Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Passive Voice, Redux

with 9 comments

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,

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.



Written by janeh

September 30th, 2013 at 10:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Passive Voice, Redux'

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  1. Actually, Mike lost me at “Harvard Economist” and “Princeton Psychologist.” Once you get that far, and you know (a) “the poor” will be lumped, (b) poverty will be the cause and not the outcome of their behavior, and (c) none of the wise men discussing the poor will know what can be done with Rahmen noodles or what a cut-off notice looks like, nor have they ever regularly slept several to a bed. They know poverty the way a lepidopterist knows butterflies.

    If you got some people who used to be poor to talk about poverty, you might get some interesting answers instead of confirmation of dogma. That’s probably why it’s not done much.

    When you’re talking about “public provision” in terms of tax money and government programs, I’m not sure there’s a useful distinction between “because they have a human right” and “because they’re there.”

    I AM sure the manner of the “public provision” is important, and that there is no substitute for giving people a chance to feel they’ve earned the benefit. We’ve never really improved on not gleaning the corners of the fields. Deposits on cans are a really good idea in my book.


    30 Sep 13 at 1:21 pm

  2. I got stuck at the study. Admittedly, that was a light article and not a detailed description of what was done, but my remnants of statistical knowledge make me ask how on earth can you generalize ANYTHING from a sample like that? Completely non-random and – when they’re studying poverty – participants are chosen from among shoppers! Surely different malls attract people of different economic backgrounds! And the classification into rich or poor is based on self-reported income. Self-reports aren’t always reliable even when they don’t ask for such personal information. Then there was the casual mention of IQ points, which don’t appear to have been measures using the fairly lengthy but more reliable tests, and the whole issue of what IQ actually measures. They could have been doing a qualitative study, but it sounded like an attempt at a quantitative study. I looked on the Harvard prof’s site, but didn’t have time to plough through what he actually wrote.

    And yes, some poor people are passive and some aren’t. Maybe some, for whatever reason (lack of familiarity? Lack of time to prepare them?) don’t like fresh fruits and vegetables. And I really liked “People short of time also tunnel, borrowing time by postponing projects that are tomorrow’s emergency but not today’s”. In another context, that would be called prioritizing, and would be a Good Thing. Sure, if you don’t have many resources, or are unlucky or stupid about what to prioritize when, something will end up a low priority which perhaps shouldn’t have been, and you’ll end up spending more. That’s life.


    30 Sep 13 at 1:44 pm

  3. All true, Cheryl, but when the conclusion is known before the study is begun, methodological errors are irrelevant. This was ideological confirmation, not research.


    30 Sep 13 at 1:51 pm

  4. Perhaps we should remember that “poor” in the US usually means relative poverty. It would be unbelievable wealth to much of the world.

    And I keep remembering that Shakespeare and Newton didn’t have flush toilets, electric lights or safe water.


    30 Sep 13 at 5:41 pm

  5. This is a bit off-topic, but it’s kinda-sorta germane. Apologies for the plain text, but the Quadrant site is probably pay-walled. This should make Jane and Cheryl feel heaps better because it shows that North America don’t have any monopoly of idiots running their education systems.

    Begin Quote

    Quadrant Online

    New math: Indigenous integers meet Asian algebra

    by Roger Franklin

    October 3, 2013
    If parents wonder why their kids need tutors, despite the billions being poured into education, it might have something to do with the way teachers are instructed to go about the business of shaping young minds.

    What follows are excerpts, presented verbatim, from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority website (ACARA) outlining how mathematics is to be taught and absorbed.

    First comes ACARA’s vision:

    “In the Australian Curriculum these have become priorities that provide students with the tools and language to engage with and better understand their world at a range of levels. The priorities provide dimensions which will enrich the curriculum through development of considered and focused content that fits naturally within learning areas. They enable the delivery of learning area content at the same time as developing knowledge, understanding and skills relating to:

    ►Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures
    ►Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia

    Now the specifics:

    Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and culture
    “….The Australian Curriculum: Mathematics values Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures. It provides opportunities for students to appreciate that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies have sophisticated applications of mathematical concepts.

    Students will explore connections between representations of number and pattern and how they relate to aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. They will investigate time, place, relationships and measurement concepts in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contexts. Students will deepen their understanding of the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples through the application and evaluation of statistical data.”

    Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia
    “In the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics, the priority of Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia provides rich and engaging contexts for developing students’ mathematical knowledge, skills and understanding.

    The Australian Curriculum: Mathematics provides opportunities for students to learn about the understandings and applications of Mathematics in Asia. Mathematicians from Asia continue to contribute to the ongoing development of Mathematics.

    In this learning area, students develop mathematical understanding in fields such as number, patterns, measurement, symmetry and statistics by drawing on knowledge of and examples from the Asia region. These could include calculation, money, art, architecture, design and travel. Investigations involving data collection, representation and analysis can be used to examine issues pertinent to the Asia region.”

    Of course, no modern mathematics syllabus is complete until kids’ have been given a good rinse in green ideology:

    “Across the Australian Curriculum, sustainability will allow all young Australians to develop the knowledge, skills, values and world views necessary for them to act in ways that contribute to more sustainable patterns of living. It will enable individuals and communities to reflect on ways of interpreting and engaging with the world. The Sustainability priority is futures-oriented, focusing on protecting environments and creating a more ecologically and socially just world through informed action. Actions that support more sustainable patterns of living require consideration of environmental, social, cultural and economic systems and their interdependence.

    In the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics, the priority of sustainability provides rich, engaging and authentic contexts for developing students’ abilities in number and algebra, measurement and geometry, and statistics and probability.

    The Australian Curriculum: Mathematics provides opportunities for students to develop the proficiencies of problem solving and reasoning essential for the exploration of sustainability issues and their solutions. Mathematical understandings and skills are necessary to measure, monitor and quantify change in social, economic and ecological systems over time. Statistical analysis enables prediction of probable futures based on findings and helps inform decision making and actions that will lead to preferred futures.

    In this learning area, students can observe, record and organise data collected from primary sources over time and analyse data relating to issues of sustainability from secondary sources. They can apply spatial reasoning, measurement, estimation, calculation and comparison to gauge local ecosystem health and can cost proposed actions for sustainability.”

    Education Minister Christopher Pyne was recently quoted as saying he had not yet set to work in earnest on reforming ACARA, which has 117 full-time and 22 part-time staff.

    As an old-school mathematician might put it: Minister, it’s past time to extract the digit.

    Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online. Thanks to Sister Leo he can do sums and long division, although calculus and trigonometry remain wreathed in mystery

    Copyright ©2013 Quadrant Magazine Ltd. All rights reserved.
    Website Management by Digital Agency: Picket Studio

    End quote


    4 Oct 13 at 12:28 am

  6. Nice one, Mique!
    And not educating our children has consequences. Here’s a Poly Sci major with a law degree explaining that it’s no part of the House of Representatives’ job to pick and choose what parts of government to fund:


    News to James Madison, I should think.

    (For those who can’t access, the Senate Majority leader is waxing wroth that some children are not getting the medical treatment they might otherwise receive due to the government shutdown. When the interviewer asked why Senator Reid had blocked a Republican bill which would have funded the treatment, the good senator explained that the House had no business deciding that some government functions were more important than others, and it was very ignorant of the interviewer to suggest such a thing. Cyril Kornbluth, please call your editor.)


    4 Oct 13 at 7:14 am

  7. What an obnoxious jerk Reid must be. Thanks for the link. I’ve been meaning to catch up with Commentary for years and keep forgetting.

    Thomas Sowell is saying much the same thing in a great article over at the Jewish World Review, here: http://jewishworldreview.com/cols/sowell100413.php3#.Uk7LWYanrGE

    The Dems appear to be making sure that the public is as extremely inconvenienced as possible in this little spat. Locking vets out of the war memorial and ordinary people out of public open parks was as spiteful and petty piece of unnecessary nonsense as I’ve ever seen from government anywhere outside the Iron Curtain.

    The Dems need to be careful because they’ll wind up demonstrating just how redundant much of the federal bureaucracy really is.

    As for Obama’s behaviour, why would anyone expect statesmanship from a Chicago thug.


    4 Oct 13 at 10:14 am

  8. But he’s not a Chicago thug, Mique. Would that he were. Chicago politicians–all Democrats–have a reputation for corruption and for using the machinery of government to crush opponents. But they give value for money: the streets are maintained and ploughed, public works go up at eye-popping speed and even now Rahm Emmanuel–who really is a Chicago native–is trying to beat the teacher’s unions into educating students and staying within a budget.

    If Chicago politicians got their hands on a trillion dollars in “stimulus” they’d probably keep 50-100 billion. But the rest would have gone into roads, bridges and airports, and very quickly. And if something didn’t work, heads would roll.

    Obama is a different breed. He’s a professor in power, which is an experiment we haven’t tried since Woodrow Wilson. You can see the resemblance: rigidly ideological, and never in his life having had to consider that HE might be the one wrong. No rational person can disagree with his wisdom, so his opponents are either crazy or dealing in bad faith. In either case, there is no need to sit down and negotiate with them–and no need for all those pettifogging constitutional restraints on the executive, either: he knows what’s good for us, and the constitution has evolved, anyway. If you watch Woody handing the League of Nations Treaty to a Senate he completely ignored previously, you see the template for Obama’s utter inability to believe that someone might question his wisdom and benevolence.

    I think we should wait AT LEAST another century before repeating this particular mistake. Aren’t there any bankrupt haberdashers we can send to Washington instead?


    4 Oct 13 at 1:47 pm

  9. Robert, re Chicago thugs: My father said much the same thing in 1950 when I was in high school!

    Mique, thanks for the Sowell link. I haven’t been following the US budget fight in detail. But I have noticed that the headlines all blame the House Republicans.

    As far as I can tell, the situation is that the House Republicans pass bills that the Senate won’t accept. The Senate Democrats insist on bills that the House won’t accept.

    I’d say both parties are equally to blame.


    4 Oct 13 at 3:12 pm

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