Original Post (with comments)
Neal Boortz, my favorite radio guy, is fond of saying that poverty is a mental disease, that poor people are poor because they keep doing things that make people poor. It’s all about choices, says the talkmaster. I tend to agree, but there’s more to it than that. I concede that making bad decisions is the fastest way to get poor and stay poor. However, the question on my mind has to do with the culpability of people who consistently make bad decisions. What if the reason so many folks make consistently bad decisions is beyond their control? Then what? Then is it reasonable to advocate a social system that dooms these truly unfortunate souls to the perpetual motion machine of poverty?
I can almost hear the gasps. Here I am, one who pleads regularly for more personal responsibility, taking the blame off the individual. Allow me to elaborate. As I’ve mentioned before, a major component of human development is what I call the time horizon of maturity. This basically refers to one’s ability to project him or herself into the future to actually envision the consequences of actions that are being taken in the present. Children have a very short time horizon, and this is mostly a function of their limited understanding of the concept of time in general. As they grow up, however, they come to understand time, and if they’re raised in the right kind of environment, they come to be able to imagine themselves in the future. This is the key to making good decisions.
Many liberal-minded people think of conservatives as heartless because conservatives don’t often display a great deal of sympathy for people who have had the chance to do something with their lives but they simply haven’t. Indeed, as I myself have said many times, I went to public school. I could have kicked back and lived the high life (literally) every day , but I wanted a future that would not allow it. How is it fair that someone should be rewarded with part of my success (in the form of benefits that come from my tax dollars) for doing nothing, for contributing nothing? Though it has been a bit discomforting, the idea has been steadily dawning on me over the last year or so that maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the libs have gotten this one right…at least partly right – they’ve correctly identified the problem.
Imagine an 8-year old white boy named Jimmy. His father left shortly after he was born. His mother, Lila, has tried to work but she’s been fired again and again for poor attendance – some due to looking after Jimmy, some due to looking after herself a little too much. Now she’s on welfare. She gets food stamps and a check every month. They also live in government housing. Jimmy’s neighborhood is tough, even for 8-year olds. Most of the kids hate school and ditch it whenever they can. Jimmy is no different. When the school calls home to notify Lila, she’s too engrossed in daytime TV to care. Besides, she never exactly liked school herself. Now, the question, the one I can’t shake is this: when 20 years goes by and Jimmy is a derelict in his neighborhood (if he’s still alive), was it his fault that he never got his act together?
The answer revolves around whether or not he possesses the ability to see the future…with himself in it. I am more and more convinced that most people in poverty simply do not. If you say to someone, “You must study for this test in order to pass this course,” it means nothing if passing the course means nothing to that person. Passing a course is not an end in itself. It is the means to an end. In order for one to be motivated by this line of reasoning, he or she must be able to internalize the personal significance of passing the course. More importantly, the significance has to be more powerful than whatever immediate gratification must be foregone in the studying. So you can’t just pound home the platitude that you have to stay in school to succeed in life. It’s like a foreign language to one who cannot see the future, and we cannot hold this person responsible for not speaking a language that they have no experience with. This, more than anything else, is the poverty problem, and our society is not addressing it at all.
What are we to do? This is the big question. Here, I must side with my fiscally conservative brethren in saying that income redistribution is not the answer, at least not as it is done today. You can’t give money to someone who lives for today and expect them to do anything but spend it as fast as possible. This is the phenomenon that explains the staggering number of lottery winners who end up in jail for failing to pay taxes on everything they buy and for defaulting on massive debts. No, money is not the answer. We need widespread prognostication education.
One way or another, we have to get to the people currently in poverty and teach them to envision themselves experiencing the consequences of their decisions. We have to teach them to teach their children the same thing. We have to go back to basics. It’s all about action and reaction. As we do when teaching anything complex, we must start small and work our way up. We need to be able to diagnose where people are and then get them in a program to see further and further into the future. When we have a nation of amateur prognosticators, we can feel justified in holding them accountable for their actions. Until that time, we should be careful with our judgement. We should thank luck and circumstance that it is not we who see tomorrow so much fuzzier than we see today.