When my wife and I wrote about my old schoolmates who had died from “deaths of despair,” the reaction was sometimes ugly.
“They killed themselves,” scoffed Jonathan from St. Louis in the reader comments. “It was self-inflicted.”
Ajax in Georgia was even harsher: “Natural selection weeding out those less fit for survival.”
Our essay, drawn from our new book, “Tightrope,” explored the disintegration of America’s working class through the kids on my old No. 6 school bus in Yamhill, Oregon, particularly my neighbors the Knapps. The five Knapp kids were smart and talented, but Farlan died after years of drug and alcohol abuse, Zealan died in a house fire while passed out drunk, Nathan blew himself up cooking meth, Rogena died of hepatitis after drug use, and Keylan survived partly because he had spent 13 years in the Oregon State Penitentiary.
Working-class men and women like them, of every shade, increasingly are dying of “deaths of despair” — from drugs, alcohol and suicide. That’s why life expectancy in the United States, for the first time in a century, has declined for three years in a row.
Plenty of readers responded with compassion. But there was a prickly scorn from some that deserves a response because it reflects an ideology that underlies so many failed policies. It arises from the myth that we live in a land of limitless opportunity and that those who struggle have simply made “bad choices” and failed to muster “personal responsibility.” Dr. Ben Carson, who grew up poor and black in Detroit and is now the nation’s housing secretary, has described poverty as “more of a choice than anything else.”
This “personal responsibility” narrative animated some reader critics of the Knapps. “This article describes ruined, pitiful people,” one reader commented. “The main problem they have is weakness of character.”
Over the last half-century, this narrative has gained ground in America; it’s an echo of the “social Darwinism” that circulated a century ago. I’ve come to think that the biggest impediment to strengthening the country isn’t a shortage of resources but this personal responsibility obsession.
When we underinvest in our own human capital, when so many Americans are only marginally literate or numerate or suffer from ill health or dependencies, then our entire country suffers. If America wants to compete with China, we should worry less about intellectual property protections and more about investing in the well-being of young Americans.
Yet the personal responsibility narrative leads states to refuse to expand Medicaid. It leads us to lock up drug users instead of providing them help, even though each dollar invested in treatment can save $12 or more in reduced criminal justice and health costs.
When we as a nation are willing to pay extra so that we can lock people up and rip apart their families, that’s gratuitous cruelty posturing as policy.
Of course personal responsibility matters. But imagine if we took the personal responsibility obsession to auto safety. That would look something like this:
Auto crashes often are a result of speeding, drinking or texting. If we coddle drivers with air bags and padded dashboards, and have ambulances ready to rescue them, they’ll never learn to drive responsibly. Better to implant spikes in dashboards so they appreciate consequences!
A newborn in a ZIP code of North Philadelphia with a largely poor and black population has a life expectancy 20 years shorter than a newborn in mostly white central Philadelphia just 4 miles away; that’s not because one infant has displayed “weak character.”
Britain reduced child poverty by half under Tony Blair. It’s not that British infants suddenly showed more personal responsibility; it’s that the government showed responsibility. Here in the United States, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine laid out a blueprint for reducing America’s child poverty by half, yet Congress and President Donald Trump do nothing.
In that sense, Carson is right: Poverty is a choice. But it’s our choice.
My friends the Knapps made mistakes. Of course they did. But they weren’t less responsible, less talented or less hardworking than their parents or grandparents who had thrived in the postwar era.
What changed was diminishing access to good jobs, reduced commitment to investment in human capital, a hurricane of addictive drugs (some peddled by the pharmaceutical industry), and the rise of a harsh social narrative that vilified those left behind — a narrative that workers often internalized. Workers lost their dignity and hope, and that exacerbated the spiral of self-medication and self-destruction, of loneliness and despair that swept through my No. 6 bus.
We moved from an inclusive capitalism in the postwar era to a rigged system that hobbles unions, under invests in children and then punishes those left behind. This is the moral equivalent of spikes on dashboards.
What would a better social narrative look like? It would acknowledge personal responsibility but also our collective social responsibility — especially to help children. It would be infused with empathy and a “morality of grace” that is less about pointing fingers and more about offering helping hands. It would accept that a country cannot reach its potential when so many of its citizens are not achieving theirs.