In certain circles, it’s common to hear the claim that the poor – or many of the poor – only have themselves to blame and that their poverty is the result of their own bad decisions, mentalities and lifestyles. It’s useful to deconstruct this claim because that will allow us to show that its appeal is based on a dangerous simplification.
Inherent in the claim is a very specific, unspoken and unconvincing understanding of the concept of responsibility: the poor are responsible for their own poverty because they have failed to meet certain standards of conduct (e.g. finish school, wait to have kids, be dedicated to your job etc.). However, responsibility should ideally be understood as much more than mere conformity with standards of conduct. In many cases, this conformity is not the result of responsibility but rather a matter of habit, fear of consequences, convenience etc. In other cases, acting responsibly means violating certain standards of conduct.
And even when responsibility equals conformity to standards of conduct, failure to conform may not imply irresponsible behavior. People need the capacities necessary to act responsibly and to choose and follow through with the right form of conduct. If they don’t choose and follow through with the right form of conduct, the reason my not be a choice to act irresponsibly, but simply a lack of capacity to choose and follow through with the right form of conduct.
In order to have the capacities necessary to act responsibly and to choose and follow through with the right form of conduct, people need to grow up and live in an environment that fosters these capacities, or at least doesn’t destroy them or nip them in the bud.
Take the example of people who destroy their forests for the purpose of agriculture or animal farming. They unwittingly or wittingly encourage desertification and the erosion of fertile soil. They act irresponsibly in a superficial understanding of the word, because they fail to conform to certain standards of conduct that would guarantee their prosperity, as well as that of future generations. In this case, we’re talking about the standards of conduct that prescribe sustainable development. However, the people in the example may not have the capacity to act responsible because they may not have an alternative to their self-destructive actions.
Likewise, someone dropping out of school may seem to act irresponsibly, and others may conclude from her actions that her subsequent poverty is her own fault. But maybe she didn’t grow up in an environment that fostered her capacity to remain in school.
Hence, looking closer at what it means to act responsibly often means softening our judgments about people. Obviously, there are people who have the capacity to act responsibly – or whose circumstances and upbringing do/did not substantially diminish or fail to foster this capacity – but who nevertheless act irresponsibly. They are rightly condemned for their own failures (a condemnation which, by itself, does not automatically remove all moral obligations to assist them – the removal of those obligations, as required by many conservatives and “luck egalitarians” – can only be justified by additional arguments which aren’t guaranteed to withstand criticism and which I won’t examine now).
The problem, of course, is our lack of ability to distinguish these people from others who genuinely lack the necessary capacities and who are therefore only apparently irresponsible. It’s easy to detect cases of bad or self-destructive conduct; it’s much harder to ascertain capacities or the presence or absence of an environment that fosters capacities.
I would like to ask those who go on about the undeserving poor, about their stupidity and lack of personal morality, and about how the welfare state only encourages bad behavior, the following questions: given
- the fact that some of the supposedly irresponsible people are not really irresponsible, and
- the fact that it’s hard to determine who’s who, and
- that trying to determine this would probably require a state that is much more intrusive and opposed to liberty than current welfare states
would it not be better to risk helping some genuinely irresponsible people than to risk not helping some people who do not have the capacities to act responsibly? And would it therefore not be better to work on capacities? I think the latter would be more fruitful than the attempt to moralize people out of poverty.
More on the undeserving poor here.