Poverty, Social Structure and Individual Responsibility

After watching the documentary “Home”, long-time RBC commenter Eli Rector meditates on how individual agency and personal responsibility require particular social structures to emerge. It’s a thoughtful essay, well worth a read (and the film sounds very good too).

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “Poverty, Social Structure and Individual Responsibility”

  1. One way I think of these issues, at least in the political web we are meshed in, is that Republicans want people to be “better” — which is good, we need better people, and we all could be better ourselves — but are unwilling to have the state do anything help them be better, except provide structures that ensure if one fails (by bad luck or bad choices or bad initial conditions), one stays down forever.

  2. One thing I don’t see here is an explicit understanding of the ways in which being poor and living in a bad neighborhood demand significantly more in the way of social competence than everyday life in the middle class. Sure, it’s a great offer (or maybe not, depending on all the supports that would be left behind), but it comes with a huge set of demands, with very short deadlines, on top of an already-overloaded schedule.

    1. This is an excellent point. Being poor is damned hard. And not just financial struggle, but the overwhelming grind of it all. The shitty cars, the crowded busses, the lack of health care, the bad neighborhood influences, the double shifts. But beyond the physical realities, you have all the emotional stress of having to deal with so many others who are struggling, who might be tired, depressed, and maybe aren’t making the best choices. Living in a ghetto is depressing, and depression messes with your mind.

      Social services often get written off in absurdly simplistic behavioral terms – that people need to “help themselves”. But anyone who’s spent time in social services knows that millions of people are being helped everyday do things that either *they could not have done themselves*, or that it’s just one less thing they aren’t completely alone on in the stormy waters of life. These are things like legal counseling or advocacy, health care, job training, or food stamps. Heck, a blanket for a guy who sleeps under a bridge. And yet they still function as the weakest of safety nets, only managing ever to shave off a small portion of the rough edges from an enormously difficult daily struggle.

      I just watched the film “The Iron Lady”, in which Margaret Thatcher loves to remind everyone that she was able to do without a great deal while growing up, and offers this to support her claim that social services are unnecessary and don’t teach people self-reliance (how people such as Mitt Romney can spout such things is beyond belief). Yet Lord knows Sheree Farmer didn’t need anyone’s damn lessons in self-reliance. She needed a break.

  3. A better offer, for this very-stretched woman, would be a four-bedroom rental apartment in the same area where she is not succeeding in being a home owner. Home ownership is a better deal financially long-term, but what she needs is a leg up for the next several years while she gets those kids raised. Home ownership is not just a money pit, it’s also a time sink. It calls for skills that it is better to learn in a measured way, not while you’re trying to cope with six children and a shaky income stream.

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