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.