David Brooks Is Mistaking Poverty’s Symptoms For Its Causes

David Brooks, AB'83, acclaimed NEW York Times columnist, shares a stage with pundits during a panel discussion, "2012: The Path to the Presidency", at the University of Chicago in Chicago on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. ... David Brooks, AB'83, acclaimed NEW York Times columnist, shares a stage with pundits during a panel discussion, "2012: The Path to the Presidency", at the University of Chicago in Chicago on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) MORE LESS
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I made my son cry last week.

I made my brilliant, beautiful, cheerful, three-year-old son cry because he was goofing around instead of napping. I snapped at him. I took the book away. I lay on the bedroom floor and intoned flat litanies about how much we both needed to sleep. And he bawled.

Of course I was right. Both of us needed to sleep. But I didn’t need to yell. It’s just that I was exhausted after several days of a punishing cold. I was stressed out by how much work was piling up while I limped along sick. Failing like this is part of being human. When we’re tired, we’re not always disciplined paragons of moral restraint. We don’t always behave rationally or virtuously.

In other words, we’re better, smarter, fairer actors when we have basic stabilities—health, money, care, etc.—in place. Remove those, and our sanity frays at the edges. Our judgment gets cloudy. Desperation is no catalyst for self-discipline. This is a basic principle of human behavior—especially when we’re trying to understand the choices of the poor, who face comprehensive threats to their basic human dignity.

And yet, there’s a resurgent effort to flip that basic equation on its head by suggesting that the poor won’t build stable families and break out of poverty unless we shame them to higher moral standards. David Brooks’ New York Times column last week argues:

People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?

This isn’t completely wrong on its face. These are questions every person should confront, especially if they’re on the cusp of parenting. But Brooks offers them as part of a theory of action that holds that heightening the extremity of negative incentives is an effective, appropriate deterrent for human behavior. This school of thought is particularly eager to withhold compassion and support from the poor—that is, from those who are often vulnerable and suffering in myriad ways already. These are the folks who hope to cut down on teen pregnancy rates by making the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy even more punishing for women.

But that’s not really how humans make decisions. Working parents with unstable employment, unpredictable work schedules, immiserating child care costs and housing that’s segregated both by race and income struggle to stay married. They struggle to remain involved at their kids’ schools, which are overwhelmingly likely to be both underfunded and staffed with ineffective teachers. We deny them any reasonable hope for longterm health, stability and success.

So when Brooks writes, “It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms,” he’s being willfully blind. Stable marital norms are difficult to develop, refine and maintain at any income. In the face of extraordinary adversity—consider that approximately half of American students are growing up in low-income families—we should expect what he terms “an anarchy of the intimate life.”

Brooks worries that, for the poor, “there are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.” But there are codes! They simply happen to be punishing, degrading codes shaped by poverty and material and educational inequality. In short, norms are built on resources and opportunities.

The column’s real sin is to mistake symptoms for causes. And Brooks does so because it’s ideologically comfortable to cast stones at the poor for their behavior, and ideologically uncomfortable to admit that their behavior is partly an outgrowth of extreme inequality and social immobility. Blaming the poor for abandoning social norms around reproduction and child-rearing makes our glass houses a bit comfier. It makes it easier to ignore our low tax rates and weak safety net. It makes it easier for us to ignore dramatic inequities in our education system. It lets us blame, and scorn the poor. And nothing gladdens the proud human heart quite like judging the weak.

But any exhausted parent who’s ever lost his temper knows better. We all behave worse when pressures mount. I’m a more patient, disciplined parent when I’m well rested. I’m a better, more helpful husband when the family’s finances are in good shape. This isn’t difficult to understand. Big choices are easier to manage carefully when we’re not financially, physically or psychologically drained. So why should we suppose that this dynamic doesn’t apply to the poor—when the stressors are much more considerable?

That’s how privilege works. Well-heeled, well-educated folks can weather marital collapse and a fair degree of anarchy in their intimate lives. Their privilege gives them a cushion, gives them room to snag extra bits of short-term pleasure (or indiscretion) without sacrificing much long-term good.

None of which, by the way, is an argument against self-discipline, marriage, responsible parenting or the authority of social norms. It’s just a reminder that living up to one’s ideals is a much easier project when basic resources aren’t at issue. Moral codes are easy when the only headwind is an occasional head cold.

Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @conorpwilliams. Follow him on Facebook.

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