Many critics of the poor believe that they should take personal responsibility for their substandard living conditions; they only live in these conditions because of their own life choices and poor attitudes. However, according to Tommie Shelby’s Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto, the social conditions of the poor are due to failure of the government and affluent citizens to improve the underprivileged lives of the ghetto poor. If a person is criticized for turning down a menial job at low wages and applying for small welfare payments instead, Shelby would argue that the critic should not demand labor from those who do not receive the same benefits as the rest of society, because the social system is inequitable. In a fair system of social cooperation, there is reciprocity between people who regard each other as equals (page 127). This should be taken into consideration when criticizing the poor. Why should they be expected to play their part in social cooperation if they do not get to receive the same benefits? The poor are clearly not regarded as equal, in terms of granted opportunities, to a person from a higher class in society.
In a social arrangement, some individuals are more fortunate than others, in regards to freedoms, duties, opportunities, and material possessions. The aspects of a person’s life are not entirely determined by the circumstances he is born into – his decisions, the actions of others, and luck plays a large role as well. Since people are autonomous, they control how their lives turn out, but everyone’s life prospects are more “deeply shaped by a social structure that he or she did not choose” (page 130). This means that the poor are not entirely at fault for their living conditions; society’s structure may also affect their life outcomes. Not every citizen is granted equal opportunities, so not everyone should have the same social obligations. Shelby uses Rawls’ theory to demonstrate that fair equality of opportunity means every person is entitled to the same advantages and equal life prospects (page 132). One is only expected to contribute his share to society if there is a fair distribution of the benefits. There are no details given about the person who denies a job and applies for welfare in this given scenario, so let us assume that she is a poor woman from the ghetto, living in the worst conditions. Shelby would defend the woman in this case, because she suffers the injustices of society – she was forced to consider a menial, low-wage job instead of a well-paying one. Some may argue that if she took advantage of her education, then she would not be in this situation, but she was not given the same opportunities as her counterparts for a decent education. The government does not distribute resources sufficiently to create the same educational opportunities between affluent and ghetto neighborhoods (page 132). The quality of the education available to ghetto residents is usually poor, so most cannot acquire a basic education, let alone a proper education for college (page 147). The woman does not “have obligations to submit to unjust institutions or at least not to institutions that exceed the limits of tolerable injustice” (page 145). The poor living in the ghettos should not be held to the standard of social cooperation and reciprocity, because they are “deprived of the fair share of benefits.” Deviance is tolerable on their part, because they have no obligation to adhere to the unjust laws that have failed them. Welfare payments from the government should be viewed as reparations for their unfair life conditions. Shelby makes reasonable points in this case, because the poor cannot be fully blamed for their substandard lives. They are condemned from the start; they have practically no means of rising above their impoverished states due to their lack of educational opportunities. In this scenario, even though the woman is offered a menial job, she does not have to accept it since she is not obligated to give back to a society that has failed her; she is completely justified in choosing welfare payments since she is burdened with unfair living conditions. The dark ghetto “is simply incompatible with any meaningful form of reciprocity among free and equal citizens” due to its “combination of social stigma, extreme poverty, racial segregation, and shocking incarceration rates” (page 150). Even though some who are born into ghetto poverty are able to escape it, an “unjust basic structure” still exists and explains the persistence of ghetto conditions, so “the fact that some from the ghetto are still able to improve their lot through legitimate means… does not invalidate the claim for redress of those who remain behind” (page 143). Shelby’s case is valid, because although Rawls states that citizens have a “natural duty not to oppose the establishment of just and efficient institutions,” when the institution proves to be unjust and is not arranged to everyone’s advantage, then the institution is no longer efficient and one has the right to oppose it. The poor woman does not have to play her part in social cooperation because she is deprived of her full share of its benefits.