As I was thinking about what to write about this month, the now infamous 47% Mitt Romney donor video came out. “Do I really want to write about politics?” I wondered. It’s definitely not something I usually write about, and I don’t want to get into contentious debate. I want all of my clients – no matter what their political affiliation – to feel comfortable with me. I feel very strongly about inclusion and welcoming everyone into my office.

And, with that said, I really couldn’t resist. No matter what I came up with, nothing was as compelling as talking about the leaked video. What was my fascination with it? Well, there was my curiosity about how it would impact Romney’s campaign politically, but more-so, he was bringing up the important psychological concept of personal responsibility. Romney said, referring to the 47% of Americans who he believes will vote for President Obama, “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

He’s claiming that 47% of Americans do not take personal responsibility for their lives, and they feel entitled to health care, food, and housing. First off, as hard as it is, I am going to overlook the part about “those” people (even though it deserves significant air time). So, what does he mean by personal responsibility? He means that a person should act appropriately and be responsible and accountable to oneself (whether it’s by owning one’s emotions, health, education, station in life, etc.) without authoritative guidance. This is a really important concept, especially in psychology, and is key to moving beyond one’s past. Personal responsibility is the opposite of blame – blaming one’s childhood, one’s personal or cultural history, other people, one’s circumstances, etc. (This doesn’t mean that people don’t need to move through these stages of blame, but the ultimate goal is to acknowledge one’s own actions as the shaper of one’s life.)

What Mitt Romney finds so disdainful seems to be a dependence on government. Yet, he drives on roads and bridges; he relies on the FDA for a safe food supply; his plane is kept safe by FAA regulations; and on and on. Not only that, the government gives him huge tax breaks which is definitely a type of subsidy. The idea that some people depend on government and others don’t is a fallacy. So, it’s not really government as a whole that he objects to – it’s welfare assistance – food stamps, housing vouchers, unemployment insurance, and the like. And this is where I take issue.

Based on race, ethnicity, religion, family history, health, sexual orientation, and a whole host of other criteria, Americans are not playing on an even playing field. Blogger John Scalzi described life as a video game – some players start off the game with more points, and their plays earn more points, while others start off with a negative balance, and no matter what they do, their plays earn only a fraction of the points that the other plays do. If you come from a legacy of slavery, of Native American Reservations, or are a recent refugee, chances are, you’re going to start the game with a negative point balance. If you come from a legacy of Ivy League educations, home ownership, and/or political office, chances are, you’re going to start off with a point surplus. Not just that, earning points will be easier for you, and the points will be worth more. It’s easy for someone with a point surplus to wonder why others don’t have the same high score, and yet they’re not aware of their running start. I say this not to incite any sort of guilt for those that are fortunate by birth, but to bring awareness to one’s own circumstances.

Living in poverty is very challenging in this country and requires much more work than being financially sound. (Luckily, I haven’t had to learn this first-hand.) I don’t mean work as in career aspirations, but work as in survival. It requires more hardship – taking unreliable transportation, living within a small budget, taking time to wash clothes at the laundromat rather than at home, for example. Most of all, it requires making challenging everyday decisions. Do I lose wages or stay home with a sick child? Do I pay the PG&E bill or the water bill this month? How can I take time off of work to look for a better job? Do I send my child to the sub-par school nearby or send her to a better school an hour away? These decisions all require a high level of personal responsibility. With more resources, one can move into a good school district, hire a housekeeper, pay for childcare, and/or set one’s bills to autopay – choices in life that do not require making challenging decisions. Food stamps, housing subsidies, and unemployment insurance don’t completely solve the problem either – they allow people to stay afloat. Even with the help, when you’re constantly worried about survival, it’s nearly impossible to get ahead – it’s about making ends meet.

Romney actually accused people (this 47%) of feeling entitled to food. Last I read in the Declaration of Independence, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are our inalienable rights. I would assert that food is required for “life.” It can be argued that healthcare also falls into the “life” category. So, I would conclude that we are entitled to food, but who should provide it to those that don’t have it? Government seems like the most likely source, especially in a democracy, where voters choose their representation.

How big is this problem, anyway? Let’s zoom out for a minute – what percentage of federal spending goes to welfare? In 2011, 13% of total federal spending went to welfare (which includes cash welfare, food stamps, unemployment benefits, workers comp, and housing), while defense and healthcare spending were each tied at 24% each, and pensions came in a close third at 22%. Don’t even get me started on the crisis in mental health spending! Education gets a whopping 3% although the majority of school funding comes from government at state and local levels.

2011 federal spending

2011 federal spending, courtesy of usgovernmentspending.com

It is true that we must take personal responsibility for our lives if we want to be self-actualized. However, the idea that 47% of Americans should be characterized in one breath as parasites of government is unfair and dismissive. The poor in this country have to make responsible decisions every day for their lives, and being a hard worker is only a part of the equation. Vice-Presidential nominee Paul Ryan may have worked hard to be where he is, but he also started from a much more advantageous place, not to mention that not all hard work is the same. The good news is that we get to chime in with our own voices by voting. Whether you agree or disagree with my views, our civic duty is to vote which is of the utmost importance. And dare I say that voting is taking matters into our own hands and being personally responsible for the outcome!