What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

When you think about how you got where you were, or why other people’s situations are different, how often do you think about luck?  Maybe you feel sorry for people in tough situations, but you can’t help thinking that it’s partly their fault–after all, if they didn’t have a good job lined up, they shouldn’t have gotten into so much debt…if they needed a job so badly, they should have worked harder at applying…if they wanted to live in a better neighborhood, they shouldn’t have dropped out of high school…if they weren’t in a position to get pregnant, they shouldn’t have been screwing around.

I’ve had these thoughts.  But the older I get, the more I realize how little good decisions have to do with it.  There’s a certain logic behind that horrible bumpersticker, “if you can’t feed ’em, don’t breed ’em”–but only if the person with the bumpersticker has never made any sexual mistakes himself.  For every couple shamed for an unmarried pregnancy, there’s a dozen more who weren’t chaste either, but who were lucky enough to never get pregnant, so no one ever found out; and there are hundreds more who made equally serious mistakes, but luckily they weren’t the kind of mistakes that cause such a public crisis.  I’ve talked to someone who thought he had the right to judge people on welfare, because he himself had “never made any poor economic decisions.”  Really?  My guess would be that he did, but that he could afford to, or someone bailed him out.  If not, I’m willing to bet he’s made other kinds of mistakes, just like everyone else has; he’s just lucky enough that they didn’t result in poverty.

Here’s another example: I recently heard from a woman who panhandles for a living, who said that she was very willing to work, but it was hard to get a job because she had shoplifting on her record from when she was 16.  Now sure, that was her fault; but what were you doing when you were 16?  I did plenty of stupid things; I’m just lucky that none of them were illegal.

This runs the other way, too: instead of judging people for making poor decisions, it’s easy to become insecure and bitter over people who didn’t work any harder than you, but happened to have the right connections to land a better job, or the family help they needed to put a down payment on their dream house.  It’s easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong, like you should be working harder, because your situation is so much worse than theirs.  But as my brother pointed out, if you’re living thriftily and working hard, but you still can’t make ends meet without some help, that’s not a problem with you.  It’s a problem with the system (or the economy, or probably just the whole fallen world). But the myth of hard work=prosperity still exists, and it’s so pervasive that we don’t even realize we’ve bought into it. Bill O’Reilly put it very succinctly when he said:

you gotta look people in the eye and tell ’em they’re irresponsible and lazy…Because that’s what poverty is, ladies and gentlemen. In this country, you can succeed if you get educated and work hard. Period.(Quoted in this excellent article, in which I actually agree with Obama about something)

I certainly find myself thinking this way sometimes.  But I’m here to say that I work hard, and I’m well educated, and I’m still poor.  It’s not even just about hard work and responsibility; it’s about a lot more subtle things, like upbringing and family history.  I’m not trying to say that you can blame your shortcomings on society; but I think people are so eager to reject that line of thinking that they rush to the other extreme, and act as if your upbringing and your surroundings have nothing to do with it.  If you think about it, you’re not just lucky if you’re well-educated and have a decent job; you’re lucky if your parents taught you how to save money.  You’re lucky if your parents showed you how to work hard.  You’re lucky if your parents spoke English at home.   You’re lucky if you grew up in a good neighborhood, with good influences.  You’re lucky if your parents stayed married.

I don’t know why God allows some people to have such bad luck.  But I know He doesn’t look kindly on people who attribute bad luck to moral failing.  That’s the way people thought in the Old Testament, and it’s still alive today, in the “prosperity Gospel” and in conservative ideology.  In the Book of Job, Job’s “comforters” try to convince him that he’s harboring some secret sin, and that’s what he’s being punished for.  After all, God punishes evildoers and rewards the righteous.  But Job consistently affirms his innocence, even though he doesn’t understand why God is letting him suffer.  If we believe that poor people are necessarily poor because of their own shortcomings, we’re just as bad as Job’s friends or Joel Osteen.

How Food Stamp Restrictions Can Fuel Bigger Government

A young woman, teenager with long blond hair lolls on a black leather sofa, watching television and eating crisps and coke here.

The glamorous welfare life.

Missouri is considering a law to ban people using food stamps to purchase steak and seafood, as well as candy, soda, and other junk food.  I don’t think this is a bad idea, at least when it comes to the junk food.  It certainly makes sense to me that the government has a right to decide what tax-payers’ money can be spent on, and it’s not fair to immediately retort with accusations about hatred of poor people.  It’s no surprise that Rick Brattin, the representative who authored the bill, has mixed motives; in the same breath as claiming that he is trying to restore the program to its original purpose of providing essential supplemental nutrition, he adds: “When I can’t afford [filet mignon and crab legs] on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.”  Is the problem that welfare recipients have no right to buy luxuries with money that was given to them for essentials?  Or is the problem that they don’t deserve them?  Regardless, he has a point.  The government has an obligation to make sure all its citizens have enough healthy food, but it doesn’t have an obligation to make sure they have candy and chips.

After this distinction, though, it gets complicated.  So, no lobster.  Fair enough.  What about in the summer, when lobster is as cheap as chicken?  What about salmon, which is extremely good for you?  Maybe if we only let them buy frozen salmon, which is cheaper?  No chips, fair enough.  What about baked chips?  Not so nutritious, but they’ll curb your temptation to buy the greasy regular ones.  What about crackers?  What about whole wheat crackers?  Well, maybe only if they’re store brand?  What about frozen convenience foods?  After all, they’re expensive and unhealthy.  But what if you have picky kids, and your husband works all day and then comes home and you go to work, and he cooks supper, but he’s so tired he’d really like to just throw in a frozen pizza?  Well, maybe if you can provide a doctor’s note showing that you are sufficiently tired to deserve frozen pizza.  Or maybe one frozen pizza a week, but no more.  What about brand names?  They’re not any healthier than store brands, so that’s out.  Well, what about goat cheese or gouda?  They’re not really any more nutritious than plain old, cheap American cheese.  American cheese it is.

See how crazy this is getting?  And here’s the real problem: if you’re really going to enforce a policy of only nutritious, essential purchases, you’re going to have assign an army of bureaucrats to work out all the details.  And worst of all, you are going to have to authorize a lot more government intrusion.  Do you really want the government to be controlling your grocery shopping habits this closely?  Or, if you think it’s only fair for someone receiving free groceries to have severe restrictions: do you really want to set a precedent for the government to attach all kinds of strings to legitimate assistance?

Now look, if you want to stop welfare fraud, okay.  Require a photo ID to be shown with food stamps purchases.  Tighten up the regulations and investigate suspicious recipients.  But realize that you’re fighting a straw man: it appears that less than 1% of welfare money is abused.  And ask yourself this question: if you authorize the government to decide whether people on welfare have to buy Wheat Thins or Square Shaped Wheat Crackers, what are they going to take over next?

You Know…

I wouldn’t mind it if Republicans said something like “Gosh, we hate to cut food stamps, but we really need to balance this budget for everyone’s good.”  Or maybe “We really need to cut spending somewhere, but we don’t want to cut it from people who need it, so let’s focus on getting rid of welfare fraud and waste, helping people graduate from assistance, and getting the money only to the people who really need it.”  But they don’t.  Instead, you usually find them saying something asinine like “Why should these people get free stuff when I have to pay for it?” or “Why don’t these people just go get a job?”  And that’s why it’s really hard to get behind them, even if they’re right about the need to cut spending.  To paraphrase Billy Joel, I’m starting to feel like I’d rather be wrong with the Democrats than right with the Republicans.

Coming soon, a few thoughts on the proposed Missouri law restricting people on food stamps from buying junkfood, steak, and seafood.  Non-ranty, I promise.