When I was a teenager, I remember my grandfather would often come for family dinner. On one occasion at the dinner table, my young sister reported seeing a man that afternoon begging for small change outside a store in the local mall. She said she had felt very sorry for him. On her way back to the family car, she had dropped a quarter into his collection box. She told us it felt good to help someone in need.
At dinner, Grandfather was the first person to react. "Folks need to stop whining and begging, and get a job. It's all about taking personal responsibility."
My dad chimed in, saying there is something to the "personal responsibility" narrative, but any of us can also make bad choices in our lives. He continued, "Self-destructive behaviors ---- such as dropping out of school, hanging out with the wrong type of kids, taking drugs, bearing children when one is not ready, can eventually lead to poverty in adult life."
"So true!" my mother affirmed, "yet researchers are also learning the roots of these behaviors, and that they are far more complicated than mere "human weakness".
My mother then pointed out there is growing evidence that poverty and mental health problems are linked in complex, reinforcing ways. My mother referred to a Gallop Poll of a few years before which found that people living in poverty were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression as other Americans.
It occurred to me, that if one is battling mental health problems, or is a grown-up with traumas like domestic violence (or perhaps witnessing a family member shot dead) aren't you more likely to have trouble in school, to have trouble in relationships?
"Don't forget," offered my dad, "that economic and social stress robs us of some "cognitive-bandwidth." Worrying about bills, food or other problems, leaves less capacity to think ahead or to exert self-discipline. So, it is as if poverty imposes a mental tax."
"Furthermore," said Dad, "when people have an elevated level of stress, they are less willing to delay gratification ---- they become more impatient for immediate rewards, and thus are more prone to "bad choices." So, you can see, a person's circumstances can land them in a situation where it's really hard to make a good decision because they are so stressed out. And the decisions they get wrong matter much more because there's less slack to play with."
It was time for dessert, but my mother had something to say first: "I wonder whether America's ideology of social and economic mobility, the "Horatio Alger" notion that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, may empower some poor people but leave others feeling like failures, brimming with self-doubt that makes bad choices all the more likely. Certainly, self-doubt is seen widely among the poor."
Later, as I thought about our dinner conversation, it occurred to me that what caused the poverty problem (besides a person's circumstances) for many of the "street poor" is an element inside them, and changing that internal element is the only way many of them will reduce their level of poverty. Perhaps my grandfather had been correct at the start when he thought the solution was simply about "personal responsibility." It's just that he had been very simplistic in this view. For example, an emphasis on developing personal responsibility is part of any 12-Step program, which tries to confront alcoholism, but these programs also have many other facets, including weekly meetings and peer support.
But, for society to place the blame entirely on the individual seems to me a cop-out. Our culture is cluttered with excuses for bad behavior. It's always said to be somebody else's fault. In some sense that may be true, but the victim's bad choices are real and have consequences.
So, as long as we are talking about personal responsibility, let's also examine our own. Is it more than putting a few coins in the street beggar's outstretched hand. Do we have a collective responsibility to provide more of a fair start in life to all, so that children are less propelled toward bad choices?
If the evidence is overwhelming that we fail kids before they fail us, when certain programs would actually save public money while elevating personal responsibility, is it time to stop making excuses for our own self-destructive behaviors as a society?
These thoughts are brought to you by CPC's Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage in you some spiritual growth this Fall.