Why Aren’t the Poor More Responsible?

16 Jun

MIT economist Esther Duflo:

We tend to be patronizing about the poor in a very specific sense, which is that we tend to think, “Why don’t they take more responsibility for their lives?” And what we are forgetting is that the richer you are the less responsibility you need to take for your own life because everything is taken care for you. And the poorer you are the more you have to be responsible for everything about your life….Stop berating people for not being responsible and start to think of ways instead of providing the poor with the luxury that we all have, which is that a lot of decisions are taken for us. If we do nothing, we are on the right track. For most of the poor, if they do nothing, they are on the wrong track.

I’m not sure that “we” is as big as Duflo thinks, but her point is a good one. Reminds me of this post I did three summers ago.

13 Responses to “Why Aren’t the Poor More Responsible?”

  1. Troy Grant June 16, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

    It is important to note that only the modern conservative thinks that.

    “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

    ― John Kenneth Galbraith

  2. Paul Rosenberg (@PaulHRosenberg) June 16, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

    A point of irony here: Unemployment benefits help to somewhat decommodify labor, they delay the time that one must re-enter the workforce. This means one has longer to find a job that best fits your skills and your wage requirements. That is, it best fits what the free market is SUPPOSED to deliver to you. (Adam Smith had something to say about this too. How employers could live on their savings far longer than laborers could.)

    Damn socialists!

  3. Jim Dunn jake61625@comcast.net June 16, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

     Repeat this every hour to “The Top 1%”,

  4. Critical Reading June 16, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    She was talking at a philanthropy conference in 2011, and she identified the “we” as people who are “reasonably well off and comfortable, [perhaps] university professors.” The view that the poor are responsible for their own misfortunes is widespread in the US (including among the poor themselves). According to opinion polls, something like 70 percent of the US population believes that poverty is the result of individual shortcomings. In Europe, around 70 percent believe that it is the result of bad luck and structural obstacles.

  5. Dave June 16, 2014 at 2:06 pm #

    There’s a vector here implied by what Duflo says. The more one is *made* to have to worry about things “the Rich” don’t have to, the poorer one gets. My parents by and large never worried about retirement because of their pensions, but I’m wondering weekly whether I’ve got the right mix of stocks and bonds to avoid another 50% loss when the market gets harvested for fresh blood again.

    Its much the same problem when it comes to anything that used to be regulated. The Reagan Revolution really seems to been based on the principle that the unarbitraged life wasn’t worth living, at least for those who own the information, because so much of modern life has to be engaged as an opportunity cost: Is it worth figuring out how much *not* knowing about something will cost – whether that’s lead in the soil, diesel exhaust in the air, figuring out transit networks vs. driving, or where to send your kids to school? And what does it cost to basic quality of life when you spend a lot of it just figuring out what to worry about?

  6. robert stolz June 16, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    Why do you hate inter-temporal time preferences so much?

  7. JOANNA A. June 16, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

    Great post! one of the best illustrations of freedom vs choice I’ve seen.

    And yes, it’s an incredible burden.

    Joanna

  8. freegirard June 16, 2014 at 6:32 pm #

    There is nothing new to this attitude among conservatives. As Edmund Burke stated in his A Vindication of Natural Society (1756), “The whole business of the poor is to administer to the idleness of the rich.”

  9. jonnybutter June 16, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

    The view that the poor are responsible for their own misfortunes is widespread in the US (including among the poor themselves).

    To the extent this view is widespread among poor people themselves is just a tragedy.

    For most of the poor, if they do nothing, they are on the wrong track.

    This is an interesting insight to me because, living as I do in a very Red state, I see, know, and deal with lots of poor people, and I notice that some still expect to be at least given a more or less proximate fair shake vis a vis their humble lot in life (and all the other euphemisms for the larger larceny). I have seen poor people shocked and quite confused (often the intended reaction) by the just brazen hoodwinkery they are subject to. Things like the wage theft Corey wrote so well about in the NYT (but hardly only that of course). It must snap a small but important bone in your spirit to realize that what little you have can be *stolen* from you with complete impunity, including your corporeal liberty, your future, your life. My my, so many traps for poor people to fall into. How’d they (the traps) get there? Jesus?

    You don’t (or I don’t) see apologists for neoliberal capitalism point out that the perpetual motion machine of ever-greater wealth concentration at the top works in reverse below a threshold. Everything conspires to make rich people ever richer and richer; everything conspires to make poor people poorer and poorer – to leach wealth up and leave more and more people ‘out to dry’. It is just so ghastly, and right in front of one’s eyes everyday in most of the US.

  10. Richard Beck June 17, 2014 at 3:08 pm #

    “And what we are forgetting is that the richer you are the less responsibility you need to take for your own life because everything is taken care for you. And the poorer you are the more you have to be responsible for everything about your life…”

    We passionately want to believe in the dichotomy that accumulation of capital is a result of privilege, chance, birthright, “the system”, et. al. and that poverty has a sort of redemptive power that elevates low-income members of society to the moral plateau of victimization. We count on this construct as our intellectual compass for without it we could not measure change or progress. These constructs never are proposed alone; one subordinates the other. They always find one another on the dance floor. This one thin, constructed vein of a concept is the launching pad of most conversations about…well, just about everything related to society, culture, economics, education, etc. The problem is that there is a kind of capital in attaining the plateau of victim. It is as difficult to escape from victimhood as it is to escape from privilege. We have elevated the poor to a kind of saintliness and blamed their excesses on a sinful world; hence exonerating them from responsibility. As for the rich, they may feel less responsible to society (noblesse oblige) but they don’t feel less responsible for their own lives; if they did, we wouldn’t see the gap growing between the haves and have-nots.

    • freegirard June 18, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

      Dear Mr. Beck,
      I suggest that you read the following articles, and listen to the following program, and discover why Jefferson said, “Wealth is no recommendation of friendship to me.”

      http://www.psychologytoday.com/printmail/89253

      New York Magazine, July 1, 2012; Lisa Miller, “The Money Empathy Gap”

      “Self-Interest Spurs Society’s ‘Elite’ to Lie, Cheat on Tasks”

      Listen to the Story

      My quote by Edmund Burke above is the belief of many if not all of the wealthiest 1/10th of one percent, and that has not changed in 258 years.

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