Debunking the Notion of Individual Agency in Structural Poverty

Graphic Artist - Meghna Islam

Written by Salaar Maghazeh

One may often witness how our society bemoans the supposed laziness or individual ineptitude of those in poverty, citing individual choices as the reason for their destitute conditions. As ammo for what is essentially “f**k the poor” in perhaps more elegant and elaborate form, proponents of this viewpoint have often cited a particular Brookings Institution report written by Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill; in this report, Haskins and Sawhill put forth numbers apparently showing that “of American adults who [at least graduate high school, get a job, and wait until 21 to get married/have children], only about two percent are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class (defined as earning around $55,000 or more per year)” according to an op-ed written by Haskins that summarizes their report. This set of three has been labeled as the “Success Sequence” of which countless social science researchers and commentators have remarked upon. Commentators either seduced by the hand-waving charlatanism of neoliberal economics or hired as obedient mouthpieces  — ahem I mean Serious, Rational Voices™ — have spun the report to argue that the systemic causes of poverty are nonexistent/irrelevant. Rather, they claim poverty is explained by poor individual choices. Yet, there are major problems with the arguments put forth by proponents of this view.

The Brookings study does demonstrate how many of those in the middle class have performed the three tasks; indeed, the problem with the report isn’t with the numbers themselves, but rather with what the numbers mean and what to glean from the demographics presented. “If only the poor would do these three things, then they wouldn’t be so poor,” proponents claim. Even Haskins is somewhat guilty here: in the same op-ed, he briefly acknowledges that there are other factors at play but primarily argues that “following [the Success Sequence] guides a young adult away from poverty and toward the middle class.”

Yet, there are a clear array of problems with this interpretation. First, the ad-hoc extrapolation from the numbers that “all poor people need to do to get out of poverty is X, Y, and Z” just can’t be supported by the report according to the very bounds of logic and rationality that the right so loves to invoke in name (rather than in practice). It is a simple logical fallacy of correlation versus causation; what proponents of the Success Sequence are doing is looking at a group of people and looking at a couple of qualities or behaviors shared by those in the middle class. However, one cannot work backwards from a cross-sectional description of individuals in the middle class to derive that these three items are the solution to poverty, in the same way one cannot conclude that buying a new suit, watch, and tie is the simple solution to being hired at Goldman Sachs just because nearly 99% of individuals who work on Wall Street own suits, watches, and ties. (Incidentally, it seems a crucial fourth item is needed for that cushy Goldman Sachs position: an inclination for carrying out massive fraud that leads to the most severe economic crisis since the 1930s.) Rather, one can only state that these behaviors are fairly common of those who have achieved middle class success, but there may be a confounding variable that is much more relevant or responsible success. This explains the statistic that most clearly demolishes the “poverty is a choice” argument of the Success Sequence: there are more poor people who followed all three “norms” than followed none of them.

Secondly, the report does nothing to disprove the idea that poverty is caused by a set of structural factors. Like I mentioned, the report shows numbers for what behaviors are common for the middle class. What the report doesn’t tell you and what the erroneous conclusions the Success Sequence utterly gloss over is the difficulty or ease with which one is “able to follow” this “sequence” based on the most prominent factors in one’s life like your socioeconomic class, race, and other factors, which is what one is actually talking about when referring to systemic causes to poverty. In other words, fulfilling all three items in the Success Sequence is significantly harder if you’re already poor in the first place. This means all these “obvious personal choices” are actually not choices at all but paths that are littered with obstacles caused by poverty, a product of structural/socioeconomic dynamics out of one’s hands. By definition, these are not simply “choices.” The Brookings Institution put out a report some time later that conceded as much, finding that following the Success Sequence is more difficult if you’re black due to the interplay of a variety of systemic factors.

Now, let’s investigate the research on systemic poverty and its obstacles for each item on the Success Sequence, revealing the dynamics of structural poverty and its effects on fulfillment of the Sequence to show how these are not “choices.”

It is quite well known that poverty massively affects one’s ability to graduate from high school, pushing graduation just out of reach for many kids. This is because of systemic conditions that surround poverty which prevent kids from graduating. Again, this is so blatantly obvious; if you’re hungry on Wednesday because you haven’t eaten since Tuesday morning (as your parents don’t make enough to keep food on the table) then it is harder for you to learn. If you need to work to help cover your family’s bills, you can’t learn. If you can’t learn, you fail. If you fail, you can’t graduate. And if you can’t graduate…

A new report by GradNation in 2014 highlights precisely this, finding that low-income students are still far behind their high-income counterparts. In every state, low-income students graduate at lower rates than higher income ones. (The exact gap itself varies per state.) Writing for The Atlantic, Ben Cosman summarized a crucial conclusion of the report: “Lower high school graduation rates means these low-income students – who, on the national average, make up 45 percent of the student body – are likely to remain low-income… It’s a vicious cycle: students from households with lower incomes than their peers graduate at lower rates and in turn earn lower salaries themselves.”

Furthermore, since funding for schools is partially reliant on property values in respective districts and sometimes based on how well a school performs (among other factors), one can see clearly how structural factors outside of the control of children can effectively decide their outcomes. Low-income communities in poverty-stricken areas (and thus more likely to be afflicted by crime) will receive much less funding than high-income ones as property taxes tend to be lower in poorer communities. These low-income communities are left with schools lacking the necessary tools to produce a high-quality education, and thus their poor performance also reduces their funding. As a result of these compounding dynamics which children have no control over, said children are left in what becomes a positive feedback loop of poverty that can effectively decide whether they graduate and other life outcomes. The statistics bear this very point out. Teachers in high-poverty areas are more likely to have less experience, fewer credentials, and less training. Proficiencies in multiple subjects are much higher at low-poverty schools. This translates into lower graduation rates.

As for getting a job, poverty affects your likelihood of this as well, again demonstrating that it isn’t simply a choice.The very search for a job requires money for related expenses (dry-cleaning, transportation, etc.), which can be the difference between eating or having to skip a meal. Those in poverty are also less likely to meet the “graduate high school” item, which considerably hurts their ability to seek out a job; this perfectly illustrates how a lot of these “norms” are downstream from poverty/affluence, and create cycles that are much harder to break for the impoverished.

Finally, the third item regarding childbirth out of wedlock inspires typical stereotypes of the poor, but time of birth isn’t about following a norm or just making a choice either. Access to contraception and abortion differs along class lines, with impoverished individuals having the least access to both. As a result, poor women are 5 times more likely to have a pregnancy in comparison to affluent women. State initiatives could easily correct this; Planned Parenthood found that easy access to contraception in low income communities would massively reduce teen pregnancy. Even though the affluent and impoverished are both sexual beings, proponents of the Success Sequence only shake their finger at the poor for breaking from “conventional sexual morals.” In reality, a list of social phenomena and hurdles prevent impoverished individuals from practicing recreational sex without the possibility of pregnancy.

Of course, there are a litany of other arguments as well, each further debunking the Success Sequence and its misleading implications. Matt Bruenig points out that finding a job (full-time employment) actually pulls all the weight in the differences in poverty numbers. However, you will never find this from commentators and others cynically using the numbers because they are using it to “litigate” cultural gripes and likely assert the practicality of “traditional” values.

There is a fairly clear reason as to why such a talking point even remains within the political zeitgeist. The individualization of poverty plays a significant ideological role in the neoliberal society, which is to obscure the very real social structures that produce/maintain poverty in order to prevent any recognition of said social structures and their obvious link to capitalism itself. This works to stifle changes in class consciousness that may lead the destitute, the struggling, and the impoverished to demand any substantive uprooting of said economic structures. In this way, as legendary theorist Antonio Gramsci would suggest, the cultural/ideological hegemony present within a capitalist society acts as a boundary against divergent thought to uphold the rule of capital.

The Success Sequence and its interpretations by those attempting to avert our eyes from the raging systemic inequalities of capitalism asserts that personal responsibility is to blame for people’s poverty. Yet, as I thoroughly demonstrated above, we know this is not the case. Still, they urge those pounded from all sides by an array of destructive social phenomena out of one’s hands to “just get a job,” perplexed by the poor’s seeming inability to grasp this. Odd... it’s almost like poverty deeply affects one’s ability to graduate high school, get a job, and avoid pregnancy. Their advice immensely overestimates the amount of agency people have in achieving said conditions. Such a notion that “all poor people have to do is X and they’ll be not poor” is cartoonishly obtuse and dismissive of the complex social dynamics linked to poverty. So obtuse, in fact, that it is difficult to imagine anyone not requiring a large sum of money from a particular pair of billionaire fracking brothers for repeating such garbage. The conclusions more resemble a speech bubble from an animated wealthy pig primly dressed in a top hat and monocle in a Gilded Age political cartoon than “social science research.”

The crucial point here, raised by Dylan Matthews at Vox, is that recognizing the structural factors of poverty doesn’t “reject the idea of free will.” It is to “acknowledge that if you are serious about solving these problems rather than waving them away, you need to tackle structural causes.” Anything else is not a sincere idea.

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