Is lack of nurture. not nature, the villain?

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There is really only one essential question in good-faith politics: Are poor people to blame for poverty, or is destiny?

I’m thinking about this as I consider, yet again, the supreme irony of undereducated, underemployed (or unemployed), and underprivileged Americans fervently supporting Donald Trump as though he were the Messiah.

I have continuously asked myself (incredulously), just how likely is it that such a famously greedy, penny-pinching, employee-stiffing narcissist would deliver the empathetic economic and social salvation disadvantaged Americans expect from him?

So unlikely as to be a kind of grand, communal delusion.

A family’s resources and the doors they open cast a long shadow over children’s life trajectories.

Karl alexander, johns hopkins university sociologist

‘Atlas Shrugged’

I was reminded of this recently when I stumbled across the iconic proto-libertarian speech by fictional protagonist John Galt in novelist and “objectivism” philosopher Ayn Rand’s wildly popular diatribe of a novel, Atlas Shrugged (1957).

The centerpiece of the novel is a general strike — a commercial revolution, actually — not of the unwashed proletariat, historically dismissed as unworthy of special consideration, but of the professional intelligentsia against elite factory owners deemed oppressive and corrupt.

The theme of Galt’s political soliloquy is “selfishness is good,” echoing a slightly altered precursor version of fictional financier Gordon Gecko’s “greed is good” slogan in the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” which was also an awful meme.

In Atlas Shrugged, the crux of Galt’s self-absorbed ideology is:

And then there’s your ‘brother-love’ morality. Why is it moral to serve others, but not yourself? If enjoyment is a value, why is it moral when experienced by others, but not by you? Why is it immoral to produce something of value and keep it for yourself, when it is moral for others who haven’t earned it to accept it? If it’s virtuous to give, isn’t it then selfish to take?“You know that you can’t give away everything and starve yourself. You’ve forced yourselves to live with undeserved, irrational guilt. Is it ever proper to help another man? No, if he demands it as his right or as a duty that you owe him. Yes, if it’s your own free choice based on your judgment of the value of that person and his struggle. This country wasn’t built by men who sought handouts. In its brilliant youth, this country showed the rest of the world what greatness was possible to Man and what happiness is possible on Earth.“Then it began apologizing for its greatness and began giving away its wealth, feeling guilty for having produced more than its neighbors. Twelve years ago, I saw what was wrong with the world and where the battle for Life had to be fought. I saw that the enemy was an inverted morality and that my acceptance of that morality was its only power. I was the first of the men who refused to give up the pursuit of his own happiness in order to serve others.

Finding the sweet spot

So everyone’s been trying to find the sweet spot throughout history. First it was authoritarian tribal chiefs, then kings, then emperors. Then democracy (under the ancient Greeks), then emperors again in Greece and Rome and Persia, etc. Then came medieval kings (throughout Western Europe), followed by democratic republics (in England and France), and then kings and emperors again (“Lord Protector” Cromwell in England, Emperor Napoleon in France). Then democratic republics again in England, the United States of America, and elsewhere in the West.

Then, consequentially, came Communism in Russia and, later, Asia.

All societies were searching for the sweet spot of governance, where greater prosperity, equality, fairness and social stability would hopefully reign.

All these experiments failed in significant ways.

Under kings and emperors, most wealth tended to flood upward to rulers and a tiny elite, leaving common people in a pathetic state of grinding poverty, political powerlessness and dangerous petulance. The peasantry sometimes revolted en masse (urged on by the intelligensia), forcing a more equitable political and social system, such as American democracy created after throwing off the yoke of the English king and as the French Republic formed during that nation’s 1792 revolution. But it often got worse before better after social upheavals.

Under capitalistic democracy (e.g., in the U.S. and Western Europe), although affording greater political and economic participation of their citizens, the chasm between rich and poor remained gaping, as it did in Russia under the czar before the 1917 Russian Revolution. But whereas the Russian revolt ushered-in Communism, it was an authoritarian system that flowed wealth, power, and privilege to a tiny elite.

In the 21st century, only Scandinavian countries likes Norway and Denmark appear to have found the sweetest spot, with social democratic systems splitting the difference between Communism and capitalistic democracy. Their societies are routinely listed in surveys as among the world’s happiest and most stable, but of course they are more demographically homogenous than more ethnically diverse nations.

Inequality: ‘The elephant in the room’

Yet, in the freedom-focused U.S., the populace is deeply divided on political and economic goals. A slight majority leans toward more liberal economic policy to purposefully shrink the gap between rich and poor with federal programs and to allow greater government ability to redistribute vastly unequal national wealth to improve the lives of all Americans. Slightly less than half of Americans harbor an opposite, conservative economic vision where individual productivity is rewarded, and where it’s considered anathema to bestow special (read: “unearned”) largesse to citizens who haven’t prospered by their own energy, skill and labor. In the conservative tack, the wealth gap is a natural result of merit (or lack of it) and shouldn’t be artificially rectified.

But is the expressed value of the conservative “it’s all on you” assumption even true or fair?

Consider a 2020 Time magazine article reporting what it called “the elephant in the room” of “extreme income inequality” in the U.S.:

“How big is this elephant? A staggering $50 trillion. That is how much the upward redistribution of income has cost American workers over the past several decades.

“This is not some back-of-the-napkin approximation. According to a groundbreaking new working paper by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards of the RAND Corporation, had the more equitable income distributions of the three decades following World War II (1945 through 1974) merely held steady, the aggregate annual income of Americans earning below the 90th percentile would have been $2.5 trillion higher in the year 2018 alone. That is an amount equal to nearly 12 percent of GDP—enough to more than double median income—enough to pay every single working American in the bottom nine deciles an additional $1,144 a month. Every month. Every single year.”

How fair is that?

The problem with the wealth chasm in capitalist societies is the common assumption that anyone can succeed if they work hard enough and long enough. But it’s just not objectively true. Lots of people are not particularly skilled, driven or blessed with the resilience or native intellegence or even good luck necessary for success. What about them? Are they fairly doomed to scratch out a subsistent life?

Nick Hanauer, an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, founder of the public-policy incubator Civic Ventures, and host of the podcast Pitchfork Economics podcast, and David M Rolf, founder and President Emeritus of SEIU 775 and the author of The Fight for Fifteen (2016), think not.

“[I]magine how much safer, healthier, and empowered all American workers might be if that $50 trillion had been paid out in wages instead of being funneled into corporate profits and the offshore accounts of the super-rich,” they wrote. “Imagine how much richer and more resilient the American people would be. Imagine how many more lives would have been saved had our people been more resilient.”

Calculated for individuals, the yawning wealth crevasse seems unconscionable, Hanauer and Rolf contend:

“For example, at the median individual income of $36,000, workers are being shortchanged by $21,000 a year—$28,000 when using the CPI—an amount equivalent to an additional $10.10 to $13.50 an hour.”

And its worse for low-level workers, they say, because their current paychecks reflect longer hours not heftier pay rates.

Blaming the poor for poverty

Why inequality has been growing at such an astronomical pace in recent decades is a question to be answered and hopefully reversed one fine day by economists and elected leaders. But a deeper question remains: Is it natural or fair that many, many citizens — the undereducated and underemployed (including many if not most Trump voters) — should have no hope of succeeding beyond a bare minimum in this life? Is it their fault they’re struggling?

One thing is certain: Donald Trump did not rescue them from anything except their heretofore unrequited need to ragefully indulge their grievances on a massive scale.

But, still, are they personally responsible for their objective lack of success that feeds those grievances?

A 2014 article published by CBS Philly 3 news station references a Johns Hopkins University study tracking 790 Baltimore school children starting in 1982 — The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood” — which found forces other than personal qualities and agency are paramount in achieving individual success:

“A family’s resources and the doors they open cast a long shadow over children’s life trajectories,” says Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander, one of the study’s three co-authors. “This view is at odds with the popular ethos that we are makers of our own fortune.”

A 2014 article in Johns Hopkins’ news site, the Hub, titled “Study: Children’s life trajectories largely determined by family they are born into,” notes the study found that nurture (“the families they were born into”) far more than nature determines people’s success (or not) in life.

The “sobering” results of the study, which tracked first-grade students until they were age 28-29, surprised Alexander and his co-authors, he said. The Hub article reported:

“At nearly 30 years old, almost half the sample found themselves at the same socio-economic status as their parents. The poor stayed poor; those better off remained better off.

“Only 33 children moved from birth families in the low-income bracket to the high-income bracket as young adults; if family had no bearing on children’s mobility prospects, almost 70 would be expected. And of those who started out well off, only 19 dropped to the low-income bracket, a fourth of the number expected.

“‘The implication is where you start in life is where you end up in life,’ Alexander said. ‘It’s very sobering to see how this all unfolds.’”

One discouraging reveal in the study was that precious few low-income kids made it through college:

“Almost none of the children from low-income families made it through college. Of the children from low-income families, only 4 percent had a college degree at age 28, compared to 45 percent of the children from higher-income backgrounds. ‘That’s a shocking tenfold difference across social lines,’ Alexander said.”

Nurture is the villain

If the findings of this study are accurate (and other studies, like this Pew Research Institute survey released in 2020, agree that they are)—they show that our birth family rather than our personal capacities at birth will most determine our material success in life. Therefore, how can society best shift that imbalance toward equity?

Social safety-net features in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan include such shifting initiatives, including paid family leave, affordable child care and child tax credits, all roundly booed by conservatives because they view them as unearned benefits.

Republicans just say people have to get smarter, work harder and bite the bullet to get ahead in American society.

If Johns Hopkins’ report is true, that’s nonsense.

What’s the GOP’s rational “Plan B” then, if “personal responsibility” still isn’t working for working-class Americans?

At least Biden’s plan addresses the sobering reality that, as we’re doing things now, the poor just keep getting poorer and have for decades now — along with the rest of the 99 percent.

So, keeping the status quo is neither smart nor compassionate, yet that was totally Trump’s plan for raising up his adoring “deplorables.”

How’d that work out for them?

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...