How the Rhetoric of 'Personal Responsibility' Warps Personal Relationships

In a new book, Allison J. Pugh explores how an ideology of independence can have negative effects outside the economic realm.
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In a new book, Allison J. Pugh explores how an ideology of independence can have negative effects outside the economic realm.
(Photo: ro_buk/Flickr)

(Photo: ro_buk/Flickr)

In America, we often see poverty and hardship as the result of moral failure—or, more kindly, as a failure of social norms. This is why, in 1965, sociologist and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously attributed the prevalence of single-parent families in black communities to a culture of poverty and a "tangle of pathology" inherited from slavery and Jim Crow. And just last month, David Brooks re-visited the old argument in the New York Times. "It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles [that is, among the poor]," he argued, "it's norms." And he added, "The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens."

Allison J. Pugh's The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity, which will be published next monthdoesn't exactly contradict that. Instead, it questions which social norms are actually most powerful and most relevant to the health of society.

The problem with letting capitalism dissolve the social contract between worker and employer, though, is that social relationships more generally suffer as well.

Usually the culture of poverty arguments focus on absent fathers, drug use, and, especially, on lack of personal responsibility. After interviewing 80 mothers and fathers from upper-class, middle-class, and lower-class backgrounds, Pugh concludes that the ideology of personal responsibility is alive and well. In fact, she argues, it's that very ideology which has led to social fragmentation in the home and, especially, at work.

Work, Pugh argues, has become more and more precarious, both as a long-term trend and following the financial crisis. Layoffs have become a standard business tactic even in times of economic growth; longtime job security is increasingly rare, and insecurity is increasingly accepted.

As workplaces loosened their commitment to workers, some observers worried that Americans would respond by putting less into their jobs. But instead, American workers have doubled down; "every racialized group, gender and wage level have increased their workhours since the late 1970s," Pugh writes. Workers remain committed to an iron-clad work ethic, while employers are expected to provide their workers with only "their pay check and a certain amount of respect" as one lay-off victim puts it.

The neoliberal dream has essentially come to pass. Deregulation of workplaces; the decline of unions; and the slashing of unemployment, welfare, and social security benefits has led many to feel an increased sense of personal responsibility. The people who Pugh interviewed felt it was up to them to handle the new world of employment. They had to work hard, without expecting anything in particular from their employers or society in return.

The problem with letting capitalism dissolve the social contract between worker and employer, though, is that social relationships more generally suffer as well. In a precarious environment, where you can only rely on yourself, independence becomes the only virtue.

For some of Pugh's interviewees, this means treating personal relationships with the same logic that employers treat workers—i.e., abandoning them when they are no longer useful. One working-class woman, Felicia, explains that she left her second husband because he had problems with depression and had become "a burden." Another woman, Fiona, proudly tells a story about how she discovered a boyfriend's infidelity and walked out on him so decisively that she can't even remember what he said in his defense. "The family caregiving of women without college degrees was once supported, through marriage, by a combination of men, employers and the state," Pugh writes. Now that those supports have been withdrawn, working-class women's relationships are much more precarious. Independence is a defense; with no safety net, caring for others becomes a risk that isn't worth taking.

There are upsides to these trends. Women used to have little choice but to suffer in unfulfilling and even abusive relationships, and, in that context especially, independence can feel empowering. But the cult of individuality also generates misery. Men who can no longer count on steady work or (in part as a result) stable relationships have few options but to see themselves as personal failures: One man Pugh interviewed blames himself for taking a job from which he was fired with no warning, as if he's culpable for not anticipating his employer's capriciousness. Independence also leaves women caring for children on their own, with little emotional or logistical support.

Upper-class workers, Pugh writes, have managed to negotiate work precarity by carefully separating their values at work from their values at home. Independence and a willingness to move quickly from job to job are at a premium in the workplace while home is seen as an island of stability. Fiona, in the working class, moves on as soon as she's dissatisfied; in contrast, Tara, who is toward the top of the class ladder, is happy with her marriage because "we get along pretty well."

Again, social critics like Brooks often see the stable marriage as the cause of economic success. Pugh, though, suggests that economic success enables different attitudes toward stable marriage, because money allows families to construct a buffer around precarious work and the ideology of independence. Tara can afford to compromise; Fiona cannot. "Perhaps then," Pugh concludes, "the divorce divide is actually an account of the impact of job insecurity on less advantaged people ... rather than the impact of socioeconomic status per se." Stable work can support stable working-class families, Pugh finds. Families in which the husband has a long-term, union job or the equivalent are much more likely to involve lasting marriages. But surviving the twin onslaught of precarious work and low income seems to be very difficult.

That onslaught is enabled, Pugh suggests, by the very rhetoric which is supposed to reinforce families. The demand for personal responsibility and personal morality and the eschewal of social solutions does not shore up social bonds for the disadvantaged. Rather, it eats through them. Economically, we have decided that we have no commitments to each other, and that's inevitably reflected in more personal relationships as well. As Pugh writes, "if we are not an 'us" at work, then we are hardly likely to be one at home." If we want a society in which personal bonds and caregiving matter, we need to make a society that values those things—at work and at home.

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