If Virtue Is Not Its Own Reward

SARA ENGRAM

August 02, 1992|By SARA ENGRAM

Rectitude. The word resonates with all those middle-class virtues we associate with the American Dream.

Uprightness, honesty, integrity, strict adherence to a high moral code -- these dictionary definitions describe the patterns of life that our society has traditionally believed would be rewarded by material success and personal satisfaction.

Rectitude is a big word, but it stands for the small habits that count. Work hard, live right and claim your share of the dream; that's what America is about.

What then are we to make of the increasing millions of Americans who fail to claim the dream -- or for whom the dream is no bigger than the next welfare check?

Preaching rectitude to the poor is one response, but as an intriguing new essay on the economic role of personal virtue argues, preaching is not enough: "Rectitude is a prerequisite to forging a career, but saying that and nothing more for the poor is the rhetorical equivalent of 'just say no' to drugs."

The authors are Sar A. Levitan of George Washington University, Garth L. Mangum of the University of Utah and Stephen L. Mangum of Ohio State University. Their report, published by George Washington University's Center for Social Policy Studies, comes with a title that sounds impressively academic but sums up the message: "The Economics of Rectitude: Necessary but Not Sufficient."

It's a message that carries complex implications for a society perplexed and increasingly burdened by a growing underclass.

"If oncoming generations of Americans are to experience the progress of their ancestors, they must return to the behavioral principles upon which that progress was in part based," the report maintains.

But for the past quarter-century or so, those individual virtues, or lack of them, have taken a back seat to other explanations for poverty. Society has drifted away from its traditional emphasis on rectitude -- the importance of taking advantage of opportunities for education and training, the wisdom of accepting any chance for work and performing the job diligently until something better comes along and, of course, the need to live within one's means.

We can all agree that without those habits, no one living in poverty has much chance of entering the economic mainstream and staying there. But this report argues that, for too many people, the old promise that hard work and diligence will bring rewards no longer holds true. Rectitude doesn't always pay; the obstacles to success have become too high.

This hurts the poor in two ways. First, because there is so littlevidence that middle-class virtues will ever pay off for them, new generations of Americans grow up with no exposure to values that are essential to the American Dream, compounding with sheer numbers the problems that plague the underclass.

And second, taxpayers grow tired of bankrolling welfare and other social service programs for people who seem to have no real interest in improving their lot. Not surprisingly, exasperation with the underclass and their seeming disinterest in old-fashioned virtues fuels support for turning welfare into a behavior modification program.

An increasing number of states, Maryland included, are experimenting with programs that require welfare recipients to work or that use carrots and sticks to reward or punish teen mothers who drop out of school or who produce more children they cannot support.

As always, it's easy to blame the poor for their failures. If they don't try to get a job, or, having found one, don't show up every day or show up hung over or high, how can they expect to build a better life? The rest of us play by the rules. Why don't they?

The refreshing aspect of this report is that it respects those judgmental feelings toward the poor, while also taking seriously the fact that rational people -- and the poor can be as rational as anyone -- are not likely to cultivate the discipline necessary to succeed if success is put too far out of reach.

There are no easy answers to this dilemma. But one thing seems evident -- we can preach ourselves hoarse, but nothing will change unless upward mobility for the poor becomes more than a distant memory.

We've heard the recommendations before -- strengthen families, provide education and training that gives people confidence that hTC they can succeed and assure that there are jobs that pay well enough to make self-sufficiency a realistic goal.

What we have acknowledged is the hypocrisy of assuming that while the rest of us live the Dream, the poor should consider virtue its own reward.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each Sunday.

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