Why poor?

Charles M. Blow penned a hard-hitting (and rather bitter) criticism today of what he calls a “part and parcel of conservative thinking”: that the poor are poor because they lack some basic value possessed in abundance by the wealthy. He writes:

The roles of privilege, structural inequalities and discriminatory policies seem to have little weight, and the herculean efforts of the working poor, who often toil at backbreaking work that they body can’t long endure, seem invisible.

That construct, that the poor are in some way deficient, is a particularly poisonous and unsupportable position…cloaked in an air of benevolence, [it] is in fact lacking in understanding of the lives of poor people and compassion for their plight.

I agree that the poor aren’t always poor because of some moral deficiency, but my observations tell me that this is at least sometimes the case. I’ve written before about hospital patients who impoverish themselves — both physically and financially — by refusing to take medication as directed. I also know more than a few people whose unemployment has nothing to do the “roles of privilege” or “structural inequalities” and everything to do with their own fancy for late-night television, sleeping in and regular afternoon naps.

The debate about poverty seems to be a one-way street. On the Left, it’s about exogenous influences only — Blow’s “roles of privilege, structural inequalities and discriminatory policies.” On the Right, it’s about laziness and moral deficiency only. Either way, it’s about one or the other — not both at once, despite the obvious fact that both inequality and moral deficiency cause, or at least perpetuate, poverty.

I think a more fruitful discussion would examine the moral deficiencies associated with poverty in light of structural inequalities. What about the “system” encourages the type of moral failings seen amongst many poor people? How do moral failings affect and form the “structural inequalities” that concern liberals like Blow?

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