Poverty ‘as a matter of values’

FAQ3-Fig2-2012

Paul Krugman:

Most notably, mortality among white women has increased sharply since the 1990s, with the rise surely concentrated among the poor and poorly educated; life expectancy among less educated whites has been falling at rates reminiscent of the collapse of life expectancy in post-Communist Russia.

And yes, these excess deaths are the result of inequality and lack of opportunity, even in those cases where their direct cause lies in self-destructive behavior. Overuse of prescription drugs, smoking, and obesity account for a lot of early deaths, but there’s a reason such behaviors are so widespread, and that reason has to do with an economy that leaves tens of millions behind.

It has been disheartening to see some commentators still writing as if poverty were simply a matter of values, as if the poor just mysteriously make bad choices and all would be well if they adopted middle-class values. Maybe, just maybe, that was a sustainable argument four decades ago, but at this point it should be obvious that middle-class values only flourish in an economy that offers middle-class jobs.

The great sociologist William Julius Wilson argued long ago that widely-decried social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families, were actually caused by the disappearance of well-paying jobs in inner cities. His argument contained an implicit prediction: if other racial groups were to face a similar loss of job opportunity, their behavior would change in similar ways.

I’m surprised Krugman would commit the oversight of ignoring what Ta-Nehisi Coates and others have mentioned: thanks to housing practices by the federal government — the only government entity that in other respects was the black man’s only ally — black citizens were driven and priced out of white enclaves.

But his larger point is chilling nonetheless: the whites who suffer most from diabetes, chronic obesity, cigarette addiction, and poor diet are the ones whom GOP state legislators and congressmen want to court.

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