A Rant on the Personal Responsibility Argument

Take a look at the comments on this Mother Jones article: "Heritage Foundation on Hunger: Let Them Eat Broccoli" (itself responding to a Heritage Foundation piece entitled Hunger Hysteria: Examining Food Security and Obesity in America)*. Here’s one example:


I just don’t buy that people can’t eat healthily because they don’t have time and can’t afford it. For the price of an Egg McMuffin in New York City, you could buy an organic low-fat yogurt and a piece of fruit. For the price of a Taco Bell meal, you could visit one of the thousands of salad bars in delis all over the city. For $4, you could buy enough whole wheat pasta and marinara sauce to feed several people. There’s no reason ever to drink sugary soft drinks. If you buy store-brand selzer or still water, it’s cheaper than soda. I am rarely in agreement with the Heritage foundation, but in this case I am. People get fat because they eat too much. If you must eat mass quantities of salty, sugary stuff, of course the mass-produced unhealthy variety is going to be cheaper than the equivalent amount of many nutrient-rich food. And food stamps aren’t going to help people if all they buy is highly processed packaged foods.

One thing that absolutely drives me up the wall is the "personal responsibility" argument, when it is used as a way to shut down any liberal or radical critique of social problems. As in, "poor people should just take personal responsibility, and eat less and exercise more, rather than depend on handouts." Republicans by no means own this argument– Democrats have used it liberally (heh) many times over the last 30 years, and Obama has managed to get a few shots in at poor Black people himself. Nor is it wholly a Christian Conservative trope– I’ve heard it from quite a few Jews, a smattering of Hindus, I think a few Muslims here and there, a gaggle of Atheists and Agnostics, and even from some Buddhists.


The point is that the social world makes certain options easy– like eating junk food, watching too much TV, falling into drug addiction– and certain options very, very hard– like eating healthy, exercising, getting a good education. Which options are difficult and which options are easy depends, among other things, on your social class. Downtown Ypsilanti has very few large grocery stores in walking distance (the Ypsilanti Co-Op is one happy exception)– definitely there’s no Whole Foods or Trader Joes in walking distance. There is Meijers, but it takes about 20 minutes by bus/car. A lot of things are a lot more difficult for poor people– getting high-quality food, getting exercise while working several low-paying service sector jobs, etc.

And it’s not as if the current configuration of wealth and resources were randomly distributed throughout the world, in which right-libertarian sneering at poor people would make sense in a twisted kind of way. Historical injustices (deindustrialization, residential segregation, and yes, white union racism) contributed to creating poverty in Detroit, as one example. These historical injustices affect the choices available to people in poor communities– jobs, housing, schools, physical and mental individual development, and outlook towards life.

Sure, there are different ways to approach these issues on a daily basis– if you’re poor and you let yourself be consumed by rage and self-pity, that’s not a good thing. It would be better to do something constructive– be part of a social movement to better yourself and your community. This is something that people within poor people’s social movements have been saying for years.

It’s not that there’s a different proportion of good and bad people among poor and working class people, as opposed to upper middle class and rich people. Levels of education differ, of course– that’s part of the problem. But ever if the inner city was populated by saints, the social world make would still make it very difficult for people to do the right thing. Sure, there are a few exceptional people who can climb out of poverty completely on their own. But why should the social structure be set up so that only geniuses and saints can extricate themselves from poverty? Especially when in the upper class, dumb-as-dirt kids get handed easy jobs in daddy’s company? (Or when upper class people benefit from government investment, but claim that they are pure-d "entrepreneurs" and rally against a social safety net.**)That is why liberal reformers try to monkey with the rules of the game . Yes, there’s paternalism and corruption, since liberal reformers aren’t saints either. And radicals want to uproot the system that is at the root of these class divides– capitalism. Not all of us are "revolution in the street right now, man" kind of radicals– building institutions and educating people about alternatives to capitalism takes decades if not centuries.


**Also, doesn’t the Heritage Foundation know that many liberal social service agencies are specifically trying to increase healthy eating habits in poor communities, rather than just scattering food stamps willy-nilly? For example, SOS Community Services for years has partnered with MSU to present a Family Nutrition Program as part of its Emergency Food Program. Growing Hope is another local non-profit, which has re-established the Downtown Ypsilanti Farmer’s Market, and builds community gardens, in order to bring healthy, affordable food back into the city.

*** United for a Fair Economy has a wonderful resource on this issue, called It Takes a Village to Make a Millionaire:

"A 2004 report, ‘I Didn’t Do It Alone: Society’s Contribution to Individual Wealth and Success,’ spotlights successful entrepreneurs and concludes that the myth of self-made success is destructive to the social and economic infrastructure that fosters wealth creation.

  • Martin Rothenberg, the son of a housepainter and sales clerk, grew up to become a multimillionaire software entrepreneur.
  • Investor Warren Buffett is the world’s second-wealthiest person.
  • Ben Cohen co-founded Ben & Jerry’s with no business background and walked away with $40 million when the company was sold years later.

While these three seem typical examples of self-made success, they’re not. None of them believes they did it on their own. Like others profiled in the report, they attribute their success to many factors, among them public schools and colleges, government investment in research and small business assistance, contributions of employees, and strong legal and financial systems."


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