The Contradiction of Personal Responsibility

Hayden Couvillion

PBS recounted a story in early of July of a four year old, who unable to pay for her breakfast, had her lunch dumped in the trash. The teaching assistant who witnessed the incident said “She did not protest, other than to walk away in tears.”

Known as ‘lunch shaming,’ throwing away a meal, or otherwise penalizing a student for their inability to pay for it is not unusual. According to the USDA, about half of all school districts shame their students if they cannot afford their breakfast or lunch. And the reasoning often falls outside budgetary concerns, instead falling within a school administration’s desire to teach kids and parents responsibility. As one commenter on a story outlining a similar lunch shaming incident wrote “Personal responsibility is important for these kids to learn.”

It’s this narrative of personal responsibility that has come to shape Republican policy. In the most recent debates on healthcare Mike Pence tweeted “ObamaCare will be replaced with something that actually works—bringing freedom and individual responsibility back to American health care.” As many have stated though, it’s not a child’s fault they were born with heart defects. Or a mother’s fault she has stage four breast cancer. Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority leader, even noted in his memoir how his family nearly went bankrupt as he struggled with polio when he was a child. Yet despite McConnell’s own experience with exorbitant healthcare costs, the healthcare bill he led would have severely limited an individual with a pre-existing condition’s ability to receive adequate healthcare coverage. 

Free and reduced lunch and healthcare are vastly different policies, but they share similar consequences. Both maintain relatively minimal impact on the largely white upper-classes and instead disproportionately affect low-income individuals and especially low-income minorities. Unfortunately, this holds true for countless other conservative policies as well, from voter ID laws, to women’s’ rights, to affordable housing.

Republicans fervent attack on the poor under auspices of personal responsibility isn’t new. The year of the passing of the Civil Rights Act, Ronald Reagan during Republican National Convention said “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.” And when running for President in 2000 George Bush stated in a campaign ad that “We need to encourage personal responsibility, so people are accountable for their actions.” Today personal responsibility remains a key value among conservative voters, even the youngest Republicans.

In a 2014 survey, millennial Republicans most frequently ranked personal responsibility and accountability as their two most important political values. In some ways the continued pervasiveness of personal responsibility in America isn’t surprising. Rooted in the idea that the United States is a nation of meritocracy, a narrative of personal responsibility bolsters the claim that success is only a few steps after hard work. It also serves as a convenient springboard towards the crux of the Republican party – limited government.

The abdication of collective responsibility in pursuit of political ideology however is at odds with the religion most Republicans belong to. Seventy-three percent of Republicans are absolutely certain in their belief of God and another 17 percent are fairly certain in God’s existence. Yet despite strong adherence to Christianity, it seems Republicans struggle with the teachings of the Bible and the reality of their politics.

The tension is an age old struggle, but as Christians, and especially Evangelical Christians, lose their foothold to a growing secularism their progression towards conditions of care predicated on skin color and income level is of interesting note. In many ways, Evangelical Christians are abandoning their single largest potential appeal, unconditional love and care for all, for belligerence and indifference towards the poor. While a Proverb states “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered,” not a single Evangelical Christian leader has openly denounced the Senate’s healthcare bill, despite its many noted implications for those in poverty.

Of course, Republicans don’t lay sole claim to political contradiction. Democrats struggle to reconcile their policies of inclusivity with a free market that has other ideas and their rhetoric around war often stands in opposition with the doctrine of peace they urge domestically. Yet Republicans stand alone in the starkness of their contradictions, both religious as well as historical.

Conservative arguments often center around the Founders’ of the United States intent, yet there is a special type of amnesia when it comes to remembering the single largest underlying tenet of the United States – that all men are created equal.

The seeming lapse in historical memory wasn’t lost on Frederick Douglass, who in 1852 gave a speech in Rochester, New York to abolitionists urging that slavery be completely abolished. Within the speech Douglass asks, “How should I look to-day, in the presence of Americans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom?” and soon afterwards pronounced, “To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding.”

Douglass in his fight for equality recognized that the argument was not about whether all men were created equal – as that is a fact. Instead he proclaimed “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” and that “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

As Republicans follow their historical arc of care predicated on birthright conditions, a narrative that often operates under the auspices of personal responsibility, perhaps it’s not a statement of facts that is needed. We know the teachings of the Bible and we know the quest of equality that the Founders of the United States began. Maybe then, in a time many have claimed is “post-truth”, the observation of contradiction is what we need.

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