More than 50 years of social-sciences evidence demonstrates that behavior is highly predictive of many important life outcomes.

That is how an article headlined “Behavior Matters” in City Journal begins.

You could say, Duh.

Except that, as the authors of the piece, Matt DeLisi and John Paul Wright, point out, many people now reject this seemingly self-evident idea:

Many thinkers and activists on the left, however, prefer to disconnect an individual’s behavior from his lot in life—whether it’s by obscuring the violence committed by criminals or blaming it on external forces, downplaying the aggression of problem students in public schools when they’re minorities and talking instead about the “school-to-prison pipeline,” or suggesting that the vagaries of chance explain individual success and failure.

In this way of thinking, implicit bias is invariably to blame for police conflicts with minority communities, rather than uncooperative or violent arrestees, and the “prison-industrial complex,” not chronic felonious behavior, explains why 2 million Americans are behind bars.

From the Left’s point of view, bad behavior, at least by certain favored groups, should be ignored, or, if not ignored, then explained away by diabolical social forces—poverty, in particular—that cause the bad behavior. 

As you might recall, law professors Amy Wax and Larry Alexander made themselves pariahs when they suggested that, if people accept bourgeois social norms and behave accordingly, they can improve their lives. Some of the outre norms Wax and Alexander proposed: getting married before having children, getting and education, and being a good employee.

While our friends on the left like to view poverty as the result of prejudice or the capitalist system, behavior may be the better explanation:

By the same token, what we could call behavioral poverty helps explain how some individuals spend their lives mired in poverty and social dysfunction.

Behavioral poverty is reflected in the attitudes, values, and beliefs that justify entitlement thinking, the spurning of personal responsibility, and the rejection of traditional social mechanisms of advancement. It is characterized by high self-indulgence, low self-regulation, exploitation of others, and limited motivation and effort.

It can be correlated with a range of antisocial, immoral, and imprudent behaviors, including substance abuse, gambling, insolvency, poor health habits, and crime.

While behavioral poverty’s causes are likely complex—involving the interplay between parents, genes, and culture—understanding its consequences is not complex: they are depressingly predictable.

Because behavioral poverty can emerge early in life and remain stable over time, it’s not uncommon to see behaviorally poor children perform badly at school, compile arrest records as juveniles, and transition into adulthood with few or any skills outside those valued on the street. Few who work in the juvenile-justice system, for example, are surprised to find out that former clients get arrested as adults, or involved with drugs, or pregnant with no means of support.

Behavioral poverty helps us see why those caught up in the criminal-justice system often struggle in many areas of life, whether it’s the squalor of their lifestyle, their seeming imperviousness to correctional interventions designed to improve their lives, or their often-obstinate refusal to engage in productive adult conduct. 

Unless we are willing to talk about the behaviors that affect people’s lives, we are never going to help countless Americans escape poverty.