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Take some personal responsibility

Those words are often used to bludgeon people who are struggling.

By Karen Datko Jan 7, 2010 9:29PM

This guest post comes from Andrea at Fools and Sages.


If I had a list of my least favorite phrases or words, “personal responsibility” would be right near the top, along with “you go, girlfriend,” “irregardless” and “supposably.”


Sounds odd, right? How in the world could personal responsibility be a bad thing?


Well, it’s not, of course. Personal responsibility is an honorable trait, one that parents try to instill in their children and companies look for in their employees, something that constituents try in vain to see in their elected officials and fans sometimes pretend to care about in their superstars.


What I don’t like is when the phrase “personal responsibility” is used as a bludgeon, a self-righteous way of saying that those who are somehow facing challenges are stupid, lazy, weak, and immoral.


Lost your job? Have some personal responsibility and go get another one. Two or three if necessary, no matter that there aren’t jobs out there. 

Better yet, show some past tense personal responsibility -- you should have overcome being brought up in a family that didn’t understand the value of education or had been institutionalized into an assistance-based income. You should have chosen not to help your family out after high school graduation by going and getting a factory job that was doomed to outsourcing in a couple of decades. It would have been better to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans so you could go to college.


Even if you had a job for a really long time, you should have known that you should also train for something completely outside your chosen field, just in case you would need to make a change at any given time.

Don’t have health insurance? If it’s because you don’t have a job, see above. If it’s because you have a pre-existing condition caused by obesity, then of course you shouldn’t be fat. Get on a treadmill and eat some more lettuce. It’s really that simple.


If it’s from addiction, well, you should have quit smoking/drinking/shooting heroin. In fact, you should never have started and a little personal responsibility back when you first encountered an addictive substance would have been a good idea, right?


Buy more house than you could afford? Why in the world would you have thought you could afford that house? Is it because your real estate agent and mortgage broker and the bank said you could? Come on. Take some personal responsibility.

Even though your career field might have nothing to do with money management, and everyone else you know who makes about what you do seemed to be purchasing homes in the same range, you should have known that the real estate and lending professionals were not looking at what would put you in a secure position in the future as much as what would make them a profit right now. You should also have known that a lot of those mortgage brokers are simply salesmen, that licensing requirements vary widely from state to state (some don’t require a license at all, some just have a fee, some require actual education and examination), and that they genuinely didn’t understand that they were getting you into a loan that would be unsustainable if the economy took even a modest dip. You should have KNOWN.


Too much credit card debt and other debt? Oh, this one is the kicker. First of all, why did you even start to use credit cards in the first place? Was it when you were entering college and had to run the gauntlet of companies offering to give you a card and a free T-shirt? Or did you have the bad sense to open your mail and see offers for cash back, or points toward airfares and cars?


Did you watch television and see advertisement after advertisement brainwashing you into believing that you deserved brand-new electronics, vacations, new cars, evenings out of the kitchen, new furniture? Did you see your neighbors bringing home new goodies and let envy settle in?


Did you assume, as Americans tend to do, that things would always get better and there would be plenty of money available to pay off debt later? Did you, in short, buy into the messages that corporations and politicians pumped into your head over and over again?


Personal responsibility is, ultimately, a best-efforts issue. Certainly all of us are imperfect and we all make decisions sometimes that aren’t wise. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where everyone was full of common sense and responsibility -- a world without art, pop culture, or geniuses taking a flyer on credit to create the next biggest thing. How boring.  


But when I see a show about my father’s hometown, Wilmington, Ohio, on "60 Minutes," featuring a man named Jim Curtis who dedicated more than 20 years to a company, having “always been kind of taught to stand on my own two feet,” losing his job and then his home -- well, I think Mr. Curtis, a manager in the hazardous-materials department, is probably a person who understands personal responsibility.


It deeply offends me to see middle-class Americans who just did their best, went to work every day, kept their jobs for years and decades, being insulted when they fall on hard times with a trite and dismissive “have some personal responsibility” statement. It’s divisive, mean, and shallow.


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