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Obama: Democrats share the blame

The Chicago Tribune reports on its interview with Sen. Barack Obama:

"It is way too simplistic just to say this administration doesn't care about black people," Obama said in a Tribune interview. "I think it is entirely accurate to say that this administration's policies don't take into account the plight of poor people in poor communities and this is a tragic reflection of that indifference, but I also have to say that it's an indifference that is not entirely partisan.

"We as Democrats have not been very interested in poverty or issues relating to the inner city as much as we should have.

I hope the current crop of "republican-lite" Democrats in Washington is paying attention.


Carey, I wonder how much of the problem is failed public policy and how much is simple personal dissolution. Having a modicum of personal familiarity with the New Orleans underclass, I've concluded that people who spend their disposable income on booze, cigarettes, and designer clothes are making a decision about the trajectory of their lives. Add to that the "let the good times roll" attitude and an epidemic of out-of-wedlock births and you have all the ingredients for chaos. All the other rhetoric about a culture of disenfranchisement is just a worn-out argument. Some people just make bad decisions and no amount of liberal hand-wringing can possibly change that.

It is far too easy to judge what people do with their money. I assume that Nick R. is middle to upper-middle class 20-30 something who spends money on entertainment, alcohol etc. When he has a bad day, I bet he gets trashed with his buddys or blows 100 dollars at a strip club. These indescretions are the same as the type he describes above ("I've concluded that people who spend their disposable income on booze, cigarettes, and designer clothes..."), but he can engage in these understandable and human indiscretions without consequence because of 1) the financial cushion he enjoys 2) the family/social support he takes for granted and 3) his education and life opportunities by virtue of his race or class or upbringing etc.

Many people make poor decisions repeatedly, but we have to keep in mind the environment which is often violent, dirty, degrading and otherwise adverse to the best decision-making. I don't know how I would spend the little money I had if I were subject to drugs, violence, percieved and real lack of opportunity and social stigma every day of my existence.

Most importantly,many people in poverty work harder than people in the middle and upper class. They hold 2 or more jobs and still cannot afford downpayments on necessities like apartments. Not everyone who finds themselves in poverty is spending their money on indiscretions.

Anonymous is right that indiscretion is human. There is an important difference, however, between indiscretion and persistent self-destructive behavior. Why is there such a powerful impulse to absolve the poor of any personal responsibility, and to instead lay the blame at the feet of the state or society or any of the other nebulous entities that typically get blamed?

The corrollary point is that the problem is not particularly amenable to solution by federal dictate. Thirty years after the war on poverty began, it remains an intractable problem. Someone much wiser than me said 2000 years ago "For ye have the poor with you always"

correctly if I'm wrong, but didn't that "much wiser" guy also used to hang out with society's rejects and advocate compassion and understanding. Plus he had some pretty harsh words for the wealthy. Something about a camel and the eye of a needle?

Honestly, I can never understand the coldness towards the poor expressed by a minority of so-called Christians

Sorry, I meant to say "correct me if I'm wrong"

Nick, I think you're right that there's a lot of personal dissolution among the underclass. Liberals who try to deny this are living in a fantasy world.

My disagreement with you, I think, is that I'm not prepared to say that these "bad choices" relieve the rest of us of the responsibility of helping these people out of their mess. None of us have avoided making bad choices of our own -- mistakes and bad choices are an inescapable part of being human.

I'm also not prepared to say that most of these bad choices are morally condemnable. Most were made in a context that we're not sufficiently aware of, and while they might have been "bad" in the utilitarian sense, it's a stretch to say they were "bad" in the moral sense. Unlike this country's conservatives, I don't believe that most people's poverty is their "just dessert."

But I'm probably misreading what you write. You're arguing that we shouldn't absolve the poor of all personal responsibility, and I agree with that. But this doesn't preclude the compassion and understanding that anonymous suggests.

Nor does it preclude anonymous' point that many of the poor work harder than most folks in the middle and upper class. The problem with an obsession for personal responsibility is that it sometimes prevents us from recognizing systemic unfairness and repression.

Carey, I think there is a certain segment of the population that is simply beyond being "helped." Given every opportunity to work hard and delay gratification, they will instead choose the pleasures of the moment. I agree with you that these choices are not morally condemnable (with a few exceptions). Instant gratification has its own merits and I don't begrudge the poor man his choice of malt liquor. Nor however, do I lose any sleep over his plight.

Finally, is it true that the poor work harder than those in the middle and upper class? Perhaps they sweat more at their jobs, but "harder" can be defined in a number of ways. It is awfully hard to make a serf's wage for 12 or 15 years as a trainee in the abstract hope that one day it will pay off. I would be a much wealthier man right now if I had started banging nails at age eighteen.

You miss the point of the statement "many people in poverty work harder than people in the middle and upper class" by focusing on the relative element.

The point is that many poor people work extremely hard and make the correct decisions, but for many reasons cannot achieve an income that will allow them to advance in life. Someone born to a single mother living in a poor neighborhood may be able to complete high school, but not have the economic or social support to attend college. Maybe they apply for loans and do attend college, but they miss too many classes because of lack of transportation or have to quit school to take care of their mother who has no health insurance. Situations like this happen all every day.

The point is that there is systemic unfairness and repression as Carey says. The statement "many people in poverty work harder than people in the middle and upper class" is a proposition that withstands any "clever" relativeness argument.

Nick, even assuming you're right about the consequences for bad behavior, not all poor people have made bad decisions. Some poor people are just stupid. And some don't have a network. And some people who aren't stupid are told that they are, over and over again.

Six years ago, I was dirt poor in North Florida. Admittedly, I had a lot more than other people who were dirt poor. My parents instilled a love of learning in me, and I had family connections that have helped me out; if I had ever had to get out of the way of a hurricane in a hurry, they would have helped me out. But I think that I also have a "modicum" of experience with the culture, and let me assure you, if you think that Southern poor people--particularly poor blacks--are about out of wedlock kids and "letting the good times roll" your experience isn't worth shit. Way to base policy decisions on a song.

Yes, there are certainly some people who are "poor" who are dissolute. But you shouldn't judge the majority by the excesses of the few. The dissolute people are loud. They are the ones you will meet in bars, or who will trumpet their experiences on the street. But 50x the number of people struggle to do well and get by.

But anyways, I'm not sure why you happen to think that having an out-of-wedlock child -- which, sorry, seems sad and unfortunate to me, and not "dissolute" -- should mean that the federal government takes emergency management in your area less seriously than emergency management in a rich area. Are you serious? That's a ferocious punishment for a mistake that is made around the age of 16 or 17.

More importantly, I don't see how you can dismiss the child born out of wedlock so easily. It's not like it really is their fault.

Heidi, it is true that people achieve poverty in a variety of ways. Some are lazy, some are stupid, some just enjoy cable TV way too much. Ultimately, human aptitudes are not fairly distributed. These variations are complex biological, socio-cultural, and environmental phenomena. It is important to recognize that we are limited in our ability to rectify these disparities. Americans for many years have made a heartfelt effort to help the poor. After several decades of welfare, entitlements, preferential hiring and educational policies we are no closer to eliminating poverty than when we began. At some point doesn't it just make sense to conclude that we've made a good faith effort and the rest is up to the individual?

This discussion started as a question of whether we are doing enough to help the poor. It is a bizarre flight of logic to conclude that I somehow endorse the impotent response of the federal government to hurricane Katrina.

As for the underprivileged illegitimate children, I have nothing but sympathy for them. The solution to their problem is not more coddling of their already irresponsible parents.

You're all missing the point.

Individuals are undeniably stupid, but too many of us ascribe stupidity to the children based on the stupidity of the parents. Stupidity is rarely born in a vacuum. As ironic as it may sound, in many ways stupidity is a learned trait.

I don't think anyone here is advocating blindly throwing money at people who would inevitably blow it all on booze and cigarettes. But virtually ignoring entire regions of the country in every way imaginable because a good percentage of the populace happens to be stupid instantly condemns their children and grandchildren to perpetual stupidity.

If parents won't or can't educate their children, I believe it is incumbent upon a civilized society to at the very least pave the road for children to educate themselves. This means addressing stereotyping based on race or class, cracking down hard on parental abuse, promoting alternative role models, and above all, removing bureaucratic and financial roadblocks to educational opportunities.

Consider: as a society, we are obsessed with investments. What better investment than a disadvantaged child who will someday become an adult citizen?

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