Conservatives point to a “culture of poverty” and suggest that much deprivation is the result of flawed choices and behavior by the poor themselves. They point to a strong correlation between poverty and a failure to follow the so-called “success sequence”: finish school, get a job, get married, and only then have children. Relatively few people who do those things end up in poverty.
Liberals, on the other hand, say that that is all very well, but choices are always constrained by the circumstances in which people live. Therefore, conservatives are wrong to discount structural factors, such as racism, gender-based discrimination, and economic dislocation, that can help shape people’s choices.
There is truth to both explanations. One can’t strip the poor of agency by treating them as if they were little more than chaff blown by the wind, with no responsibility for their choices. But neither should we ignore the context in which those decisions are made. For all the progress we have made, not everyone starts with an equal opportunity.
However, in my new book, The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth America’s Poor (available this Friday, December 7), I offer a third explanation: Too often, government policies help make or keep people poor. Rather than having another sterile debate over whether this program should be increased by $X billion or that program should be cut by $Y billion, we should strive for fundamental reform of those areas of government that most harm the poor. …