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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Against self-reliance

Hard work pays off. Even those born in poverty can build a better life. Self-reliance is better than dependence.

Not so, argues Alissa Quart, executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, in Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves From the American Dream. Our national focus on self-reliance leads to blaming and "bullying" the poor for their choices, she believes.

Emi Nietfeld, who won a Horatio Alger Association scholarship for overcoming adversity (mentally ill parents, foster care and homelessness), sees the rages-to-riches story as a "fable."

She went to Harvard on a full-ride scholarship, one of a series of lucky breaks, she writes in The Atlantic. But it wasn't a solo voyage, Nietfeld writes. She needed a lot of help to escape her circumstances.

Glorifying mettle is common across our culture — the fantasy of self-sufficiency is so pervasive because it feels good, both to witness and to experience. . . . Growing up in a society that idolized individual achievement, I never failed to notice, and cling to, moments of seemingly single-handed success.

And she blamed herself for every failure.

Quart is arguing for a better social-safety net for those who aren't going to win a string of scholarships. Okay. But most young people aren't hopeless either. If we stop valorizing grit, hard work and self-reliance, a lot of young people will be unable to take advantage of opportunities.

In Agency, Ian Rowe argues that developing a sense of agency is the alternative to the debilitating ‘blame-the-system’ and ‘blame-the-victim’ narratives. With the help of family, faith, education and entrepreneurship, young people can learn how to shape their own lives, he argues.

The son of Jamaican immigrants, Rowe tells educators not to assume all poor children come from dysfunctional families or blame society for academic underperformance, writes Ray Domanico in a City Journal review. Paternalism isn't helpful.

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