Universal Basic Income as the Foundation of Freedom

I favor a Universal Basic Income (UBI) because it offers financial security and predictability, which in turn provide freedom from necessity. This “freedom from” is required for any meaningful “freedom to“. By allowing people to effortlessly and foreseeably pay for the material resources that they need for a minimally decent life, a UBI liberates them to pursue the goals they have set for their lives – or even set these goals in the first place. Life’s pursuits all too often get pushed aside by urgencies, necessities and bouts of bad luck. The struggle to survive may even imply an incapacity to formulate goals.

What matters … is not only the protection of individual rights, but assurances of the real value of those rights: we need to be concerned not only with liberty, but, in John Rawls’s phrase, with the “worth of liberty.” At first approximation, the worth or real value of a person’s liberty depends on the resources the person has at her command to make use of her liberty. So it is therefore necessary that the distribution of opportunity – understood as access to the means that people need for doing what they might want to do – be designed to offer the greatest possible real opportunity to those with least opportunities, subject to everyone’s formal freedom being respected. Philippe Van Parijs (source)

There’s another type of “freedom from” that a UBI would achieve: it would liberate us from alienated labor (to use a strong term). I personally believe that the alienating characteristics of our current system of work are sadly ignored (read this and this). A basic income gives people the freedom to turn down unattractive work and to start cooperative ventures that are more rewarding, in the sense of more pleasant but also more in line with the goals people have set for their lives.

As a pleasant by-product, we would be able to shake off some recurrent criticisms of our existing welfare systems:

  • No more discussions about welfare queens, social security fraud, the undeserving poor, a culture of poverty, etc.
  • No more government intrusion in the private lives of welfare beneficiaries, no more means testing, fraud investigations, social security inspections, income audits, family structure controls etc.
  • We would be able to implement drastic reductions in the level of regulation, legislation and government bloat inherent in our current social security systems. A smaller government, suitably defined, may also lead to an increase in the overall level of freedom.
  • Healthcare consumption would become more wise and efficient since people have to use their basic income to pay for all of their non-catastrophic health problems. (Perhaps this rationalization could offset some of the fiscal criticism leveled against a UBI).
  • Unemployment would no longer be a problem: the concept of unemployment would become meaningless.

Some additional advantages of a UBI:

  • We would no longer be fixated on economic growth since the main justification of growth is its perceived role in the reduction of unemployment. Hence we would perhaps be able to meet some environmental concerns.
  • Increased gender equality. Wives, often still the main caregivers within families, would be less economically dependent on husbands if they have a basic income. With less dependence comes more freedom and equality. Women – as well as caring men – could even use their basic income to start up cooperatives for the caring function, making use of advantages of scale and becoming more economically active outside of the home. That as well would increase their independence.

The Causes of Poverty (69): Self-Destructive Behavior

One important hallmark of right-wing thinking is the emphasis on the value of individual responsibility: people should take their lives into their own hands, try to be independent and self-sufficient and make it on their own. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I part ways with many on the right when they assume that the moral importance of responsibility and self-reliance implies that those who don’t make it on their own have somehow failed to be responsible.

Well, some of those probably have indeed failed to be responsible, but why would we think this is true in all or even most cases? Many people who really try hard to be responsible and to behave rationally still get their legs cut off from under them (there are many causes of poverty after all). Others are irresponsible and still make it (or get bailed out when things go wrong). The word “bank” comes to mind.

It’s not because responsibility is a generally important value and a “good thing” that a lack of it always leads to bad outcomes such as poverty (one bad outcome that does always follow from lack of responsibility is obviously irresponsibility, but that’s tautological).

However, let’s assume, arguendo, that many on the right are correct in their belief that bad things such as poverty are almost always the product of irresponsible and self-destructive behavior. The idea of desert is important here: if poverty is a form of self-destruction resulting from irresponsible actions, then poor people deserve their poverty and they should, somewhat confusingly, be called “the undeserving poor” (“deserving poor” would perhaps be a better name). The flip side is the idea that people with good lives have not failed to act responsibly. And because they have been responsible they deserve their wealth and wellbeing and should not be forced by way of taxation to help those who have not been responsible.

Some on the right do indeed believe that poor people should not be assisted, for 3 reasons: 

  • poverty is what they chose when they acted irresponsibly, and hence it is what they deserve
  • helping them would send the wrong signal and would undermine the value of individual responsibility
  • helping them would mean taking funds away from those who acted responsibly and who deserve the proceeds of their responsible actions.

Poor people should therefore try to make it back on their own. Assistance in the form of charity for example is allowed, of course, but it can’t be enforced without undermining responsibility, both among the beneficiaries of enforced assistance and among those who are forced to give (the latter may well conclude that self-reliance is futile if the proceeds are taxed away).

It’s true that this is not the standard right-wing view. Some conservatives or libertarians make room for enforced assistance, on the condition that this assistance promotes responsibility and that poor people genuinely try to be responsible while and after they are assisted. Assistance would then be withdrawn in case of continued irresponsibility, and also when it becomes clear that assistance produces dependence and a lack of self-reliance.

While I share the enthusiasm for values such as responsibility, desert, self-reliance, independence and conditional assistance, I also see some problems.

1.

Why would the arrow of causation only go from responsibility to success and from irresponsibility to failure? Might not the reverse also occur? I believe it’s at least possible that poverty and failure lead to irresponsible and self-destructive behavior, and that a life of riches, especially during childhood, fosters responsibility and other virtues. For example, it has been shown that the stress of poverty in early life as well as later in life can lead to misjudgments and irrational behavior. In addition, a life of poverty can destroy people’s aspirations, which in turn may make them decide that they “don’t give a fuck”. From a distance, this may look like irresponsible and self-destructive behavior, but it can be explained as the consequence of poverty rather than the cause. Similarly, the bee sting theory of poverty argues that people in poverty just give up after a series of calamities or misfortunes.

2.

Some apparently self-destructive, irrational and poverty-inducing or poverty-perpetuating behavior may be a price that poor people are willing to pay for other goods. For example, the widespread use of Qat in countries such as Yemen causes all sorts of problems for productive and rational behavior. And yet, people who refuse to take it risk social ostracism. The need for social inclusion and acceptance then outweighs the material cost for many users. Something similar can be said of those poor people who spend a lot of money on celebrations and festivals while their calorie intake is below standard.

What looks like self-destruction may in fact be an elaborate and tragic strategy for social survival. Does this mean that people who are willing to pay the price of poverty should not be assisted, given that they are willing? No. They are only willing because the better alternative – both social inclusion and lack of poverty – is not available to them.

3.

Until now, I’ve granted the right wing starting point that many poor people act irresponsibly – strategically or not – and that their behavior causes their poverty. But what if all this is just a visual illusion? Is it not possible that the poor are just as responsible or irresponsible as the rich, but that they have a much smaller margin of error? Some forms of behavior that have little or no consequences for wealthy people, may lead to worse outcomes for poor people or for people on the edge of poverty. Poor people perhaps only look more irresponsible.

4.

That last point is important. The only way of detecting responsible or irresponsible behavior is to look at the consequences of it – we can’t detect people’s motivations. But this means that we can be wrong: consequences that look like they are the product of lack of responsibility may be something else. We see behavior that has self-destructive consequences for the actor, but we may be dealing with a person who is not really irresponsible but simply out of luck, mistaken or misguided, or someone with a small margin of error.

So our assessment of responsibility is necessarily an approximation which can sometimes be totally wrong. Any being wrong in our assessment whether or not to help people may have terrible consequences. Furthermore, this assessment is not only difficult and often mistaken; it’s also invasive. Ideally, in order to detect irresponsible poor people – and treat them like this – we would have to monitor their lifestyles and long term attitudes over long periods of time. Only then can we minimize the risk of error. But the result would be dictatorship. I’m sure right-wing thinkers don’t really want to go there. Hence, they should think twice before making desert and responsibility the cornerstone of their worldview.

Other posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (60): Early and/or Single Motherhood?

The “culture of poverty” narrative claims that people are poor because they have the wrong values and habits and therefore make the wrong choices: they tend to be unable to resist drugs, violence and crime, they drop out of school, have a problem with punctuality and discipline etc. I’ve already made my own views about this narrative abundantly clear in previous posts. However, I failed to give sufficient attention to one subset of values, namely those related to marriage, family structure and early childbearing. So I’ll briefly have a look at those now.

As is often the case with explanations of poverty based on values and habits, there’s a certain superficial persuasiveness about the claim that early marriage, early childbearing and, most importantly, early out-of-wedlock childbearing result in a lifelong loss of income. Young mothers in general and young single mothers in particular have a relatively hard time finishing their education and finding a well-paying job because the combination of motherhood and work/education is a tough deal.

However, we may be wrong about the direction of causation here. Rather than poverty being the result of bad choices – in this case the choice of becoming a young and/or single mother – it may be the cause of those choices. There’s for example this study which finds that teenage pregnancy rates are indeed higher in U.S. States that have high rates of poverty, but which also postulates that high levels of income inequality cause high teenage pregnancy rates, not vice versa. When young people believe that their society is rigged against people like them, they abandon traditional norms; conversely, people will work hard when they feel that there’s a chance of success. When young women see that their chances of future economic success are slim, then early motherhood may even look appealing: it may give direction and a purpose to their lives, a purpose that would be difficult to find in an economy stacked against them.

“[B]eing on a low economic trajectory in life leads many teenage girls to have children while they are young and unmarried and … poor outcomes seen later in life (relative to teens who do not have children) are simply the continuation of the original low economic trajectory” (source)

In a sense, this is a discouraging finding because it means that the promotion of abstinence or contraceptive use won’t reduce early and/or single motherhood; only poverty reduction and realistic economic opportunities will do that, and that’s a lot more difficult and expensive. And, make no mistake about it, we would want to reduce early and/or single motherhood, because the causation goes in both directions and it’s very implausible to deny that early and/or single motherhood has any effect on income. What you do want to deny is that the “culture of poverty” narrative has an important explanatory value in all of this.

One final remark: while I focus here on mothers, many of the same remarks would be valid for young and/or single fathers as well.

More on poverty and family structure here. More posts in this series here.

The Causes of Poverty (56): A Lack of Social Mobility

Is a lack of, or a low level of social mobility a human rights violations? No, of course not. There is no right to be socially mobile or to end up in a different – preferably higher – social class than your parents. However, indirectly there is a link between social mobility and human rights. For instance, there is a human right not to suffer poverty. Poverty can have many causes and so there can be many things that violate our right not to be poor. One of those things is hereditary poverty: many of us are poor because our parents are poor. If our parents are poor, they won’t be able to offer us a good education, a social network and other resources necessary to make it in this world. The wealthy marry the wealthy, invest a lot of time and money in the education and socialization of their children, while the poor often have to marry in their own class and send their children to low-quality public schools. In addition, poor children tend to live in crime infested neighborhoods where drugs and violence are a constant temptations and good role models are rare. There’s also a high probability that their fathers, having grown up in the same neighborhoods and having faced the same temptations, are in prison. Some may occasionally escape their poverty, but a lot of poverty is hereditary.

Hereditary poverty is just another word for lack of social mobility. If there is no or little social mobility in your society, if rules, institutions and mentalities make it hard for people to escape the social class of their parents, then this not only reduces fairness, just reward and opportunity, but it also determines the kind of poverty in society: poverty becomes something like a hereditary disease, the poor become a permanent underclass, and society no longer helps people to break the vicious cycle of hereditary poverty and to enjoy fair and equal opportunities.

But it’s not just the type of poverty that is very specific in a society with low levels of mobility. Also the beliefs about poverty take a particular form. The typical view is that the poor are poor because of a “culture of poverty“, because they are undeserving, because they are burdened with low inherited IQ etc. Stories such as these are necessary in order to explain and justify hereditary poverty in a society that has decided not to offer better opportunities to the poor. The fact that some poor people are indeed undeserving and stupid is then brandished as a pars pro toto argument that blackens the reputation of a whole class of people and excuses the lack of fairness of the rest of society.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (55): Poverty of Aspiration

I think it was Aneurin Bevan who coined the phrase “poverty of aspiration”. It’s a variation on a common theme (other variations are the “culture of poverty” and the “undeserving poor“). According to some, what keeps people poor is their lack of aspiration. When faced with catastrophic or creeping adversity and bad luck, they give up and lose hope. As a result, they fail to invest effort, to try to make something of their lives and to persevere. Maybe in the end they simply lack the desire for anything better. And without such a desire, the idea of investing effort does not even arise.

If we go along for the ride and assume that lack of aspiration is indeed an important cause of poverty, then what in turn causes this lack of aspiration? Some mention stupidity, low IQ or the transmission of bad genes. Others cite fatalism as a common feeling among those who had a dose of bad luck or whose families have always been part of the lower classes: “people like us don’t succeed in life” and “we are destined to do low paying jobs or to be unemployed”.

I think that’s a very incomplete description of the causes of poverty. If some of the poor do indeed lack aspiration and if this contributes to their poverty, then we shouldn’t blame stupidity, genes or fatalism, but rather some of the stories we tell. Nowadays, we tend to believe that aristocracy and class society are things of the past and that we have developed in such a way that we now effectively reward effort and skill rather than class membership, at least most of the time. We do admit that luck still plays a role, but apart from luck people basically have a large set of more or less equal opportunities, at least in the West: we offer cheap education and healthcare, unemployment benefits and poverty relief etc. And even bad luck can be overcome with the right aspirations. Hence, the rich of today aren’t rich because they belong to the aristocracy but because they had the right aspirations when given the right opportunities. And the poor are poor, well, because they must have lacked aspirations.

An example of this kind of story is the powerful and widely accepted idea of incentives: we need to pay successful people a lot and tax them as little as possible, because then we reward success, and by rewarding success we promote it. The hidden assumption is that success is caused by effort and aspirations. If effort and aspirations are not the main drivers of success, then there is no reason to create incentives in order to promote and reward the effort and aspirations necessary for success. And if success would also, to some extent, be determined by talent or class membership, then incentives would be less effective or even useless: the talented will do well with or without incentives, because talented stuff is what they do; and those fortunate enough to have been born into privilege need no incentives either – they’ll do well without a high wage.

The incentive story is of course just one among many. The “Land of Opportunity”, the “American Dream”, the “Self-Made Man”, the “Rags to Riches” etc. are similar stories which assume and propagate the theory that poverty is the result of lack of effort and aspiration and that the poor in a sense deserve their social rank. The poor also are offered incentives and opportunities – today, few if any lack the opportunity to receive a good education (at least that’s what we like to believe). Hence, if they don’t succeed, it must be because they choose not to invest the necessary effort or because they lack the aspiration to succeed. This lack of aspiration can only be caused by their lack of character, or perhaps their stupidity and their failure to understand the benefits of investing in effort.

However, I don’t believe any of this adequately describes the average poor person. While some may indeed lack aspiration or perseverance, there are many other things that stand in way of success. After all, we’ve just had a major global recession that has hurt many people who aren’t particularly lacking in aspiration or character. And even in the case of those who can reasonably be accused of personal failings, we should admit that there can be a vicious circle at work. If people are continuously told that only intelligence, character and personality matter, and that all other external causes of poverty are discredited because society provides the opportunities to succeed, then people will start to believe that their predicament can’t be changed. It’s hard if not impossible to change one’s intelligence, character and personality. So why would you aspire to change it? If narratives about the poverty of aspirations are repeated often enough, the poor start to believe them. They internalize a sense of their own worthlessness. So, why try? A lack of aspiration, to the extent that it exists, follows directly from repeated stories about a lack of aspiration.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (32): The Just World Fallacy

Here’s another psychological bias that causes human rights violations to persist: the just world fallacy.

It seems that we want to believe that the world is fundamentally just. This strong desire causes us to rationalize injustices that we can’t otherwise explain: for example, we look for things that the victim might have done to deserve the injustice. The culture of poverty is a prime example, as is the “she asked for it” explanation of rape. This fallacy or bias is obviously detrimental to the struggle against human rights violations, since it obscures the real causes of those violations. The belief in a just world makes it difficult to make the world more just.

And even if its effect on human rights was neutral or positive, the fallacy would be detrimental in other ways: it doesn’t help our understanding of the world to deny that many of those who are lucky and who are treated justly haven’t done anything to deserve it, or that many of those who inflict injustices get away with it. The prevalence of the fallacy can be observed in popular culture, in which the villain always gets what he or she deserves; the implication is that those who “get” something, also deserve it.

Psychologists have come up with different possible explanations of the just world fallacy. It may be a way of protecting ourselves: if injustices are generally the responsibility of the victims themselves, then we may be safe as long as we avoid making the mistakes they made. The bias lessens our vulnerability, or better our feeling of vulnerability, and therefore makes us feel better. Another explanation focuses of the anxiety and alienation that comes with the realization that we live in a world rife with unexplained, unexplainable and unsolvable injustices. The fallacy is then akin to religious teachings about the afterlife, which are sometimes viewed as mechanisms for coping with the anxiety and alienation caused by mortality. Melvin Lerner explains the just world fallacy as a form of cognitive dissonance:

the sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character. (source)

All this argues against making desert central to our theories of justice: if desert is difficult to determine because there are biases involved, then surely desert can’t be a good basis of a theory of justice.

An interesting aside: it seems that the opposite bias also exists. The so-called “mean world syndrome” is a term coined by George Gerbner to describe a phenomenon whereby violent content of mass media makes viewers believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Indeed, perceptions of violence and criminality often do not correspond to real levels. People who consume a large amount of violent media or who often read the crime sections of sensationalist newspapers tend to overestimate the prevalence of violence and crime.

More on the possible causes of rights violations here.

The Causes of Poverty (47): The Undeserving Poor? Stop Moralizing Already

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.

The Causes of Poverty (43): The Welfare State

Yes, that’s right: the welfare state… According to many conservatives, the welfare state is self-defeating and actually makes people poorer. Welfare and social security (and perhaps even private charity) unwittingly work to thwart their own goal – helping the poor – in two different ways. There’s supposed to be a supply side and a demand side to the so-called “perverse effects” of anti-poverty policies.

Take the supply side first. The delivery of welfare by the government and – indirectly – by the taxpayers is economically inefficient. It burdens the primary suppliers of the necessary funds, namely the individual and corporate taxpayers. Because of this burden, companies and individuals lose the incentive to be productive. If they have to pay large amounts in taxes in order to fund the welfare state, they can’t or won’t create the wealth that is the basis for redistribution. In other words, they can’t or won’t create a rising tide that will lift all boats. Ultimately, a tax-based welfare state will eat itself because it burdens the wealth creators whose wealth it wants to redistribute.

I’ve argued against this rejection of the welfare state before, and I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that the risks to incentives are overstated, as well as the benefits of trickle down economics. (For instance, companies may decide to be more productive in order to compensate for the losses from taxation).

Let’s now turn to the demand side of the anti-welfare argument. Again, the reasoning is based on incentives that ultimately result in a self-defeating anti-poverty system, but this time it’s about the incentives of the recipients of welfare. The argument goes roughly like this. Take unemployment benefits for instance (one part of the welfare state). These benefits supposedly discourage people from working. And when people don’t work, they fail to gain experience and to nurture certain values – such as discipline – necessary in order to escape poverty. Hence, unemployment insurance makes the recipients worse off.

Or take another kind of benefit: financial support for children born out-of-wedlock. This kind of support also triggers the wrong incentives. It encourages teenagers to get pregnant and it discourages adults to marry. Teen-pregnancies and single parenthood both make it more difficult to escape poverty. Something similar happens with scholarships or affirmative action for poor students. These so-called anti-poverty policies actually incentivize students to enroll in education programs that are above their capabilities, forcing them to drop out of school at some point, and hence forcing them into poverty. And, finally, there’s the argument about welfare dependence: when people get money from the government they tend to settle in their role as receivers and fail to take their lives into their own hands. Again the wrong incentives.

This demand side of the anti-welfare argument suffers from two fatal shortcomings. First, the data don’t (always) support it. For example, it’s not true that generous unemployment insurance leads to higher unemployment. And secondly, it’s classist in the sense that it offers an essentialist depreciation of the poor as a class. The poor, according to the argument, suffer from a series of typical deficiencies:

  • shortsightedness (in the case of the person being tempted by child benefits and ignoring the long-term costs of teen pregnancy or single parenthood)
  • a lack of self-judgment (in the case of the student accepting a scholarship and enrolling in a program beyond her capabilities) and
  • a lack of self-control (in the case of the person settling in dependency).

This classism is not only generally incorrect and unfair, but it also obscures the many other causes of poverty. The poor aren’t always to blame for their own poverty, and the welfare state doesn’t force them to make themselves poor. Moreover, and even worse, this classism can be self-fulfilling.

Also, hasn’t the recent financial crisis shown that wealthy people, especially bankers, are equally short-sighted, self-deluded and lacking in self-control? And even if it’s true that those vices are more prominent among the poor (as is claimed here for example), wouldn’t that be a good argument for welfare rather than against it? If the poor can’t rationally take care of their own fate because they are self-deluded and unable to plan for the long term, shouldn’t the rest of us try to help them?

The Causes of Poverty (40): A Culture of Poverty

It’s not uncommon to hear people claim that the poor shouldn’t blame “the system” for their poverty, but should look instead at their own values and behavior. Poor people, or at least some of them, show behavior that can be called a “culture of poverty“. They are the “undeserving poor“, the “stupid poor” who are poor because of their self-destructive lifestyle choices, their own stupid decisions, their self-chosen family situation, their involvement in crime, their drug use, their welfare dependency, their lack of effort in school, their lack of general discipline and their inability to plan for the long term.

Of course, we can all imagine some people who are “undeserving” in this sense, and some of us may know (of) some of them, but the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that such undeserving behavior is quite common among the poor and is the reason why the levels of poverty remain quite constant over time, even in some of the most wealthy and generous welfare states.

There are actually two versions of the culture of poverty theory, one more common than the other.

Innate moral deficiencies

Usually, the culture of poverty is believed to be a symptom of innate moral deficiencies among the poor. Or, euphemistically, the poor have a “unique value system”. It’s the depraved morality of the poor, and the self-destructive attitudes and behaviors that result from it, that keep them poor, period. All other possible explanations of poverty – discrimination, the membership theory of poverty, the bee sting theory, economic structures and processes, the business cycle etc. – go on the dump of politically correct academic claptrap.

This version of the culture of poverty theory is in essence a form of classism, akin to racism. Like a racist who claims that the depravation and inferiority of people of another race is entirely the fault of those people and should not be blamed on racism, adherents of this version of the culture of poverty theory claim that the poor are a separate group of people that make their own lives miserable, quite independently of external causes. The theory is also classist in the sense that it assumes one coherent culture among the poor, a culture that they simply “have” and that doesn’t contain major internal differences.

Acquired moral deficiencies

A more moderate but less common form of the theory maintains the moral opprobrium directed at poor people, but also sees some external reasons for their self-destructive values and behavior. The poor are still a separate group of people with a distinct culture, but this culture doesn’t result from some form of innate or genetically determined moral depravation that’s typical of the poor. The moral depravation that the adherents of this second version of the theory witness among the poor isn’t innate but is produced by generations of poverty. The poor classes and their offspring have responded to the ongoing burden of poverty by developing values and attitudes that perpetuate their poverty, and they socialize the next generations into these values and attitudes.

For example, decades of generational or hereditary poverty instill in people feelings of powerlessness, inferiority, victimhood and marginality, and these feelings in turn produce self-destructive values and behavior. They work as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecies. So, according to this second version of the theory, the self-destructive attitudes and behavior patterns that are the essence of the culture of poverty aren’t shaped by innate or genetic moral deficiencies. The observed moral deficiencies and the resulting self-destructive attitudes and behavior patterns are produced by internalization and socialization following decades of generational poverty.

The opposition to welfare inherent in the culture of poverty theory

Whatever the causes of self-destructive behavior – innate or genetic moral depravation on the one hand, or internalized self-destructive values on the other – the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that it’s only better behavior and values that can help people escape from poverty. The adherents of the “innate depravity” version of the theory will just have some more difficulties explaining how we can change the behavior and values of the poor.

And because it’s only better behavior that can help them, we shouldn’t give poor people money, unemployment benefits, healthcare insurance, child benefits etc. We don’t need a welfare state. Instead, the poor should be more diligent in their pursuit of a good education and a good job, they should lead healthier lives and have less children, especially out of wedlock etc. Some claim that money doesn’t matter for poverty (really!). The poor will do well even without money, as long as they change their value system. So, money doesn’t matter for poverty, like ice doesn’t matter for ice-skating, or something.

The fatalism inherent in the culture of poverty theory

According to the adherents of the culture of poverty theory, the poor aren’t just like all the rest of us minus the money. No, they are completely different, and just throwing money at them won’t change one iota. On the contrary, welfare benefits will just confirm them in their sense of victimhood and inferiority and will therefore perpetuate their destructive value system. However, closing the welfare tap and forcing them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps isn’t likely to work either, since they don’t have the discipline and the other values needed for that, and neither do they have the values necessary to get the education necessary to acquire a superior value system (were such an education provided to them).

Hence, even those adherents of the culture of poverty theory who don’t believe in innate moral deficiencies tend to conclude that poverty is permanent and that nothing can be done. Only those among the middle classes who have internalized the right values but for some reason or other become destitute (a widow for example, or a wounded soldier) will have the resources to recover. They might therefore also benefit from some form of welfare support. The generational poor, however, will remain poor even with tons of cash. Maybe the shock of near-starvation will help them, but also that is unlikely given their lack of moral resources and the difficulty of helping them to acquire those resources.

This is why the adherents of the culture of poverty theory claim that this theory explains the persistence of poverty much better than racism, discrimination, the inadequacies of the welfare state, the “creative destruction” of the business cycle etc.

A self-interested theory?

The culture of poverty theory, because it places the blame for poverty at the feet of the poor themselves, logically entails the claim that if those who are poor had acted differently they would not now be poor. And this entails yet another claim, namely that those who are not poor are so because of the way they acted. Hence, the wealthy deserve their riches. I can agree that they do to the extent that they work hard to earn their wealth. But wealth creation isn’t a solipsistic effort, it depends on cooperation. And it also depends on endowments such as talents, good and wealthy parents etc. and no one deserves any of those endowments. Many people who come into life with few endowments also work hard, and yet don’t achieve wealth.

I have the impression that the culture of poverty theory is just a tool for the wealthy to justify their own wealth and discredit the efforts to redistribute a part of that wealth in order to help the poor. I don’t mean that there are no individuals who are themselves the primary or even sole cause of their poverty, or that there aren’t any “cultural” explanations for poverty (“acting white” comes to mind). Neither do I underestimate the pernicious effects of a negative self-image or of welfare dependency. And I certainly don’t want to dispossess the wealthy simply because they can’t be said to deserve their wealth in any coherent sense of the word “deserve”. What I want to point out here is the tunnel vision of the culture of poverty theory, blocking out all other causes of poverty (mostly of a more structural nature), as well as the classism inherent in the theory, a classism that I believe is motivated by economic self-interest. And, finally, the fatalism of the theory is likely to be self-fulfilling.

More posts in this series are here.