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Columns

March 30, 2014

CEPEDA: Taking it out on the messengers

(Continued)

The three factors are: a superiority complex — a deeply internalized belief in your specialness, exceptionality and superiority based on a story about the magnificence of your people’s history and civilization; insecurity — a feeling or worry that what you’ve done or have is not good enough; and impulse control — the ability to resist giving up in the face of hardship.

I actually found the best part of the book to be the explanation of why some groups don’t succeed.

“The absence of the Triple Package was not the original cause of their poverty,” the authors contend. “In almost every case, America’s persistently low-income groups became poor because of systematic exploitation, discrimination, denial of opportunity and institutional or macroeconomic factors having nothing to do with their culture.”

In describing why the combination of triple-package factors doesn’t work for some low-income groups, the authors describe a variation on the “Marshmallow Test” of self-control.

In it, test subjects are promised a double serving of a favored treat if they delay gratification. But some are promised by a person who has proved to be untrustworthy and others by someone who kept their word in a previous instance. Those who had been prompted by the untrustworthy person did not delay gratification.

“If people don’t trust the system, if they think society is lying when it tells them that discipline and hard work will be rewarded — if they don’t think that people like them can really make it — they have no incentive to engage in impulse control, sacrificing present satisfactions in hopes of future gain. This is as true in America’s inner cities as in rural Appalachia,” the authors say.

This is the big takeaway of the book — one too important to be missed in silly discussions about imperialism or racial superiority. If we want a nation of people willing to work hard and sacrifice in order to attain the American dream, we’d better be ready to consistently deliver on its promise.

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. She can be reached at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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