kids were less carefully supervised, and the daughter of one of the three women he followed got pregnant at 17, continuing a major portion of the "cycle" that welfare reform was supposed to break.
If poor people did the stuff that middle class people do, it's possible--maybe probable--that they wouldn't be poor. But this is easier than it sounds. As John Scalzi once memorably put it, "Being poor is having to live with choices you didn't know you made when you were 14 years old." Which often means, he might have added, spending your whole life doing the sort of jobs that middle class people sometimes do when they're 14. It isn't that people can't get out of this: they do it quite frequently. But in order to do so, you need the will and the skill--and the luck--to execute perfectly. There is no margin for error in the lives of the working poor.
Here McArdle assumes that the poor chose to be poor because they are incapable of doing otherwise. McArdle chooses to believe that everyone gets what he deserves because she wants to think that she deserves everything that she has. McArdle publicly aired her feelings of guilt for making an expensive, utterly unnecessary purchase in the Wall Street Journal so she could emphasize how it was a reward for her hard work, work that she, as a "middle class" person, performed due to superior work ethic and strong moral fiber. McArdle earns a living by writing propaganda for corporations. It is not like being a journalist, where you supposedly want to tell the truth, or an advertising copywriter, where you are up front about your motives and status as employee. It is lying to unsuspecting people in the hopes of secretly achieving your political/economic gains. It is stealing from the poor to give to the rich, the antithesis of all moral teachings.
McArdle is not a sociopath and is capable of experiencing guilt and regret, whether or not she chooses to do so. Naturally she usually chooses to not do so. McArdle frequently writes about how people cannot overcome their baser instincts, as she does in this piece, no doubt because she makes little effort to overcome her own. She is morally lazy, part of a class that cannot be bothered to think about others because she has created a lovely imaginary world of superiority that she would rather live in instead. Her moral self-indulgence leads to genuinely evil acts, such as taking Koch and Bradley money to write propaganda. Evil people are usually not serial killers lurking in the city shadows or plucking banjos by the crick. They are callous, morally lazy, greedy, pleasure-loving, self-indulgent and deeply insecure people who always take the easy way out. They are the Juice Box Villagers, the Pentagon pencil-pushers, the money-grubbers, the casually cruel. They are the people who were never loved, do not know how to love, and will spend their entire lives trying to find some way of killing the emptiness that never goes away.
And some problems are collective problems. It's all very well to say that poor women shouldn't have kids unless they can find a solid man to help raise them. (And I agree that this is a superior strategy). But men with solid jobs are rather scarce in many poor communities, not least because we've imprisoned so many of them. What you're asking poor women to do is actually, for most of them, to not have babies. This is an easy edict to deliver from a comfortable middle class home where you have all the kids you want. It probably sounds pretty shitty, however, to the poor women who you are blithely commanding to spend their lives alone.
This bizarre little bit of fake sympathy is supposed to undermine your middle class bourgeoisie morality and liberal sympathy for the suffering of minorities and reinforce McArdle's point.
Poor people are people who make decisions.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the face of evil. One soft little sentence, a sad-yet-brave sentence that manfully faces the truth and sorrowfully accepts it, wishing only that you, too, will accept this simple fact--that the poor chose to be poor and therefore deserve to be poor. Of course she is too cautious to say exactly what she means, which is that poor people are people who make poor decisions. That is a much more quotable line, and McArdle knows that propagandist must be exceptionally cautious and never overplay their hands or people will stop believing their lies.
They are not a combination of circumstances that can be tweaked to make them stop acting like poor people.I'm not arguing against incentives, or a safety net--I favor a generous EITC, substantial (if usually brief) unemployment benefits, etc. I think that the low salaries available to people who are not cut out for school represent a real problem for our society (unfortunately, not one I have any idea how to solve, which is why I rarely blog about it). And I also think that welfare reform was a good idea. But I chafe at the supposition that anything as simple as "jobs" could fix the problems in poor schools, or poor lives.
Nobody can do anything ever, so don't raise my taxes to help the poor.
A girl I grew up with basically voluntarily dropped out of the middle class and into the underclass, complete with a baby by her 30-year-old drug dealer boyfriend who then went to jail. She got her GED because she didn't like the strictures of school. She has worked at a series of low wage jobs--sometimes quite hard, working two jobs at a time. She's also lost a lot of jobs, and it's hard to believe that it's all bad luck. She's on the Section 8 waiting list, and has at various times been on other forms of state assistance. She buys her 5 year old daughter a cell phone and a television for her birthday, but takes little interest in her education. Her family is completely horrified.
Well, that proves it. If an acquaintance of McArdle was too stupid or undisciplined to stay chaste and in school, that means that all poor people chose to be poor, such as the mentally ill, the physically ill, the elderly, widowed mothers, men who can't find work, and children with unstable parents. And now McArdle is telling us that not only do the poor make bad choices, they do so because they have poor characters. But since argument by anecdote is a valid method of argumentation, I can tell the story of a girl I am acquainted with who had a baby in high school but did not end up poor because her very wealthy, very Republican parents supported her and the baby. She ended up living happily ever after amid great wealth. Her pregnancy was, of course, an accident, not a choice, and despite her history of reckless choices her parents supported her instead of cutting off all contact. McArdle does not address why her acquittance used drugs and had a drug-dealer daddy-substitute because such thoughts might lead to uncomfortable questions that would undermine her belief that wealthy people such as herself earned everything they have through personal merit.
What program would fix this festival of dysfunction? Would a higher paying job make her get out of bed even when she doesn't feel like it? To assume that there is something that could change her behavior is to assume away her agency.
Oh, those silly, paternalistic liberals!
Obviously, most poor people did not choose to be poor in the same stark way: she doesn't have racial prejudice against her, grew up in a middle class home which would happily have paid for college (and which sent her sister through a PhD program), and still has access to cultural and (limited) financial capital that people who grow up in a housing project don't. But I use her story to illustrate a point: while she may have had far more choice in the matter, she is poor because she does the things that poor people do. Is it meaningful to say that she has agency in her poverty, while "real" poor people (ie., people who grew up that way) don't?
A middle class parent after a long and crappy day at work struggles to deal with the kid's school because other parents expect it, because they were raised to treasure education, and because people will work harder to avoid loss (a kid who drops out of the middle class) than to achieve gains (a kid who makes it into the middle class). Also, that middle class job probably isn't as miserable as changing diapers on Alzheimer's patients, or cleaning houses, so you have more psychic energy to spare. Or you can blame a "sick culture" or personal laziness, as some conservatives do--at some level, it doesn't matter. Poor people are actually choosing not to hassle with their kid's school. It's a real choice that they have made. There is no reason to assume that you will be able to override it if you just get the policy levers in the right position.
McArdle did not do very well in school by Ivy League standards. She has admitted that she was pushed and prodded and coddled the entire way by private schools that were making a small fortune on her tuition. Her parents were able to buy that special treatment for their little darling because they had a lot of money. And if you are rich enough you don't have to hassle with your child's education at all; that is what headmasters, teachers and tutors are for. But, despite the fact that the poor are poor because they make bad choices, it doesn't matter if parents make bad choices or just don't have the time and energy to help their children succeed in school. Either way the poor are poor because they-or maybe their parents or grandparents--chose to be poor.
If little lower class Megan McArdle had drifted through school she would have ended up in a state school at best, competing for average-paying jobs with all the other middle-of-the-road young people. Money made all the difference in her life but that little fact doesn't flatter her ego.
What I am struggling to say is that however much those choices are now inflected by what went before--and the problems of other people in their families and communities--they are choices. We understand that the middle class girl I grew up with is driving her situation by behavior that is probably not very amenable to outside influence. Why do we assume that people who grew up poor are somehow more pliable?
It is her own fault; she was not pliable and led astray by circumstances of birth.
As adults they are the products of everything that has happened to them, and everything that they have done, but they are also now exercising free will. If you assume you know the choice they should make, and that there is some reliable way to entice them to make it, you're imagining away their humanity, and replacing it with an automaton.
And you wouldn't want to objectify the poor, would you? That would be wrong, and we all know how much liberals care about morality.
Public policy can modestly improve the incentives and choice sets that poor people face--and it should do those things. But it cannot remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers. And it would actually be pretty creepy if it could.
Oh, those creepy liberals, with their eugenics and social engineering! It is much better to let the poor continue to be poor because it is exactly what they chose to be and no more than they deserve.
McArdle reinforces her statement that not having a job has little to do with being poor in the comments.
McArdle reinforces her statement that not having a job has little to do with being poor in the comments.
Excuse me, I have to go take a shower now and try to scrub the cloying self-love and callous selfishness off my skin.