The Habits of the Poor
My post on what creates success generated a good conversation so I wanted to follow-up by expanding on the topic. Megan McArdle again provides a nice jumping off point (I love that chick). I’ve chopped it up here for brevity but I think I have kept the theme of her comments intact.
I’m not arguing against incentives, or a safety net…But I chafe at the supposition that anything as simple as “jobs” could fix the problems in poor schools, or poor lives.
…at some level, it doesn’t matter. Poor people are actually choosing not to hassle with their kid’s school. It’s a real choice that they have made. There is no reason to assume that you will be able to override it if you just get the policy levers in the right position.
As adults they are the products of everything that has happened to them, and everything that they have done, but they are also now exercising free will. If you assume you know the choice they should make, and that there is some reliable way to entice them to make it, you’re imagining away their humanity, and replacing it with an automaton.
McArdle’s views very nearly mirror my own on this subject. Partially because I took a LOT of social science classes in college, partially because I am married to a social worker and partially because I have two teenage children, I have become increasingly convinced that policy has almost zero ability to change human behavior. This applies both to reward systems AND to negative consequences.
With my kids I’ll give two examples of negative behaviors we have tried to change: messy rooms and not completing homework. One of our daughters prefers to keep her bedroom in a condition that resembles the city landfill. The other daughter seems to believe that homework is an optional activity. We have tried any number of approaches to both negative behaviors. We’ve tried punishments, rewards, pleading, trickery, providing assistance and even low-level shaming. Nothing works. The behaviors don’t change and we are left frustrated and feeling the effort was wasted. Yet we still keep trying because to give up seems both an admission of defeat and an admission that we have raised less-than-perfect children (parenthood often conflicts with rational thought).
This is perhaps a clumsy analogy about poverty and the behaviors of the poor but society has also decided that it believes behaviors can be changed through the correct application of policy. Like my wife and I, thinkers keep dreaming up new policies and implementation gives way to disappointment. This dynamic seems important going into the general election later this year because in addition to economic policy there will no doubt be conversations about the obligation of society towards those who have either fallen from success or never attained it in the first place. The realities of human behavior seem to dictate that social policy should be geared towards mitigating the effects of bad decision making and not towards preventive measures that have little chance of success. An appropriate conversation between Right and Left might be about where society’s obligation begins and ends.
Polices aimed at mitigating bad behavior are already in place. That’s what a good portion of our educational system is based on. School systems employ teams of social workers and other professionals whose job is essentially to lessen the negative impacts of poor parenting on children. Beyond schools our welfare system is aimed less towards changing negative human behaviors and more towards softening their impact.
On this subject it seems that the Left has the advantage. Conservatives have always believed that an ‘ounce of preventionis worth a pound of cure’ and have been less inclined to provide safety nets designed to catch those who fail. Unfortunately for my colleagues on the Right our record on the prevention end is lacking any proof of success (or demonstration of serious support in the way of funding). On the other side, liberals give lip service and modest funding to prevention efforts but it is clear that they devote the majority of their time towards the mitigation effort. Conservatives view this as pessimissm and all that is wrong with liberal policy because it is thought to incentivize failure. The truth is that both sides are correct on certain points. Money is better spent when geared towards safety nets because it addresses the realtiy of human behavior, but by softening the impact of bad decision making it does prolong the cycle. Conservatives should focus on that and force the Left to agree on reasonable limits to safety nets.
Society can only do so much and the conversation this year will hopefully touch on just that should look like.