Do We Control Our Fortunes?

Aug 29, 2012 by

Ronald Reagan portrait

Can you name the only State not to vote Reagan/Bush in 1984?

During Ronald Reagan’s 1976 Presidential campaign, the actor described in a speech a “welfare queen” from Chicago’s South Side. According to the New York Times, Reagan said this about the woman:

“She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”

Though presented by Reagan as an accounting of a factual case, he never named the woman, and no researcher was able to find a case of welfare fraud in the Chicago area consistent with Reagan’s “facts.”

Fraud Is One Thing—Lifestyle Choice Is Another

Though evidently a fiction, Reagan’s welfare queen undeniably touched a raw nerve for many Americans. I’m not sure though that those who identified with The Gipper’s sentiment were incensed about welfare fraud. My guess—and it is only a guess—is that Reaganites, and many Americans today, were and are upset by their perception of chronic dependency of, shall we say, a certain segment of society, on “the welfare state” for their subsistence. In other words, I believe many Americans resent and oppose social supports because they believe such a system—generically, if ignorantly, referred to as “welfare”—enables a lifestyle choice of dependence, laziness, and taxpayer burden.

Do People Choose Success?

Necessarily underlying the sentiment outlined in the previous paragraph is this belief: By and large, people make their own fortunes. In America, people who work hard, are responsible, and keep their noses clean will succeed. In contrast, people who rely on “handouts” and lack the skills or responsibility to win and hold a good job will never succeed.

My question for you: What do you believe? Is hard work, responsibility, and staying out of trouble a near guarantee of success in America? Said differently, by and large, are people who fail to succeed likely just too lazy or irresponsible to take advantage of what the American economy has to offer? To help you decide where you stand, here are a couple thought problems.

Joe and Phil

Joe is born into a low-income family. Because of the family’s limited resources and education, his nutrition and healthcare as an infant and child are poor. Both of his parents work full-time (but earn minimum wage), so Joe’s often cared for by his 10 and 14-year old siblings, as best they know how. When Joe starts school, he goes to a nearby public school, along with kids of similar backgrounds. Gangs dominate Joe’s neighborhood so he’s not allowed to play outside at his home or go to a park. Though his parents work hard and do their best to make ends meet, financial stresses prevent the family from spending money on anything but the essentials.

Phil is born into an upper middle class family. His mother earns a great income as a CPA firm partner, so mainly his stay-at-home Dad rears Phil. From birth, Phil enjoys his own bedroom in the home, and lacks for nothing—books, video games, computers, and so on. He attends private school from kindergarten through grade 12. His safe neighborhood has many families with kids Phil’s age, and all enjoy recreating in each other’s spacious yards and on nearby sport courts and fields. Phil’s Dad coaches soccer, and Phil loves and excels at the game. As an adolescent, Phil’s parents pay for tennis and piano lessons for him, as he has a talent for both.

Question: Assume Joe and Phil, at age 18, are equally hardworking, responsible, ambitious, and conscientious. Do you think Joe and Phil are equally likely to succeed in life? Please elaborate.

Mary and Stephanie

Mary makes a huge adolescent mistake and gets pregnant at age 17. The father disappears, and apparently no authority exists to force the father to take on some responsibility for his child. With her parents’ help, Mary finishes high school. But her parents have health issues and are of modest financial means, so Mary becomes a full-time parent after she graduates. She’s smart and motivated and would like to work, but would earn little with her skills and education after netting out the cost of daycare. So she joins the welfare rolls and uses a food bank to supplement her food stamp allocation to meet her and her baby’s nutritional needs. She of course can’t afford private health insurance, so Mary depends on free clinics and Medicaid for her and her child’s needs. She’s able barely to cover her needs, as long as she continues to live in her parents’ home with her child.

Stephanie makes a huge adolescent mistake and gets pregnant at age 17. The father takes responsibility and vows to share to be a good father. Both the father’s and Stephanie’s parents are well off and aim to help their kids and grandkids as much as possible.

Question: Assume Mary and Stephanie, at age 18, are equally hardworking, responsible, ambitious, and conscientious. Do you think Mary and Stephanie are equally likely to succeed in life? Please elaborate. Extra credit: Do you think the two babies are equally likely to succeed in life?

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