I signed in to my email yesterday and found a comment on the post before last, on the one called “Still Life,” that gave me pause.
The comment was from Mike F, and what it said was this:
a Harvard economist, and Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton, propose a way to explain why the poor are less future-oriented than those with more money. According to these authors, one explanation for bad decisions is scarcity — not of money, but of what the authors call bandwidth: the portion of our mental capacity that we can employ to make decisions.
Worrying about money when it is tight captures our brains. It reduces our cognitive capacity — especially our abstract intelligence, which we use for problem-solving. It also reduces our executive control, which governs planning, impulses and willpower. The bad decisions of the poor, say the authors, are not a product of bad character or low native intelligence. They are a product of poverty itself.>>>
This comment struck me for several reasons.
First–the blog post said nothing at all about “the poor” in general, and it did not say that the poor were poor because of bad judgment or lack of native intelligence.
I was speaking of a very specific phenomenon, and one that I never knew existed before I started teaching my deep remedials.
I might not have discovered it even then, except that one of my students hit the last month of the semester in the state I think of as “going to fail this course if you don’t do something quick.”
In my courses, students are allowed to write and rewrite their papers as many times as they want and without penalty until they get the grade they want. My assumption is that my job is to teach them to write coherently, not to see who can who can win a race whose only purpose is to determine whic of them the system can safely discard.
My students are often poor, but even my deepest remedials are not usually passive to the extent of some of the people they’ve left back home, and a lot of them are not passive at all.
Nor does the level of passivity correspond in any obvious way with the level of poverty. In the small city in which my present school is located, there is a small group of men (not organized as a group, but each independently) who go around collected returnable bottles and cans.
They have shopping carts, acquired God only knows how, and they push them through the city picking up whatever they can find. They are almost certainly homeless, and most of them are either alcoholics or drug addicts.
A (nonremedial) student of mine who had a secretarial job at the Department of Social Services told me that the Department had done a survey on these men to see what was going on and how they could help them.
They found that these men made between $100 and $300 a day,
Even at the lower figure, that’s more than most of my students make, with the added benefit of the fact that it is not subject to FICA or any other kind of taxes.
They’re homeless not because they don’t have money, but because they spend their money on drugs or alcohol.
And the Department can’t help them, because they adamantly refuse to enter homeless shelters or DSS programs, both of which insist that they get sober.
Before you start fulminating, let me get to what strikes me as most important about this.
These people are about as poor as you can get and still be living in the US, and yet they not only are not passive, they show a truly impressive ability to think, plan, and carry through.
The fact that they make a decision–alcohol is more important than housing–that you and I think is wrong or “mentally ill” is beside the point. They are able to formulate their wants, figure out a way to supply those wants, and put that plan into practice and stick with it over long periods and under very difficult conditions.
And, interestingly enough, sometimes they don’t make that decision. When the weather hits the real lows of February, most of them pay their way into the local fleabag motels. It’s more expensive in money than the shelters, but it comes with no strings attached.
The kind of passivity I’m talking about is not just a minority phenomenon because the poor are a minority. It’s a minority phenomenon because most poor people are not passive.
My students are not passive almost by definition–they’re in school, and that takes quite a bit of activity to accomplish. The concerted attempts to get people into school whether they want to go or not skews this a little, but not as much as you might think.
Even the most zealous inner city guidance counselor can’t make a kid come to class often enough to graduate, not even in a system where nobody counts absences on Fridays because, you know, the kids just don’t come.
Passivity of the kind I keep trying to describe–apparently with little success–would be literally impossible without a welfare state, not because the welfare state causes such behavior, but because without such a welfare state thepeople who are passive in this way would simply and inevitably die.
If your only response to a light bulb going out is to sit in the dark–even though there are light bulbs in a box in the hall closet–you must either have somebody to do for you what needs to be done, or you will not be able to stay alive.
I think part of the problem here is that it’s difficult to credit if you haven’t seen it. I think it may be difficult to imagine if you haven’t seen it. It can be hard to credit it even if you have seen it.
It can be an enormously odd thing to watch in action. If action is the word I’m looking for.
The other problem, of course, is that the quote Mike F provided seems to be yet another attempt to explain poverty in a way that makes the poor seem like automatons without agency, something that is certainly not true.
People escape from poverty all the time. Granted, these people tend to be Asian and South Asian immigrants, but they still begin desperately poor and don’t stay that way. If “bad decisions” and “lack of native intelligence” are explained by the stress of being poor, what explains the Indian family with the gas station and the clothing store, the Thai family and the two Chinese families with their own restaurants, the Vietnamese family with its woodworking shop?
Nor is it the case that “nobody wants to be on welfare.” I’ve had students–deep remedials all–hand me papers in which they declared positiviely that if they could figure out a way to get on the rolls, they would sit back and laugh at the rest of us paying their bills.
What’s more, the statement is a flat denial of what is obvious to most of us–and that is that behavior does in fact affect outcomes.
If we didn’t believe this, we would not push our own children to study and do well in school, to go on to college and get a degree, to work jobs to build up an employment record.
What it comes down to, I think, is this: I don’t think there is any such thing as “the poor.”
I think there are a lot of different people with a lot of different reasons from a lot of different circumstances. There are people who are ill or seriously physically disabled. There are people who just arrived with no money and who don’t speak the language. There are people who made bad choices and people who made good ones that didn’t work out.
To the extent that we’re talking about the intergenerational poor–that elephant in the middle of the room–I think the answers are varied there, too. Some are certainly my students who wanted to be on welfare (and that family whose story I posted a while back who were deliberately keeping their children away from tutors because they got more money for the family if the kids were labeled “mentally handicapped”). Some will be born without much in native intelligence. Some will make bad choices. Some will just be sticking with what they know.
But I don’t think it’s helpful, and I don’t think it makes a case for providing public assistance, to redefine people who happen to be poor and somehow not quite as fully human as we are, unable to make decisions for themselves, just too stressed out to know what they’re doing, or maybe addicted, or…
You don’t make public provision for the poor and destitute because they’re deserving or because they can’t help it or even because they have some vague “human right” to it.
You do it because they’re there.
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