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Concern for the Poor vs. Responsibility for Poverty: A Necessary Change in Perspective

No politician or elected official will ever accept responsibility for addressing poverty so long as the electorate from which she or he seeks support does not itself accept such responsibility and, in turn, insist that elected officials play a significant role in fulfilling that responsibility.  Of course, our electorate accepts responsibility for very little when it comes to politics.  Why should they, when so much political decision-making seems so out of their control?  Instead, they are very busy trying with various degrees of success to be responsible for what is to some measure in their control – their own lives: their families, their jobs, and, very occasionally, their neighbor (not their biblical neighbor, but literally the person next door).

Many in the electorate will affirm a concern for the poor.  Some will show that concern through charitable giving and volunteer work.  Very few will translate that concern into political action.  But even when such concern yields some political involvement, there is a real difference between showing concern for the poor and accepting responsibility for poverty.  Concern creates only an option for action, not the imperative for action that is created when one accepts responsibility.  Of all the many things I am concerned about, I will only be able to act on a small number of them.  But when I am responsible for something, I must act on it.  At the very least, there is a moral demand placed upon me to act.

There are ample resources within both scripture and tradition to make the case that the people of God must accept responsibility for poverty, and not merely concern for the poor.  I will not make that case here.  Instead, I will explore some of the reasons why it is very hard for the U.S. electorate, and those within it who think of themselves as representatives of the people of God, to accept responsibility for poverty.  I will consider three general reasons: 1) Failure of leadership; 2) Blaming the poor; 3) Public policy ignorance.


Failure of Leadership

The single most obvious reason why people do not accept responsibility for poverty is that no one insists, or even asks, that they do so.  I am regularly stunned by how often this fact is not mentioned in political and theological analyses of poverty.  Certainly, the move from concern for the poor to responsibility for poverty is rarely, if ever, made in either pulpits or bully pulpits.  Yet, people are asked to do all sorts of other things like provide tithes and offerings, volunteer to teach Sunday School, and sign petitions.  It is sometimes amazing what you can do when you ask people to do something, but it is never amazing when people do not do what they have not been asked to do.

Equally obvious but again rarely mentioned is that most people would have very little idea what to do at the political level in the event that they did accept responsibility for poverty.  Every year, countless political decisions are made at the local and state level that have immediate effects on poor people’s lives.  These are also the two levels of government that are easiest to influence.  Yet, most policy discussions of poverty, whether from scholars or denominational offices, consider only federal policies.  But whether the debate and decision-making is at the federal, state, or local level, most people, including most people who are concerned about the poor, have no idea that these debates are going on.  Religious and political leaders do not insist that we the people of God and of the United States accept responsibility for being informed about at least some of these policy debates and taking action to support or oppose specific policies.

To address this failure of leadership, we need to do three things.  First, shift the discussion of poverty from one of concern for the poor to responsibility for poverty.  Second, teach individual congregations how to create permanent structures (not ephemeral interest groups) that create educational opportunities related to anti-poverty advocacy.  Third, create and financially support intermediate organizations like Protestants for the Common Good in Chicago, or the many incarnations of the Industrial Areas Foundation that provide easy (really, really easy) access to opportunities for anti-poverty advocacy.  This last requirement will help to cultivate the first.  That is, the more people have a chance to get involved in anti-poverty advocacy, the more they will understand it as a matter of responsibility rather than concern.


Blaming the Poor

The likelihood that a person will be poor and that her or his children will be poor is significantly influenced by the choices that the person makes.  Given this reality, it can seem obvious that poor individuals are responsible for their poverty.  Why then should others accept responsibility for the poverty of these individuals?  A failure to answer this question satisfactorily is the single greatest obstacle to creating an electorate that accepts responsibility for poverty.

Before I go on, let me clarify that most individual adults are solely responsible for the decisions they make.  If we truly believe in the dignity of all people, including the poor, we should not even begin to suggest otherwise.

What is not a matter of individual responsibility is the environment within which these decisions are made.  Individuals are not responsible in important ways for the range of opportunities available to them.  This is true for poor and rich alike.  Poverty is not just the aggregation of poor people.  It is the conditions within which people make decisions that both lead to and entrench poverty.  We all make bad decisions, but in some environments those bad decisions are much more likely to lead to poverty than in others.  We all learn from those we grow up with, but for rich and poor alike who we grow up with is largely out of our control, as are the lessons we learn.  Thus, whether we learn the lessons that make becoming poor more likely or less likely is also often out of our control.  We all know that who we become has a lot to with opportunities that are made available to us.  Those who are poor often liven in opportunity starved neighborhoods.  More importantly, the virtues required to make the most of the few opportunities found in poor neighborhoods are often vices when they inform action in high opportunity, non-poor environments (e.g. focus on immediate reward rather than deferral of opportunity, establishing a threatening rather than a non-threatening posture, legal employment vs. illegal employment, etc.).

Our failure to differentiate between the bad decisions people make and the bad environments within which poor people often make decisions has had especially corrosive consequences for our understanding of racial inequality.  In contexts such as the United States with persistent and deep racial inequality, that racial inequality can either be explained by the choices of poor individual black people, or by social, political, and economic forces that create that inequality.  With nearly 50 years behind us since the outlawing of most overt forms of racial discrimination, and with what some perceive as decades of government programs designed to assist black communities, the overwhelming public conclusion is that the individual decisions of some black people are exclusively, or at least largely, the cause of racial inequality.

The conclusion that black individuals alone are either exclusively, or even partially, responsible for racial inequality inevitably creates a white supremacist logic.  If the individual decisions of poor black people are to blame for the significantly disproportionate persistence of negative outcomes in some black communities, and these decisions are morally blameworthy, then blacks as a group must be morally inferior to those groups that do not experience such disproportionately negative outcomes.  This logic creates a suspicion of black people as a group and of every black individual.  Even in a world that recognizes the great successes of black individuals, every black person is assumed to be broken, morally deficient, until proven otherwise.  Even those black people who seem to have proven themselves successful remain under a suspicion of lingering corruption. Whites, on the other hand, are assumed to be successful, or capable of success, until proven otherwise.  This is a basic privilege of which few of them are aware.

The error in such thinking is not first its white supremacy, as this is just the logical conclusion of the deeper error which is failing to differentiate between the bad outcomes of individual choices and the persistent inequality of bad outcomes.  In a racially equal world, there should be equal proportions between racial groups of geniuses and average minds, saints and sinners, CEOs and custodians.  The likelihood of remaining poor if born into poverty must not be 1 in 3 for one group (blacks) and 1 in 14 for another (whites).  One’s skin color must have nothing to do with the likelihood of one spending time in prison.

Given our history and our rhetorical protestations to the contrary, the persistence of racial inequality is an especially damning indictment of our nation and our governments.  So too is the persistence of poverty; for it is the very presence of poverty that biblically indicts a people.  The presence of poverty is a sign that the people and their governments have failed, not that poor people have failed.


Public Policy Ignorance

It is easy to see the consequences of bad choices.  It is much less easy to see the consequences of bad or insufficient policies.  However, a compelling case can be made that public policy has had much to do with creating and maintaining the poverty in our country.  Unfortunately, most people have almost no knowledge of how these policies came to be and how they continue today.  I will identify only three areas where this is clearly the case.

1) The War on Drugs.  The war on drugs represents the third wave of government sponsored evisceration of black communities (slavery, Jim Crow, war on drugs).  After billions of dollars and countless deaths, this war has failed to make drugs more difficult to acquire.  What it has done is devastate black communities and place an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of black individuals in prison, leaving them with felony drug records that will continue to reduce opportunities for them and their families.  White America stands by and lets this destruction of black lives continue.

2) The Housing-Education-Employment connection.  Nothing has contributed more to the great differences within the so-called “geography of opportunity” in our country than the legacy of racial and economic housing segregation and the linking of public education to local housing markets.  Place matters.  Where one lives has much to do with the opportunities one can pursue, and it is especially relevant to the quality of education one’s children will receive.  However, access to “good schools” now requires access to communities with expensive housing; access that poor people do not have.  The quality of education that one receives, in turn, has a significant influence on the kind of employment one can secure.  The kind of employment one can secure has a significant impact on whether or not one will become or remain poor.

3) Government support.  We know that targeted government support of anti-poverty efforts can reduce poverty.  Whether the issue is one of direct income transfer support through programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, indirect income support such housing and childcare vouchers, or government supported investments like early childhood education, or education programs in prisons, we know that these programs can reduce poverty.  Unfortunately, the availability of these programs does not nearly meet the demand for them.  Many get eliminated altogether when budgets get stressed.  There is much that governments can directly do to reduce poverty.  What is missing is the political demand for anti-poverty action.

It is easy to blame politicians for failing to address poverty; too easy, in fact.  Those of us who are not poor have the luxury of taking many easy ways out when it comes to poverty.  Perhaps acting differently will first require us to be embarrassed, and maybe just a little ashamed, when we take this easy way out while pretending to be advocates for the poor.


Joe Pettit is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University.  Additional writing on poverty and racial inequality can be found at www.notsodeepthoughts.org

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