Sunday, April 13, 2008

The snow job: why personal responsibility won't end poverty

Yesterday Bob Herbert at the New York Times wrote about the apparent futility of every effort we've taken so far to end the war in Iraq and change our nation for the better. Herbert described the results of our lack of collective power in concise and heartbreaking terms:

The U.S., once the greatest can-do country on the planet, now can’t seem to do anything right. The great middle class has maxed out its credit cards and drained dangerous amounts of equity from family homes. No one can seem to figure out how to generate the growth in good-paying jobs that is the only legitimate way of putting strapped families back on their feet.

The nation’s infrastructure is aging and in many places decrepit. Rebuilding it would be an important source of job creation, but nothing on the scale that is needed is in sight. ......The U.S. seems almost paralyzed, mesmerized by Iraq and unable to generate the energy or the will to handle the myriad problems festering at home. The war will eventually cost a staggering $3 trillion or more, according to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. When he was asked on “Democracy Now!” about who is profiting from the war, he said the two big gainers were the oil companies and the defense contractors.....This is the pathetic state of affairs in the U.S. as we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century.
This morning Jo-Ann Moriarty at the Springfield Republican writes about the effect of poverty which, many say, is shared disproportionately by Western Massachusetts. Last year Springfield was ranked the sixth poorest city in the nation. In the nearby city of Holyoke, Mayor Michael Sullivan talks about homeless families being sent from the Eastern part of the state to shelters in Holyoke; if those families move into apartments there, then the overall poverty rate of the city increases.

No one who lives around here likes dealing with the effects of poverty, and why should we? Run-down houses, broken streets and litter-filled empty lots are just the physical signs. We have a high student drop-out rate, high unemployment, crime. The vast majority of that crime is committed by poor people against poor people, but that is still small comfort for the non-poor. The bonds between poor and yet having faith in the future and some dignity in the meantime are nearly broken. Too many of the rest of us revel in apathy.

The question we all want to know the answer to is, why are things the way they are? Part of it has to be the decline in our industrial base over the last forty years, hardly unique to Western Mass. Our industrial manufacturers-- the ones that weren't driven out of business-- moved their operations to places that could increase their bottom line. What's replaced them, for the most part, is service jobs: you wait on me at Burger King, I wait on you at CVS, we wait and are waited on by PCAs, child care workers, teachers' aides and security guards. A $9 an hour, 35 hours a week job yields an annual salary that barely topping $16,000.

Most of the dialogue and much of the anger in our community focuses on personal responsibility. In press conferences about the gang problem, pronouncements about the homeless and the drop-out rate, and in exchanges on Springfield's Masslive forum, the poor are admonished for failing to take control of their destiny. Citizens decry the "entitlement mentality" of food stamp users, welfare recipients and those on SSI.

To challenge this perspective is to be accused of enabling, of making excuses for the poor, but that is not the intent of anti-poverty activists. We shake our heads in discouragement when someone throws away yet another chance, and we encourage and cheer poor people and each other on when someone succeeds in moving ahead. But we don't believe that if everyone took personal responsibility, got a job, or stayed in school, poverty would disappear. Of course people think of individual responsibility first, because its apparent lack is the easiest to see. Why does that woman have children she can't afford to feed? Why don't they pick the papers up out of their yard? The result of poverty is mistaken for its cause.

So picture this: One day you wake up and discover that every kid in the city is refusing to drop out of school, every addict has stopped using, and every unemployed person is demanding a job. What do you think will happen? I picture chaos as our institutions collapse trying to meet the needs of people who have taken personal responsibility of their lives.

As long as the majority of us think that all poor people could stop being poor if they just wanted it hard enough, then we will fail to make the connection between poverty and the war, poverty and corporations, poverty and globalization.. And that will be just fine with our current policymakers and the economic elite, because they like things the way they are.They're the only ones benefiting in a really big way

Yes, take individual responsibility and by all means expect it from others, but don't stop there. Look up the food chain and demand real solutions. We all deserve a chance.

graphic from Stir Your World and CensusScope.

1 comment:

Freedem said...

It is amazing to me to see wingers rail about personal responsibility in wanting folks making decisions about their own lives to be responsible, but when a personal decision of someone causes the ruin, maiming, poisoning, and other myriad of horrid deaths, often of millions, and often for personal gain, somehow they don't need to be held responsible.

I have written extensively on that.