This comment, of course, is one of the most popular battle cries of the the political right (perhaps second only to "Millionaires and billionaires need tax cuts!"). They believe that if you end up in a bad situation, it means one thing and one thing only: You didn't practice "personal responsibility."
In Colorado, for example, when Republicans refused additional funding for a breakfast program for low-income children, a Republican state legislator said, "As a family guy myself with children and grandchildren, I take a very strong responsibility to earn money to feed my own family." The implication was clear - "Those parents don't practice personal responsibility...I do. And it doesn't matter if they can't find a decent-paying job or haven't seen a raise in years. They're just not practicing personal responsibility." ("Party-line vote on legislature's budget panel blocks new funding for school-breakfast program," Denver Post, January 21, 2011)
When Mitt Romney made his famous 47% speech during his presidential campaign, he said, "I'll never convince [low-income Americans] that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
There are, of course, people who are reckless in their day-to-day behavior. And every person makes mistakes in judgment from time to time - that's part of being human, we're not perfect creatures. But stereotyping struggling and low-income Americans as people who are lazy and don't take personal responsibility is utter nonsense. Consider...
--> If someone loses his/her job because the employer sends it to a third-world labor market, how is that a lack of personal responsibility?
--> If that same person is the victim of employment discrimination against the unemployed, and has a hard time finding another job, how is that a lack of personal responsibility?
--> If that same person's credit is destroyed--because he/she lost the job, experienced employment discrimination, and couldn't pay the bills anymore--and then experiences even more employment discrimination because of that credit destruction (this is a Kafkaesque downward spiral that many Americans have gone through)--how is that a lack of personal responsibility?
--> If worker productivity increases, but wages stagnate and prices for goods & services increase, how is that a lack of personal responsibility?
--> If companies are spending profits on stock buybacks instead of better wages for their better-producing employees, how is that a lack of personal responsibility?
--> If college graduates are earning less, on average, than they did 15 years ago, how is that a lack of personal responsibility?
--> If Corporate America transitions from secure, fixed-pension systems to more illusory, stingy, and risky 401K systems (that are, by the way, more dependent upon those stagnant and dropping wages), so that their wealthy executives & investors can become even more wealthy, how is that a lack of personal responsibility?
--> If the economy goes into recession due to rampant white collar crime and fraud (as it did in 2007-2008), and millions of people lose their jobs, how is that a lack of personal responsibility?
The answer to all of these questions is: "It isn't." Unfortunately, addressing structural problems is difficult. It requires deep thought, critical thinking skills, and work - a lot of work. And the people who throw out insults against struggling Americans, well, they simply don't want to do that work. It's much easier to say, "They lack personal responsibility," than it is to research problems, craft solutions, and implement solutions. It takes work & effort to separate people who are trying hard to be successful from those who are not. It's much easier to lump them all together and say, "They're lazy." Indeed, it is the people who are blathering on about "personal responsibility" and casting a whole group of Americans as "lazy" who are themselves the lazy ones. They're too lazy to consider people individually, too lazy to consider macroeconomic problems, and so they sit on the couch, throw out insults, and consider the matter done.
Ironically, the Cult of Personal Responsibility is personally responsible for our looming old-age poverty crisis. They provide cover for white collar crime & fraud, laugh off job outsourcing, and are oblivious to the phenomenon of increased worker productivity and stagnant (or dropping) wages. Instead, they heap all of the blame onto the unemployed, the homeless, the working poor, and every other non-wealthy group in America. The Cult of Personal Responsibility will look at an impoverished retired person and say, "You say your house lost its value after the fraud-fueled recession? You say you never got a raise, even though your company's executives kept getting bigger and bigger bonuses? You say you are mired in debt from a college degree that never paid off? You say you were laid off when your job was outsourced to another country? Hmmm....sounds like you, my friend, did not practice personal responsibility! Shame on you!!!"
It's this imbecilic and irrational thinking that's driving old-age poverty and, mark my words, it's this imbecilic and irrational thinking that will prevent us from properly addressing old-age poverty. The political right (the Cult of Personal Responsibility) will cast every struggling senior citizen as a person who failed to practice personal responsibility, and then, wringing their hands and moaning to the heavens, they'll block every government effort to help them.
The New Deal pointed to a better way. New Deal policymakers understood that larger forces and economic patterns often hindered the ability of Americans to better themselves. For example, when President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, he said: "The civilization of the past hundred years, with its startling industrial changes, has tended more and more to make life insecure." One might supplement that statement today, and say: "The simple-minded cry of 'personal responsibility' does not adequately address the vast complexities of life and the great power of economic manipulation that rests in the hands of high officials, corporate chiefs, and billionaire power brokers."