Is personal responsibility the key to ending poverty?

People walk past a homeless woman. Two commentators on both sides of the political spectrum talk about why people are poor and what they can do about it.

Melissa Boteach is the Director of the Poverty and Prosperity Program for the Center for American Progress.

Charles Murray is an economist and author of the 1994 New York Times bestseller, The Bell Curve

How do you fix poverty? It's a question many people have struggled to answer. Poverty experts Charles Murray and Melissa Boteach have very different views. Murray, of the American Enterprise Institute, believes that making the right personal decisions is the key to curbing poverty in America.

“In a good job market, to be poor -- if you are physically able -- is a choice. Right now the government subsidizes bad decisions; it masks the consequences of doing things at a young age that will blight the rest of your life," said Murray.

Murray says these three rules must be met to not end up in poverty:

  1. Finish high school.
  2. If you’re a woman, don’t have a baby if you don’t have a husband.
  3. Get into the labor force and stay there.

Murray says that the thought process in America used to be that if you were a male, you worked or you looked for work.  He said the thought of not doing this was socially unacceptable.  He claims that has changed and is a sign of a fundamental shift in basic American values.

"If you're a middle class kid, if you you're an upper-middle class kid, mom and dad will rescue you.  Does that mean we shouldn't hold the poor to the same standards?" Murray asked. "Why is it that middle class and upper middle class kids have much higher rates of getting into the labor market, such lower rates of having babies without husbands? They have been told this is the way you're supposed to live your life" said Murray.

Murray argues that society should do a better job of telling kids from disadvantaged backgrounds that certain decisions have to be made in order to obtain a better life.

Boteach, director of the Poverty and Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, sees the problem of poverty differently. She said that progressives and conservatives agree that personal responsibility -- mixed with public and private initiatives to lift people up -- is a key strategy in fighting poverty.

“The best ticket out of poverty is a good job. For working age adults, people have a responsibility to look for work and support themselves. In turn, we have a responsibility to make sure there are opportunities to do that and that we’re removing barriers to work," she said.

Boteach believes that opportunities need to be created for people to succeed. She said that it’s not only personal responsibility, but it is also the government’s job to create pathways to opportunity.

“Poor people’s needs, ambitions and desires are not different from the middle class. They want a job that has living wages so they can support their family. There are a lot of barriers in the way from moving from their situation to the middle class. They’re willing to work hard, try and put in that personal responsibility and we need to meet them halfway," she said.

About the author

John Ketchum is an assistant producer for Marketplace’s wealth & poverty desk.

Melissa Boteach is the Director of the Poverty and Prosperity Program for the Center for American Progress.

Charles Murray is an economist and author of the 1994 New York Times bestseller, The Bell Curve

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