David Coates

Responding to David Brooks: The Question of Poverty and Character


David Brooks’ recent essay on “The Character Factory” would have us believe that “nearly every parent on earth operates on the assumption that character matters a lot to the life outcomes of their children” while “nearly every government anti-poverty program operates on the assumption that it doesn’t.” Assertions like that, coming in the wake of Paul Ryan’s proposal to devolve more and more of such programs down to the state level where they can be more properly “personalized,” raises a question of fundamental importance. Is poverty ultimately a matter of character? If it is, then anti-poverty programs need resetting, as David Brooks would have them reset, to focus more on the development of character than on the provision of material resources. If it is, then people like Paul Ryan are right: the propensity of liberals to treat the poor as victims of circumstances, rather than as the authors of their own fate, needs to be rethought. If poverty is ultimately a question of character, as the Brooks’ essay would suggest, then poverty is genuinely something that can be solved by the poor themselves showing more of the effort and determination necessary to transform their circumstances.
Such a view of the causes of poverty, and the best route to its resolution, is common among conservative commentators and politicians in contemporary America. Poverty, they regularly tell us, is the consequence of the character of the poor themselves. People put themselves in poverty by the poor choices that they make: specifically by having children out of wedlock, or before they have the economic means to be successful parents; by dropping out of school far too early; and by simply not developing the appropriate work ethic – what David Brooks characterized in “The Character Factory” as “grit and perseverance.” The poor make a choice, and they suffer accordingly. Logically, two consequences seem to follow. One is that if those Americans currently trapped in poverty had made other choices, they would not now be poor. A second is that, to the degree that generous welfare provision panders to the very character traits that keep people in poverty, cutting welfare actually becomes a far more effective way of helping the poor than any addition to welfare programs can ever hope to be.
But is a discussion of character the best way to frame a conversation about the causes of contemporary poverty, and is individual choice the key variable at play here? I, for one, don’t believe that it is.
Focusing on issues of character and choice, when discussing poverty, suits conservatives because it emphasizes the causal role of “agency” rather than “structure” in the creation of social problems. Talking about character pulls attention away from the underlying set of economic and social forces that are currently making so many Americans poor. Such a focus obscures the extent to which so many people are currently poor in America, not because of character defects of their own, but because they are involuntarily under-employed – or trapped in part-time employment – in an economy running at only half-speed. They would choose full-time paid employment if only they could get it, but they can’t. It isn’t there to be had.
Focusing on issues of character and choice also obscures the extent to which so many Americans are currently trapped in poverty by their dependence on inadequate welfare payments, from which they can only escape into low paying jobs that, for them, mean simply a move from public sector-based poverty to a private-sector one. And focusing on character and choice obscures the extent to which yet more people are trapped in poverty by working full-time in jobs that pay poverty wages (one American job in four currently is of that kind). Cumulatively, what this conservative refocusing of the poverty debate does is to obscure the extent to which people of good character are made poor by bad circumstances that they didn’t choose, circumstances that they don’t want, and circumstances against which they daily struggle.
For do most people “choose” to be so trapped? Do they really? I don’t believe that they do. If a life of poverty is something people genuinely choose to adopt, then it is remarkable just how many people in America now seem keen to make that choice – both for themselves and for their children. It is even more remarkable that the children of the poor consistently make that choice again and again as they get older; that women (especially single mothers) make that choice more than men; that retirees dependent on Social Security make it more than retirees with occupational pensions; and that African-Americans and Hispanic Americans consistently make that choice in greater numbers than do their white equivalents.
There seem to be patterns here, patterns reproduced by a myriad of isolated individual decisions, but patterns that hold regardless of the individuals whose decisions call them into existence. Which is why there is something particularly offensive about the speed and ease with which so many commentators on the American Right, instead of probing beneath the surface for the underlying causes of the “pathologies” of poverty they so dislike, move instead to demonize the poor, endlessly blaming them for making “bad choices” as though good ones were plentiful and immediately at hand.
Conservative commentators see individuals acting quite rationally within the parameters of what is possible there, and then condemn those individuals for not doing what they could have done had the parameters been wider. They see the last act in the drama but never the prologue. Margaret Thatcher’s great ally in her pro-market reforms of the 1980s, Norman Tebbit, used to tell the UK poor to “get on their bikes and go find work”, as his father had before him in a British economy then full to overflowing with jobs. But when jobs are scarce, you have to peddle further. If you are already trapped in urban poverty, the incline up which you have to cycle is steeper than in the suburban flatlands. If the world around you is racist, cycling alone can be dangerous if you are black/Hispanic. If it is sexist, women cyclists beware! The level playing field on which all of us are supposed to act with responsibility is just not there in a world scarred by inequalities of class, race, gender and age that have built up over the generations.
So advocate peddling by all means. Personal responsibility (David Brooks’ “character”) is the necessary last moment. We can all agree on that. But if we do not simultaneously work on the positions that create poverty, focusing instead only on the individuals currently occupying them, all that can happen is that some of those individuals will escape to affluence, but the positions of the poor will still be there, to be filled by the next generation of the under-resourced. People will rotate in and out of poverty, but poverty itself will remain; and people of good character will remain trapped in poverty for want of the good jobs and the good wages which alone can bring the rate of poverty down. To the extent that refocusing the public debate about poverty onto issues of character pulls that debate away from a conversation about wages and jobs, it does real damage, by helping to perpetuate the very poverty it claims to be concerned to resolve.


The argument here is developed further in David Coates, Answering Back. New York. Continuum Books, 2010



David Brooks, ‘The Character Factory,” The New York Times, July 31, 2014: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/01/opinion/david-brooks-the-character-factory.html


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David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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