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Social Mobility Memos

Question: Is poverty an economic or cultural problem? Answer: Yes.

Richard V. Reeves

Whose fault is poverty? Is it the fault of the poor themselves, who should be working harder, making better decisions, and committing to their own futures? Or of society at large, for failing to provide the resources, jobs, and opportunities needed to alleviate poverty?

This question — culture versus economics — lies at the heart of a deep political divide on how to tackle poverty. It was a critical issue in this week’s event involving President Obama, along with Robert Putnam, Arthur Brooks, and our own EJ Dionne, at Georgetown on Tuesday. (You can watch it online here).

Obama’s “both/and” approach to poverty

Although there was inevitably disagreement on the panel, one shared message was the need for a “both/and” perspective rather than an “either/or” view of poverty. It is a mistake to see poverty as a solely economic concern and ignore the role of culture, norms, and character and a mistake to do the opposite.

As President Obama put it at yesterday’s event: “I am all for values; I am all for character … [But] because of no fault of those kids, and because of history and some tough going, generationally, some of those kids, they’re not going to get help at home. They’re not going to get enough help at home.  And the question then becomes, are we committed to helping them instead?”

There is a finely calibrated balance between individual and collective responsibility. Society has a collective responsibility to create opportunities for the least advantaged; the individual has a responsibility to take them. President Obama himself has been one of the most outspoken politicians on issues such as parental responsibility, especially fathering.

Economic gaps = empathy gaps = economic gaps

Putnam’s book is called “Our Kids” for a reason: he is hoping to evoke a sense of broader responsibility, to see the children of the poor as “ours,” rather than “theirs”. One of the problems here is a failure of imagination. It is sometimes difficult for the affluent to understand the texture of poverty, since they don’t interact with poor people. Economic sorting at the neighborhood level leads to social sorting in terms of schools, churches and community groups. As Putnam puts it, “Our kids are increasingly growing up with kids like them who have parents like us.” This represents, he warns, “an incipient class apartheid.”

With fewer social ties and connections between the haves and have-nots, it becomes harder for people to see themselves in the others’ shoes: the economic gap becomes an empathy gap. When social ties weaken, stereotypes flourish.

The whole truth on poverty

As the great British liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill noted (OK, yes, I’m his biographer), when people disagree it is rare that one is wholly right and the other wholly wrong. Usually they “share the truth between them.” Perhaps yesterday’s conversation will go some way towards seeing the whole truth on opportunity in America and therefore towards some more concerted bipartisan efforts to improve it. 


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