Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Personal Choice?

Over on the Facebook side of life, I have been involved in a conversation about.... Health Care. Yep, glutton for punishment. The basic argument there against any health care reform has been that lazy poor people shouldn't be getting handouts. Beyond that, even the working poor are not to be cut any slack because, even though they are working, they obviously have been making poor choices in life... which is why they are poor. The thrust of the opposing argument has been: Outcomes are based on personal choices.

I think this is a very popular argument, because it sounds reasonable on the surface. However, I suspect that it is similar to the pre-Galilaen notion that heavy objects fall faster than light ones; sounds reasonable, but completely untrue.

I touch on statistics in the math I teach, and I did have one class of it in college, but detailed statistics are beyond me. However, it would seem to me that if success were based solely on personal choice (or even primarily) we should be seeing a lot more randomization in our national results. If it was all about choice, we should see fairly even percentages of success or failure regardless of gender, race, or socio-economic status. Though, like in roulette, we may occasionally get "runs"; given 300 million people over decades, we should be seeing a relative balance.

Since this is not what we find, it would seem that there must logically be other system factors that are causing our stratified outcomes. Now obviously, those on the higher strata of these outcomes would love to take personal credit for their outcome.... and they would also like to see that that the system factors stay JUST as they are. To justify their position that it is all about personal choice, the advantaged often find some example of an individual who started at the bottom and ended up at the top - if that person can do it, anyone can.

Of course, to use that approach, one would have to violate a basic rule of statistics. In statistics you have items called outliers. These are items that are so different from the norm, that if you include them, it ends up misrepresenting your data set. In the case of the "bottom to top" individual, they are not only including the outlier... they are basing their argument on it. It would be like assuming that because Einstein could do certain equations, anybody could. The truth is, that person who rose from the bottom to the top was a genius when it came to system-defying. Though fortunate for that individual, it would be a mistake to base our policies on an outlier.

There is probably a mathematician in the audience who is going to spotlight all the holes in my logic, but it was how my mind was working on the issue. :)


Anonymous said...

We can never quantify luck or chance. I have watched people take seemingly similar paths and one person succeeds and the other fails.

Life is full of variables. Do people make bad choices? Sure.

Does making good choices mean that sucess is sure to follow?

What about the decisions that others make that affect others? (i.e. GATT, NAFTA, and other trade agreements that put millions our of work, through no fault of their own)

I am always reminded of Pistol Pete Maravich. Great shape. Superb athlete. Drops over dead at age 40 while playing a pick-up basketball game.

I remember watching famous dirt track racer Butch Hartman. He was a fearless driver. How did he die? Not on the race track. He went off the road coming home from his shop and was killed.

Shit happens.

Am I poor because I made some bad choices? Yes. Am I poor because medical costs take up 25% of our income? Yes. Am I poor because I have MS? Yes. Am I poor because I chose to be a Baptist pastor for 25 years? Yes.

Life is always a mixture of good, bad choices, consequences of decisions made by others, and luck.


Unknown said...

Andrew, I am confident most of the folks who go on and on about how the poor has the lot they deserve have never worked closely with that population. Even my father who grew up in abject poverty fails to show any compassion because he is so far removed from that culture.

You have to acknowledge that success does not always equal riches. I have spent my adult life in service to the state and my community and have yet to profit. However I have had experiences both good and bad that have enriched my life.

Brook said...

I remember having a conversation with a "certain someone" at Cornerstone many years ago about how single mothers on welfare should be forcibly sterilized because they were just having more babies to get more welfare money. it is amazing how a little "real life" contact with the poor (or any people we talk about in the abstract) can change one's perspective and understanding.

Andrew said...

Actually, my theoretical opinions on that point are not too much different nowadays. Anyone who has taught more than 5 years cannot help but feel that we are way too lenient on whom we allow to reproduce. :) Mary Lee works with premature crack addicted babies... I think that mother should be sterilized, I can hardly think of a more horrible form of child abuse.

And, I am not sure how one would implement it, but I am open to conversation about reproductive rights. I question the state's responsibility to a family who cannot care for the kids they have... and yet have more. It seems the state is being held hostage.
But on that same note, wealthy families here in Utah have kids by the bushel and then by voting fiat demand endless tax credits for them... I am not a big fan of that either.

Anonymous said...

I have been "poor" while at the same time working with the poor most of my life. As a pastor I usually served Churches of lower income people. I spent 11 years in the Appalachian foothills of SE Ohio. I got a real education in true poverty.

We had a tuition free Christian school. We took a one-room school house approach. We had high school kids sitting in 2nd grade English/Math classes. The ignorance and lack of education was overwhelming at times.

We must remember the welfare system of the 60's-80's does not exist any more. Clinton ended "welfare as we know it." While medical care and food stamps can continue long term, cash welfare payments are limited in most states to 2 years in a lifetime.

I am for stipulations being placed on people receiving public assistance. Here in Ohio able-bodied are required to work off their assistance at a minimum wage rate.

I would also like to see the earned income credit counted as income when determining income levels for assistance. Right now it is not counted. (at least here in Ohio it is not)

I have six wonderful children. I love all of them. I have a beautiful redheaded daughter with Down Syndrome. My wife and I are blessed.

That said, we struggled mightily with keeping a roof over our head, lights on, etc. We spent way too many years living on the edge. We fell of the edge a few times. I told my oldest son the other day...I would never encourage any of my children to have a large family. Too hard. Too much money. Wouldn't trade my kids for the world BUT I don't want them to go the same way Mom and Dad did.

I think I am rambling. Must be the drugs. :) I hope you get my point.


Andrew said...

I think an argument can be made that many of society's ills can be tracked back to having an abundance of children that we either can't or won't rear properly. I was broken hearted to find out that one of my students from a few years ago just had a baby (she is 15). I thought she was going to break the cycle. She started with me at a 2nd grade reading level and got really serious in November and pulled herself up to 4th grade by the end of her 6th grade year with me. If she follows the pattern, she will drop out of school, work at McDonalds... and her children will pick up that pattern.... sigh....

OneSmallStep said...

I find that there's a strong correlation between evangelical Christianity and the idea of you make the bed you lie in. Those that feel that you and you alone send yourself to hell, that any problems in your life are a result of some sort of sin or rebellion against God, and that God is in complete control are the same ones who feel that if you're poor, it's your fault. I can't help but feel that they'd be the same ones blaming Job for his misfortunes.

I actually feel that there should be some sort of test people take before they're given permission to have children. After all, people have to jump through hoops in order to adopt. But I know of no good way of regulating biological reproduction without it getting horribly abused.

Andrew said...

Oss... yep, I agree. Strong correlation.

As you say, I don't know how we would regulate it, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if people had to jump through the same hoops for having a baby as they do for fostering or adopting.

Brook said...

I just don't see biological reproduction as something anyone has a right to regulate for others. and I don't see how the idea is compatible with this post. it seems like a direct attack on the poor to me (who are the only ones who would be affected by the practice). the poor are not worthy, in your eyes, to have children. I know you would only point to the extreme examples of crack-addicted babies, but where is that line drawn, and who are you (or anyone) to draw it? why not do preventative maintenance on the poor and have them all sterilized before they have any babies and start asking for assistance in the first place? I have no problem with (as Bruce says), putting stipulations on those recieving assistance, but you don't get to play god with them.
I also wonder, now that you are working more closely with the poor, do you actually know anyone who is, in fact, having more babies just to get more money from the govt? I think even the idea, while there are certain to be exceptions, is in general a ridiculous myth.

Andrew said...

Hmmmm. Considering that I did not say or even insinuate a fraction of what you attribute to me, I am not sure how I am supposed to respond.

Brook said...

well... to be fair, some of this is remembered conversation from years ago (that last paragraph specifically). I could probably dig out a recording if you like ;-)

if you no longer think some women on welfare are doing this, well then that at least is encouraging. perhaps you could respond with what you think on the subject now, and where I am misrepresenting you. I also asked a couple questions that follow (in my mind) just from the concept of regulating reproductive rights. you could answer those, or why you don't think those questions are legitimate follow-ups to the idea. or you could just defriend me on facebook and consider yourself persecuted for the faith. ;-)

Andrew said...

I think it is a huge leap to connect a mom who is addicted while pregnant with someone who is a poor. That would be like saying we should take a license away from a drunk driver unless we are willing to take them away from someone who might drink. I think the one can be addressed independently.

While on that topic, NICUs almost always have addicted babies in them, and the nurses there begin to recognize repeat offenders. If a mother actively shot heroin into the babies vein, we would lose our minds... but if she does it regularly through birth we don't even blink. I just don't think that has to be a slippery slope, the argument can stand alone.

Also, past that, I don't think I am saying anything more than restrictions. When ML and I were getting certified to foster, we had class after class and home inspections. You have to take drivers training before handling a car, classes before carrying a gun... but zip for birthing a human being. It makes me think we don't really take it all that seriously, and we are reaping the whirlwind of our indifference. And that has nothing to do with financial status.

But I do have to say I do see babies being used as a source of income. I don't think it happens as often as those on the right would like to paint it, but it is there. However, I don't think it is planned. It just happens. Like with my former student, it will just be where she finds herself. It is because life is being lived totally reactively.

Hellmut said...

Good to meet you, Andrew. I largely agree with your post but I have to admit that I am surprised, if not taken aback, by the many demands of your readers to stop poor people from having children.

We used to have policies regulating procreation. The programs were called eugenics.

The idea behind eugenics was to improve the Darwinian fitness of the population by forcing the sterilization of so called undesirable elements.

In every country that relied on eugenics, forced sterilization targeted unpopular ethnic groups such as African Americans, Catholics, Jews, Gypsies, and the disabled.

Nazi Germany took the program to its logical conclusion and just killed disabled children before they could procreate.

In light of the abuses, there has been a consensus that government should not have the power to stop men and women from having children.

Andrew said...

Hi Hellmut!

Let me say again, I think the only place people said it might be a good idea to stop people from having children was in the case of addicts. One might argue that even that is a foot in the door to some of the items you mentioned, but I think the addict issue can be addressed independently.

However, I think there has been a lot of discussion about classes, testing, and accountability for all parents (sounds a lot like NCLB) and what responsibility the state has to parents who have children they can't take care of. AND in the case of Utah, should we be subsidizing people's large families through tax breaks. I think some of these issues may involve the discussion of the poor but I do not think by any means that they are limited to them.

OneSmallStep said...

**I think the only place people said it might be a good idea to stop people from having children was in the case of addicts.**

Well, I just said "people." I didn't specify the types of people, because middle-class and wealthy people can also make horrible parents. I also tied it into the whole adopting thing, and Andrew brought up fostering. In the case of adoption, not only is your entire life history scrutinized, but the adoption agency visits the parents up to a year after the adoption, to make sure the adoptive child is okay and healthy. We have no such structures in place for biological children.

Not only that, but everyone I've seen here who has said there should be measures in place also said they know of no good way of doing so without it getting horribly abused. Why? For all the issues others brought up -- how fast the undesirables become non-white races or the non-perfect people. Plus, what no one has brought up is that regulating biological reproduction can easily go both ways. Not only do you force the "undesirables" to not have children, but you start forcing the "desirables" to have children. You make it so they can't use birth control. Or you make it so they must have four or more children, or they suffer tax penalties or something.

Michael said...

I usually cite my (then-) 5-year-old's kidney disease. Was that a consequence of his poor choices? Then I never, ever listen to that person ever again.

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