restricted access 1. Keep Working to Be What You Want: The Power of Individualism
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27 1 Keep Working to Be What You Want The Power of Individualism If you work and you work and you work hard . . . you can get . . . . anybody can have anything they want if you work hard for it. That’s how I look at it. I mean, life is only the way you make it. If you chose not to make nothing out of it, then that’s on you. —Kim, 44, GED student I meet Kim at an agency in South Philadelphia where she is enrolled in a course to help her prepare for the GED exam. A high school dropout with extensive work experience but currently unemployed, Kim is in her forties and ready for a future brighter than the past she laments. Tall and thin, wearing jeans, hair pulled taut in a neat, high ponytail, her skin a medium brown free of lines and wrinkles, Kim looks younger than the age she reports, even though two of her three daughters are in their twenties, married and living independently. Kim herself has never been married. Throughout our interview she speaks to me confidently and energetically of the rewards of hard work and personal responsibility. When I ask if she thinks it’s fair that some people have a lot and some people have very little, she doesn’t directly respond to the question, but references the idea that you can have what you want if you try, implying that it’s poor people’s fault if they’re poor. Kim’s recommendations for people who are struggling center on personal actions: “Get up and get a job. Or try to get a training or something like that there to better themselves. You know what I’m saying? You got to do . . . it starts within you. It starts with you. Everything starts with you. You have to . . . you have to want it or get up and get it. It’s not gonna come to you. It starts with you. You can’t get nothing if you don’t go for it.” Her manner of presenting herself has likely been an asset when 28 | Keep Working to Be What You Want she’s sought a job, so it’s not surprising she’s had such relative success in employment in the past, even with her lack of educational credentials. At the same time, the experience she describes in high school belies her suggestion that effort is the only crucial factor. She tells me she was forced to restart the ninth grade twice after she passed it due to paperwork errors as she transferred schools. This situation would discourage any young person from completing high school, but a wealthier teenager at a better-resourced school would be unlikely to experience it. Kim’s thoughts about the American Dream and its unlimited potential mirror those of the wider public as well as those of most study participants . They likely share few of the life experiences of Republican Paul Ryan, who is, as of this writing, Speaker of the House and was the vice presidential candidate on Mitt Romney’s 2012 GOP ticket, and yet they might agree with his statement that the safety net is a “hammock which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.”1 In this chapter I describe this common perspective, its roots, and some of its consequences. The very fact that participants hold this perspective reflects the hollowness of the stereotype—they do not approach social programs with a sense of entitlement, but rather with a sense of individual responsibility and a revulsion for dependency. Many other studies with more broadly generalizable findings reveal that these participants are typical, and the lazy dependents they revile a fiction. For example, most poor people have strong work ethics, link work to morality, and have strong ties to the labor market.2 Yet the myth remains that the poor are lazy. And it is likewise common for poor people to describe other poor people this way.3 This chapter relies on interviews with both KWRU members (noted within as members) and nonmembers. As it shows, participants frequently espouse the ideas neoliberalism encourages. It describes the prevalence of individualistic ideology among participants, then discusses their faith in a related notion: that investing in human capital through education is a means to mobility. The next section describes participants’ views on the choices and decisions that lead to mobility or continued poverty, highlighting the pervasive idea that people control their own...


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