Wednesday, June 9, 2010

take responsibility

I make $2000 per month and spend $500 on rent, but I live in Beverly Hills where all of my friends and neighbors spend $200 per night on fine dining and alcohol. Since I feel that I am entitled to the same standard of living (after all I have a very rough existence as a single mother, can't I treat myself to sushi at the end of a hard day?), I also spend about $1000 a week on food and alcohol, so I am months behind on rent and have had to keep my daughter out of preschool because I can't afford the materials and fees that cost about $250 per month.

Do you feel bad for me? Do you think I can't be blamed for my financial trouble because everyone around me is so much better off and I deserve the same? Society has taught me my bad habits and is anyway unfair so it's not right to hold me accountable to my horrendously awful spending habits?

No, of course not. Yet the dominant reaction to that article has (predictably) been "how conceited and racist of you! How can rich westerners expect poor Africans to refrain from the things we take for granted? Everyone deserves a drink once in awhile."

Yes, there are awful economic problems and extreme poverty in Africa that individuals are not responsible for that we do need to worry about, and those issues are likely larger than alcohol (Kristof's anecdotes don't prove the scale, only existence...) But when someone is spending $2 per day on alcohol but has pulled his son out of first grade five years in a row because he couldn't pay the $2.50 fees, I don't think dire circumstances are to blame. IT'S OK TO SAY SO. It does not make you a hater of the poor or of black people or of different cultures. It does not make you blind to other problems. It's just acknowledging that an ethic of personal responsibility is absolutely necessary for economic success and all the aid programs and first-world guilt in the world won't change that.

So yes, I expect that father to shape up his act, and yes, I expect poor urban minimum wage workers not to spend hundreds of dollars per year, on average, on lottery tickets. I expect single teen mothers who can't afford the children they have to be careful not to have more. I expect people to pay their credit card bills when the "introductory 0% APR" teaser period is over.

There are of course systemic issues to fix, but the first step is to not be reckless and short-sighted on an individual level.

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