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Some recent findings on Americans views toward public benefit programs (from a paper written by Bruce Stokes at the Pew Research Center for the New America Foundation):

  • Three-fourths (75%) of Democrats believe that the government should take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Similarly, 78% say basic food and shelter should be government guarantees and 65% think more support for the needy should be provided, even in the face of increased debt.
  • African Americans have consistently been more supportive of a government safety net than whites. More than three-quarters (78%) of blacks support government guarantees of food and shelter, compared with 52% of whites. Support also is high among Hispanics: 78% now agree that the government should guarantee people food and shelter.

One thought that comes to my mind with respect to these findings is how they might change if the question was posed differently. The survey asked participants whether they agreed with the statement that: “The government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep.” In my opinion, that wording is somewhat unfavorable, especially the use of the word ‘guarantee.’ I imagine that if the statement were more along the lines of, “The government should do everything within its power to beet basic nutritional and health needs of underprivileged Americans,” the response would have been different.


As might be expected, part of the explanation of these views comes from what’s characterized as Ameircan’s “rugged individualism.” “Roughly six in ten [Americans] reject the notion that outside forces determine success in life.” In contrast, “about seven in ten (72%) Germans, more than half (57%) of the French and nearly four in ten (41%) of the British see success determined by forces outside their influence.”

However, possibly in light of the recent Great Recession, Americans seem hesitant to blame individual economic failures entirely on lack of individual effort.  According to the report, “Less than one-in-five (18%) say those without work are responsible,” and “such sentiment is similar to that in Germany (25%) and Britain (22%).” How this rugged individualism can square away with unemployed individuals not being responsible for their own plight is beyond me.

All in all, the basic findings of the report seem to mostly confirm that Americans are (with some qualifications)  individualistic, and we exhibit a status quo bias. As Stokes puts it, although the US does not seem to support a robust expansion in the safety net, “Americans value the social safety net that exists and do not want it changed.” Then again, maybe if we re-framed these issues not as “guarantees” but as helping individuals meet their basic human needs so that they can survive, maybe we would find progress to be made yet.

Photo Credit: Tom Giebel

Many have commented that President Obama’s second inaugural address was more partisan and ambitious than his first, with one commentator calling it “the most liberal or progressive message [she] heard him deliver” as president.


What stuck out for me was his rather (in my view) enlightened discussion of freedom and personal responsibility. Although he did state that our “insistence on hard work and personal responsibility” are “constants in our character,” he spent much more time talking about (1) structural limitations on individual action and (2) the inevitable possibility that misfortunes could befall any one of us.

On the first point, President Obama said that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” Specifically, he made clear that a modern economy could not run without “railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce,” and “schools and colleges to train our workers.” Even within a “free market,” he continued, general prosperity was only possible when “there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.”

On the second point, Obama was even more forceful, stating that a “great nation must…protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.” Echoing sentiments I pointed out earlier in this post on Barney Frank, he said that “no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm.” Although disaster relief is generally much more popular than long-term unemployment benefits or Medicaid, the general underlying was quite compelling, which is that “We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few.”

Although no one would want to disagree that ‘freedom’ should be reserved for the lucky, plenty seem to support the idea that basic health care, education, and living wages should be. If President Obama actually enacts legislation that reflects his inspired and inspiring rhetoric, then we may be better be able to make the case that, in his words, supporting each other “does not make us a nation of takers,” it “frees us to take the risks that make this country great,” and that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

I read two articles recently that got me thinking about when exactly it is that individuals, as viewed by society, become “responsible” for their own outcomes, and when they are still viewed as deserving of equal opportunity. When children are born into environments that don’t provide them with resources they need to develop physically, mentally, or socially, we generally see this as unfair, because it’s not the child’s “fault” that she is not succeeding. Thus, this child is deserving of opportunity. At some point, though, an adult’s unemployment, sickness, and hunger is her own “fault,” as equal outcomes are not guaranteed for all across society (though maybe a basic social protection floor should be).

When does one cross this threshold? One answer, though by no means the only one, seems to be when a student enters college. Students in their first year if college are around 18 years old, a boundary for legal liability in many states, and – if they are lucky enough to be in college – have access to opportunities to advancement and stable employment that higher education is (at least traditionally thought to be) able to provide.


Not so fast, suggests articles from both Charlotte Leslie of the Guardian and Jason DeParle of the New York Times. Leslie writes that there is a tendency to assume that the answer to a lack of social mobility is to “ensure that students from a state-educated background have as good a chance of going on to higher education as their privately educated peers.” However, she goes on to cites research that shatters this “comfortable myth,” research that showed that even when students from state school did as well as those from private ones academically, they made less money and had significantly less access to professions. Why? because of less knowledge as to how to achieve their ambition, fewer soft skills, less access to useful networks (written about earlier in this post), and less work experience from work and internships.

Of course that gap only occurs when there is equal academic achievement in groups with differential access to resources growing up. DeParle’s piece chronicles the college experience of three youth in Galveston, Texas. “Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer,” the article quotes, “the place where upward mobility gets started.” However, as the article illustrates, the economic, social, and cultural strains on these low-income youth make it significantly more difficult for them to succeed in college. Thus, the article suggests a much more bleak conclusion, namely that “It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder.”

What these findings suggest to me is that it is increasingly difficult to draw a line after which the effects of an under-resourced background will cease to be felt. If someone attended a very poor high school, then simply placing them in college will not be enough. Individuals need social, economic, and health supports throughout their lives in order to thrive. For the most privileged amongst us, we receive that from our family, friends, social and professional networks. For the less privileged, it’s a struggle to keep up not only in their childhood or teenage years, but throughout the entire course of their lives.

Photo Credit: Walt Jabsco

Yesterday I came across an interesting blog in the American Conservative with the catchy title of “Responsibility, Personal and Individual (Or, How to Do Political Theory By Watching ‘Girls’).” In it, Samuel Goldman asserts that “while progressives expect the state to take care of people, conservatives argue that people should talk care of themselves.” Although this formulation isn’t particularly sympathetic (or accurate) to the either side, the bulk of the article tries to make a more subtle point that conservatives should shift away from the ‘personal responsibility’ polemic toward one that focuses on our mutual responsibility to take care of each other.

The author contrasts the popular TV shows ‘Girls’ and ‘Friday Night Lights’ to illustrate this distinction, with the former representing narcissism and the latter a more communal spirit. Specifics aside, I think that one notable aspect of the author’s invocation of communal responsibility is that it stops at the level of community members taking care of each other, as opposed to the entire nation assuming responsibility for all citizens. This somehow parallels the argument for federalism, where each state takes care of itself and the national government (the ‘state’) is a minimal presence. What the author leaves unaddressed is why our community boundaries should stop at our township, city, or state, as opposed to the nation.


I suspect that one of the many answers is that, at least in this blog post, the author is referring to taking care of your neighbor in the interpersonal, face-to-face sense, of helping them to find work, take care of their kids, attain educational goals for them and their family, build a swingset, etc. However, what about the sense of “taking care of one’s neighbor” that only the government, or some larger citizen body, can fulfill? If I want to take care of my neighbor by building a road that reaches his house, connecting him to broadband internet, covering him with health care, or hiring high quality teachers for his children’s school, then I will have to do so via some larger structure, not through baking him cookies and helping him shovel his driveway. Yet, for whatever reason, “helping out a neighbor in need” is rarely thought of as modifying economic and social structures in order to facilitate success across a broad range of life outcomes, and I think that’s something that Goldman leaves unaddressed in his pining for communal values.

I grew up in rural America, and I’m the first to say that having a strong community was one of its greatest perks. However, as much as we all looked out for each other, what we couldn’t, as individuals, do for each other, was amass the sort of investments in our community that could radically increase the opportunities available to families throughout the region. Attending the local high school football game may help the team pull out a victory, but we need a higher notion of collective action and trust in our government to help the youth on the field get an education, health care, and a job with benefits.

Photo Credit: Kevin H.

ladderYesterday I came across an interview with Berkeley Sociologist Sandra Smith in which she discusses her most recent book, “Lone Pursuit: Distrust and Defensive Individualism Among the Black Poor.”

Probably the most interesting finding of her book came through studying the attitudes of underprivileged individuals toward their unemployed peers. Although some (such as myself) emphasize institutional causes of poor educational, health, and job outcomes in certain neighborhoods, many of those who actually live in those neighborhoods highlight individual responsibility.

One important thing to keep in mind is that is Smith examines the jobholders’ views of their unemployed peers, as opposed to the unemployed’s views of each other. That said, one of her main points was that many jobholders characterize their less lucky peers as lacking the motivation and will to succeed in the job market. As a result (of this and other views), jobholders are less likely to help connect members of their community to gainful employment, leading to a self-defeating “go-it-alone” approach that is notably less successful than a cooperative one.

This reminded me of another article that Monica Potts wrote about a family striving to get by in Southeast Kentucky, one of the least invested in communities in the U.S. “Sue,” the woman who the article follows throughout her attempts at education and gainful employment, believed that “‘poor’ was the word for giving up.” In other words, as is explained in more detail in the lengthy article, “It took drive to make a living in Owsley County—you had to create your own work on your own steam—and [she] had seen plenty of people run out of it before they got anywhere.”

It’s not surprising that many people view the way their lives turn out as mostly a consequence of who they are, with less concern for the institutional  factors that either do or do not give them much of a shot at success. When life gives us lemons, maybe we should just focus on making lemonade. At the same time, maybe we can also be charitable toward those who just end up with a bitter taste in their mouth.

526332817_d5b031884b_oA thoughtful blog post from Adam Wagstaff pointed me to the World Bank’s Human Opportunity Index(HOI), which embodies to me the classic distinction between equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome. According to the HOI’s report, up to one half of income inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean is attributable to circumstances “endured during childhood” that fell “outside of their control…such as race, gender, birthplace, parent’s educational level and their father’s occupation.” The other half of inequality, apparently, is within our own control and thus not worthy of particular attention.

The HOI brings to mind two interrelated points. First, the distinction between that we seem so comfortable in making between the responsibility of children and adults for their life outcomes (discussed here). The second more fundamental point deals with HOI’s core assumption, which is that unequal outcomes are only unfair/unjust to the extent that they reflect differences in “exogenous circumstances” such as gender, birthplace, or race.

As Wagstaff quotes from the report on page 15, its authors believe that “in an ideal world, inequality in outcomes should reflect only differences in effort and choices individuals make, as well as luck.” I am likely a “softie” along with Wagstaff, but I question the extent to which, in an ideal world, we would allow stark differences in outcome that reflect differences in effort, choices, and especially luck. As Wagstaff points out, if someone makes a decision that turns out poorly, it doesn’t seem ideal to just let them suffer the consequences. If someone gets into a car accident, a caring, fair, equitable society would make some effort to help her heal. If some individuals are less successful in their efforts than others, we can come together and ensure that they maintain some minimum level of comfort.

In my mind, an ideal society would certainly take steps to ensure that people are not treated unfairly based on their class, caste, race, gender, or birthplace. Similarly, in my mind, an ideal society would take steps to ensure that all individuals had access to basic services and care, whether they were children or adults, whether they were successful or unsuccessful in their efforts, and whether they were lucky or unlucky in life.

Photo credit: Oxfam International

5560644915_c4ae7ca925_bOnly 2 years late, I got around to watching “Waste Land,” a documentary about Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s exploration and collaboration with a local community that picks recyclable materials from Jardim Gramacho, one of the world’s largest landfills.

One of the most touching parts of the movie for me was when, near to the end, Muniz says the following:

“It could be me. I mean, from the stories these people tell, a lot of them they were low middle class people that for some unfortunate event they just ended up having to go live in the garbage. I was born low middle class household in Brazil; if something had happened to my parents I could be led to a life like that…they just weren’t  very lucky.”

In a society that wants to deem itself “meritocratic,” Muniz’s message is tough to swallow. He believes that, were his life to have taken a different turn, the outcome could have been drastically different. Although I think it’s a relatively straightforward point, his is a strong counter narrative to those who want to insist that, regardless of circumstance, the talented shine and true genius is revealed.