Saturday, April 28, 2012

Many Reasons to Reject Notion That "The Poor Are Responsible for Their Poverty"

For thirty years now, various departments and institutes at Houston's Rice University have been doing an annual survey that "has measured this region's remarkable economic and demographic transformations and recorded the way area residents are responding to them."

For most of those years the project has been headed by Sociology Professor Stephen Klineberg and known as the Houston Area Survey. 

As the result of a $15 million gift by Houston philanthropists Rich and Nancy Kinder, the survey is now the responsibility of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, with Professor Klineberg as co-director, and called the Kinder Houston Area Survey.  The institute has also branched out to do similar surveys in other major metropolitan areas.

On April 24th a letter writer to the Houston Chronicle bemoaned the fact that in response to one question on the 2011 survey a surprising 59% of respondents  said that governments should act to reduce income differences between rich and poor in the United States.

This prompted the following excellent response from Donald M. Hayes (Montgomery, TX) posted yesterday and published in today's print edition:

Regarding "Responsibility," (Page B11, Tuesday), the letter writer is appalled that 59 percent of the respondents to the Houston Area Survey said the government should take action to reduce income differences between rich and poor in America.

He proceeds to assert that the real reasons have to do with alleged faults of the poor. He asserts that correcting income inequality is not a responsibility of government.

These prejudices are as wrong as they are widespread. An enormous body of research provides the foundation for this conclusion. Some of the best of this research has been done by the Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. Among the best of the best of this research is that done by the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Over generations a representative sample of families has been interviewed annually with respect to their finances. The research firmly rejects the notion that the poor are responsible for their poverty.

The major determinants, or predictors, of economic status in adulthood - poor, middle class or wealthy - are the circumstances of birth. The major determinants are social class at birth, race, and gender. The rule is that people live and die in or very near the class into which they were born, and within each class people of color do not fare as well as whites, and women do not fare as well as men.

Take the one variable of social class at birth: It determines the neighborhood in which one lives, which determines the quality of elementary and secondary education that one receives. Does government have a responsibility for inequalities in educational opportunity?

Does government have a responsibility to ameliorate the income consequences of educational inequality?

The social class at birth determines the quality of diet and health care of a child, which in turn has consequences for the child's income as an adult. Does government have a responsibility for class inequality in diet and health care? Does government have a responsibility to ameliorate the income consequences of these inequalities?

Many more examples could be provided: The poor are not responsible for economic recessions which impact them more adversely than those who have a larger economic cushion; they are not responsible for wars that kill and maim more of them than those who come from classes that can find employment without volunteering for military service; they are not responsible for regressive sales taxes and Social Security taxes; they are not responsible for a criminal justice system that sends more of them to prison; they are not responsible for a system of higher education that prices them out.

A little thought will cause more than 59 percent of Houstonians to agree with the sentiment that appalls the letter writer.

Donald M. Hayes, Montgomery

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