In the nineteenth century, critics and policy makers made a clear distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. The deserving poor worked hard, kept their homes and families clean, went to church regularly, maintained sobriety, and otherwise adhered to middle-class morals. They deserved help because their poverty was not their fault. But the undeserving poor had earned their poverty not only by refusing to work, or to work hard enough, but also by rejecting the middle-class model. If they were poor, it was because they hadn’t tried hard enough.
This should sound familiar to anyone who’s been reading op-ed pages lately. While no one has yet directly accused today’s poor people of being “undeserving,” scholars and pundits have been fretting about their morals. In Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, Charles Murray argued that declining morality among the lower class (which as one reviewer noted, Murray was “too polite” to name) was creating economic and social dysfunctions. Robert Putnam traces similar patterns in his latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, though Putnam also notes the role of deindustrialization in shaping those patterns. But in response to Putnam’s study, David Brooks focuses on the moral issues rather than economics or policy. In many poor areas, he writes, “there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life.” He suggests that we should hold the poor and working class “responsible” for their choices.
These and other commentaries suggest a shift in focus in American public discourse about economic inequality. Rather than hearing about the power of a few elites to influence policy so that they gain an ever larger share of wealth, and rather than analyzing how business and employment practices contribute to the stagnation and decline in wages – the kinds of issues raised by the Occupy Movement — the debate increasingly focuses on whether those who have less are victims of policies and business practices or of their own flawed morality.
Poor and working-class people, some critics argue, contribute to their troubles by not having stable marriages, giving birth to too many children from too many fathers, not being reliable workers, and over-indulging in drugs and alcohol. They focus on momentary pleasures rather than long-term planning, and parents aren’t sufficiently willing to sacrifice to improve their children’s lives. For commentators like Murray and Brooks, these behaviors are based in weak morality, not in social or economic conditions. The discussion echoes ideas that surfaced in the 1960s, when the Moynihan Report famously blamed the economic struggles of African Americans on the rise of the matriarchal family.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the effects on children – and on the wider social fabric — of drug and alcohol abuse, household instability, or domestic and neighborhood violence. These are real problems, and they undermine children’s sense of security and connection and teach children to have low expectations for their futures, which in turn can contribute to problems in school. However, analyses that look only at the problems in poor and working-class communities miss important strengths that may not be visible to the more elite outsiders who conduct these studies and write the columns. They may miss the networks of mutual aid that help people survive when they lack other resources, and they undervalue the street smarts and resilience that children can learn from growing up amid struggle.
More important, they too easily dismiss the structural and policy causes of these patterns and underestimate the challenges of creating stability in an era when steady jobs are becoming ever more scarce. How can people establish stable home lives when so many jobs are temporary, poorly paid, and require workers to juggle constantly changing shifts at multiple work sites? One explanation of the instability of many poor and working-class households appears in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which outlines how instead of reducing drug use or the drug trade, the war on drugs ensured that many poor children grew up with their father in prison instead of in the home. As Alexander notes, after prison, fathers often can’t return to their homes or find stable employment.
Critics too often oversimplify both the causes and the debate. For example, Ross Douthat suggests a false and simplistic divide, claiming that those on the left blame poverty entirely on money, while those on the right blame it on morals. Putnam’s book makes clear that both the issue and the debate are more complex than this. But though he ties the social decline of the poor and working class to the loss of industrial jobs, he then suggests solutions that focus on strengthening families and education, suggesting policy changes that don’t address the larger economic causes. And in today’s political climate, his prescriptions reflect wishful thinking rather than realistic strategies.
To be fair, both Brooks and Douthat temper their concerns for the morality of the poor with calls for the elite to change, as well. As Brooks writes, “privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.” Douthat offers an even stronger critique of the elite, though he still casts the problem in moral terms: “our upper class should be judged first — for being too solipsistic to recognize that its present ideal of ‘safe’ permissiveness works (sort of) only for the privileged, and for failing to take any moral responsibility (in the schools it runs, the mass entertainments it produces, the social agenda it favors) for the effects of permissiveness on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents turning off the television or firewalling the porn.”
I want to suggest a different way of thinking about the elite’s role, focused less on personal morality and more on social responsibility. What might happen if the elite stopped pursuing profit at all costs and embraced the social responsibility of creating working conditions that foster stability for working families? What if instead of blaming the “undeserving poor,” they took responsibility for using their own power to change the conditions that create instability for poor and working-class lives?