INTERSPECIES RIVALRY

Very few experiences are as horrifying and frustrating as talking about poverty in a college classroom. I have found this to be true both at "affordable" state schools and an expensive private school. Regardless of what we tell ourselves about scholarship programs and need-based financial aid, almost no one in college comes from actual poverty. The environment is overwhelmingly populated by middle and upper middle class kids. Certainly some of them have had rougher lives than others, and not all of them come from wealth by any stretch of the imagination. They do, however, often have a hard time recognizing that their life experiences might not be universally applicable.

The best way I can describe it is this: college students, reflecting the habits they've picked up from parents, family, communities, and the media, talk about poor people like they are a different species. The way they approach and conceptualize the issue is either filled with pure disdain (from the right-wingers) or almost unbearable paternalism (from the liberals). Very, very few students that I have met show the kind of maturity it takes to see poverty as a social construct. They see the poor as this kind of lamentable animal that is too stupid to survive without our help.

One of the inevitable laws of public discourse in the U.S. is that when poverty is discussed, someone must point out that poor people often have expensive things. iPhones and "big screen TVs" are popular props for this talking point, as are cars, Nikes, and any item of clothing above oily rags or a barrel and suspenders. This is to reinforce the fact that poverty is a matter of individual choice and/or that it is self-inflicted.

I am never clear about what we are supposed to gain from this wisdom. You mean…people who are uneducated, and in many cases functionally or completely illiterate, don't make good financial choices? Well I'm just shocked. Yes, one of the problems with poverty is that people who are poor develop bad habits (which, it is never noted in fairness, a lot of people who are far from poor also have) like spending money immediately rather than saving it or purchasing things they want when they can't afford their basic needs first. Yeah? And? What's the solution?

Since collective solutions are off the docket – Hey, let's maybe educate children so they turn into adults with basic life skills, and maybe let's work toward a society that doesn't have a massive impoverished underclass! – the only solutions we can ever come up with are to give Victorian lectures to the poor about their moral failings or to make their decisions for them. That there are plenty of non-poor Americans who have the exact same problems managing their finances should be a hint that the poor really are no different than the rest of us as individuals. Instead, no matter how good our intentions may be we almost inevitably talk about the poor like an infestation. The causes of poverty are not the problem that needs solving – the poor themselves are the problem, and our job as comfortable bourgeois people is to figure out what to do with them.

It's really quite horrifying to watch all of this unfold, but I don't hold it against young people when they express these attitudes. They're merely parroting what they've been hearing at home and on TV their entire lives.

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54 Responses to “INTERSPECIES RIVALRY”

  1. Heywood J. Says:

    Since I live in a pretty conservative area, and work in social services, this subject and its usual conversations are something of an occupational hazard. Most of the annoyance I encounter routinely is not so much that poor people make questionable financial decisions, it's that they tend to do it with someone else's money.

    I understand that sentiment, to a certain extent. It's off-putting to have someone who's clearly able-bodied but not terribly smart or motivated, sporting new Niners gear or an iPhone or a new manicure while they grind for their check.

    But when you try to balance the conversation with the annoyed person by pointing out, say, how the Walton heirs have systematically robbed taxpayers and towns blind for decades, hoarding money while screwing their workers (and the social support systems that have to subsidize them because their employers won't pay them a living wage), they don't wanna hear it. They just see the penny grifter in front of them, and ignore the billionaire grifters that have run through small-town America like a horde of termites — in fact, shop from them happily.

    Walt Kelly and H.L. Mencken would have a field day with modern Americans.

  2. S Says:

    My favorite (i.e. infuriating, pitiful, and hilarious all at once) comment from a college undergrad in class: "Poor people are not poor because of fate or something. Poor people are poor because they have invested unwisely."

  3. gipper Says:

    How does it even make a difference. What are they supposed to do with those couple hundo that they could have saved by buying slightly less sweet shoes / telephones / whatever? Save them up for college? Buy stocks?? You're unlikely to only have the exact amount of money you need for sustenance, people are gonna spend the excess on SOMETHING. You can't buy yourself a marginally better job, or a fraction of a college education, which are the only things that would make a difference in their poverty. Conservatives just want people to make that meaningless gesture of austerity because Repubs are all about the grand, empty gestures / ensuring that other people are sufficiently miserable / living in a well-structures black and white cartoon world where every poor looks like a Dickensian orphan and every "bad guy" is literally Hitler.

  4. Alvin B. Says:

    One argument AGAINST the "poor people should have saved their money instead of having bought an air conditioner or iphone" is simple. Unless the poor person is SWIMMING in these expensive "luxuries", chances are having saved the cost of one iPhone or air conditioner would NOT lift them out of poverty. If you are poor, you may have saved for six months or a year to afford a luxury. Having that luxury allows you to forget about the drudgery of your poor life for just a little bit, and makes life more enjoyable. Say you took that $199 you spent on the iPhone and paid a bill with it instead. Guess what? YOU ARE STILL POOR!!! Your income hasn't changed one bit, you'r still stuck having to scrimp and save for everything. Say you decide to cut back on the $119/month you're paying on a cell phone plan and go prepaid for a $50 plan. Wise financial choice. But the slackjaw conservatives will STILL see your iPhone as an evil, so let's say you decide to forgo having a phone ALTOGETHER (which is what poor people are expected to do, since YOU MUST SUFFER). Great, now work can't call you to work your day off, or change your schedule (which happens often if you are working low wage jobs) and you get fired for "missing work" too often.

    Thing is, saving a penny here and there will not make someone "not poor". That's just idiocy. The only thing that will make someone "not poor" is the ability to earn a living wage.

  5. LK Says:

    Assuming we accept the basic premises of capitalism, one of the first questions that need to be asked is the percentage of working people among he poor vs. the unemployment rate (and both of these should be looked at on a location-specific basis, since averages mean squat). Malthus aside, If the poor don't work (many of them do) and employment is high (it isn't, and worse in poor areas) you can conceivably put "life choices" high enough on the list to matter. Otherwise you must contend with the structural flaws in the job market and in the welfare system (that was supposed to correct for those flaws).

    Problem is, most students never had a chance to face those flaws. Even those who come from less privileged backgrounds were usually shielded by their parents from the true state of affairs as children. Only after they graduate do they start to find out what it means to look for a job and not find it. To find a job that underpays you. To take dead-end jobs because rent is due.

    Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed" should be mandatory reading for everyone wishing to enter this discussion.

  6. Talisker Says:

    The causes of poverty are not the problem that needs solving – the poor themselves are the problem, and our job as comfortable bourgeois people is to figure out what to do with them.

    In practice, a major component of "what to do with the poor" is "incarcerate as many as possible."

    You can then put the prisoners to work for little or no pay, depressing wages and opportunities for low-paid workers on the outside.

  7. Middle Seaman Says:

    FDR's proposed 2nd Bill of Rights would have changed poverty and limit it. Liberals/progressives/lefties in the US don't do poverty. They do foreign affairs, free press and don't torture.

    As a society, we don't do poverty. Don't expect college kids to be any different. With a realistic unemployment rate of 12%-15%, the vast majority is fine. Why care?

  8. Freeportguy Says:

    Credit statistics usually show that non-poor as a whole are more in debt than poor people…

  9. Anonymouse Says:

    If you want to talk about fiscal irresponsibility, here's some anecdata: many of my co-workers have kids older than mine (I'm the youngest in my group). The kids are in college and the parents have shelled out big bucks and taken out huge loans to a fancy-schmancy private school so the kids can major in basket weaving. The kids have every luxury; videogame consoles, expensive sneakers, the latest iPad and iPhone. The parents are moaning and groaning about the college loans, while their kids are partying it up. So who's more irresponsible? The Wal-mart worker who wears discount sneakers but has a $400 phone so work can call him to change his schedule, or the 20-year-old partying her way through school for $70k/year?

  10. Rob Says:

    On a philosophical note, this could be thought of as the downside of a society that largely holds the concept of free will as an unquestionable truth. It is much easier as human beings, complete with overpowering evolved conceit, to believe that those less fortunate than us actually had control over their lives rather than accept the horrifying conclusion that some people are born into a life of misery.

    In my opinion, if we want to have classrooms full of people who accept poverty as a social construct, we had better start chipping away at the illusion of free will – the most pernicious of barriers to compassion.

  11. c u n d gulag Says:

    This lack of understanding of poverty may also be a generational thing.

    Those of us over 50, had grandparents who, if they were American, lived through the Great Depression. And many served in WWII. And those at home, during WWII, knew about rationing of everything from silk, to rubber, to meat, flour, and butter.
    And those of us that age, whose parents came from Europe, or Asia, also went through economic hard times – AND WWII. And there was little to no reason to ration, since there was almost nothing that displaced persons had to ration. They depended on either the kindness of others, or, to be frank – stealing, or subterfuge.

    And when I was growing up, nothing that happened to me, was as bad as what my parents and grandparents went through.
    Any and every thing I said I needed or wanted, was ephemeral, I was told, and if I had to, I could do without.
    And then, would come the stories…

    You're constantly reminded of the hunger they went through, day in, and day out, with no relief in sight – and then told of a kindness by a German soldier, who gave my Russian grandmother some maggoty horse-meat and a handful of bug-ridden oats, and how grateful they were to the enemy for that – it makes an impression on you.

    When you're told that everyone in the family sat in a hole outside of Stalingrad, caused by German artillery, for almost 50 days, and that grandma had to strain the water in the hole through he kerchief, for the family to drink, and discarding the fingers and other body parts that she found by throwing them out of the shell hole, that leaves in impression on you.

    And, when you're told about a cousin, who, thinking it was all clear, went out of the shell hole to pee, and got his pecker shot off by a sniper, and lived.
    Well, when you come home, upset that the girl you wanted to ask to the senior prom had already agreed to go with someone else, and you're all depressed, then you're reminded of the cousin with the shot-off pecker, you have to agree, that, yes, things could always be worse.

    And then the stories of the Labor Camps, and V-2 plants, where people got one meal, once a day, of something like maggoty gruel, only much, much worse, than you can imagine, young one.
    And you hear about the sheer joy they felt on V-E Day! And then, the scrammble to avoid being in the Russian Zone, and trying to sneak into the American or British ones. Everyone knew Stalin wouldn't treat them well if they ended up back in Mother Russia. Better to end up in America, or England, or Austrialia – MUCH better, even though no one spoke a word of English, or had a penny.

    For a lot of people of my generation, we were constantly reminded, nothing we EVER went through, or will go through, was as bad as your parents and grandparents had it. And look THEY survived!

    And, if I had children, I would use their grandparents and great-grandparents as cautionary tales, and explanations of what real poverty, and real need, are like.

    Without their stories, what would I tell them to talk about hard times?
    I had to wait in a long gas line in the 70's?
    That cute girl I had a crush on, went to the prom with someone else?
    I was lucky, and the missed Vietnam War, because I was 1 year too young for the draft?
    The time we ran out of beer at a keg party in college?

    Me, and a lot of people of my generation, have had it pretty easy, when you talk to them. Or, remember their stories.

    But for some of us, like me, who's been unemployed for almost 3 years, and can't find ANY job that will even interview me, our hard times are now.
    And, maybe ahead.
    But, hey, I've got a roof over my head, food, a laptop, and internet service – and, my pecker's still attached – so, how bad can it be?

    If I was still an adjunct in college, and I wanted to teach my students about poverty, I would tell them, not only to go the inner-city, but go out to the once prosperous suburbs, and talk to the people waiting in the Unemployment office, or Social Services.
    And sure, some may have an I-phone on them, and microwaves and even color and HD TV's at home – but, that's about ALL that they have, except, hopefully shelter, and cheap crappy food.
    And those little "luxuries," are, in some senses, tokens of narmalcy. We see other people with those things, and we want to be like they are. Some of us once were.

  12. xynzee Says:

    @Freeport: Out of curiosity, does this break down what the indebtedness is in? It's one thing to have a debt, but what is that debt in? I.E. have you put yourself into hock racking up a CC debt to buy food and keep the heat on, or do you have a car, house or education?

    But it makes sense, because if you have access to money, people will give you money.

    Extrapolating upon Alvin's point, I had never given much thought to the mobility issues of the poor. Not just social mobility, but physical mobility.

    There's the two sided complaint about poor and private transport.

    One issue that appear recently was the whole voter ID thing. The number of inner city poor who do not have photo ID, i.e. a drivers licence. The people who wrote these laws either knew full well that the poor would lack a DL, because if you cannot afford a car and one lives in an urban environment, who needs a licence? Or, because of the ubiquitous nature of the car in American life, were honestly surprised about this paradigm shift.

    The flip side of the coin, is that these "poor" people cannot be truly poor because they own an asset like a car. At the very least they have no business owning something that they cannot properly afford to maintain.

    To hold this view requires either ignoring or having a complete ignorance of several key factors.

    First of all, Public Trans in most American cities is appalling to non-existant.

    Move away from the major – expensive – urban centres to the smaller more affordable cities and good luck.

    Thus the poor either have to pay a premium to live in well serviced areas or they live in the lower cost areas, but are forced to purchase private transport in order to achieve mobility. Which more than destroys any cost saving they may have had.

    Most on this blog realise that effectively, a car in America is a necessity, not a luxury. Especially for the poor. Living in poorly serviced areas restricts movement and limits choices. Commuting by PT in these circumstances can exacerbate the situation. Missing one bus, can determine whether you can keep your job or not, especially when the individual needs to make transfers. In order to get to their barely subsistent wage level job, they must drive miles to the other side of town, increasing the operational costs and compounds the rate at which the car depreciates. Turning what should be an asset into a rapidly depreciating white elephant.

    To make the situation worse, many people work two jobs. Relying on PT to do this in the States, is unfeasible. Having to go from one location to another. Then getting home late at night… in order to get some sleep before having to get up to do the whole process again. This is not going to happen without a car.

    Those are my first observations on this subject.

  13. Sarah Says:

    I think there is a certain amount of status consciousness at play here, as well. Bear in mind that status is dependent not only on having things, but having things that other people don't. I am reminded of an old episode of MacGyver in which he says that every time he sees a car phone (which is what they called cell phones back in the day, when they were tied to the car's dashboard, with the handset tied to the unit with a cord, and they only worked in certain cities), he had to wonder if the person who had it actually was important, or just wanted everybody to think he was. This morning I was reading an article about United Airlines' efforts to tinker with their boarding process, and there is quite a bit of bitching from the people with "gold" and "platinum" memberships at the prospect of having to board with ::gasp:: the hoi polloi.

  14. sluggo Says:

    Poor people don't have 'nice things'.

    'Nice things' are health insurance, pensions, real estate.

    I-phones and TVs will all be in a landfill sooner or later.

  15. RosiesDad Says:

    Poverty, or the way to address it, is an education issue. The fact is, most people living close to or below the poverty line are uneducated, and if you want to break the cycle of poverty, you need to find a way to break the cycle. The poorest demographic groups have high rates of drop out; figure out how to keep these kids in school to get the HS diploma and then technical training (vo tech or 2 year college) or a college degree and you get them out of poverty and into the realm of the working class.

    The fact is, the unemployment rate among college grads is much lower than among those with only a HS diploma and the HS grads are much less likely to be unemployed than HS dropouts. In areas where poverty is cross-generational, the key to breaking the cycle is getting the kids–at an early age–to learn how to learn and make them want to stay with it. There are a set of non-cognitive skills that, if you have them, make you much more likely to succeed in an educational/academic environment. Skills like self-discipline, impulse control, conscientiousness. And what researchers have found is that these skills can be taught and reinforced, even if they do not initially come from the home environment.

    Paul Tough wrote a great book on this ("How Children Succeed:…") and it was the subject of an episode of This American Life a few months ago. (Episode 474, Back to School) Definitely worth an hour's listen (or just read the transcript at the TAL website).

  16. Sarah Says:

    @RosiesDad: Don't forget the issue of peer pressure. Among people who live in poverty, if they see someone of their group trying to break free, they will exert pressure on that person and basically make his or her life miserable. It is very hard to work towards academic achievement when your own family members (never mind others in your community) not only will not give you support, but will actively work to sabotage you. Mary Childers, who was the first in her family to go to college, grew up in the Bronx, graduated from high school at age 16, and is now a professor at (I believe) Dartmouth. She wrote a memoir of her experience, called Welfare Brat, which I had to read for my English comp class a few years ago. When she came to my college to give a lecture, she signed copies of her book afterward. It was the only time in my life I have ever stood in line to get someone's autograph.

  17. sluggo Says:

    Don't forget the best weapon against poverty:

    UNIONS

  18. xynzee Says:

    My second observation on the subject of poverty and physical mobility is on the ability to move from an economically depressed region to more vibrant economies.

    There's the that common conservative saw about how there's plenty of jobs out there, just not where they are. The poor really are lazy because they lack the initiative to upstakes and move to the better regions. Yadda, yadda yadda…

    For some reason they fail to understand that relocating costs money.

    It is one thing, to move out of home and go across the country for university. You have a destination in mind, with many things waiting for you, like a dorm room for instance, at the other end. All of the fees for your accommodation have been sorted, and there's mum and dad's CC in case you need it along the way. Also going to uni, does not require hiring a moving company to get you into a semi-furnished dorm room.

    This I'm guessing is the first experience most of these conservitard types had with "moving" on their own. Man it was easy for me, why can these lazy poor people do it?

    Moving on from there to a first job, again with mum and dad's CC to help out, isn't necessarily such a big step. Especially, if one has gone from Arse's Hole to a university in a fairly major urban centre, or landing a job straight out of uni. Hey life's one great big adventure isn't it?

    Relocating without a job already lined up, no idea where you're going rest your head. Especially, if one is moving across the country. Packing everything up into a dodgy car that most likely will break down 300 miles away and need a tow into town at an exorbitant rate, requiring repairs that will eat up most of your cash…

    Doing that as a single person, is hard enough. I've done that one, in fact I jumped countries. Doing that with a family… –shudders–

    What conservatards don't realise is that the majority of low skill, low wage jobs do not advertise jobs in other cities' paper. Let alone advertise at all. It's all about showing up on the day, and they have a job. There are no job interviews via skype for kitchen hands.

    Upon arrival, the next step is to find accommodation. This will require 6–8weeks of bond – good luck getting that together after working at Wallmart – and references. Your mother doesn't count, even though that's where you've lived your whole life.

    Shared households tend to be leery of anyone who shows up without a job and letting the just move in.

    Having a fixed address is incredibly important in the job hunt, c/o the broken-down station wagon in the back of the Safeway parking lot, tends to be a non-starter for most employers.

    An important point to make on families that they can serve another important role. The extended family can help mind the children while the parents are scraping for a crust. Relocating, removes this valuable resource, thus putting an added strain on an already stretched budget. Not to mention the emotional costs for the parent(s).

    So if you weren't completely destitute prior to your big move, you're certainly going to find your way there in a hurry by listening to the average conservatard's pontification on the value of moving.

    These are just a few observations on the prohibitive monetary costs for the poor to relocate. More can be written on the psychological/emotional costs of relocation and the importance of keeping extended families together as I've briefly touched on.

    Sorry if I'm not as concise as JD, CU or Ed himself.

  19. JohnR Says:

    You know, all this "they can't _really_ be poor if they X, Y or Z" is a crap argument even at the most cursory glance. For instance, this: "And those little "luxuries," are, in some senses, tokens of normalcy. We see other people with those things, and we want to be like they are. Some of us once were." is absolutely true, but not the whole picture. Those things – cell phones, nice sneakers, stylish jackets, whatever – are things that we _would have_ if we weren't just scraping by, and it's terribly important for almost all of us to _look like_ we're doing all right, (or at least let our kids look like it) even if we're shorting the bills every single month. Shame is a powerful force in human society; it may cause as many terrible problems as any of the 'deadly sins'. It's not just that we want to be like the people we think are more secure than us; it's that we want to at least look like them; if we can't give our kids real security, at least they can look to their peers like they have it. That actually applies up and down the financial totem pole, too – "keeping up with the Jones's" is just as strong a force in the rotten blocks in Detroit as it is in the toniest sections of whatever Connecticut suburb is where the richest bankers now live.

  20. Tim H. Says:

    A phone so work can call with schedule changes? At the "Big Box Mart" where I work we're told we need to check schedules online.

  21. pathman Says:

    The entire economic system is basically rigged in favor of people who already have money. And the people at the top are working to make sure that more and more money gets transferred upward to them. The Rentier class will make sure it costs money to fucking breathe air at some point. Very few people are truly going to get ahead in a system like that.

  22. DB Main Says:

    A irony of our global sourced economy is that poor people can afford "nice" things we can't afford to have them make.

    It extends to generally everything we complain about the poor having: flat screens, iphones, fashion shoes, and Nikes.

  23. Carrstone Says:

    "What's the solution?" I'm not even sure what the question is! The problem isn't that there are so many poor people, it's that there aren't enough rich people. We keep on focusing on the poor, keep on introducing programs to improve their lot, keep on trying to re-distribute wealth and all we're doing is giving them a fish today. And they, knowing there's more where that came from, eat it.

  24. J. Dryden Says:

    @xynzee: The one thing CU and I *never* are, is concise. Apology unnecessary, particularly when your own comments are so good.

    Fitzgerald's observation that "The rich are different from you and me" is, despite Hemingway's supposed comeback of "Yes, they have more money," rather a true statement. The rich live lives without consequence–enough money buys you a mind that simply never develops the ability to consider that tomorrow will be any different from today, no matter what you do. It's a formula for a simultaneously appalling and beautiful oblivion (which explains why Fitzgerald was so goddamned fascinated by them.)

    I say this because if we recognize that the rich can be viewed by a middle-class man of great sensitivity as a different race (and he an American, no less, supposedly immune to class-consciousness), it's easy enough to recognize that the poor can be just as easily rendered alien. And they are. Flip the mindset of the rich around, and you have people who are nothing but aware of consequences–who are crushed by the lack of control they have over their own lives–who know that one piece of bad luck can take whatever they have, irrevocably. And I in no way mean to suggest that they are "cool" with this set of circumstances–not when the pleasures of wealth are so abundantly shoved in their faces every day. (Which is why I can't begrudge them the occasional "fuck it, world's gonna end tomorrow, might as well have a little fun before I go" purchase like an Iphone.) But they are *used* to it. It doesn't freak them out. They know that the future will suck, no matter what, so they're emotionally braced for the misery to come.

    But–and here's the point–not so the middle class, the ones who, in our new Gilded Age, are being forced inexorably down the ladder into poverty. The middle class want the poor to be different, because they're about to *be* poor themselves, and they don't know how to do it. They want the poor to be poor because of choices, not social construction, because that social construction is about to crush their semi-cushy lives into powder. There's a sad desperation in the desire for the poor to be alien–and the joke is, that when the middle class becomes poor, the original poor are going to be their masters, because they'll already know how to handle it.

    In short, give the over-privileged bastards a little time, and they'll be wishing they were simply 'poor' themselves.

  25. c u n d gulag Says:

    I don't believe the word concise has ever been used in connection with me.

    Verbose, long-winded, gas-bag, yeah – but never concise!

  26. Anonymouse Says:

    @Rose'sDad: 20 years of FUX Noise and right-wing blather have created a subset of Americans who are stupider than rocks and PROUD OF IT. Sarah Palin came a handsbreadth away from election running on a platform of "I don't know anything and you can't make me learn!", which her adoring fans ate up with a spoon because she was JUST LIKE THEM. There are entire swaths of the population who cling tightly to their stupidity and get violent when confronted with reality, which is aparently just for the "eeeleeete".

  27. Tim H. Says:

    Funny thing about the poor, their plight is becoming that of the working class, and will be that of much of the middle class tomorrow and start gnawing at the well off next month. Perhaps this contraction will provide some excitement to jaded randroids, and any remedy would be inflationary, but it's looking like the end of the road may get fugly.

  28. cromartie Says:

    The question amongst liberals is often asked: "Why are these people dumb enough to vote against their own economic self interest, anyway?"

    Well, let's set aside the true believers for a minute and look at who this touches:

    1) The 'poor/dumb and proud of it' crowd that Anonymouse speaks of, a subculture that appears to have started gaining prominence in the last 20 years and

    2) The people that look down their nose at the poors with their fancy phones and shoes, who are milking a system because they can own the same things "I" do.

    And really, what Ed touches upon pretty well here is the class resentment crowd. This subset of people would be considered the lower to mid-middle class group. They "worked hard" to end up "not poor", and by God those "other" poor people shouldn't have the same thing I do, because it infringes on my perception of myself, my place in the social structure and they are shattering my illusion of my accomplishments.

    I typify this groups of people this way. I dated a girl once while on a trip to Houston who was this type. While scanning the radio for something to listen to, I happened upon a Spanish music station playing a song I thought had a nice melody.

    "Please change the station," she said to me.

    "Ok, but it's a good song." I replied.

    "Yes, but I prefer to think that those people don't exist." Was her response.

    There was not a second date. But that's the point amongst this people. They're the "I've got mine, fuck you crowd." The reality is, what they have isn't a lot more than what poor people have, and their grip on it is often very tenuous. And they don't like to have that thrown back at them. SO the result is that they end up subscribing the mindset that the poor need to be made poorer so their position of their place on the social hierarchy is reinforced.

  29. terraformer Says:

    I think this phenomenon is closely related to, if not caused by, a lack of empathy.

    People who do not or cannot empathize with others generally respond the way OP describes. I think those who do empathize have a larger worldview. I think the lack of empathy across much of our population is not only a lamentable situation, but is also a carefully orchestrated one, designed to inculcate ill will and feelings of "the other" that support and reinforce superiority, if at least to someone.

  30. jon Says:

    My girlfriend, who is now in graduate school, is poor. She lives in a mobile home, has her sick mother living with her, has two children, is the first in her family to graduate from college, and she has lots of stuff. Why doesn't she just sell her stuff? Because she needs her computer for college and her children's schooling, needs her cable for internet (as her area of town doesn't have many options,) has a third-hand large-screen television, has the cheapest cell phone I can imagine, has a car paid for by a relative, her ex-husband is an irresponsible dick, and her children are on welfare while she goes to school.

    She works in the Summers, but can't anymore because if she earns too much her children will be cut from Medicaid. (It's all or nothing, as there's no subsidy: just in or out.) She pawns her jewelry every semester, then buys it back when student loans come in. Her children have some chronic conditions. She's poor, but doing everything right: going to school, entering a field where she'll be hired upon graduation (honest! not great wages, but a good job with insurance,) and she's getting straight A's in a difficult program with two days of classes and two days of internships every week. And every few months, the state does something to her, her mother, or her children to not cover something, requiring her to miss school or her internship to straighten out a mess.

    Most poor people give up. She doesn't. I would marry her, but it would bankrupt our families. Yeah, family values!

  31. sluggo Says:

    A lot of (very sick) middle class and rich people get off seeing poor people really struggle, and aren't happy unless poor people have no life whatsoever. They believe that a room and bath is living the high life, and they would really like to see people living on the streets and eating out of trash cans.

  32. Anonymouse Says:

    @cromartie: I wasn't implying that the dumber-than-a-box-of-rocks people were also poor. I live in a middle-class suburb and am surrounded by people who view any sort of education or culture with derision. These people got lucky in life, but believe they "pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps". These are the people who piously quote that dumb remark about X% of poor people having refrigerators…well, DUH. Most poorer people live in rental dwellings (as opposed to owning their own McMansion). In my state, at least, legal rental units must come with basic appliances such as refrigerators and stoves. There may be three distinct families living in a 2-bedroom apartment, but they all have access to a working refrigerator (as long as they can pay the power bill, anyway).

    People who live in shelters, cars, or in boxes on the side of the road do not have refrigerators (and who knows how many of them there are? I suspect more than have been counted).

  33. Major Kong Says:

    I had a layover in Fishkill NY last month. It's a small town in the Hudson River Valley in case you hadn't heard of it.

    Fishkill boasts three prisons, which seems to be the primary economy.

    As far as I can tell, half the population of Fishkill is locked up and the other half is being paid to watch them.

  34. Pincher Says:

    It is an interesting point that it is not a person's dollar worth,or the value of his cell phone, that makes him rich or poor. Lots of college or grad students live under conditions that are superficially indistinguishable from poverty: they share crowded apartments, they live on peanut butter and ramen noodles, they take only public transportation, they buy used clothes, they eat at cheap restaurants. And yet they are not really poor, because they are really just directing their financial resources into something bigger (their education) that produces a big economic payoff later.

    In fact, when I was in high school, lots of kids in my class had much nicer clothes and stuff than I had, even though their families didn't have a lot of money. But after high school they took retail jobs at the mall and it didn't get a lot better from that point.

    So the cell phones and sneakers are a distraction from the real issues – mostly education, also health care, & family support – that really make a difference.

    Having said that, I would say that having been a poor student for many years – riding the Greyhound bus between home and school, and eating only at Burger King, not having a credit card or my own phone etc. – was a valuable experience that made me a lot more sympathetic to the daily ordeal of being poor. I wish that more college students today could try to live without the shiny toys for at least a couple of years while they are young.

  35. jon Says:

    The prison system is a jobs program for the white rural underclass to watch over the darker urban underclass.

  36. c u n d gulag Says:

    Major Kong,
    If you're ever in Fishkill, NY, again, let me know. I live just a few miles away from there.

    And, for those who don't know Upstate NY, one of the few growth "industries" here in the past 30 years, has been prisons.

    I used to teach in one – Greenhaven, a Maximum Security Prison, back when I was in College, in the late 70's and early 80's, until Reagan decided that, why should we teach anyone, let alone prisoners?

    And he did away with a program where convicted prisoners could get an Associates, Bachelor's, and, in some few cases, Masters, Degrees, to lower the rate of recidivism by giving people, who got NO time off their sentences for taking classes, a better chance at getting a real job, once they were released.
    That, was TOO GOOD for prisoners, according to Reagan!
    And so, the program was stopped.
    And, predictably, the rate of recidivism (the percentage of people who return to prison after serving their term, because they weren't able to adapt back into society by, you know, things like, oh, say, FINDING A JOB!) spiked dramatically!

    We, are an @$$hole nation!

  37. Xynzee Says:

    Ah! But CU, you're missing St Ronbo's point.

    He intended that states could not only save money by not educating prisoners, but they could move prisons off their ledgers as well. Right into the gaping maws… er… Knowledgable and efficient hands of the kindly people on Wall St. As noted in past posts there's a funny coincidence between privatised prisons + minimum occupancy clauses + mandatory sentencing.

    Just coincidence really, nothing more nothing less.

  38. Edward Says:

    According to a social work I heard one time, real progress had been made to end poverty until the Reagan presidency.

  39. Pat Says:

    Only marginally on point, if that, but Emo Philips had a surprisingly good bit (my paraphrase): "I saw a homeless man sifting through a dumpster, and I just can't stand to see a human being eating food from the garbage. So I gave him a raccoon suit. Does he wear it? Nooo… you, you can't help these people."

  40. c u n d gulag Says:

    Xynzee,
    Ah, yes, the "Privatization" angle!

    "Privatization" is the biggest scam/grift in American history!

    How better to move money from the tax-payers pockets, and their accountable political representatives, into private walllets?

    The politicians steer public needs to the pals in private industry. All for personal monetary gain/power.
    And, if they're NOT reelected, well, they get lifetime jobs in the industries they helped.

    There is NOTHING that I can think of, that a private company can do better, and/or cheaper, than the Government.
    Peeling potatoes in the military?
    Uhm… NO!
    In Afghanistan and Iraq, we paid probably about 10X's what we would have paid some Private to do the same job.
    And, you know what?
    I might be ok with that, if that poor worker Indonesian made the money.

    But, instead, their corporate bosses made the money, and paid the actual workers, the potato-peelers, pennies on the dollar!

  41. c u n d gulag Says:

    Oooops!
    Got cut off.

    If believing that GOVERNMENT can do the things that were once usually considered the government's responsibility, better than than any private companies can, makes me a "Socialist," well then, please feel free to give me a "Socialist" sticker, that I can stick on my jacket, or forehead.

  42. Doomed, We Are Says:

    I got my iPhone for free, because I'm a cheap bastard who hadn't used any upgrade credit in the last 8 years. My mom has a hand-me-down one from a friend. So, being a rational person, if I see a person buying groceries with gov benefits while looking at a fancy phone, I have no reason to believe that they are cheating the system. But, thats probably because I'm not stupid and mean.

  43. Andrew Laurence Says:

    Poverty and low income are not the same thing. Poverty means lack of wealth (assets minus liabilities). My friends (a married couple) who are a programmer and a lawyer and make six figures each but are in debt up to their eyeballs and have not a penny of savings would be poor if not the for equity in their house. Hell, maybe they're STILL poor even with it. I agree that if you have a low income, you'll probably be poor whether you buy an iPhone or not, but if you forgo the iPhone and put the money away, and the next paycheck forgo something else and put the money away, eventually you'll accumulate some wealth. Probably not much, but maybe enough, eventually, to relocate to an area with more (or better paying) jobs. Or if not that, maybe enough to be able to fix your car and keep going to your job instead of being unable to fix it and losing that job.

    That's not to say that government policies, including welfare and not busting unions, couldn't help. Of course they could, and they should. But low income people would be measurably better off if they could forgo expensive luxuries. I care not a whit whether their low income comes from work, benefits, crime, or a combination. Once the money is theirs, they're free to spend it as they wish, and it's no one else's business how they do so. It's not "your" money once you've paid it to the government in taxes or donated it to a charity.

  44. Monkey Business Says:

    Why is there an expectation that middle class and upper middle class children would understand the plight of the poor? Society does a rather remarkable job of insulating anyone that's not poor from the reality of being poor, and usually it's not until you find yourself actually poor that you really understand it.

    I was one of those kids. I never really understood what it meant to be poor, until I was. I grew up middle class, attended a public university. I had a good job, some savings, etc. Then the Recession came, and I found myself on the street. One month turned into three, which turned into six, which turned into twelve. After three months, my savings were gone. At six months, I was up to my eyeballs in debt. I was either over or underqualified for everything. It took twelve months for someone to finally hire me.

    Until you live that, you don't understand it. You don't understand the crushing depression that comes with unemployment. You don't understand the hard decisions like "Do I keep the internet on to look for work, or do I keep the heat on to stay warm?".

  45. Bernard Says:

    middle class people look down upon the poor because they are AFRAID to become poor. the concept of American middle class thinking is that we are just "temporarily disadvantaged millionaires." which is part and parcel of the "scam" of the Cultural War, by teaching Middle Class/working Americans to despise the poor, lest they fall through the cracks and become poor, a fate worse than death.

    that's the power of the Republican party and the stupid fearfull whites and why blacks in America are for being imprisoned/War on Drugs ring a bell?. keeping the white folks aware that they too can be "as poor as " those "poor black folks."

    everyone knows how this cultural "scripting" is written into the subconcious "education" we read, eat, drink and consume on a daily basis. how aware of it, though?

    staying one step ahead of the poor, those "Losers" who haven't pulled themselves up by their "bootstraps" and all that other BS, is what keeps America the Fascist country it is. just a gentler,nobler kind of Fascism, now that Walmart and the Republican run the PR ministries.

    being afraid to become "poor" is the greatest tool the Rich and Republican elites have working for them. that was Reagan's gift to America. his ability to tell these "lies" in such a nice blase way. and scare teh shit of the whites lest they become one of the "minorities" these Rich White Folks are and have been stealing from.

    now we are getting closer every day to the fall of the house of America. The Rich are collecting their "rent" now. and the Working/ MIddle Class is getting more scared as time passes and the reality of the POOR gets closer. Deny, Divert attention, Do whatever it takes but never admit that this "Obsolence Society" is now becoming Obsolete. Drill Baby Drill/Die Baby Die in other words

    to watch those who denigrate the poor is just a window into their own "hidden" fear, crudely exposed for whatever reason.i.e. lest they are NEXT.

    a great fear of not achieving wealth today, enjoying today, is also a part of hte envy the Middle class has of the poor and their having the "Latest" clothes or toys. lest the MIddle Class die before they achieve "Riches and Weatlh beyond description."

    the cultural imprinting usually goes unspoken and unacknowledged. the fear and hatred and jealousy is encouraged and stressed. after all. Aren't we better than the poor? isn't taht the American Dream?

    boy have we Americans been sold a bill of Goods, rotten, illusory, empty, hollow, Goods that were spoiled from the Getgo. unreachable/unattainable. there will always been a level of riches we cannot have. a step up that ladder that is always above the present rung we are on? don't think the Rich want more any more and more and more?!!?. Can they or us or you or I ever be satisfied, can anyone ever get ENOUGH?

  46. Tom M Says:

    I just finished reading Tim Pat Coogan's book on the Irish Famine and his main point is that English policies made the famine far worse than it should have been. The policies were driven in part by English providentialism, an outgrowth of Protestant thought that the poor are so because God is punishing them for not striving to be better. If they believed they would work to make themselves "not poor" so it's their own fault.

    There is in the evangelical segment, as well as other religion believers, elements of this along with a lot of other components. I would not try to lay all of US poverty on that slender reed but when it is combined with some 300-400 years of US history whereby a segment of the population, slaves, were actively prevented from education, in fact in most of the south, teaching slaves to read and write was illegal, it isn't a surprise that poverty and a concomitant lack of education is still rife. Education and its benefits are cultural part of life for most of us but when the parents don't read and don't read to their kids, studies show that by 4th grade, poor kids are 3 or 4 grade levels behind.

    They can't learn, or catch up and the cycle continues. My kids went to a high school that came about from a court-ordered desegregation plan. They got to see, interact and get to know poor kids. They were always stunned by the lack of books in those homes.

  47. Surly Duff Says:

    Late to this game, and I don't have some phenomenal insight, but…

    I spent a little time prior to completing college working in the Appalachian region for a non-profit, and spent lots of time with the working and non-working poor in the region. And yes, many of the people I met with eschewed fixes to their homes (a new roof, new plumbing, repairing the foundation and rotting floorboards) while purchasing televisions, playstations, etc.

    During this time my job was to organize and assist groups of upper- and middle-class teenagers from suburban areas around the country in repairing the homes of locals and provide safer and warmer houses. I was either the direct beneficiary or secondary recipient of insightful commentary of the rich teens regarding how these people would not help themselves and fix their homes. Many times I patiently explained the circumstances and my thoughts on the matter, and though I did see some recognition from some of these kids, many times my attempts were brushed off or explained away. I believe many teens are completely incapable of empathy and cannot understand the frustration and oftentimes desperation associated with poverty. Having never faced making a decisions, because everything they received was given to them, made them incapable of understanding the choices impoverished people are forced to make.

    Yes, the roof is leaking while they watch a flat screen, playing a wii, because the roof costs $12,000 to repair and the TV and wii were purchased on layaway, where the family can fork over a reasonable $25 a month despite the fact that they will pay 200% of the value in the long run. The fact that someone is in poverty does not mean that they are unable to receive credit. Credit card companies don't need you to be rich in order to screw you over. Is it smart to get a new sofa when your floor is crumbling underneath you? Probably not, but what are you going to do if you can squirrel away an extra $100 a month. You won't get that new floor until 15 years from now. Sure you can invest that cash, but that would require a computer and internet connection, which would require purchasing, which is apparently a no-no for the poor?

    In my opinion, so much of the distaste from the teens was that their perceptions of poverty were incorrect. They expected to see dirty, shoeless, depressed people with nothing to their name and those illusions were challenged by reality. They had difficulty reconciling the fact that these poors had sony TVs, nike shoes, and ate Doritos. I think the suburban teens felt that they had somehow been lied to because these people had many of the same things they themselves had, ignoring or not recognizing that "the poors" did not have job security, quality education or health care, and so many other of the benefits that the upper and middle class live with. So many in the upper and middle class are incapable of understanding the "poor" because this country does a great job of insulating everyone. Those kids only knew and understood their personal situations (or what they had gleaned from their parents perspectives), and any deviation from that perspective was foreign. It also doesn't help that there has been a long-running campaign to demonize the poor for votes.

    We have done a great job in this country ensuring that people do not have to use empathy, and instead rely on resentment when discussing poverty. It is a shame.

  48. someofparts Says:

    That's a two-way street. Some of us who are poor, and better educated than your students, have given up on the middle class. Tell your students to keep gazing at their collective navels. Maybe if they really aren't paying attention, when the rest of us fix things they won't realize what happened fast enough to swoop in and fuck it up.

  49. JP Says:

    CU, Bernard & SD make some valuable points as have others. Some of my $.02:

    1.) We need to think anew about poverty. This is not a bad start:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-rigby/poverty_b_2426660.html
    So is the realization, looking at the wide sweep of world history? Almost everyone in America today is pretty rich by any real rational Historical standard. But hey that and .25 still won't get you a ride on the trolley, right? But the historical perspective is what's constantly missing here, and is desperately needed, as others have noted. Even if no one needs their pecker shot off for it and subsequent generations to be reminded of.

    2.) Think of it. The average poors of the country can command an entertainment complex that the most decadent Roman emperor would give his limbs for. Hell, early 20th c. bankers and industrialists gave Tens of 1000's of hours and toil in contemplation of seeing just a fraction of the yes, 'moving naked ladies' that any kid might now randomly access in almost any of our mass media. No that won't get you fed, but we've got an app for that too. We can and might obtain the gustatory delights denied to any medieval king, and the transport options that might surprise his predecessors in even the early 20th century.

    3.) We are demonstrably about the fattest nation on the earth. We got there honestly, strangely, and with a good deal of conscious effort that scarcely anyone thinks about. Cheap food is the secret weapon. We over produce calories per capita in the US by something on the order of 2-3times. That's a tremendous modern technological achievement and advancement. Scarcely anyone truly starves in our nation anymore. That's an amazing accomplishment that our ancestors would marvel at. Then they'd marvel at the sheer size of our people too. So some of that wealth, we're yes Wearing It.

    4.) Again no one noted it much, but this is the first year in human history were the Majority of the population of the world is Not in abject poverty. An amazing accomplishment in itself.

    5.) We need to regain the capacity not only for enlightened self government but of self provision, care and greater involvement in our communities and lives beyond what the mass media might be feeding us. Everything we need to thrive and survive is all around us, all we need to do is assemble it, work it, and work on it together. We Can feed ourselves. We Can house more of the homeless, more cheaply. We can do useful work even if it's volunteering, or unpaid or lower paid. We need to disenthrall ourselves of the prospect and the greater lie that we're incapable of understanding and acting to benefit ourselves and our neighbors, or aiding and benefiting humanity. That's poverty too, and it's everywhere. Emancipation of the mind is something that higher education might not even approach but that anyone with a moderate accesses to the internet might now avail themselves of today.

    6.) We live in a magical age. Our ancestors of any age would marvel at our opportunities and advantages. Beggars and buskers on the streets of our larger cities are sending their kids to yes, college. Unbeknown to the rest of us shirkers.

    7.) The useful and necessary provision of & for the poor is a vital and essential part of every just and honorable society and polity since we've known history. It has always been so, and will be ever thus. But never before in our history have the poor been as able to command such goods and services as they demonstrably do today. That does make them 'better off', and we as a society are better off for this great achievement. But to better develop their capacities as people, as or even human capital, they need more and better investments in all the things that may improve their lives and ours. We can and should do this together, not only because it's 'cost effective', but because poverty does take a tremendous toll still on too many of our people, here and abroad. Socially, spiritually, and even and especially physically.

    Sorry for the length, been thinking on this for a very long time. Cheers, JP

  50. Amaryllis Says:

    Yes, one of the problems with poverty is that people who are poor develop bad habits (which, it is never noted in fairness, a lot of people who are far from poor also have) like spending money immediately rather than saving it or purchasing things they want when they can't afford their basic needs first. Yeah? And? What's the solution?

    Note from a long time poor, raised middle class and just now accepting her own poorness:

    You know what you get when you pay the electric? Another fucking electric bill the next month. Whee!!!

    But a big HD tv and an Xbox, that is just hours and hours and years of escapist fun, a chance, for a few hours, to be a hero, an Apocalyptic Horseman, a princess saving plumber, the Master of Chiefitude.

    So . . . am I really making bad decisions? Really?

  51. falloch Says:

    Long-time poor, raised middle class, went to middle-class college, had to work to help pay college fees, so went on to college maintenance crew – cleaned dorms and toilets, emptied garbage cans during term time, laid concrete and fixed windows in the summer. My parents were ashamed of me cleaning toilets – my take was that someone's got to clean toilets and empty garbage cans – why not me? If it's not done, things are going to get smelly pretty soon. But this was thirty years ago, when full-time (as opposed to student) maintenance workers had some union rights. I guess by now they've got none. No longer resident in the good old USA – couldn't afford the health insurance. If someone asked me which was the more socially useful job, I'd go for waste disposal engineer, versus hedge fund manager, any day.

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