Poverty and personal responsibility

While some individuals propose those living in poverty are only living out the consequences of their own irresponsible actions (drug use and alcoholism, crime, and single/unplanned parenthood are three common reasons), Noah Smith assesses these claims by making a comparison to Japan, who has a similar rate of poverty to the U.S. The main takeaway (with links for points 1-4 provided in Noah’s main article):

Japanese people will often tell you “There is no poverty in Japan,” but this is just false. Japan has significant poverty. Professor Koichi Nakano estimates the Japanese poverty rate at 16 percent – lower than, but generally comparable to, the rate in the U.S. If Bryan Caplan’s grand thesis is correct, these Japanese people should be poor because they have children out of wedlock, abuse drugs and alcohol, and commit crime.

Here are facts: 1. The rate of single parenthood in Japan is miniscule compared to that in the U.S. 2. The rate of drug abuse in Japan, though higher than in the past, is far lower than in the U.S. 3. Crime rates in Japan are far, far lower than in the U.S. 4. Alcoholism is a problem in Japan; between 0.8 and 4.4 million Japanese people are alcoholics (out of a total population of somewhere over 120 million).

So of the types of bad behavior listed by Caplan, only alcoholism is comparable between Japan and the U.S. Perhaps Caplan should narrow his focus – perhaps alcoholism is the main cause of poverty.

Or perhaps Caplan is just dead wrong. Perhaps his preconceived notions about poverty, developed in self-imposed isolation from the actual phenomenon, are simply not an accurate guide to extant reality.

This last point is particularly important. It is natural to allow our personal experience to influence our views on such a topic, but this can mislead us. Caplan, if he is truly out of touch with the real plight of the impoverished, may face some cultural inclination against them, while Smith’s inclination might work the opposite way, having met many of the working poor in Japan personally. But this is precisely where a glance at the data can provide insight.
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