How Far Will Personal Responsibility Take You?

Suppose for the moment that you are a very average person. You were certainly no genius in school. Your high school grades were mediocre, and several times you considered dropping out. But you stuck with it and graduated. And you found work.

You discovered you actually liked to work, especially the paycheck at the end of the week. You found a little apartment and began “real life”. In due time you married, and soon there was a child. All was well, still, but it was harder to pay for everything, and it became impossible to save money.

Suppose for the moment that you are
a very average person.

Your job was not anything wonderful, but you liked it and did it well and stuck with it. You were never late, and rarely missed a day. But if you did, you also missed a day’s pay.

If you got sick, you just lived with it, because a visit to the doctor was too expensive for anyone except the baby, and you had no health care insurance. You prayed that you and your spouse wouldn’t get seriously ill.

Are you being personally responsible? It would seem so. You do everything to the best of your ability. You are a straight arrow who values family, honesty, and work.

Are you being personally responsible?

But you are doomed to live at the edge of poverty if you are lucky, or deep in it if you are not. Your limitations, however you describe them, virtually guarantee that you will never live a comfortable life.

But why not? Do you not exhibit the best examples of personal responsibility?

The long and the short of it is that, while personal responsibility and all the other virtues of good citizenship may bring you respect, it will not give you enough money to pay for all the things you must pay for.

Despite your good heart and dependable work, Republicans think you aren’t demonstrating enough personal responsibility. They think you are having a tough time because you aren’t trying hard enough. Or they think you are shirking your responsibility and trying to live off of handouts. They don’t think you deserve any more money because they think you are lazy—in fact, all poor people are poor because they are lazy. They are particularly certain this is true if you are African-American.

Personal responsibility will not
give you enough money to pay for
all the things you must pay for.

If there is to be any fairness in the American work world, it will require big changes in our work laws. Every worker should earn enough to pay for basics and for health care and retirement savings. There are various ways this could be done, but the simplest is a national Living Wage law plus reforms that mandate health care coverage and retirement savings for all.

But it’s not as simple as that, because the fact is, rapid advances in technology are destroying jobs in every field, and will bring unemployment that is increasingly hard to overcome, even before the problems of the economic crisis are added to the mix.

Personal responsibility doesn’t go very far these days.


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