Poverty Revisited

21 thoughts on “Poverty Revisited”

  1. I’m glad that people like Bernie Sanders are drawing attention to urban poverty in places like Sandtown. We should be vigorously debating whether or not the policies he proposes would help but more importantly, we should be thinking about the vast number of things policy cannot do in forming character, strengthening families, and building up the institutions that promote solidarity. After all, one man’s election cannot change the way any one neighborhood looks. It takes neighbors working together to do that.

    1. Keep in mind that Sanders and Trump are two sides of the same coin. The coin is an expression of the widespread belief that the current set of arrangements are failing. We’re experiencing a national crisis of political legitimacy. Neither Sanders nor Trump would be capable of delivering meaningful change even if they were elected. Neither would Hilary or the more moderate Republicans. We don’t have “problems” that need to be “solved.” Instead we have fundamental structural transitions that must be endured – like it or not. No one is going to sign up for that voluntarily so external reality will simply knock the economy and culture into submission step by step. The elections that will really matter will be the ones a decade from now when we start to put the pieces back together and form a new kind of economy and society after the dust settles. Until then… all bets are off. It’s going to be messy.

  2. One of my favorite economist bloggers had saying that he liked to repeat with regard to choosing among options for reforming, e.g. big banks – “harder to break … or easier to fix”. I find that the idea is very widely applicable.

    Something I’d very much enjoy hashing out with you in person (someday) is how exactly we could reform our society so as to make poverty ‘easier to fix’.

    I’ve been poor-enough to struggle procuring food a few times but I’m very lucky in that always being temporary; and always having other resources to at least potentially fall back on were it to drag on much longer than it did. But I also know people that are just *unlikely* to ever keep themselves out of poverty, even after being lifted out of it by others (repeatedly). I figure the most humane response would be for the rest of us to simply let them live the most comfortable life they can achieve with whatever assistance we’re willing to provide (and excluding anything they might do that might endanger others).

    I worry tho that a lot of the ‘machinery’ of society, e.g. building codes – taken together – might make living by the book too expensive for everyone. Maybe we need to relax our standards, at least in some ways, so that everyone, or almost everyone, can actually make it (somewhere).

    But even before we consider relaxing any of what I worry might be our too-high standards, we should definitely seriously consider relaxing a lot of the societal machinery that just excludes large portions of the ‘solution space’ from even being tried. Maybe it’s not possible to build enough legal housing that everyone can afford (or at least not in places that people would prefer to live in *as an alternative to living on the street*) but almost nowhere are people even being allowed to try!

    Everyone seems entitled to protect their neighborhoods and cities as-is and almost no one seems to think that it matters that that’s starting to really hurt almost everyone already on the inside somewhere. I want to be on the inside somewhere! And I’m willing to be on the inside somewhere that’s open to letting everyone on the outside in too.

  3. I’ve followed you (at a respectful distance 😉 ) since your video with KD of Fair Companies. Loved the piece you did on the Root Simple couple (the phone ringing, lol!).
    I’ve worked as an indie house cleaner for 23 years. I’ve stuck with it because of the flexibility, not being caught in an office and I like my “George Jetson” workdays. My ‘coworkers’ are wonderful pets.
    Looking back on my late teens/early 20’s (in the late 80’s-early 90’s) I’m amazed myself & future spouse didn’t fall off the cliff, but it wasn’t as scary as it seems for people today. Maybe that was youthful ignorance. Kind of sad that kids (of that age) today aren’t/cannot be as happily ignorant and hopeful.
    Wonderful article, thank you.

    1. Kirsten is amazing. I love her and the great videos she turns out week after week from all over the world.

      I always enjoyed being a housekeeper because it suits my temperament. I tried office work and was really unhappy – and not very good at it. The trick was to learn to live comfortably at a low income level. For me the key was to build up a lot of relationships with people that substituted for money. Friends, neighbors, my boyfriend… Without them I’d be in serious trouble. “Social capital” goes a long way when cash is short. But I honestly don’t believe I could duplicate my experiences if I had to do it all over again today. The nature of the larger economy has changed radically over the last thirty years.

  4. I often compare myself to many of the 20-something year old arty kids moving to Portland. Like many of them, I moved here with a not insignificant chunk of student debt (from art school) but with no degree. But that was in 1997. It was possible to find a crappy but not unsafe 1 bedroom apartment for $300 a month and low level, low wage jobs were plentiful. It was do-able. Now, with the cost of living as high as it is and even crappy low level jobs scarce with lots of educated people scrambling for them, it is nearly impossible.

    Thank you so much for your writing. This is becoming my favorite blog.

  5. I think the slamming shut of doors, the lack of second chances, is one of THE definitive problems in modern America. Throw in the reality that there are fewer avenues to “success”, unstable family structures, and, even more seriously, the punitive panopticon of the modern police state….and wow.

  6. Excellent essay, and excellent response from Brian. Anyone who has grown up working class or poor recognizes the scenario — sometimes you can make a mistake and get off scot-free, other times it’s a downward spiral to hell on earth. There are no easy answers as to avoid the latter. One reason (and indicated by Johnny and Brian) that some overcome hardship is illustrated I believe by the famous Stanford University marshmallow experiment into delayed gratification. If you have a goal and can implement a plan to reach that goal, you have a greater chance at success.

  7. “In America today… you don’t really get a second shot.”

    Unclear to me why you say this. Sounds like you got a second chance. As for your mom, it sounds by marrying a bad guy and having more kids that she didn’t really give *herself* a second chance. Genuinely curious what your rationale is for this statement.

    1. America isn’t a terribly sympathetic place for people who find themselves in a difficult situation. (Your question doesn’t exactly suggest otherwise.)

      I was at the supermarket today and a woman with two young kids was standing by the door with a cardboard sign asking for help. She didn’t look like she was a drug addict or an alcoholic. She was just broke and desperate. I talked with her for a few minutes about her situation. I’m always curious about how people navigate the world under the circumstances. While I was standing there with them a middle aged guy with a shopping cart yelled obscenities at the woman. As he walked away he sang a little tune with the words describing what a loser she was. It was gratuitous and mean spirited. He didn’t see her as human. He didn’t think of her kids as people. Whatever her situation, where exactly does she go now? What happens to her kids? How does she recover form whatever is going on in her life?

      It was possible back in the 1970’s to work a crap job and pay for a crap apartment and begin to put your life back together. I just don’t think that’s nearly as easy today. The gap between wages and the cost of living is too great.

      As for my mom – she was young. She confused strong men with men who had real strength of character. She believed in having a big happy family. By the time she realized her mistake she was trapped. Men can and do disappear. Mothers can’t do that. Where was she going to go with kids and no money?

      As I said. I was incredibly lucky. When I see people living on the street I see myself if things had gone slightly the other way at a dozen different moments.

      1. Thanks for the response. I will confess that I was born solidly middle class and never lived in anything close to poverty, so your perspective is useful and appreciated. That said, I still feel it difficult to reconcile your view with data such as this about Vietnamese-Americans from Wikipedia:

        Vietnamese Americans have come to America primarily as refugees, with little or no money. While (on a collective basis) not as academically or financially accomplished as their East Asian counterparts, (who generally have been in the US longer, and did not come as war or political refugees but for economic reasons), census shows that Vietnamese Americans are an upwardly mobile group. Although clear challenges remain for the community, their economic status improved dramatically between 1989 and 1999. In 1989, 34 percent of Vietnamese Americans lived under the poverty line, but this number was reduced to 16 percent in 1999, compared with just over 12 percent of the U.S. population overall. A 2012 study showed that the median household income among Vietnamese immigrants was $55,736 which was higher than for the total immigrant population ($46,983).

        These are people that often times came to the US with almost literally nothing besides the clothes on their backs, few connections and often not even knowing the language, yet have been economically successful despite starting on the bottom rung. Plenty of other immigrants also plainly see the US as a land of second chances — it’s hard for me to think that this is all simply illusory or built on a myth. One would think if the US has opportunity for immigrants who start from almost nothing that the native born should certainly be able to find a path forward.

        That said, I am sympathetic to your arguments about the cost of living, which is outrageous in many major metropolitan areas which are centers of employment. My perception is that the path ahead has also worsened since the 1970s, particularly given the growing barriers to higher education and the rampant credentialism that makes a BA necessary for even secretarial work. Your anecdote about someone berating a poor person is disheartening but I’m not sure how much to read into that — I personally have never witnessed such a thing and I certainly live in close proximity to several subsidized housing projects with plenty of poor people.

        I guess I definitely think the US doesn’t have as much opportunity as perhaps it once did, but saying that second chances don’t really exist strikes me as overwrought. In any case I am a fan of the blog and enjoy your views on this and other matters.

        1. There’s a middle ground somewhere in here.

          There are different forms of wealth. There’s money that can insulate you from all manner of difficulties and personal bad decision-making. There are plenty of hard core alcoholics and pill poppers whose personal failings never lead them to become homeless. The “Charlie Sheen” scenario. They could always be bailed out with more cash. Then there’s social capital. A family or community may not have much money, but they pool their meager resources and look after each other. The Vietnamese immigrants you mentioned may fall in to this category. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who have neither money nor group support.

          You appear to believe that anyone who is scrappy and determined enough can overcome poverty. That’s true to a point. But there are certain prerequisites that need to be in place first. And the more barriers the more difficult success will be. What’s the spread between a minimum wage job and the cost of a bottom level studio apartment or room mate situation? What’s the tally for first and last months rent, security deposit, and money for utility hook-ups for a new place? A healthy childless white young man has many more shots than a similar black guy. A 38 year old mother of three has even less chance of working her way up if she doesn’t already have some minimal amount of external support from somewhere – someone to look after her kids so she can take a crappy low pay job, for example. You seem reluctant to acknowledge that reality.

          Could you (you personally) find a place to live in the town you live in with no up-front money, a bad credit rating, and a marginal income? If your answer is, “Well, I’ve made better life decisions” that’s really not an answer.

          1. You appear to believe that anyone who is scrappy and determined enough can overcome poverty. That’s true to a point.

            I’m not sure how to reconcile this with your statement that this country lacks second chances.

            A 38 year old mother of three has even less chance of working her way up if she doesn’t already have some minimal amount of external support from somewhere – someone to look after her kids so she can take a crappy low pay job, for example. You seem reluctant to acknowledge that reality.

            Oh, I definitely acknowledge that reality. Almost every story I read in the newspaper profiling poor people/poverty involves a single mother with multiple children. If you have multiple children without a partner, spouse or other form of immediate family support, life is going to be quite difficult. My guess is that stories about single moms with several children rising up to a solidly middle class existence are probably rare in most places in the world.

            Could you (you personally) find a place to live in the town you live in with no up-front money, a bad credit rating, and a marginal income?

            I genuinely have no idea. But the apartment buildings on either side of mine are filled with poor Central American immigrants, so my hunch is that it’s certainly possible.

            1. You might want to take a moment here and celebrate the fact that poverty is such an abstraction for you that you need to look it up on Wikipedia. As if you were trying to learn about the capital of Turkmenistan…

        2. I can tell you from personal experience that a LOT of those vietnamese immigrants don’t come out so well. On average they do better than the average born poor American, yes, but not all do well. Also, the immigrants here, although they arrive poor, tended to be the elite of Vietnam (not always, but there’s a strong tendency). So, on average, they were people raised in strong families with decent education. That’s a big permanent advantage, regardless of circumstances they go through on the way.

          A point re Johnny himself getting out of his difficult circumstances: Obviously Johnny has done well with himself. But he credits a part of that to being able to get a scholarship. You can say it’s because of his determination, hard work, intelligence, etc. that he got that but the fact is that if 100 people are in a poverty trap and there’s assistance out for only 1, 99 are going to stay in the trap no matter what they do.

          When opportunities are limited, hard work, focus, etc., just become a Red Queen race. That’s kind of a general problem in our society – the hardest workers get promoted, so work hours go up, often without commensurate pay increases – but no more people get promoted, because there’s only so many slots. People buy pricier and pricier houses trying to get into the best school district – but that doesn’t make the school districts better, so you have just as many students going to bad schools. Talking about the good qualities of the winners doesn’t change the fact that if there aren’t enough jobs somebody’s going to be unemployed; if there’s not enough housing somebody’s going to be homeless; and if there’s not enough good schools somebody’s going to get a lousy education. Solutions that work on a personal level don’t always work on a societal level.

          1. Also, the immigrants here, although they arrive poor, tended to be the elite of Vietnam (not always, but there’s a strong tendency). So, on average, they were people raised in strong families with decent education. That’s a big permanent advantage, regardless of circumstances they go through on the way.

            With regard to the background of these immigrants, wikipedia (which of course has its limitations) says the following (although it does go on to later differentiate between initial immigrants — who were typically better off — and the later boat people):

            In contrast to Vietnamese refugees who settled in France, but similarly to their counterparts who arrived in Canada and Australia, refugee arrivals in the United States were often of lower socioeconomic standing in their home country and had a more difficult experience in integration due to greater linguistic and cultural barriers.

            In any case I agree with you that having a strong family and education is hugely important. In my neighborhood weak families and a lack of emphasis on education are rampant, and the ensuing poor outcomes are predictable. All the opportunity in the world won’t do much good if you don’t have the tools to seize upon them.

  8. This is a sobering essay. I don’t think people realize that the poor simply don’t have the 2nd chances that many people do. This compounds the dumb mistakes people make when they’re young.

    I certainly was dumb and dumber after high school in early 90s Sonoma County. Drug use, petty crime, broken probation. A month in jail. Bailed on a string of odd jobs and odd roommates. But… through gritted teeth my father sucked it up and let me come home time and again. Loaned me money even though he couldn’t afford it (He was an electrician.) and in general covered for his sorry loser son. 2nd chances? More like 9 lives.

    Somehow around that time I got the idea that I needed to go to Italy. I scrimped, saved and got some scholarships for a semester abroad. Totally changed my life. Not because of Italy per se. But the people I met. Rich kids. Educated people. It’s so cliche but it opened my eyes to the possibilities of different life choices.

    The very first thing I did when I got back was move to San Francisco and enroll in college. In 1996, it was still possible to move here, get a minimum wage job and figure it out later. And that’s exactly what I did. But those societal cushions and 2nd shots have all but gone. I’m grandfathered in but what about my kids?

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