The Natural Disaster of Poverty

The myth of the self-made self reinforces the illegitimate moral distinction between the poor and the victims of natural disasters.

Hurricane Katrina Highlights Poverty Concerns

The Atlantic storm season officially ended November 30 [2006], but the concerns about poverty highlighted by hurricane Katrina are still very much with us.[1] Why did it take a natural disaster to draw attention to the poor of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast? How many of those made homeless will join the ranks of the permanently dispossessed?

But there’s another, more fundamental question about poverty the storms have raised: what’s the moral difference between needy victims of a hurricane and those needy to begin with? If the Red Cross funnels millions of dollars to feed, clothe and house those displaced by floods, why not do as much for the homeless already among us? Instead, under cover of deficit reduction, the Bush administration and Republican-controlled Congress are bent on cutting funding for food stamps, school loans, child support, Medicaid and other programs that address the causes and consequences of poverty.

Judging by these responses, it seems many believe that storm victims merit immediate, compensatory aid, but victims of the ongoing disaster of poverty do not. Why so?

Poverty is a Slowly Unfolding, Fully-Caused Natural Disaster

Those who defend the moral distinction between hurricanes and poverty might say that poverty isn’t primarily a disaster at all. Instead, it’s in good measure the result of human choices that are, finally, the choosers’ responsibility. Unlike the destruction caused by wind and water, poverty simply reflects the fact that some people don’t have what it takes to succeed in life, or that they don’t make the effort. As much as poverty might have some structural causes, it’s ultimately attributable to character flaws and moral failings, and so is a kind of just deserts.

It’s easy to discern the brute causality of a natural disaster – how it instantly destroys the privately-owned resources that separate us from the poor. It’s far more difficult to appreciate the complex, but equally determinative causality of family, school and community circumstances, learned behavior and social policies, all of which keep poverty in place.

Further, conventional wisdom supposes that beyond such factors it’s free human choices that explain economic inequality. Although influenced, our choices rise above influences in some crucial respect, so individuals bear ultimate responsibility for their success or failure. Those who don’t succeed are not deserving of help in the way that victims of natural disasters are, since finally they choose their lot in life. After all, don’t many people bootstrap themselves out of poverty? If so, the willful refusal to take “personal responsibility” explains why others remain poor.

It’s the assumption of contra-causal free will – the idea that people are ultimately self-made, that they are somehow exceptions to natural causality – that makes poverty morally different from hurricanes. And it’s this difference that drives policy, especially for conservatives. In good conscience we might spend billions to help those that hurricanes made homeless, but not those who are homeless “by choice,” as Ronald Reagan once put it.The tens of thousands that inhabit the alleys and underpasses of our cities don’t inspire the same compassion as storm victims. Why not? Because many believe they made their bed, and so should lie in it.

But just as cutting-edge meteorology gives us better understanding of the weather, so too recent developments in genetics, cognitive neuroscience and behavioral psychology show that human beings, although fantastically complex creatures, are just as caused, and just as natural, as hurricanes. If we take science as our guide to human nature, there isn’t a non-physical part of us – a soul – that manages to transcend causality in choosing our course through life, whether we end up a millionaire or on welfare.

It might subjectively feel as if our choices result from something immaterial and free beyond the brain and body, giving us the illusion that the self is causally privileged over nature. But the lesson science teaches us when considering the homeless, or the rich, is there but for circumstances – genetic and environmental – go I.

Were we to heed the science of human behavior, we would understand poverty as a slowly unfolding, fully caused natural disaster, and we might rethink our priorities accordingly. We wouldn’t suppose that the abiding poor are less deserving than hurricane victims, so we’d have no excuse not to deliver immediate and ongoing assistance – enough to keep them safely above the poverty line. Nor would we have any morally acceptable justification not to address the structural causes of poverty as the national emergency they so manifestly are. The science-based challenge to the myths of free will and the self-made self can help inspire a truly altruistic, compassionate response to economic injustice.

© TWC, January 2006


[1] See George Lakoff and John Halpin's American Prospect article Framing Katrina for broader progressive take on the politics of poverty.