Friday, November 1, 2013

The Logic of Stupid Poor People

In the same vein as my prior post that talked about how the criticism from the wealthy on the habits of the poor, check this superb essay on the supposedly irrational financial decisions of the poor, how they spend too much on cars, too much on their hair, too much on makeup.  There's something about actually living the life of a poor person and figuring out how to do what it takes to get by that sometimes leads a poor person to skip a meal just to be able to afford nicer clothes.  Maybe they know something that we who live comfortable lives don't about what it takes to survive in poverty.


Jonathan said...


Interesting essay - brings out some good points. What do you make of the counter points to this discussed by an analysis of the long term well being of the poor after the Georgia Land Lotteries?

If you're not familiar with the story, basically a huge number of people were given free land worth a very large sum of money, many of whom were poor. Did this large infusion of money lead to increased standard of living for them and their decedents? How often was this windfall used to increase the betterment of their children? I'll let you come to your own conclusion...

Jon said...

I think if I were to agree with what they are saying at Freakonomics, this wouldn't change the point that is being made here, which is that decisions that seem irrational can be rational if we really step into their shoes and look at it from their perspective. This is what I'm driving at with my prior quote about the advice of the rich to the poor. People that actually live the life really do know things about getting by as a poor person that we don't know.

But I did listen to this podcast. I really think they are just going too far. People may have made bad decisions due to windfalls, and the lottery stories show that as well, but they want to extrapolate that too the idea that wealth transfers generally from the rich to the poor are a bad idea. They're not, we know that. So for instance see this post I had:

On the right you hear this a lot. "We don't want to give anything up, and it's because we love you so much. We're withholding for your benefit. We do it all for you." It's the stories conservatives want to tell themselves. The more extreme version is the colonialists that thought they were doing natives a favor by exterminating them, or we're doing the Vietnamese a favor by bombing them to the stone age because otherwise they'd be socialists. Again, I know that's a lot more extreme, but I think that's the principle we see. Depriving them is us doing them a favor.

One difference here might be that in their day to day lives they figure out how to function wisely, but a windfall is an unusual event that few people are conditioned to handle wisely. Just speculating but maybe that's a factor.

Jonathan said...

Interesting point. Here's what I think is going on - there tend to be two camps of people. Those who want the poor to "earn" their way up the ladder, and those who primarily feel empathy towards the poor and believe they will do just fine if just given a chance.

Ironically, it seems the liberals are more on the compassionate side, and the conservatives and right wing in the US who are more on the earning persuasion.

To me, it comes down to ideas of justice vs. grace. I think both have their place, but it's really hard to find a balance.

So you'll post something arguing that the poor can help themselves, and them someone on the right will argue against that. Really, what they're arguing against is the idea of helping people who won't help themselves (in their view).

Likewise, on the liberal side, any evidence which points to the possibilities that if given the chance, the poor just might not help themselves is rejected or minimized because it implies a level of culpability for people who are clearly seen as victimized by the powerful. In short, the notion that poor victims could somehow ever be to blame for any part of their plight simply rubs people the wrong way.

Personally, I'm starting to believe that it's much less important to parse out exactly how and where a person is being oppressed vs. self inflicted and more important that I regard them with compassion, so in many ways, I think how you and I regard the poor is quite similar.

Chad said...

Jonathan - I appreciate your post and opinions. I think you had one sentence that really rang home with me.

"In short, the notion that poor victims could somehow ever be to blame for any part of their plight simply rubs people the wrong way."

That is a home run statement for the crazy right winger among the group. Personal responsibility is a huge issue for me as you know. If you need help - fine, but if your an ale bodied person it needs to be limited and it needs to come with strings attached. When your on other peoples money - you should forfeit the right to enjoy certain privileges afforded to earners. It's like that movie Will Smith played in where he lost his job and had to go on assistance then he worked his way up to success and I believe he paid back every dime of assistance he got - now that is a person that I not only have compassion for, but someone I respect.

We are all smart enough to know why Progressives want to expand welfare distribution which has now reached better than 1 out 4 - votes. They are creating an army of dedicated voters pulling the lever to maintain or expand their "free" stuff. What has always bothered me to some degree (similar to Union issues) is why doesn't the recipient class police themselves instead of allowing the expansion which dilutes the money pool? If someone is gaming the system and taking from the pool unjustly they are only hurting those really in need - possibly themselves?

I am a huge fan of making those on assistance - those able body persons - to work to some degree when on assistance. Many cities have armies of workers they could deploy for tasks like neighborhood clean up, painting and general maintenance. The 3 options should be work detail, school or volunteer when on assistance. Use $50/hr as the "payback scale" so as to not be counter productive. You get $100 in assistance you owe 2 hours back to the community.

Jon said...

Chad, before we start into another 50 comment long thread on side issues (and I'm not knocking it, I enjoy it) can I first point out that you didn't say a single thing related to what I posted here. You posted just standard tea party war on the poor type rhetoric. The point of this post here is it cuts to the attitude held by TP types that poor people are idiots, and if only they'd do the kinds of things TP types think they should do then they'd be fine. Be like Will Smith. Stop driving fancy cars and buying nice clothes. Buckle down, save, invest. This is TP advice for the poor, but here in the article I linked to she makes the case that what seems foolish from your perspective is actually a means of survival. You should be a bit more humble knowing that you come from a different place with different problems and different solutions to your problems. The people that are managing to survive maybe know a thing or two you don't, so hold your tongue on all your advice, at least for a bit, and consider that maybe you don't know it all and don't know what they deal with.

And it's not just you. Even I am guilty of this attitude. I sometimes point out how I drive a crappy car and have an old computer and shop at the Salvation Army and say that if only these people acted more like me they'd be better off and just retire early. This article opened my eyes on this. My advice sitting perched in a comfortable white life, is off base as well.

Jonathan said...


I hear what you're saying. It sounds like you're tying compassion with respect - you have to respect someone before you provide compassion. Is this accurate?

Here's my take - I completely agree with the accountability thing, people should be held accountable for their actions.

However, it seems to me that my desire to hold someone accountable can sometimes get in the way of actually achieving this success and here's why - I believe compassion (or love) provided with strings attached is very ineffective.

On a personal 1 on 1 level, when I display someone genuine love and compassion with no strings attached, it can be very trans formative. People see that and respond. No not always, but that's not the point. I don't believe my job is to ensure that they will make the best choice, I believe my role is to give them the option to make good choices.

When I look at 1 Cor 13 3- 7 it reads:

"If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."

For me, the "always trusts, always hopes" is very challenging. It makes it difficult to reconcile trying to enforce a "if you promise to be responsible, I'll help you out because you've earned my trust". Personally, I've seen it again and again - the more I trust and hope in individuals, the more likely they are going to respond to that and end up doing the right thing. It does seem counter intuitive to me, but I'd like to think I'm more concerned about doing what works than being proved right on a point, or ensuring someone gets what they deserve.

Chad said...

Well JC it might be rhetoric in our mind, but it is also a recipe for success by doing those things. Like the character I spoke about that Will Smith played - he stayed on a strict and disciplined path - he bought what the needed and invested in himself/his son.

To say the poor are idiots is harsh - I say in most cases they play the victim so that they don't have to assume the personal responsibility they should - they are undisciplined and they listen to folks like you who tell them they are the victims which does nothing to help. Remember - I was a mess, a victim for a year plus living in my car until I got a little tough love which woke me up. It's on me - no one else.

So what I say about the article specifically is that it is the Progressive playbook really so I am non too shocked. You sympathize and are very quick to offer forgiveness for bad choices on top of bad choices - not holding them personal responsible.

Chad said...


Everything has strings attached - I understand what your saying completely, but your not going to give a drug addict a $100 in hopes that they do the right thing.

I have a huge soft spot and compassion for the young people who are brought in this world by two people not capable of raising a child.. I have compassion and respect for people who do work hard, have discipline and do things right - regardless of there income level.

The immigrants who come to America LEGALLY - who work harder than frankly most Americans to give their children a little better life than they have - ultimate respect for those folks - the poor lazy Americans should take a page from their book - amazing Americans.

For the rest sir - all I can offer is tough love. Respect and trust must be earned for me.

Examinator said...

Jon, sorry Just dropped by
I game across this while it isn't exactly on topic I thought of you when I read it.
Not surprisingly I've ordered the book

Jon said...

Like the character I spoke about that Will Smith played - he stayed on a strict and disciplined path - he bought what the needed and invested in himself/his son

So what you're saying is you're not going to read the essay and you're not going to offer comments related to the topic. Got it.

Jonathan said...


I have compassion and respect for people who do work hard, have discipline and do things right - regardless of there income level.

Do you have compassion for those who do not work hard, and do not do the right thing?

Chad said...

Specific to the Essay - there is a lot going on in the essay - what specifically would you like to discuss?

For me it was a fun read, but a skewed first person view of the world. Almost hyper-sensitive to that persons surrounding - looking for the next paragraph - the next slight occurring either socially or racially.

It's like the Belk's reference - the question I have - what could she have possibly done that was so bad that a commissions sales rep would not want to sell her a high end purse? They only thing that proves too me is that there are still ignorant people on this earth - if I was the Manager of the store they would have been fired - if I was a sales rep I would have made the sale especially if on commission.

I actually understand what she is saying though - one of my favorite things to do when making a higher end purchase is to wear my weekend apparel which consists of a cheap warm up pant and jacket or some shorts and my favorite baseball pull over that is now 12 years old and looks it. I go wondering in to wherever and love to see who comes to work with me/us - I usually have the 3-5 day beard going, my shoes are normally grass stained and wearing some kind of camo hat. Its a game I really like to play - so I get what she is saying, but I bring that on myself most of the time.

In reference to making a purchase that is beyond a persons means - hell Jon that is not some earth shattering situation - it happens at every social and economic level imaginable. The difference for the sake of an argument is that the earner will pay for what is bought with their labor and someone on assistance is using OPM as their method to buy.

Specific to the interview stuff - again I enjoyed the read, but it is really super skewed and seems that she is super hyper sensitive to the situation. Lets be honest - when your interviewing for anything at all in this world the entire idea is to bring your best foot forward - does that mean wearing a $1,000 to interview for the mail room - hell no, but if you wear a $1,000 suit, you have the experience or academic pedigree to suggest that there is a better spot for you on the team - then good for you/that person. You can rent a $1,000 suit for $100 or less and if that is the difference to getting a job or not then so be it. All my suites and pant/jacket sets come from Kohl's or Cintas - I don't own anything of great value, but I make sure they look good on me (as good as an overweight guy can look) when I go to places. With that said if I was ever going to interview for a VP job at a Fortune 500 company - and this is where she lost me - I would upgrade or rent a new suit - you gotta play the part. Again that is where the article lost me a bit - if she is qualified for a high level position then she must have been making some money which means investing some of the earnings on a next level suit to possibly step one more rung up the ladder is well - standard.

Chad said...

Is that better?

Jon said...

Yes, better. Good to see your thoughts on the topic at hand.

We could debate the decisions she made, but the take away for me is only that we need to be cautious in judging a situation that we haven't experienced. Remember, this is not just about being poor. This is about being poor and black. The people that survive that condition believe that some of their purchasing decisions can look foolish to an outsider, but in their judgment they are wise and necessary. Like I say, you can debate it, but I just like the alternative perspective. It does make you think.

Also, feel free to answer Jonathan's question. Off topic a bit, but I really am curious if the teachings of Jesus apply in your life. I'm of course not religious but I take Jesus' teachings very seriously, not because I think it is the words of God but because I think they are words to live by just because they are good. I wonder if you as a believer take Jesus words less seriously than I as an unbeliever take them.

Chad said...

Jonathan's question is really a trap.

Would you forgive someone who shot and killed a loved one of yours?

The answer is that I generally try to have compassion for all people, but I am not God and therefore I am subject to falling short of that ability to give unconditional love and understanding to anyone not capable of doing the same.