You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
We’re Not All Running the Same Rat Race

We’re Not All Running the Same Rat Race

There’s a difference between material prospering and human flourishing.

Michael Jindra

Should social policy be designed so that we “all end up at the same place?” At least some Democrats seem to think so. Then-vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, just before the election, put a point on the trend when she tweeted a video emphasizing what she called the “big difference between equality and equity.” Instead of just pursuing political equality, the video argued, or even providing extra assistance to disadvantaged individuals in their competition with the more advantaged, the country should act so that we “all end up at the same place.”

It’s hard not to sympathize with the impulse behind the video: The United States is now moving through a period marked by inequalities that are simply too big and too dangerous to ignore. Still, the video’s visibility made it a target of both celebration and ridicule. Some people have called it communism. It may not be that, but it’s certainly bad social science. For one thing, it would threaten another one of the country’s longstanding goals: encouraging diversity. More than that, if we act on reductionist assumptions about what makes people tick, we can’t achieve either equity or the type of diversity we want.

Diversity consists of much more than racial, gender, or ethnic identity. It includes many differences among social groups, including differences based on—to name just a couple—economic class and subculture. In fact, diversity is better captured by lifestyle than by racial or ethnic identity: Social class can have stronger effects than race in influencing lifestyles. Class, religion, and ideas about what constitutes a good life create substantial differences in the ways people actually live.

Diversity results from individuals’ decisions to go in different directions—to high-powered careers, blue-collar jobs, or part-time or itinerant work. Some of us prefer to live in rural areas despite their limited economic opportunities or to live the types of lives that are easier on the environment. Some don’t value higher education or the climb up the social ladder but would rather focus on raising families and participating in local communities.

The result is that a liberal society is made up of different groups doing different things for different reasons.

This situation may not be “fair,” income-wise: We overpay some groups, like celebrities, and underpay others, like dishwashers. More than that, not all of us have the same opportunities to make these choices. But a complete look at society will show the results of many different preferences. In other words, diversity comes from more than “structures:” It also grows out of individual choices. The chief effect is that we don’t all end up in the same place; we end up in very different places.

If we do build a society in which we “all end up at the same place,” even a prosperous place, it will be a place without, for example, the Amish, ultra-Orthodox Jews, small farmers, “starving” artists, traditionalist Native Americans, and the odd guy down the street who only works when he needs to or feels like it. True, we could pursue all “at the same place” by progressively taxing higher incomes; but that type of system would leave no space for entrepreneurs, inventors, and individuals who want freedom instead of tying themselves to large institutions in the way most of us do.

Take, for example, the much-praised country of Sweden, which famously prizes equality. Its citizens include relatively poor indigenous northern Sami reindeer herders and fishermen. The government has tried to increase their incomes by getting them onto public welfare. But the effort has run into problems because it creates obstacles to maintaining their traditional ways of life. Similarly, the Canadian government has in the past tried to promote equity for Native Americans by moving them from reservation land into more “modern” settlements with better access to education, health care, and public facilities. The results have included the disruption of longstanding practices and the destruction of traditional forms of social organization. Similarly, we’re just now learning about the scale of the damage that’s been done by removals of children to residential schools.

True, many people aren’t fully free to choose their directions. They may be held back by discrimination. Their family situations may have stunted their development and education. The Harris video emphasizes these possibilities; but it assumes that if disadvantaged individuals did have a choice, with the aid provided by pro-equity policies, they would choose the familiar upwardly mobile path.

Some anthropologists think this assumption is not right—ethnocentric, even. Efforts to “uplift” various peoples into modern lifestyles have resulted in the break-up of poor but sustainable communities and even created resistance from groups that want to be different. Indeed, the increasing political divide in this country has happened partly because America’s rural residents are defending their way of life against what they see as government and urban elitism, as described in sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America (2018).

The same trade-off between pursuing equity and allowing diversity can be seen in the process of gentrification. If you want to raise incomes, you need the jobs created by economic development. But economic development tends to drive out relatively diverse populations in favor of more homogenous middle-to-higher income residents. Cities including Denver and Boston have turned down the economic boost promised by hosting the Olympics, citing concerns about the effects on quality of life. In 2018, while Amazon was choosing a city to house its second headquarters, constituencies in Boston and New York protested. Amazon looked elsewhere.

Of course, economic development brings its own type of diversity—which includes crime. Other communities don’t seem to be aware of this trade-off; they seem to want it all, which is impossible. You can’t encourage the bustling business environment that provides widespread opportunities without the disorder and higher crime rates that mark places with urban low-income populations. Such trade-offs make many people, in practice, ambivalent about diversity. In New York City, the crime and social dislocation of the 1970s gave way to a more ordered prosperity under the influence of “broken windows” policing doctrine. Thomas Dyja’s recent book describing the change allows that the author has “conflicted feelings” about the way the city struck its balance between order and disorder, rich and poor, public and private. This ambivalence is common in areas that include a diversity of people.

Some policies try to thread the needle. Affordable housing is one such policy, if done right. But one of its pitfalls, as with many welfare programs, is that affordable housing can become a poverty trap. If a program ties rent or any other benefit to income, it provides an incentive for recipients to keep their income low.

Thus, affordable housing should be tied, with appropriate exceptions, to some type of work requirement. That is what Ray Mariano, the former mayor of Worcester, Massachusetts, did in 2001, when he became the city’s director of public housing, in order to separate individuals who want to work from those just looking for a free ride. True, no one was evicted from the program for noncompliance; but those who didn’t want to work were induced to move out. Despite a vocal minority that thought these rules were too punitive, they garnered broad support from both liberals and conservatives. (Mariano himself opposes work requirements unless they come with wrap-around case management, including employment coaches and help with household budgeting and personal issues.)

Thus, it seems that subsidies for affordable housing, a policy linked to ideas from the Left, combined with work requirements, a policy linked with the Right, provide a good compromise, balancing diversity and equity. Affordable housing programs make diversity possible in areas that are otherwise too expensive; work requirements limit the tendency of such programs to create generational legacies and a cycle of generational poverty.

But in another example, guaranteed cash grants like a universal basic income (UBI) or the Biden Administration’s child allowance, which is now being implemented and may become permanent, show the tension between allowing diversity and promoting equality. These payments, contrary to the purpose for which they were promoted, will probably favor diversity over equality.

Backers of cash grants hope recipients will gain enough security to change their focus from day-to-day subsistence to long-term upward mobility. Or, as presidential candidate Andrew Yang has argued, they will be freed to engage in creative or other voluntary activity. Though this will no doubt be true for some, the hope ignores actual diversity. As Mariano found, and as I’ve confirmed in my work with a nonprofit that helps people with utility bills, many people struggle to take advantage of such opportunities. Their socialization may not have prepared them for the world of work. Their homelife may be too chaotic for them to handle regular work. Because of their spending habits, they may struggle to stick to a budget. For these reasons, though a UBI would help some people, others will continue to scramble without more intensive, long-term guidance.

Cash grants appeal to the political Left because they are unconditional: They respect poor people’s autonomy. They appeal to some on the right because they bypass bureaucracy. Neither camp, however, understands that getting out of poverty often requires providing individuals with encouragement, role models, and personal assistance to allow them to refigure their lives in the path that the modern economy demands.

Cash payments permit diversity because they allow people more flexibility in their lifestyles. More people will be able to quit work: Some will turn to volunteer work, but more will simply do their own thing, whether enjoying more leisure time or caring for family. This isn’t necessarily bad, but consider: Do we want more people living on cash grants when entertainment like video games, streaming, porn, and gambling dominate more of our daily lives than in the past? Do we want to take more people, especially men, out of the workforce?

We need to be aware of these trade-offs. Advocates of cash payments often seem oblivious to what we actually spend our time doing. Work has many benefits apart from money; but cash payment advocates seem to have a narrower, more materialist view of human flourishing.

The Democrats’ move toward cash grants is a push for equity that could in fact create more inequality. The new child allowances will allow more lifestyle diversity, giving some a cushion that could stabilize their lives; but people will do very different things with their extra income, and proponents underestimate this diversity. They assume that we are all the same and that the only barriers to upward mobility are structural. In fact, though, the roots of poverty in America lie less in structure than in families and the ways they socialize us. Any good strategy for taking on social problems must understand not just the structural but the cultural and individual roots of these problems. Cash grants don’t recognize individuals’ ability to manage daily life, including their consumption and budgeting. This is where we need approaches that draw on relational work to promote overall flourishing.

Democrats should promote policies that balance rights and responsibilities instead of one-sided claims to entitlements. Republicans need to get back to supporting leaders who admit to the tensions that sometimes arise between valued goals. If we are going to bring this country together, we need policies that recognize the trade-off between diversity and equality.

Michael Jindra is a cultural anthropologist at Boston University whose writing and forthcoming book center on the relationship between lifestyle diversity and economic inequality. His time as a Peace Corps volunteer convinced him of the importance of understanding culture.

United StatesEconomics