Bryan Caplan  

Poverty, Conscientiousness, and Broken Families

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Right-wingers should spend a lot more time reading left-wing ethnography of the poor.  It may seem strange, but when leftist social scientists actually talk to and observe the poor, they confirm the stereotypes of the harshest Victorian.  Poverty isn't about money; it's a state of mind.  That state of mind is low conscientiousness.

Case in point: Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas' Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage.  The authors spent years interviewing poor single moms.  Edin actually moved into their neighborhood to get closer to her subjects.  One big conclusion:
Most social scientists who study poor families assume financial troubles are the cause of these breakups [between cohabitating parents]... Lack of money is certainly a contributing cause, as we will see, but rarely the only factor.  It is usually the young father's criminal behavior, the spells of incarceration that so often follow, a pattern of intimate violence, his chronic infidelity, and an inability to leave drugs and alcohol alone that cause relationships to falter and die.
Furthermore:
Conflicts over money do not usually erupt simply because the man cannot find a job or because he doesn't earn as much as someone with better skills or education.  Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect.  Some of the jobs he can get don't pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to get along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.
These passages focus on low male conscientiousness, but the rest of the book shows it's a two-way street.  And even when Edin and Kefalas are talking about men, low female conscientiousness is implicit.  After all, conscientious women wouldn't associate with habitually unemployed men in the first place - not to mention alcoholics, addicts, or criminals.



COMMENTS (27 to date)
rapscallion writes:

Are you saying that right-wingers should read more left-wing ethnographies so that it becomes clear how disingenuous left-wingers are? Seems like it's left-wingers who should read more left-wing ethnographies.

Chris Koresko writes:

Bryan Caplan: Right-wingers should spend a lot more time reading left-wing ethnography of the poor. It may seem strange, but when leftist social scientists actually talk to and observe the poor, they confirm the stereotypes of the harshest Victorian.

Speaking as a right-winger, I don't believe I'd enjoy having a more adverse view of the poor. In fact, most right-wingers don't particularly want to think badly of the poor; when we criticize their behavior, it's almost invariably in the context of a retort to a left-winger claiming that the condition of the poor is proof that liberty is unfair.

Becky Hargrove writes:

Bryan, I get the intention here. Thanks.

Brian Moore writes:

What's the route out here? It's hard to imagine that education or incentives would help here, who doesn't know that sex w/o protection can lead to expensive kids, or that committing crimes leads to imprisonment, or continually leaving jobs results in unemployment + no money?

I'm certainly on the side of thinking that left to their own devices, people tend to make good decisions, but what do you do with this? It seems like you have two options: let them die (no) or just support them, accepting that things aren't ever going to improve.

Any other option seems to involve social engineering or cultural changes that our society (and me) would deem unacceptable.

Peter writes:

It would be unproductive for right wingers, or anybody, to spend alot more time reading about the lifestyles of the poor and unfamous.

Understanding the problem is necessary, but much has been written and determined about them already. No need to rediscover the wheel of the poor mindset.

Reading time is better spent on ways and means how the poor can be motivated to change the mindset of the poor.

Bob Murphy writes:

No self-respecting male would take a job involving monthly faculty meetings. Bryan you should be ashamed of yourself.

RPLong writes:

Good lord this blog has become bizarro world. First Kling endorses a housing subsidy and now Caplan suggests that stereotypes are true, because, look, someone covered them in an academic veneer.

Maybe it's been a slow few weeks?

George writes:

"What's the route out here? It's hard to imagine that education or incentives would help here, who doesn't know that sex w/o protection can lead to expensive kids, or that committing crimes leads to imprisonment, or continually leaving jobs results in unemployment + no money?"

Eugenics

Mercer writes:

" conscientious women wouldn't associate with habitually unemployed men in the first place - not to mention alcoholics, addicts, or criminals. "

If that is the condition of the majority of the men in a woman's neighborhood and school that is who she will associate with if she wants children. From a Darwinian perspective a woman who has children with an unemployed man is more successful than a woman with higher standards who is childless.

Becky Hargrove writes:

Most of the guys here really do not envision that a better world is possible, is that not true? Do you not realize that there are relatively poor libertarian women who read this blog, who are looking for ways to improve the world through libertarian means and strategies? I'm sorry but I absolutely have to say that some of you should be ashamed of yourselves for your smugness and think about the struggles some people have faced as they tried to make a better world for themselves just as you have, they just did not have the circumstances to make it happen.

Now, be honest with yourselves. Do you want to take action to make more positive things happen for people outside of government or do you just want to stay with the status quo? It's your choice and God will know what you decide, and the world will reflect what you decide. Libertarian women are looking for common ground with you to make it happen. Think about it.

joeftansey writes:

As a poor student living on the poor side of town in poor apartments around other poor people, I have to say that Caplan is basically right.

I have lived in third world countries where communities are more functional/rational. Being poor doesn't make you leave garbage outside your own home, waste hundreds of dollars on cigarettes, beer and fast food, or go to work and do the bare minimum to not get fired that day.

There is a LARGE class of American poor who are poor because they have severe behavioral defects. If you want to go out of your way to get offended when someone points this out, good job. Crying about how the approximation isn't perfect is just trying to shut down the issue. None one would really be satisfied if Caplan put a "some exceptions may apply/present company excluded" asterisk after every post.

I feel truly sorry for the poor in third world countries, but the american poor are a different story*. Grey-area at best.

*some exceptions may apply/present company excluded

caryatis writes:

Mercer is right. One of the conclusions I drew from Promises I Can Keep (and hey, from my own life) is that quality men just aren't available whenever you want them. If you're poor and only spend time with other poor people, as in the book, you're choosing between, say, the intermittently employed marijuana smoker and the (richer) crack dealer, because the stably employed drug-free middle class guy is not an option for you.

I haven't seen Bryan address this.

Jeff writes:
After all, conscientious women wouldn't associate with habitually unemployed men in the first place - not to mention alcoholics, addicts, or criminals.

Men and women being born in roughly equal numbers, a lot of these women probably just don't have any other options, no? Decent men are a scarce resource in a lot of communities.

Also, some women just love the bad-boy, risk-taker types. Didn't Tyler have a post not too long ago about all the love letters that death row inmates get? A felony conviction or two probably increases your sexual market value in some places.

joeftansey writes:

If a good man is really in such short supply, it should be relatively easy for a man to clean up his act (even marginally) and have his pick of responsible women. Maybe there aren't a lot of responsible women either?

Orthodox writes:

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Seth writes:

This seems like a good chance to recommend Thomas Sowell's book "Black Rednecks and White Liberals".

Though not left-wing, in it Sowell presents views and info about the origination and perpetuation of the "low-conscientiousness" cultural norm that I haven't seen discussed outside that book.

Re: joeftansey's comment, my in-laws came to the U.S. from a lesser developed country. They have been here for decades and are still shocked when they see folks who have trouble with basics like bathing, hygeine and presenting themselves in public. My mother-in-law points out that being poor is not an acceptable excuse. She says, "Soap is cheap."

tom writes:

There's a great book by Jason Deparle of the NYT that shows the low-conscientiouss of some of the underclass in exactly the way you are talking about (showing low-conscientiousness): American Dream.

DeParle's obviously liberal, and he refers repeatedly to the coldness etc... of government officials cutting and changing programs. But he also goes into the lives of three women in Milwaukee in a way that shows how much of their situations are due to their own decisions. (It's especially interesting on the good and bad of people getting their earned-income tax credit checks, the way that many of the bureaucrats they interact with are members of the same underclass, and the way that the women's relationships with men are so central to their financial problems.)

One funny thing about DeParle: his wife ran the White House's push for ObamaCare. I never understood how she and he could think that ObamaCare is necessary because the underclass is so bad at taking care of themselves and must have things done for them, while ignoring the evidence in the book that no program can fix things when people don't take responsibility for themselves.

medwards writes:
Becky Hargrove writes: Bryan, I get the intention here. Thanks.

I don't. What's the insight being offered here?

Jusitn Irving writes:

When we have Gattica style embryo selection technology, make it an entitlement. Greg Clark would dig it.

Clay writes:

The quotes blame the conditions of the poor on the individual decisions and behaviors of the adult poor themselves. This view is generally considered a "right wing" viewpoint. The author may vote Democrat and have a left wing background, but that specific view is almost universally labeled "right wing". This view definitely isn't compatible with traditional left wing policy of increased entitlements, redistribution, and skills education as the main cure to poverty. I am curious what policy solutions the author is in favor of, but not quite enough to read the book.

EPons writes:

I agree completely with the fact that the stereotypes of certain impoverished groups are amplified and can be held true due to the simple mindsets of members of a society. The expectations of a certain group can be negatively influenced by society, by making members of a group only strive to achieve the low expectations placed on them.

Examples of these low expectations are most prevalent in education- a place where encouragement to reach above expectations should be implemented. This can be exemplified through the Expectation Theory- a concept found in education that says teachers who have low standards for their students due to a rough home life situation, a particular ethnic background, or other factor actually hinders their students’ learning abilities. Having low standards for students, although intentioned to help students succeed, actually influences the children to believe that they do hold lower standards for themselves in comparison to other students and in turn, do not work as hard and achieve as much as they could.

As a society, we must be aware that low achievement in all walks of life can be attributed to the mindsets of individuals. Those who are privileged enough to be educated and have the opportunity to educate others must take a stand and not feel sorry for those who are underprivileged; instead we must hold all people to the highest standards and responsibilities to themselves. Everyone must be challenged to reach their highest potential possible to create an ideally educated and self-reliant society.

Evan writes:

@Chris Koresko

Speaking as a right-winger, I don't believe I'd enjoy having a more adverse view of the poor. In fact, most right-wingers don't particularly want to think badly of the poor; when we criticize their behavior, it's almost invariably in the context of a retort to a left-winger claiming that the condition of the poor is proof that liberty is unfair.

That is certainly true of the majority of right-wingers. However, there is also a vocal minority who complain about the bad habits of the poor for status-signalling reasons.

@Brian Moore

What's the route out here? It's hard to imagine that education or incentives would help here, who doesn't know that sex w/o protection can lead to expensive kids, or that committing crimes leads to imprisonment, or continually leaving jobs results in unemployment + no money?
I'm really hoping for some sort of reliable, cheap conscientiousness enhancing drug to be developed soon. We already have Adderol, which seems to be a step in the right direction.

Something else that might be effective to some degree, though certainly not a cure-all, is ending various forms of prohibition. If people no longer think they don't have to apply themselves because they could work as a dealer or a pimp, things might improve.

@Seth

This seems like a good chance to recommend Thomas Sowell's book "Black Rednecks and White Liberals".

Though not left-wing, in it Sowell presents views and info about the origination and perpetuation of the "low-conscientiousness" cultural norm that I haven't seen discussed outside that book.I've read that book and admire Sowell's work in general. I was very happy to hear Bill Cosby's criticisms of black culture, as that means that maybe Sowell's work is starting to become mainstream. Heck, when it was on 1/4 of Chocolate New's sketches seemed to be watered down Sowell.

david jinkins writes:

When you write posts about conscientiousness, I usually take your definition to be something like: "The ability to consistently work hard over a long period to achieve a large goal." I don't see how attaching a high value to respect at the workplace is a violation of conscientiousness when defined this way.

The Wikipedia article is too vague. What is your definition of conscientiousness, Bryan?

lemmy caution writes:

"Mercer is right. One of the conclusions I drew from Promises I Can Keep (and hey, from my own life) is that quality men just aren't available whenever you want them. If you're poor and only spend time with other poor people, as in the book, you're choosing between, say, the intermittently employed marijuana smoker and the (richer) crack dealer, because the stably employed drug-free middle class guy is not an option for you."

I agree. People's choices are driven by their circumstances.

Every so often people get angry on the Internet about bicyclers running red lights. I don't commute to work on a bike and have never run a red light on a bike in my life. But, I am pretty sure that if I did commute to work on a bike, I would be running red lights all the time. Because, why would I be any different? Why assume bicyclers are just being unreasonable and not bother to understand what is really involved in their decision making.

Ken S writes:

The second passage seems to describe a combination of low agreeableness and higher neuroticism, rather than low conscientiousness.

tina writes:

Brian said,

"What's the route out here? It's hard to imagine that education or incentives would help here, who doesn't know that sex w/o protection can lead to expensive kids..."

I taught for 34 years, high school. The demographics of the city in which I live and taught gradually changed so that it went from a white working class/middle class community to one over 40% NAM, many non-working and many not wanting to work.

I can tell you this--as social policies changed and welfare pay-offs grew, the notion of "expensive kids" went out the window. I don't think most people understand that in a state such as mine, California, the poor are not poor at all. Kids are not viewed as expensive but as income-producing commodities. Sure, the "poor" don't have money in the bank, no 401ks or other retirement plans, but they don't need them. They draw a monthly income from the taxpayer, an income which feeds them quite nicely and which provides section 8 vouchers for homes in middle class neighborhoods. They receive free medical, vision, and dental care. With each baby, their income goes up, and when that gravy train finally stops (kids grow up), their young kids have kids, a situation providing them once again with what they need--checks, a house, etc. Grandma now lives with her daughter (who is drawing a check) who lives with her daughter (who is drawing a check) and so on and so on.

Stop rewarding baby-making and absent daddies and we might at least be able to return to a time when the poor practiced some form of birth control. The way things are now, the "poor" are doing quite nicely. They thank you.

tina writes:

"Reading time is better spent on ways and means how the poor can be motivated to change the mindset of the poor."

Even the poor understand necessity, you know, as in "necessity is the mother of invention."

Stop rewarding mooching and you'll be amazed at how lazy asses discover their inner worker.

I can't believe how social scientists and the mushy-headed wish to complicate this issue as if they had no understanding at all of human nature. Where DO you live? Have you not spent time around such people? Are you so insulated that the most obvious of realities escapes you?

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