In Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes the following about one of the homeless women he met while researching his book, “Shirley found it too difficult and too painful to petition her children for assistance, not after she had spent years teaching them the importance of being self-reliant and independent.” Shirley represents a reality we often don’t think about in the United States. In our country we place a premium on personal responsibility. When we succeed we can feel great about ourselves, because we highlight the role of individual hard work, determination, and good judgment when we measure success. However, Shirley shows us the opposite side of this infatuation with personal responsibility – when you fail, it is all on you, and you are the one to blame. While success is understood to reflect personal virtues, failure is understood to reflect personal ineptitude or worse.
I like the narrative of personal responsibility. I like feeling good about the things in my life that have gone well. My dad came to the United States when he was 5, and grew up poor. My parents, and my uncles on my dad’s side, all made good decisions, have worked hard, and have avoided drugs and alcohol. Embracing the personal responsibility narrative feels good because it validates their lives and experiences, elevating their good character traits and decisions and ultimately elevating their social status. For me this is inspiring and has encouraged me to try to be as successful as they have been and follow their good examples.
But my parents and uncles are outliers and focusing on their story of individual success fails to acknowledge the ways that external forces can shape what is possible in someone’s life – theirs’s included. There is much we do not chose and much we cannot control that determines what is possible for us. Yes, we have to make good decisions and be hard working, but it is not all in our control. (For example, my dad and uncles are immigrants, but pass as white and one uncle answers ethnicity questions by lying and saying he is Italian – a tacit acknowledgement that not all of their success is entirely due to his own hard work and ingenuity.) Emphasizing personal responsibility, self-reliance, and independence fails to recognize how dependent we can be on others, and it can become crushing when we do fail or run into bad luck.
Shirley took her failure and homelessness personally, as a reflection of her character. She was too ashamed to ask for help, too ashamed to face her failure and look to family for assistance. When we highlight the individuals and downplay the systemic, structural, and social forces that influence our lives, then we put failure (not just success) on the shoulders of the individual. We become blameworthy for our failures, and for us to ask society, family, or friends for aid is to announce our personal failures and shortcomings.
Ultimately, I think our emphasis on personal responsibility can drive us to do great things, to try our hardest, and can reward us for grit and good decision-making. But I think we should also consider the flip side of the equation. When we fail, this narrative puts the failure entirely on us, without consideration of bad luck, larger economic and social forces, or other barriers and limits that we couldn’t control. We need to be aware of this and develop institutions that encourage the hard work of personal responsibility without crushing the individuals who fail, because we can’t be successful in absolutely everything we do, and some of us will have bad luck and face complete failure. We do not want people to be left in a position where they embody their failure and give up on hopes for improving themselves and their lives.