So I was diverted a bit over the past few days, but have not forgotten my promise to complete my series on income inequality. Obviously, the answer to the title question comprises a series of causes, and I have spent the past few weeks explicating only one.
I noted that some readers might legitimately argue that people make bad choices which result in their status at the lower end of the income spectrum, and that they should be held to the consequences of the choices they made. After all, they reaped whatever rewards they perceived to be available as a result of those choices. This objection to my argument probably is the most common argument against any sort of significant redistributive policies, and frequently features the TV watching welfare mother who has kids so she can be supported by the state and not have to work.
I don’t think anybody denies that there are abuses in our system of social welfare. But study after study shows us that this is anything but the rule. Most people want to support themselves. If you have any doubt, look at the statistics on the number of working poor. Many of these people would be no worse off quitting their jobs and living on state assistance. But they don’t. As I have been at pains to point out, most people are like you and me. They have pride, and that means self-support from self-respect.
So, if not choice, why do people wind up at the bottom? Well, we’ve seen that circumstances of birth are powerfully determinative. Other forms of bad luck play their roles as well; personal or family illness, disability, and the like. But it is also true that a lot of people make bad choices. The argument from choice doesn’t go away.
I agree with the argument from choice. Pace Hume, Kant’s notion that as autonomous beings we should –indeed, we must – experience the consequences of our decisions strikes not only a chord with me but, I think, with most of us. (The problem with Kant – and I think Hume got it right, here – is that once you start to unravel the theory in real life and see it play through human nature, it doesn’t work.) So if I agree with the choice argument (and many people who make the choice argument will make exceptions for certain kinds of bad luck), what have I been talking about?
Try this. Compare two nine-year old children. Jimmy lives in Compton, California, and Susie, in Scarsdale, New York. Jimmy’s father abandoned the family, and his mother dropped out of high school. She works hard. Too hard for Jimmy’s welfare. She’s out of the house before dawn, waking Jimmy and his three siblings for school, but leaving them otherwise to fend for themselves, and home well after a healthy nine year old should be in bed. While Jimmy’s dad is gone, Jimmy does have an uncle. But his uncle went to prison when Jimmy was six. As much as his mom tells him to go straight home from school, Jimmy likes to hang around a bit with the older boys, some of whom have had problems with the law and almost all of whom spend as little time in school or doing homework as possible. Many of these boys also have missing fathers, and none have parents who got past high school. Like Jimmy, some have family members in prison. They do know of one girl from the neighborhood who went to USC on a scholarship a few years back, and of a few kids who started community college, but that’s about it.
Susie lives in Scarsdale. Susie’s dad is an investment banker. Mom worked at a big New York law firm before having kids, and now largely is home but also does some volunteer work for several civic organizations. Susie has a younger brother, and while the schools in Scarsdale are good, they both attend private school. Summers are spent in camp in the Adirondacks, and at the family’s home on Martha’s Vineyard. I don’t think I need to say much more.
Do we mean the same thing when we talk about choice for Jimmy and for Susie? Should we? I don’t think so. You see, we have permitted the perpetuation of a society in which Jimmy doesn’t have a lot of good choices and what good choices he has are obscured by his environment. Who is there to help Jimmy sort the good from the bad? Where are the examples for him of those who made good choices and reaped their rewards? Susie, on the other hand, has good choices all around her. While it certainly is possible for her to make bad choices, her life circumstances are such that she will likely make good choices even if she were blindfolded. And, should she make bad choices, she has a very substantial net to catch her and redirect her. (Does Jimmy deserve his circumstances? Does Susie?)
The point is simple. Before we hold people to the consequences of their choices we have, I think, a social obligation to ensure that they have enough good choices that are reasonably visible to them to justify doing so. Simply setting out an array of bad choices, and holding people responsible because bad choices are what they make, seems to me wrong, immoral, and unfair.