Picture this: a dirtied, scraped up, penniless homeless man holds up a cardboard sign pleading for pocket change. Perhaps he wrote well wishes and a message of gratitude for giving what you can. Most people who pass him don’t know where he’s from, his name, or how he came to be homeless.
As humans, we tend to fill in the blanks. Unless you’re chauffeured from a gated community to a private jet, and refuse to look out the window in daily travels, it’s nearly impossible to miss these questions of responsibility. We tend to explain the inexplicable with simplifications. People deserve what they deserve.
These mental shortcuts enable us to quickly pass through our day and “understand” the world around us. It’s complicated out there, and we have limited brain power. We can’t worry about everything, can we? Dwelling on uncertain ideas of responsibility might result in something scary: feeling lost, stupid, or flirting with pointlessness.
When we think of the causes of poverty, it can be natural to blame individuals. For instance, that the person asking for change on the street corner is too lazy to work, wants to feed their alcohol addiction, and/or doesn’t care to shape up. If only they would take responsibility for their actions, then they wouldn’t be homeless, right?
That’s the simple conclusion — and it’s possible — but today I want to encourage us to take a step back. Let’s think about some alternative conclusions. Those alternative conclusions harbor a truth that’s larger than one simplistic answer. It encapsulates the range of possibilities and diversity of lives.
Capitalism tends to encourage individual responsibility for actions. We have a penal system that punishes individuals’ actions as if they are divorced from difficult upbringings and environments — separate and isolated incidents. We have enormous financial markets, which encourage individual college students to major in business, computer science, and engineering. We congratulate and honor people for “their” work and individual contributions to science, politics, and bravery. When we seek answers for homelessness, poverty, and even wealth, the scripts have been built for us. As I’m a visual person, I’ve created a pie chart to explain responsibility in capitalism.
In this first chart, capitalist ideals suggest that individuals bear the responsibility. Pretty simple, right? When I was younger, I enjoyed the efficiency of more libertarian — individual responsibility — principles. If you work harder, you’re rewarded. The world is yours, if you earn it.
Those capitalism-infused libertarian values of responsibility eventually shifted. The best explanation was an active decision to expose myself to diverse reading material and cultures. Suddenly, the responsibility for homelessness, poverty, and wealth became complicated ideas. I needed to wrap my head around the chicken or the egg — what came first — of finance. Did the poverty cause lethargy or did laziness cause poverty?
Obviously, these pie charts aren’t scientifically exact. They’re meant to be illustrations of my thought process, as I consider where to assign blame and responsibility when I see poverty and wealth. The more I thought about what might influence and shape an individual, the more complicated it became. Certainly, it would save me time to write off the impoverished and say they are welfare grubbing lifesucks, but I choose to represent a different point of view. We are each born into this world with different characteristics — monetary, racial, SES, etc.
If we reexamine the aforementioned homeless man, responsibility becomes murkier with new variables. Suddenly, we see the man beyond the exterior and our previous assumptions. Perhaps the reality is that he was born to a single-parent household in a disenfranchised neighborhood. Perhaps he was a Vietnam War veteran who suffered from the losses of fellow soldiers and improperly/untreated posttraumatic stress disorder.
Or, perhaps we are all incredibly complex, diverse beings. We’re born with unique genes, environmental upbringings, educational opportunities, and parents. Heck, those listed here are but a small fraction of all the variables we could include.
If we quickly judge that someone bears the responsibility for being destitute, we are the lazy ones. We are the ones we often hate, despise, and discount. Carefully examining responsibility is challenging and not without errors, but we avoid incorrectly concluding that someone failed and deserves the punishment of poverty.
This is an excellent reminder and such a tough topic. I love projects like http://rethinkhomelessness.org/ that focus on the individual. Every story is different. Thanks for the inspiration today.
Terrific post. I work in affordable housing, and the question of responsibility is one I struggle with a lot, especially when working with different individuals. It’s much easier to consider a person’s background and perspective when that person has a “good attitude” and is easy to work with, but it’s so much harder to pause and be thoughtful when the person is being antagonistic. However, in the difficult situations, that thoughtfulness is often even more important.
Thank you for the reminder!
This is brilliant. It’s so easy to judge, and so hard to actually think these through. A lot of the homeless I see in my area have mental illness. (Using the word “see” as synonymous with “notice.” In all honesty, I probably don’t notice many others.) I think a large part (but not all) of the homelessness issue in our country is that we shut down so many mental hospitals where people could get help. Now they have no where to go to get help with so few beds available. We’ve given up taking care of each other in that respect, too.
I totally agree. Mental illness is so underfunded; this is from first hand knowledge of a family member who had a breakdown and suffers from PTSD. I wish the media would be as relentless in their coverage of this as they are of other less pressing issues.
Mark Tong says
Hey Sam – a really great post – I used to work for Oxfam here in the UK and I was forever trying to explain to people that poverty/famine etc have multiple causes just like being homeless or being an immigrant. Labels are dangerous and hide the reality.
Simple Is The New Green says
Nice post. This is something I think about often. First off, people are just too darned scared. We live holed up in our houses with our alarms readily armed to protect our stuff. Kids just don’t seem to play outside freely much anymore. Also, I get annoyed that we fight ‘terror’ halfway across the world, but don’t put the same resources into protecting people in blighted neighborhoods or food deserts. Unfortunately there is no money to be made in fighting poverty. Have you seen the documentary “I AM”? It is a must for this type of conversation.
Great post Sam. It is indeed easy to walk by the homeless and apply one of the many labels we are taught and just move on. But it is more complicated. I personally prefer giving money to organizations that help the homeless rather than individuals, but if they need something as simple as lunch, I’m more than happy to help with that. Complicated indeed.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, you’re right that “individual responsibility” seems to be dominant perspective. But I agree that the roots of poverty are far broader than that.
I believe that individual responsibility should be reframed as what we each individual can do to take responsibility for alleviating poverty. However, in saying that I feel quite overwhelmed by the scale of poverty in my own (affluent) community, let alone the wider world. How can I make a difference to all that?
Around 18 months ago I started helping a friend who established a charity out of her garage helping local babies and their families. Already we are providing comprehensive baby packs to 6% of the most vulnerable babies in our region.
Obviously the packs are of huge practical benefit to the families that receive them, but I believe they also provide a huge psychological benefit that should not be undervalued. By showing that the community supports them in their efforts to raise their family, I am hoping we can counter some of the blaming and help to build dignity and self respect.
Theodore Nwangene says
This is so touching Sam,
And i can very well relate to your illustrations. Such people are everywhere and as you stated, most of usually rebel them as being lazy and looking for easy money.
But after going through your post, i discovered that sometimes, there are other factors attached to it other than just being lazy. A lot of these people have actually tried to survive but couldn’t due to one thing or the other.
Indeed, we have to take care of those that we’re better off than and the world will become a better place for we all to leave.
Thanks for sharing.
Froogal Stoodent says
Saw this article a while ago, and thought I’d leave the link here–it presents a fascinating idea, and it’s hard to argue with results!
Laura Beth says
This is a deep and thought-provoking post. Amazing you thought to tackle this issue. When you step back and think about the many causes of poverty, you quickly realize that individual responsibility seems far less plausible. It’s complicated.
our next life says
Chiming in late, but this is too important a post not to! There’s so much unrecognized privilege and entitlement in the PF blog community, despite all the support and positivity, and you have provided another super important counterpoint. With the capitalist individual responsibility model, far too many people believe they’ve “earned” everything they have — as though they themselves were not fortunate to be born into the middle class by virtue of important social safety net programs like the GI Bill, and Social Security. It’s so easy to ascribe negative characteristics on those with less, and not recognize the complex web of challenges that conspire, it seems, to keep some people down. We’re hopeful that the one positive of the Ferguson outrage and other instances of police murders and brutality is that more people recognize the institutional factors that stack the deck against many people in the U.S., while remaining invisible to the rest of “us.” Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Sam!