August 8, 2012
I received an e-mail the other day that broke my heart. The young woman wrote that she cared for three children in diapers, one of whom was the niece her sister couldn’t take care of anymore. This woman did not work because daycare for three children cost more than she made. This arrangement worked while her fiancé was working, but he had recently, unexpectedly, lost his job. And now they couldn’t pay for diapers.
The young lady who sent me that e-mail describes both luck and choices. She and her fiancé were doing well enough that they chose to take in her niece so she could keep her niece from entering the child welfare system. That shows generosity — she was lucky enough to be able to help someone else. Then bad luck hit. Her fiancé, who had a good job, was laid off. Now she has three children under three years old, all in diapers. She thought she had made good choices and that she and her family were financially set. Turned out bad luck got in the way.
The trajectory of our lives is determined by a series of choices and luck, but it seems to me that many people discount how big a role luck plays. From the perspective of a baby, the family the baby is born into is a matter of luck. The child has no choice in this matter, and has done nothing one way or another to deserve one family more or less than the other. The child’s only action to this point is being born. As a studyreleased by the Urban Institute found, children born into wealth tend to live life as wealthier adults.
Children born into poverty are more likely to live in poverty as adults than people who were not born into poverty. Among children who are never poor, only 1 percent spent half their early adult years living in poverty. On the other hand, 32 percent of persistently poor children go on to spend half their early adult years living in poverty.
Sometimes this luck translates into an ability to make choices. For example, according to the Social Science Research Council, if you were lucky enough to be born to educated parents, you are more likely to pursue a college degree.
Children whose parents have at least a college degree enter college at more than twice the rate of children whose parents did not graduate high school.
Although pursuing a college degree involves making a choice, it also involves luck. If there are simply too many obstacles — the cost of tuition is prohibitive, you can’t afford to pay the application fee or the fee to take the college board exams, or your family cannot afford for you to quit your afterschool job — you will in effect not have the opportunity to make the choice.
Our lives are certainly shaped by our innate qualities as human beings — raw intelligence, mechanical aptitude, the ability to relate to others, and so on — but our ability to capitalize on those qualities depends in large part on luck. Were you lucky enough to have a stable family life that allowed you to focus on schoolwork and training to perfect these qualities? Were you lucky enough to have the opportunity to exercise these qualities and turn them into an asset for future earnings or opportunities?
Your ability to rebound from these turns of luck also depends on luck — how much good or bad luck you had before. Maybe you can recover from one unlucky break, for example, you get laid off, but can you recover from several unlucky breaks? You lose your job, your neighbor has a fire in their apartment so you must evacuate and then someone rear ends your car in an accident — can you recover from all of that at once?
People living paycheck-to-paycheck might have the cushion necessary to sustain a little bit of bad luck. But a long run of bad luck probably not. Indeed, unless you are really lucky most of us don’t have the resources to carry us through a really long run of bad luck. And bad luck tends to beget more bad luck. You don’t have enough money for gas, so you have to rely on the bus, which is late, so you miss the big interview. You do not have enough money to buy diapers so you cannot bring your child to daycare so you lose a day’s wage. You literally cannot afford to work.
It is both luck and choices in my life that have allowed me to be in a position to help the young lady I described above find diapers. But what if I were less lucky? Would I be asking for diapers now? And would someone luckier than me choose to help?
In my life I have met many people who have had a lot of luck — good and bad and made lots of choices — both good and bad. My point is, regardless of your situation in life — both luck and choices play a role. We should all keep that in mind as we judge those around us.