More on Mental Health and Poverty
By Arnold Kling
When someone asks me what I would do to eliminate poverty in America, the first thing that pops into my head is the need for industry, thrift, and prudence.
It seems that he and I share a common theory of poverty. Ted K. Bradshaw writes,
The first example is based on theories that poverty is perpetuated by individual or family irresponsibility which should be stopped by stiff penalties; the second example addresses subcultures of poverty and tries to acculturate poor children in mainstream values; the third sees poverty not as an individual problem but a social one that needs to be addressed politically and structurally; the fourth addresses regional or geographic concentrations of poverty through spatially targeted benefits; and the final addresses poverty in a comprehensive and cumulative way. Each example reflects a different theory of what causes poverty and how to address it.
…Ironically, neo-classical economics reinforces individualistic sources of poverty. The core premise of this dominant paradigm for the study of the conditions leading to poverty is that individuals seek to maximize their own well being by making choices and investments, and that (assuming that they have perfect information) they seek to maximize their well being. When some people choose short term and low-payoff returns, economic theory holds the individual largely responsible for their individual choices–for example to forego college education or other training that will lead to better paying jobs in the future.
Bradshaw and many anti-poverty advocates see people like Bryan and me as wanting to punish the poor in order to get them to change. Actually, it seems to me that Bryan’s view is that we should accept them as they are. So if someone has poor impulse control, you just accept this as an individual trait, and realize that poverty is a likely consequence.
My guess is that a lot of people with poor impulse control would actually like to be less impulsive. That is, if you had a safe, reliable pill that would address their impulsiveness without harmful side effects, many of them would choose to take it.
But a good general question to ask is this: is there a set of mental and emotional characteristics which could guarantee that someone would not face poverty, regardless of other conditions (poverty of parents, quality of local public schools, ethnic prejudice, etc.)? My guess would be “yes.” If you agree, how would you articulate what the sufficient set of characteristics would be?