When it comes to poverty, the soft bigotry of low expectations is alive and well among elites

by Ryan Streeter on December 26, 2011. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Amidst all this talk about inequality and the myriad opinions about how to address it, let’s not forget one bullet-proof reality that’s fixed concretely in the facts: personal responsibility still plays a major role in staying out of poverty.

Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institution wrote a fine post last Friday before we all broke for the Christmas weekend in which he reminds us of what I routinely call “The Equation” when talking to groups about the sources of poverty and opportunity in America: finish high school, work full-time, and wait until you’re married to have a child. If you grow up poor but manage to do these three things, the likelihood you’ll stay poor drops dramatically.

The Equation comes from a Brookings study that Isabell Sawhill and Haskins did some time ago. The study is well-known in social science circles that deal with poverty however much hardly anyone pays attention to the gravity of its conclusions.

After acknowledging that we should be funding the most effective government anti-poverty programs, Haskins writes:

But unless adolescents and young adults make wise decisions about their schooling, about marriage before childbearing, and about work, our Brookings study strongly suggests that all this programmatic spending will do little to boost their chances of moving into the middle class. Federal and state policymakers, program operators and teachers, and parents need to constantly remind themselves and their children that personal responsibility is the key to success and insist that children and adolescents demonstrate more of it. Arguing that bad decisions are understandable when made by a child from a poor, single-parent family living in a bad neighborhood and attending a lousy school is a flimsy excuse that abets the problem.

That last line points to a mindset that President Bush used to refer to as “the soft bigotry of low expectations” when he talked about failing schools. Elites who hold their own children to high standards but find endless excuses for “disadvantaged” children engage in a similar type of bigotry. Our elite class in America – especially the white variety – will do everything it can to demonstrate a sympathetic “understanding” of low-income communities which then translates into public support for taxpayer-funded “solutions” which in turn translates into kudos from other elite peers. Call it the Cycle of Elite Perpetuation of the Problem.  This Cycle sustains that soft bigotry in which failure is accepted as the norm and elites go to bed at night with a clean conscience and their hands washed of any real responsibility.

Haskins is right. Let’s talk about the truth for a change –  even when it has to do with the uncomfortable facts of family formation and personal responsibility in the realm of work and education.   And let’s do all of this out of a sense of moral obligation and for the sake of social justice.