On David Brooks and the “Moral Failures” of the Poor

We aren’t bereft of morals, as Brooks argues—we are plagued with bad ones that blame the poor for their own condition.

Emmett Rensin

(Miller Center / Flickr)

David Brooks believes that the hard­ships of pover­ty are the wages of sin. He calls it The Cost of Relativism.”

There is a moral failure at the bottom of American poverty—but this failure does not belong to its own victims.

In Tuesday’s New York Times, Brooks dis­cussed the recent pub­li­ca­tion of Our Kids by Robert Put­nam, the Har­vard social sci­en­tist most famous for his book Bowl­ing Alone. Our Kids, accord­ing to Brooks, is one of those books that has become so nec­es­sary under the idol­a­try of data, the kind that gives empir­i­cal cre­dence to what any fool could’ve guessed: in this case, it is that the chil­dren of America’s poor­er high school grad­u­ates fare far worse than those of well-off col­lege grads.

Brooks’s col­umn, mean­while, is one of those lit­tle essays that have become inevitable in the era of his implaca­ble employ­ment, the kind that lends the com­fort of con­fir­ma­tion bias to what Brooks already believes — in this case, that the root of the Amer­i­can underclass’s sup­posed dys­func­tion is the moral fail­ures of the impoverished.

Brooks knows that life for America’s poor is becom­ing worse. But he does not believe that sym­pa­thy, strong social wel­fare poli­cies or increased wages can con­sti­tute a cure. Rather, he sees the des­per­ate minds of his gen­er­a­tion destroyed by a plague of non­judge­men­tal­ism”; starv­ing for the return of norms” to hold them respon­si­ble.” There are no basic codes and rules woven into dai­ly life,” he says, and it is this absence — the refusal of soci­ety to assert that one way of behav­ing [is] bet­ter than anoth­er” — that has brought about the declin­ing qual­i­ty of life for America’s poor.

Peo­ple got out of the habit of set­ting stan­dards or under­stand­ing how they were set,” he writes. If only the least among us pos­sessed enough moral courage to ask them­selves tough ques­tions. If only they could con­sid­er whether they’re liv­ing for short-term plea­sure or long-term good,” for your­self or for your chil­dren,” whether they have the free­dom of self-con­trol” or are in bondage to [their] desires.” If only the poor were bea­cons of virtue — then per­haps their chil­dren would have a shot at the Amer­i­can Dream.

I am not sur­prised that David Brooks believes these things. I am not sur­prised that he argues for them with the kind of half-heart­ed blus­ter of a crank at last call, more tired than drunk on his own pos­tur­ing. Read­ing between his lines these last few years, all I can see is some­body please put me out of my mis­ery” scrawled over and over on a prison wall. I imag­ine Brooks is as eager as any­one to dis­cov­er how long this strange self-par­o­dy can last before an edi­tor catch­es on. I com­fort myself by believ­ing that this is the secret curios­i­ty guid­ing David Brooks these days.

Rather, I am con­cerned with how per­va­sive his log­ic of moral decay is in Amer­i­can life — not only on the Right, where we expect it, but in the cel­e­brat­ed good inten­tions of erst­while lib­er­al” caus­es, in the pro­grams of Democ­rats who osten­si­bly rep­re­sent our viable near-left. I am con­cerned with the notion that the prin­ci­ple fail­ure of poor par­ents is that they aren’t enough like mid­dle-class ones.

It is this idea that leads ini­tia­tives like Too Small to Fail, a non­prof­it nom­i­nal­ly led by Hillary Clin­ton, to spend sig­nif­i­cant sums of mon­ey buy­ing bus ban­ners and radio ads telling poor par­ents to read to their chil­dren—as if this is what will solve the edu­ca­tion­al achieve­ment gap; as if read­ing to your chil­dren” was prin­ci­pal­ly respon­si­ble for high­er test scores, despite the wealth of data demon­strat­ing over and over that wealth and pover­ty are the strongest deter­min­ing fac­tors in Amer­i­can children’s edu­ca­tion­al achieve­ment (when as lit­tle as a few thou­sand dol­lars cash giv­en to the par­ents of poor chil­dren can push as many as 10% of them over the thresh­old to a col­le­giate future). No, Too Small to Fail says, the trou­ble is that poor par­ents don’t have the habits of rich ones.

It is this idea, too, that allows even Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma to advo­cate respon­si­bil­i­ty” and father­hood” among black par­ents as a cure for what ails them — as if, despite being more involved in the lives of their chil­dren than any oth­er demo­graph­ic of sin­gle par­ents, the thing hold­ing back our black under­class is the break­down of Brooks’s basic codes” and not the sys­tem­at­ic plun­der of their wealth over the course of cen­turies. It is what allows him to rec­og­nize the growth of income inequal­i­ty in one breath while insist­ing that a lit­tle free com­mu­ni­ty col­lege will mean­ing­ful­ly impact it. As if medi­an income didn’t divorce itself from pro­duc­tiv­i­ty a gen­er­a­tion ago, and had the two met­rics remained togeth­er, the dif­fer­ence would be $40,000 per year, per medi­an fam­i­ly. No, it’s only that poor Amer­i­cans are doing it to them­selves through a lack of moral fiber.

It is this idea that ani­mates com­men­tary on the con­di­tion of Chica­go, where we are present­ly endur­ing a may­oral elec­tion where­in the incum­bent Demo­c­rat Rahm Emanuel insists his clo­sure of 49 pub­lic schools was a nec­es­sary response to the schools’ low test scores and the fact that these cam­pus­es were under­uti­lized.” As if it’s only an unhap­py acci­dent that 90% of the stu­dents so affect­ed were poor and black or Lati­no.

It would be one thing if we didn’t rec­og­nize the prob­lem of Amer­i­can pover­ty. It would be easy if the moral scold­ing of our poor were con­fined to one sec­tion of our poli­ty. Then we might pur­sue the many avenues of fis­cal and mon­e­tary pol­i­cy avail­able to us. But among even those whose rhetoric sug­gests an aware­ness of the sit­u­a­tion, even those who know that to be born monied in Amer­i­ca is to be heir to a self-ful­fill­ing proph­esy of the kind of good” behav­ior Brooks is cry­ing out for, are so eas­i­ly seduced by a rever­sal of effect and cause.

But out here, poor par­ents, poor kids and poor schools don’t have the lux­u­ry of indulging Brook’s harm­ful, cost­ly rel­a­tivism. They live by the most inflex­i­ble code” of our nation­al life: If you’re poor, you’re on your own. Good luck. Oh, and we’ll be watch­ing. Future pay will reflect performance.

Brooks finds some empa­thy in the end. Every par­ent loves his or her chil­dren”, he writes. Every­body strug­gles. But we need ideals and stan­dards to guide the way.”

I can’t dis­agree. But the thing is, we’re not oper­at­ing with­out stan­dards. We’re not with­out the uncon­scious rules, absorbed and fol­lowed, that David Brooks desires. We aren’t bereft of ideals. Rather, we are plagued with bad ones — that dis­ci­pline is proved by wealth, that the ideas of mid­dle class lux­u­ry help chil­dren more than mate­r­i­al wealth.

A bet­ter set might be the kind that makes the elect­ed, empow­ered, osten­si­ble advo­cates of America’s poor ask tough ques­tions” about their cul­pa­bil­i­ty in the con­di­tion of our kids.” The kind that rec­og­nizes that there is a moral fail­ure at the bot­tom of Amer­i­can pover­ty — but this fail­ure does not belong to its own victims.

Emmett Rensin is an essay­ist in Chica­go. His pre­vi­ous work has appeared in the New Repub­lic, Vox, The Atlantic, the Los Ange­les Review of Books (where is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor) and else­where. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @revemmettrensin.
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