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Urban Rhythms

The Blame Game

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 5/9/2001

My 10th-grade science teacher used to warn kids who missed assignments or who cut up in class that they were headed down the road to a life of poverty. It was his favorite put-down. "Well, well, well," he'd sneer at students who were passing notes and giggling in the back of the class. "I guess I'm looking at the next generation on welfare, right here."

He was a harsh man. What's worse, he may have been an ignorant man. Did yesterday's class clowns necessarily become today's welfare recipients? Is there a correlation between those living in poverty and those who refused to study, do their homework, or go to class?

Common sense would answer "yes." That answer also might be more emotionally satisfying. It allows the middle class to wag their fingers in the faces of the unfortunate and taunt, "Nyah, nyah, nyah, you should have done your homework."

On the other hand, common sense might also argue that a person's fate could be attributed to bad luck, an unfortunate marriage, chronic illness, depression, or substance abuse.

Frankly, I don't know the answer. I wish I could get the list of my ninth-grade classmates and tally up the score. I know that some of the worst cutups and goof-offs are living very well right now. And I know that some of the hardest, most diligent workers chose careers that result in a very modest standard of living. But what about the others, those classmates who have disappeared from sight? Have some fallen into poverty? And if so, what put them there--the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, their own laziness and stupidity, or some combination of both?

Blame is the name of the game. I quite generously absolve myself from fretting about those of my classmates who live better than I do. With them, I am quick to note that good fortune appears to be the result of about equal parts luck and hard work. I'm not certain what to conclude about those who are worse off.

Most of America appears to be as ambivalent and conflicted about the causes of poverty, and about whom to blame, as I am. A nationwide telephone survey conducted by National Public Radio (NPR), the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government found the public almost perfectly divided. Half believe poor people are not doing enough to help themselves; the other half believe people are poor because of circumstances beyond their control.

The survey was conducted in English and Spanish, in January and February, among a random sampling of 1,952 recipients. The researchers made an effort to include both poor people and the affluent in their study, weighted to reflect the actual income distribution in the nation.

In question after question--especially those questions having to do with attitudes about poverty or welfare--the public was split almost 50-50. Democrats tended to fall on one side and Republicans on the other. Blacks were slightly more likely than whites to blame poverty on outside circumstances, to say that poor people live hard lives and that it is harder today to work oneself out of poverty than it was 10 years ago. Whites were slightly more likely than blacks to believe that poor people aren't doing enough to help themselves, to say that poor people have it easy and that welfare encourages women to have more children. But rarely did any group differ by more than 10 to 15 percentage points on any question.

The most widely reported finding had to do with the attitudes that poor people hold about themselves. While the majority blamed poverty on outside circumstances, a significant minority of those living below the poverty line said that their fellows need to do more to help themselves. Healthy percentages of the poor even hold attitudes that I normally attribute to the arrogance of the well-to-do. For example, 35 percent of those living in poverty said that the poor "have easy lives," and 39 percent said welfare recipients don't really need help.

Apparently, poor people are just as ambivalent about the causes of poverty as the rest of us. When asked to name the leading cause of poverty, poor people were most likely to list drug abuse. If you think about this, drug abuse fits perfectly with the overall pattern of responses: A person may choose to take drugs, which argues for individual responsibility. But whether that person actually becomes addicted or not may be a result of an illness, outside of his or her control.

The NPR survey pinpoints rather neatly our dilemma about poverty. We cannot reach a consensus on whom to blame and whom to absolve. We cannot decide whether to lend a helping hand toward the poor or waggle our fingers in their faces, like my old science teacher. We are perfectly divided. And therefore, we are perfectly paralyzed.

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