Arnold Kling  

Class Once More

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My class autobiography got people riled up. More commenters were riled up at Economist's View than here, by the way. There are some things that I wrote that I don't wish to stand by and defend, after thinking about it more. But there are some elements of truth in it. My guess is that any effort to defend the latter is ill-conceived, but here goes.

Remember that I am talking about people living in poverty in the United States, excluding new immigrants. I would also like to exclude people who are temporarily poor, for example someone who was poor in 2003 because he was unemployed most of that year, but who now is making at least a modest living.

The term "mental illness" is misleading and comes across as pejorative. I should not have used it in such generality in talking about poverty. Within my narrow experience of people I know well (including relatives), it is the major explanatory variable. But I will admit that people I know well includes only a small and non-representative sample of people with very low incomes.

However, I would point out that

1. From the perspective of the theory of social class in the United States, differences in economic outcomes across siblings are inconveniently large relative to economic differences across families. It is common to find siblings born to identical parents who end up near the opposite end of the income distribution.

2. I think that many people who work with poor people would argue that poverty includes elements of pathology. One of the commenters on my post put it, "the bulk of the poor are not mentally ill -- the rules of their lives are so radically different from those of the affluent, it just looks that way from the outside in." The commenter recommends two books. I recommend another one, Random Family.

3. Although one can argue that poverty is a factor causing mental illness, I think it would be very rash to dismiss the other direction of causality. Again, look at siblings. There can be very large differences in mental health across siblings, and that to me suggests that a univariate explanation of mental health as being determined by social class will not work.

4. Arguing against social class as a univariate causal force may seem, and perhaps it should seem, like arguing against a straw man. But there are people who focus on social class almost as if it were a great causal absolute. For these class-obsessed academics, it is as if nothing has happened, either in the real world or in social science, since the days of Karl Marx and Max Weber. I think that this class-centric view of the world forces one to become highly angry and rhetorical in debates, because there are so many inconvenient facts with which one has to deal.

5. This not simply an academic debate, however. Those of us who focus on pathology (and in the case of poverty in the underdeveloped world, we look at pathological government and pathological culture) are skeptical of handouts. Handouts encourage people to think of wealth as something that is transferred or redistributed, rather than something that is earned. This in turn may encourage people to focus on redistribution as a way of capturing wealth. Such a focus makes poverty worse, not better. There is an uncomfortable association between welfare and crime and between foreign aid and government corruption.

Thus, the class-centric school of thought believes that handouts are helpful and just. The pathology-focused school of thought believes that handouts ultimately serve to exacerbate the very problem that they are intended to solve. There is probably more passion than evidence on both sides of the debate, but my opinion (perhaps because I am more pathology-focused) is that the class-centric school works hard at tuning out evidence against its viewpoint.


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CATEGORIES: Income Distribution



TRACKBACKS (6 to date)
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The author at Economist's View in a related article titled Class Follow-Up writes:
    Arnold Kling reads your comments to this post of his class autobiography, then refines and defends his position on the causes of poverty: Class Once More, by Arnold Kling: My class autobiography got people riled up. More commenters were riled [Tracked on May 31, 2006 1:01 PM]
The author at New Economist in a related article titled Why are some economists such snobs? writes:
    Bryan Caplan of EconLog has written his class autobiography. So has Arnold Kling, and Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling. All are worth reading (along with the comments and ensuing debate). But of the class autobiographies so far, I was most struck... [Tracked on May 31, 2006 3:47 PM]
COMMENTS (4 to date)
dryfly writes:

When my father was studying economics at the University of Minnesota (post-WWII GI Bill) he was told the following allegory on 'luck' as it applies to 'success'...

Two maggots were riding on the back of a manure wagon down a bumpy country road. The wagon hit a pot hole and tossed both maggots & some manure.

One maggot landed on hard stony ground without any manure or other nourishment. He struggled and struggled but try as he may in the end he shriveled and perished.

The other maggot landed on a big fat pile of poop, ate well and grew into a big brightly colored house fly and flew off.

To this day the fly tells everyone who will listen that he owes his success to hard work and morality.

My father (who has been quite successful) attributes most of his success to luck. He was raised in a working class family in the depression and believes he never would have gone to university had it not been for the GI Bill. Instead he would have followed his family into the factories & meat packing plants that were common in his industrial Midwestern hometown.

Once in college he busted his butt to make sure he didn't end up BACK in those same plants.

So you could say he overcame 'class' with 'hard work'. Or you could say 'social engineering' via the GI Bill was what made it all possible.

This argument is not a 'Choose A or B Only' issue. But denying 'class' doesn't play at least a roll in outcomes is denying the obvious.

Arnold Kling writes:

Dryfly,

I think that there is a continuum of luck. Some people are extremely lucky. Some are extremely unlucky. But most people are somewhere in the middle. Your father's parable of the maggots makes it sounds like everyone is at either one extreme or the other, and I think that's misleading.

The GI bill is probably the best example to cite of a policy that has government playing a constructive role. It shows that government education vouchers can be constructive. If only we had something like the GI bill for K-12 education, instead of No child Left Behind.

dryfly writes:

But most people are somewhere in the middle. Your father's parable of the maggots makes it sounds like everyone is at either one extreme or the other, and I think that's misleading.

Its a parable... its simplified to make a point and I think it makes it pretty well.

The point is 'luck' plays a huge part in success & failure, more than we realize. In most cases we can't see the piano that barely missed us but we sure do know how much work we did to get where we are... and then spend a whole lot of time telling others how hard that work was. In short our view of reality is skewed - the known & unknown weighted differently.

Class is often one of the 'unknowns' if it so happens your station in life didn't hold you back. However if you DID have to overcome great difficulty (and some to their credit do) then you would know just how big a hurdle it was. The two maggots had completely different views as to what caused their outcomes.

Even the most ardent of us 'lefty class warfare' types realize that at least in some cases even the most severe hurdles can be overcome. But instead of focusing on the 'pathology' of the failed we look to lower the hurdles if they can't be removed altogether.

We can debate specific fixes - vouchers or affirmative action or GI Bill like programs. Fine, I see positives & negatives in all and am open to that. But the first step is to recognize there is a class 'issue' (not necessarily a 'problem') and then being open to 'remedies'. The stereotype we 'lefties' have of the right is they don't even want to do that.

Susan writes:

My parents met in a halfway house for mentally ill patients (I am not kidding about this -- we actually tease my mom about it nowadays). My dad couldn't hold a job down and he wouldn't let my mom work. They finally divorced when she realized he would never take his medication regularly. He eventually became homeless and died of a massive heart attack under a city bridge when I was 14.

Despite several hospitalizations for depression, my mom worked very hard to keep herself together and raise us kids. We consider ourselves lucky because most of the rest of the family is middle class. They bought us a modest car, paid for some school clothes, piano lessons for my sister and I and sports for my brother.

We lived on public assistance our whole lives. I can recount many times when state assistnce programs had a direct, positive effect on our lives. Like the summer activity programs that the state paid for while we were wards of the court (during the divorce) which allowed my mom the space she needed to learn how to cope with single parenthood. This helped to convince the court to grant her custody so she could continue raising us.

After the divorce, we waited for 5 years to get into subsidized housing. During our wait, family members once again came to our rescue and helped mom out with rent. We went to food banks regularly.

When I was 15, I took advantage of a state funded worker's training program which gave me experience with the working world. It also allowed me to buy my own clothes and took pressure off of the family budget.

I am now raising two children of my own. I've been married for almost ten years and have the kind of life I always wanted growing up. We are not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we are doing okay. Now that my life is more settled, I am able to pursue goals, like going to college, that I was too disorganized to pursue as a young adult.

In this country, the middle and upper classes are, by and large, totally disconnected from people who live in poverty. They don't understand their problems or their needs.

You might think my story isn't typical. But, there is truth to the notion that poverty has a lot to do with mental illness. There are very few poor people who are smart but lazy. But, there are a lot of poor people with low IQ's, mental illness, personality disorders, persistant drug addiction, or victims of violent or abusive childhoods. I know this because I grew up surrounded by these types of people.

A welfare handout isn't going to change the reason a person is poor to begin with. If you took welfare payments away tomorrow, it isn't going to "reform" a whole lot of welfare recipients. But it will result in desperation. Children, especially, would suffer.

Dryfly is also right. A lot of how a person does in life has to do with luck. Sometimes luck involves things like the GI bill. Sometimes luck involves being born into the right family or being born with the right talents and abilities.

So, while I don't begrudge people who take pride in their hard work, I also think that they should be humble enough to be thankful for good luck. I know I am.

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