Poor people get a bad rap.
I’m not talking about accusations of welfare fraud, and I don’t just mean politicians who call them “moochers” and “takers.” I’m talking about the people who think that if they were born poor, they could do better. They believe most poor people could move into the middle class if they just had a better work ethic and made smarter decisions. You know, like middle class people.
I’m thinking about this because a few days ago Scott Greenfield tried to correct that attitude with a couple of interesting links explaining why poor people don’t behave more like us middle class people. One is a paper by Ruby Payne titled “Understanding and Working with Students and Adults from Poverty” that tries to explain some of the differences in terms of “hidden rules” that are different for people living in subcultures with different levels of wealth. Payne also makes use of Martin Joos’s classification of speaking styles into linguistic registers, arguing that poor people’s informal register leaves them ill-prepared for discussing and making long-term plans. (I’m over-simplifying, but I’m also not convinced that this is good cognitive science. It seems a little too just-so, which is usually a reason for suspicion, but I’m willing to be convinced.)
The other article is by Linda Tirado, and it’s a collections very personal observations of how poor people have to think about everyday life decisions. Here’s a sample:
I know how to cook. I had to take Home Ec to graduate high school. Most people on my level didn’t. Broccoli is intimidating. You have to have a working stove, and pots, and spices, and you’ll have to do the dishes no matter how tired you are or they’ll attract bugs. It is a huge new skill for a lot of people. That’s not great, but it’s true. And if you fuck it up, you could make your family sick. We have learned not to try too hard to be middle-class. It never works out well and always makes you feel worse for having tried and failed yet again. Better not to try. It makes more sense to get food that you know will be palatable and cheap and that keeps well. Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up? We have very few of them.
How is it that someone with such clarity and evocation has any right to assert that they are poor? It is likely untrue. Well, it is and it isn’t. You have to understand that the piece you read was taken out of context, that I never meant to say that all of these things were happening to me right now, or that I was still quite so abject.
At best, it sounds like she went through some bad times and wrote about what it was like for her. She may have been broke for a while, but it appears she is not a product of generational poverty and has not spent a lot of time living in poverty.
However, some of her insights ring true. Poor people have to approach life in a very different way from those of us in the middle class. One of the best explanations of this is an article by Megan McArdle in the Atlantic titled “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” in reference to Gene Marks’ silly piece of the same title (which I linked to in the second paragraph above), but most of her points apply to anyone living in poverty.
McArdle has some economic training, and with that comes the respectful assumption that people — including poor people — are rational, which leads to one inescapable conclusion:
If you grew up as a poor black kid, you’d be making decisions under the same constraints, which probably means you’d make the same decisions. The fact that different decisions could produce different outcomes is important–but to state this is not to state an obvious solution.
McArdle goes on to list a number of impediments for poor people trying to move up into the middle class, the first of which is that the path out of poverty isn’t very easy to understand unless you’re in a position to see other people do it, which is unlikely if you and everyone you know is poor.
A closely related problem is that the path out of poverty has a lot of uncertainty:
Middle class kids can assume that if they work hard enough, they’ll make it through college and get some sort of a decent job. Most poor kids can’t assume that–a lot of those who try, flunk out–and those who try and fail won’t have much help to get a second chance.
Bigotry exacerbates the problem: If you expect that your effort to improve the quality of your life will be thwarted by bigots, then there’s a lot less reason to make the effort.
By definition, poor people have a hard time accumulating capital. Since the economic purpose of capital is to increase efficiency — better tools to do more work, a bigger house to live more comfortably — poor people are forced to live inefficient lives:
If you have to keep buying a $1,000 car every six months because your last $1,000 car broke down, you end up spending a lot more than if you could have bought a $5,000 car. If you don’t have the money for an apartment deposit, you end up living in a much more expensive motel. Buying in bulk from Costco is cheaper than buying in small lots from a corner store. Etc.
People who have access to this kind of capital tend not to realize how much they benefit from it. For example, people think it’s easy to live on a food stamps budget, because they price out a month’s worth of food in bulk at Costco, and all the numbers work. But it works for them only because they already have a lot of important stuff that many poor people lack, such as a Costco membership, a vehicle capable of transporting all that food, a large refrigerator for perishables, storage space for the rest, and a working kitchen.
The upshot is that the poor have to defer a lot more consumption to get their hands on a given amount of capital. That makes it hard to decide to amass the capital.
Then there’s the problem that our badly-designed system of programs for the poor creates some strange incentives. Poor people can face effective marginal tax rates that would make millionaires weep:
Because of benefit losses and tax-credit phase outs, it is very possible for working poor people to be made actually worse off by getting a raise or a better job. They face higher marginal tax rates than all but the most affluent people in our society, which makes it less than surprising that they find it hard to move that far above the poverty line.
Not only will they find it hard to increase their income, but they may find it doesn’t even make sense. For a single parent with one child earning $10,000 – $20,000/year, the effective marginal tax rate is over 60 percent (it peaks at 95 percent!), and disposable income is more or less flat for the first $20,000/year of earned income. So it doesn’t make any immediate financial sense to take a full-time job earning less than $10/hour, and if you include the difficulty of being away from home for 40 hours a week — such as finding someone to watch the kid — the breakeven point is pushed even higher.
Sure, getting the work experience would probably pay off eventually in a better job, but that’s a long way in the future, and the future is uncertain when you’re poor. Welfare benefits pay off right now.
Then there’s the disaster that befalls anyone who gets a criminal record:
Criminal records make it very, very hard to get a good job. A middle class kid who joy rides in a car or gets a DUI gets the benefit of the doubt when he claims that this was just youthful hijinks. Poor black kids with recognizably “black” names–or poor white kids with recognizably “poor” names–mostly don’t. Once you’re in that place, what’s the point of trying?
Poor people can also have a harder time staying out of trouble with the law because many of their ordinary activities have been criminalized (especially if they’re homeless). Just being outside can get them arrested for crimes such as drinking in public, loitering, or blocking pedestrian traffic (also known as standing on the sidewalk). Also, poor people generally can’t afford as much time in private indoor spaces — they don’t have spacious homes or belong to clubs, and they can’t afford the prices in restaurants and bars — so they spend more time outdoors, which exposes them to more police scrutiny.
Once arrested, poor people face a harder time in the justice system. If they don’t have the cash for bail, they’ll be stuck in jail until trial — losing their job and maybe their children — unless they take a plea, which can discourage them from fighting even the weakest charges. They also can’t afford a lawyer, which is supposed to mean the system provides one for them, but Gideon‘s promise doesn’t always work out as well as it should.
The point is — and this should not come as a surprise — poverty makes life hard. And when your life is hard, it’s hard to change your life.
Having a low-wage, low status job is usually not very enjoyable. Nor does it leave you much money for enjoyments outside of work. This makes it harder to get up the mental energy to do even more joyless tasks, like studying or harassing your kids about their homework.
Recent psychological studies seem to indicate that willpower is a limited personal resource that can be depleted. Self-control and discipline are not just aspects of personal character, they are also biological processes within the brain, and it appears that our brains have a limited capacity. If you have to force yourself to work all day at a difficult and unrewarding job, and if you have to force yourself to forgo many of life’s minor pleasures because of the cost, then there isn’t going to be much willpower left for self-improvement.