Something is wrong with America’s tax structure when the working poor pay taxes so the federal government can make a payment to an e-commerce giant owned by the world’s richest man.
This book was timely when it was released, and it has only grown timelier since the pandemic struck. Normally, Americans are typified by high levels of patriotism and pride in our country—the unshakeable conviction that we are the greatest. (Indeed, as the authors note, while Americans students are not especially strong by international standards, they are most likely of all to think they have mastered the subject-matter.) But now, as the virus comes roaring back, with unemployment soaring and systemic racism undeniable, this illusion is difficult to maintain. Indeed, the pandemic may have been the perfect crisis to expose the underlying weaknesses in our society. With every country responding to the same challenge, we can compare successes and failures; and at the moment the US response is not inspiring.
The premise of this book is that the United States is falling behind its peer countries in many respects—high-school enrollment, healthcare, child mortality, incarceration—largely as a result of a governmental philosophy embraced in the 1970s. In a nutshell, this was the philosophy of extreme individualism: that every person is wholly responsible from themself. Put another way, this was a kind of radical, economic meritocracy—the belief that the distribution of wealth was a perfect reflection of people’s worth. Thus, the wealthy deserved their wealth and should not be taxed or regulated, while the poor deserved their poverty and should not be helped.
The effects of this mentality can be seen in all sorts of places. The IRS is much more likely to audit someone making less than $20,000 than someone making a thousand times that. White collar crimes are rarely prosecuted, and if so with a fine or a light sentence, while a shoplifter can face serious jail time. After irresponsibly marketing OxyContin—and contributing to a heroine epidemic that cost many lives—Purdue paid a fine that was a mere fraction of their profits, while there are many poor individuals serving life sentences for drug possession. Two zip codes in the same city, one rich and one poor, correspond with life expectancies that differ by twenty years. Income bracket is a stronger predictor of college success than SAT scores (and income partially predicts SAT scores, too). The list goes on.
One irony of American life is that the excuse given for not having welfare programs is always the same: How will we pay for it? When it comes to helping out poor Americans we suddenly become extremely penurious. Thus, we wring our hands about Section 8 housing assistance but not tax breaks for mortgages, and we knit our brow at public healthcare but rarely discuss the tax breaks for employer-based healthcare. We underinvest in social services, rehab facilities, education, and housing, but we do not bat an eye at the expense of cycling the poor through shelters, emergency rooms, and jails. When it comes to police, prisons, and the military, there is never any discussion of affordability.
What makes this book worthwhile is not for this information, however, as it can be found in many places, but for the stories from Nicholas Kristoff’s life. The son of Yamhill, a small town in Oregon, Kristoff has watched many of the kids he grew up with succumb to deaths of despair over the years. The most memorable case may be the Knapp family. After growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father, the five Knapp children all died before their sixtieth birthday. One died of liver failure, one of hepatitis from injecting drugs, one of a heroin overdose, one of an explosion in a drug lab, one of a fire while inebriated and unconscious. In fact, when the book was published one of the siblings, Keylan, was still alive, but died last March.
While in any individual case you can make an argument about bad choices, the mere fact that a quarter of the children on Kristoff’s school bus died points to a deeper problem. In the authors’ opinion, the fundamental shift is the disappearance of decent, blue-collar work—particularly for men. By now, the story is familiar enough. Whereas, in the past, a person without a high school diploma could work a unionized job in a factory and afford a house, that is simply not the case nowadays.
The disappearance of jobs has a kind of domino effect: people deal drugs to make money, take drugs to ward off boredom, get arrested, lose custody of children, have their driver’s license revoked, get evicted—in short, the cycle of poverty.
Now, as Kristoff and WuDunn repeatedly point out, it is far too easy to write this off as a series of irresponsible choices. And it is true, many poor people make bad decisions. Being impoverished does not inculcate saintliness or enlightenment. But to ascribe the failure to individuals is, I think, both illogical and unfair, though that is so often how we choose to see it in America. Indeed, this sort of individualistic thinking can be quite compelling, such as in the case of Tanitoluwa Adewumi, a Nigerian immigrant who won the New York State K-3 chess championship at the age of eight while living in a homeless shelter. His tale attracted attention and Tani is now living in a real home, thanks to the generosity of many strangers.
Stories like this are intensely inspiring, since they seem to validate our belief that real merit will always get rewarded in the end. But arguably the more socially important fact of Tani’s story is that all the children he was competing against were from well-off families, with private chess tutors. And this underscores the essential point: that chess ability—like so many things—is not normally the product of raw talent and individual drive alone, but also the result of resources and environment.
For me, the best way of thinking about the competing influences of environment and individual merit is that they conflict only at their extremes. Here is what I mean. The environment is akin to the menu in a restaurant, and the individual chooses from these pre-set options. Only rarely, in extreme cases, does the diner get to switch restaurants and look at a new menu.
Just so, when a child is born into a family of a certain economic class, there is a certain range of likely economic outcomes. A child of a middle-class family has a decent chance of becoming, say, a doctor, while the child of a wealthy family has a fair shot at becoming a CEO. In the United States, at present, most children will not radically change the economic class they were born into. It is even more unlikely that a child of a billionaire will end up homeless than that a homeless boy will win a chess championship. But a small number of people, through a combination of luck and skill, will succeed in radically raising themselves (or, in some cases, lowering themselves). In these cases, individual factors will seem to have trumped environmental influence.
To continue the metaphor, just as it is the responsibility of the individual to choose wisely from the menu, it is the responsibility of the society to make sure that nothing on the menu is poisonous. Too often, however, people are born into circumstances that make it extremely difficult to choose correctly. And in the case of the poor, one bad choice can be disastrous. This is the meaning of the book’s title: the least advantaged have the least room for error—one mistake, and society brands them a criminal, a junkie, or a welfare queen—while those from wealthy backgrounds can make any number of mistakes without facing catastrophic consequences. To use the book’s metaphor, then, it is the individual that has to walk, but it is society that choses whether they will walk on a tightrope or a promenade.
How can we change this situation? The book ends with a series of policy suggestions—universal health care, jobs programs, child credits, maternity leave—which I suspect will not be terribly surprising. But if we are going to adopt any of these, we must first throw off the perspective of seeing every person as wholly responsible for their fate, our belief that the market is a faultless reflection of personal merit—which is the perfect excuse for inaction. We say of poor kids like Tani that they “beat the odds,” and they do deserve accolades. But these stories should motivate us to change those very odds, so that they are not stacked so heavily against the poor.
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