Wednesday, May 13, 2015

work ethic relativism

In discussions of wealth and poverty, ambition and work ethic comes up a lot.  The idea being that income is a choice, to some degree.  Even if we concede that not all people have the same choices, the choices we do make, of course, enter into it.  Still, there is a huge discrepancy in how we tend to judge those choices.

Choices are based on priorities.  Not everyone has the same sense of work ethic, not everyone cares about amassing wealth.  Some people are much more inclined to do the bare minimum to get by.  They're the people prone to being branded unmotivated or lazy, but such judgements vary widely, depending on the circumstances they're working with.

Take someone born to relative wealth, someone with lots of opportunities, who squanders a whole lot of it.  Maybe they travel to discover themselves, or maybe they just party too much, but ultimately, by and large, they still end up doing ok for themselves.  Not as wealthy as they might otherwise be, but even doing very little with what they have, they're able to get a decent career going, and do ok.  How often does someone going from financial comfort, to making all the "bad choices" that would send them spiraling into poverty?  They make all sorts of bad choice, but can almost always recover.

Now, on the other hand, take someone with much the same mindset, born into poverty.  They aren't driven to work themselves to the bone for minimum wage, they squander what scant opportunities they have, derailing their chances of ever making anything of themselves, maybe even sabotaging their chances of working entirely.  They end up in a downward spiral, doing whatever they need to do to survive, whether that's welfare, or crime, or dumpster diving.  There's a good chance they end up corralled by a few bad choices, and it will widely be deemed their own damn fault.

This expectation for those in poverty to be bootstrap swinging overachievers is such bullshit.  The middle-class aren't held to the same standard.  They're allowed to make mistakes.  Not everyone has the same sort of motivation, the same sort of priorities.  We are who we are, but coming from a wealthier family, people have all sorts of options to do reasonably well for themselves, in spite of these sorts of character differences.

When someone born into financial stability doesn't want to pursue a workaholic life to maintain that same degree of wealth, it may stress out their parents, but they aren't going to end up homeless or in prison.  It's a reasonable choice.  When someone born into poverty has the exact same neurochemical predisposition though, they're completely fucked, and treated like they deserve it.

So much of this discussion seems to come down to two different schools of thought- poverty is either the fault of those who are poor, or poverty is a natural outcome of circumstances.

Of course, there are all different sorts of poor people.  There are all different sorts of wealthy people.  Some are highly motivated, some are what we might call lazy, and everywhere in between.  Those with an abundance of opportunity have all sorts of slack, to screw up here and there, to make some bad choices, some mistakes, and still go on to lead productive lives.  While the poor are expected to be highly and consistently motivated, and often, even that isn't enough.

This idea that poverty involves cultural or even individual character flaws would mean that people jump from one socioeconomic class to another, all the time.  Of course some people are lazier than others, but for people with money, it doesn't really matter as much.  How often does someone grow up in a well educated middle-class household, only to end up on welfare?  If it were really a matter of being lazy, why don't people fall from wealth to poverty more often?

Some of us are trying, some of us not so much, but holding the poor up to a broadly unrealistic standard isn't a solution.  Focusing on personal differences between types of people is a distraction.  Look at the empirical facts about poverty in the aggregate, and it's pretty clear, the only thing that's consistently wrong with poor people, is that they were born poor.  In a society that's decided poverty is their own fault.

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