Is Poverty the Individual’s Fault?

By Evelyn Forget and Chris Sarlo

CHRIS SARLO

The economics professor at Nipissing University and senior fellow at the Fraser Institute

SAYS YES

I’ll answer yes—with two qualifications. First, the setting in which I believe this statement is true is modern-day Canada (or the US). I emphasize this because throughout most of human history, almost everyone has lived in poverty because they were not permitted to pursue their own interests; they were effectively the property of some leader or state and had no right of consent. Second, I define poverty as a condition of serious deprivation and not as inequality. If we were to define poverty as the state of being unequal, then any system or structure that did not place limits on merit rewards or wealth accumulation would, necessarily, be causing “poverty.” And, that, of course, absolves people from any responsibility for their own situation.

With those qualifiers out of the way, I want to assume no one sets out to live in poverty. We don’t get to choose exactly where we end up. We simply make thousands of decisions along the way and if we make enough good ones and avoid some really bad ones, we have a good chance of avoiding poverty. What we find is that the sting of negative consequences tends to steer people to make better choices.

Luck, for sure, plays a role in life. We can all imagine a variety of circumstances and events that are out of our control and that raise (or lower) the chance of being in poverty. But even then, bad luck is not destiny. Most Canadians classified as disabled are active in the labour force. Most penniless immigrants to Canada (many of whom faced cultural and/or racial discrimination) have had a remarkable record of financial success. I would regard luck as a minor consideration in the determination of outcomes.

I want to suggest that certain key choices can significantly increase the probability of ending up in poverty: for example, committing crimes, abusing alcohol and drugs, mismanaging your finances, and (controversially) having a child when you cannot support yourself. These decisions don’t guarantee poverty but substantially raise the risk. Are you responsible for the results of decisions that critically increase the chance of ending up in poverty? Yes. You are responsible, morally and practically, for the choices you make.

The Brookings Institution, a left-leaning policy think tank in the US, has in recent decades focused attention on this very question. Is poverty largely the result of “behaviour” (that is to say the choices that people make) or is it largely out of our control? Their research suggests it’s the former and that the job of helping agencies is to promote “good” choices. They emphasize three “social norms” in particular that help people to avoid poverty: 1. Finish high school; 2. Get a full-time job; and 3. Have only the number of children you can afford. My own research on the causes of poverty confirms that, in Canada, doing all three effectively ensures you will not be poor.

 

EVELYN FORGET

The economist and professor in Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba

SAYS NO

Every family has stories we tell to make sense of the world. In mine, those stories were all about “luck”—this great brooding beast hiding behind doors or perching on window ledges like an ancient gargoyle, ready to leap on your back or destroy your efforts. Luck was never good.

I was born healthy into a stable, middle-class family in Scarborough during the surging postwar economy. My neighbourhood bustled with kids from all over the world. Our new schools were staffed by growing tax revenue, and the future seemed boundless. My mother was the 15th child of 16 born to subsistence farmers in rural Nova Scotia. As a child she suffered rheumatic fever that developed from untreated strep. At 16 she left her one-room school for Toronto—a refugee from poverty and hopelessness.

My father was a factory worker, and although he left his Newfoundland school without completing Grade 9, his wages were sufficient to buy a new three-bedroom house on the edge of Scarborough. He died when I was 12, and social assistance was there to support us during the first hard months. Then my mother found work and raised us to work hard and seize opportunities. And seize them we did.

This story lends itself to an “up by one’s bootstraps” tale of individual achievement, but our successes were not personal. We were not especially smart or brave or lucky. Social structures conspired to protect us from our own bad luck and foolish errors. Social programs, such as provincial income assistance, were there when we needed them. Subsidized transportation was readily available. My youngest brother’s hospital stays were not devastating, because medicare made expensive health insurance unnecessary. Good public schools, libraries, pools and hockey rinks adorned every neighbourhood.

Youthful experimentation with drugs was punished—unless you were a white kid from the suburbs. Free clinics addressed unexpected pregnancies and addictions. University tuition was low enough that a summer gig paid our expenses. Jobs awaited us upon graduation. White kids like me never had to confront racism in the labour market or from the judicial system. We would have been shocked to learn that other kids, just as smart and ambitious as we were, faced different opportunities.

When I broke the law, I faced a fine, not a sentence at a juvenile facility that would have taken me out of high school and closed off opportunities. When my child was born with a birth defect, excellent hospitals ensured she had the best care without my needing to worry about payment. When my job ended, employment insurance supported me until a booming economy offered me new opportunities.

We all have bad luck and make poor choices sometimes. For me, the losses were limited by tax-supported social programs. I didn’t have to fear the gargoyle on the window sill that made bad situations worse. Can’t we offer the same to everyone?

 

CHRIS SARLO RESPONDS TO EVELYN FORGET

I am delighted to engage in a friendly discussion with Professor Forget on the topic of individual responsibility for poverty. This is an important question, the answer to which should help guide us to a more intelligent and successful solution to poverty. If people are largely responsible for their own poverty, perhaps as a result of a succession of poor choices, then it would make sense to encourage (and reward) good choices as part of the helping process.

Science persuades us that you can’t really solve a problem without first understanding the cause (or causes) of the problem. Let’s take cancer, for example. This is a terrible disease, one that shortens life and causes those afflicted (and their loved ones) real pain and suffering. Over the past half century, scientists have learned much about the disease and its causes. The American Cancer Society, based on this wealth of knowledge, tells us that most cancers are not inherited. The leading causes, according to the ACS, are smoking, diet, lack of physical activity, and excessive exposure to the sun and other types of radiation. You can substantially reduce your risk of getting cancer by making some good personal choices. The same goes for a wide range of diseases, such as hypertension, osteoporosis, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. And so it is with poverty.

Of course, life never offers any guarantees. Bad luck happens. You can do all the right things and still get a disease (or fall into poverty). However, this is less and less common, and thanks to advances in medical science, your chances of recovery and remission from a serious disease have substantially improved over the decades. Regrettably, the same cannot be said about poverty. Our understanding of poverty and our treatment of poverty have not really progressed. This is largely because serious social scientists are reluctant to investigate this issue the way they would normally study any other problem.

The social justice community has happily filled the void and made poverty their defining political issue. So now, even asking the question as to whether people are responsible for their own poverty is to “blame the victim.” End of discussion. Moreover, poverty has been redefined as inequality and so the obvious solution, then, is redistribution of income by the state. In this environment, it is entirely inappropriate to suggest that people can do things to reduce the risk of getting into poverty and to help themselves exit poverty. Personal behaviour is simply not part of the equation.

In my opening argument, I highlighted the left-leaning Brookings Institution’s study about the causes of poverty. It focused attention on behavioural causes and concluded that simple changes to choices made by the poor could substantially solve the problem of poverty. It took courage to publish these results and, predictably, Brookings (and author Isobel Sawhill) received substantial flak for it.

All the research I have examined strongly suggests that, in general, people are responsible for where they end up in life—at least in modern economies with relatively free markets. Bad choices are far more important than bad luck in determining bad outcomes—again, in general. Professor Forget appears to acknowledge this when she says that we all make “foolish errors… and poor choices.” Her point is that tax-funded programs should be in place to effectively protect us from the consequences of our bad choices. While I believe strongly both in insurance and in compassion, I have some concerns with this. However, this topic is for another discussion, one I would be delighted to have. For now, let’s focus on the matter of responsibility.

Poverty is a terrible scourge. Hunger and other kinds of severe privation make people suffer. Young children especially are the real victims of family poverty because they can do nothing to improve their situation. If we are serious about eradicating this blight, we have to understand that irresponsibility, carelessness, foolish errors and bad choices (especially if there are no negative consequences, which effectively enables more bad choices) substantially raise the risk of ending up in poverty. Encouraging (really, allowing) people to take responsibility for their own lives is an important part of poverty reduction.

My concern is that much of the discussion about poverty these days is incredibly arrogant. It’s all about what “we” (the smart, successful types who make good choices) can do for “them” (the incapable, hapless victims of our economic system). This is insulting to people in poverty and is not helpful. It undermines a person’s confidence and self-esteem and ultimately their willingness to make better choices. Surely what we all want for the poor is happy, healthy self-reliance and not dependency. In countless anti-poverty proposals and background papers, the poor themselves never appear to have been consulted as to the cause of their circumstances, and the idea that the poor might ever be able to solve their own problems is dismissed or ignored. One is left with the distinct impression that the proposed policies and costly programs might actually benefit the “helpers” far more than the “helped.”

So, back to our central question: Are the poor responsible for their own poverty? Yes, I believe that most of the poverty in Canada is the result of “bad” choices—decisions that substantially raise the risk of poverty. Can good choices about schooling, employment, having children, fostering self-control etc. greatly reduce the risk of poverty? Yes.

I believe that most of the poverty in Canada is the result of “bad” choices—decisions that substantially raise the risk of poverty.

 

EVELYN FORGET RESPONDS TO CHRIS SARLO

Dr. Sarlo suggests that three simple choices will dramatically lower the probability of ending up in poverty: graduating from high school, getting a full-time job and having no more children than you can afford. Choices, however, are never completely unconstrained. We all do the best we can to choose the best—or the least bad—outcome from among the options we believe are available to us.

Consider data collected by the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy: 7.5 per cent of kids have been in foster care at least once by age 7. Fewer than 60 per cent of kids who have been exposed to the child welfare system graduate from high school within seven years of entering Grade 9, as compared to 80 per cent of the general population. The former graduation rate falls to 16 per cent if the kids were also born to mothers aged 18 or younger who received provincial income assistance. No 7-year-old chooses to be a ward of the state, to be born to a mother who is herself a ward of the state, or to live in poverty.

To be sure, not all children exposed to the child welfare system flounder. Some graduate from high school and flourish, and several provinces are now prepared to offer free university tuition to these lucky outliers. Many, however, fail to achieve the first goal—they don’t graduate from high school. They age out of the system without the parental support that many of us relied on to help us make good decisions (and recover from bad decisions) as we transitioned to adulthood.

The failure to graduate from high school has consequences: Getting and keeping a full-time job is more difficult. Bouts of unemployment are more common, as are low wages. Almost 60 per cent of homeless youth had involvement with the child welfare system—193 times more likely than the general population. Access to full-time work seems at least as challenging as finishing high school. Add in the additional challenges of systemic racism or generational trauma, and many will struggle to find their way into the stable jobs and relationships that offer protection against poverty.

Sarlo’s third choice is to postpone childbirth until you can afford children. Only someone who can realistically aspire to a better life has an incentive to postpone childbirth. A woman with a career views childbirth as a momentous decision. She will give up some salary during her parental leave, and parenthood might interfere with future job opportunities and promotions. A woman who expects to raise her children in poverty sees no benefit from waiting.

There are also, of course, parents who decide to have children when they expect to be able to raise them comfortably, but whose family or job situation changes later. Dependent children make it more difficult to recover from family breakdowns or financial setbacks, especially if subsidized daycare is unavailable. Needless to say, postponing childbirth also requires that family planning services, including access to medical abortion, be widely available at no cost to pregnant women—access that is not routine, especially in rural and remote areas.

The real problem, though, is that “choices” are not independent of one another. Bad luck and poor judgment don’t wander into our lives at a seemly pace, giving us a chance to recover. Our lives are path dependent; the opportunities available to us today are shaped by the thousands of decisions and accidents we’ve encountered since birth. Even the experiences of our parents and grandparents can affect the behaviours they modelled and the ways they dealt with us as children, influencing our own reactions to life events.

This doesn’t mean we have no control over our lives, but it does mean that our habitual responses may be less than optimal. If adversity appears as an isolated event, we have time to consider our options and experiment with alternatives. When life delivers a series of blows in short order, that space for reflection disappears. Consequently, poor choices build on bad luck, making a merely awful situation unimaginably worse.

The stories people tell are illuminating. A young man moves into the city, finds a job and puts a deposit on an apartment. For some reason the transaction falls through, and the landlord tells the youth he will return the money at the end of the month when he does his accounts. However, without the deposit money the man can’t arrange alternative housing. He can’t explain the situation clearly, and the landlord doesn’t understand what the problem is. Tempers flare, an argument ensues and the police are called. The youth is charged with assault and the new job disappears when he misses his shift.

Are we responsible for our own poverty? Our behaviour certainly plays a role, and changing our behaviour can change our experiences. Had the young man in our example been a bit more articulate, trusting or financially comfortable, the outcome might have been quite different. We all make bad decisions sometimes, but for some people the consequences are so much worse than for others. Our goal as citizens should not be to assign blame, but to create social structures that help us make good decisions, and protect us from the worst consequences of our bad decisions. The social safety net is a tacit recognition that all choices are made in context; it is an insurance policy for all of us.

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