FROM THE 1970s THROUGH THE MID-1990s, poverty policy was among the nastiest battlefields in the national culture war. Left and right slugged it out over why people were poor and how (or whether) to help them. Conservatives generally enjoyed the upper hand in these debates by focusing on individual-level causes of poverty, like family breakdown, drug addiction, and poor work habits--pathologies said to be enabled by government largesse. This story line struck a chord with the American public, helping ensure the demise of the federal welfare entitlement and the introduction of strict work requirements in 1996.
But since then, a structural understanding of poverty has come back in vogue, fueled by more awareness of globalization and dead-end jobs. Popular books like Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed and Beth Shulman's The Betrayal of Work have drawn a fresh picture of the poor--as mostly hardworking Americans who can't make ends meet through no fault of their own.
The two dominant, differing explanations of poverty--individual versus systemic--seem to forever define the national debate over social policy. And proponents of one view or the other seem forever loath to cede even the slightest ground. For many progressives, talk of personal responsibility amounts to blaming the victim and letting a low-wage Wal-Mart economy off the hook. For conservatives, there is still too much coddling by the welfare state; the story is all about personal values, and, if anything, America should get even tougher on the poor.
This ideological stalemate is typical of why, as the columnist E.J. Dionne once wrote, "Americans hate politics." To ordinary people, both sides in the poverty debate often seem in denial about obvious truths. And that sentiment is exactly correct: Individual and systemic factors both explain poverty. Yes, capitalism produces large numbers of economic losers, and especially lately, as the left suggests. But it is also clear that personal agency and cultural norms can influence economic success, as the right suggests. It makes plenty of sense to debate which cause of poverty is most important. What doesn't make sense is to wholly dismiss one explanation in favor of another.
Looking ahead, the winning ideas for reducing poverty will change individual attitudes and create more widely shared prosperity. Is this so complicated? Libertarians and evangelicals are fixated on personal responsibility--to the point of being woefully naive about the realities of our global age. But progressives and moderates should be capable of clearer thinking, too. We all have every reason to embrace a nuanced understanding of poverty, as well as to move such common sense to the center of public policy.
Right wingers like Charles Murray did not invent the idea that individual or cultural factors can determine success. Nor was it Jack Kemp who first said that personal empowerment was a key to getting out of poverty. Liberals can claim alarge share of credit for both these notions. From the earliest days of the labor movement, progressives championed the virtuous ideals of self-improvement and hard work. Many of the signature social policies of the 20th century--like Pell Grants and the GI Bill--sought to reward personal striving, not give handouts.
A basic premise of modern psychology (also largely a liberal enterprise) is that a person's success is not governed by material conditions alone. Family background, cultural influences, mental health--each can affect how well we cope with the challenges of life. All of us know people from affluent backgrounds who have slid downward economically because of personal problems--overly indulgent parents, an expensive divorce, a bad drug habit, untreated depression, or whatnot. We also know people who have risen far above their origins through willpower and smart choices.
Studies on social mobility find that class status at birth largely determines life chances, and that this correlation has actually intensified in recent years. …