Saturday, November 23, 2013

Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty Thoughts. From KillerMartinis.

I thought this was insightful – We all have had students (and adjuncts!) who deal with this grinding poverty and make what we think are stupid decisions.
-Krabby Kathy

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There's no way to structure this coherently. They are random observations that might help explain the mental processes. But often, I think that we look at the academic problems of poverty and have no idea of the why. We know the what and the how, and we can see systemic problems, but it's rare to have a poor person actually explain it on their own behalf. So this is me doing that, sort of.

Rest is a luxury for the rich. I get up at 6AM, go to school (I have a full courseload, but I only have to go to two in-person classes) then work, then I get the kids, then I pick up my husband, then I have half an hour to change and go to Job 2. I get home from that at around 1230AM, then I have the rest of my classes and work to tend to. I'm in bed by 3. This isn't every day, I have two days off a week from each of my obligations. I use that time to clean the house and soothe Mr. Martini and see the kids for longer than an hour and catch up on schoolwork. Those nights I'm in bed by midnight, but if I go to bed too early I won't be able to stay up the other nights because I'll fuck my pattern up, and I drive an hour home from Job 2 so I can't afford to be sleepy. I never get a day off from work unless I am fairly sick. It doesn't leave you much room to think about what you are doing, only to attend to the next thing and the next. Planning isn't in the mix.

The Rest.

31 comments:

  1. Wow. Many years ago I was close to this. This article is beautifully expressed.

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  2. Poor people can and do get credit cards--unless they have bad credit. Poor people can and do open bank accounts--unless they have bad credit. Poor people can and do rent apartments--unless they have bad credit. Poor people can and do have good credit, if they manage their small income well. I and my family know this for a fact.

    The writer describes living in a hotel with weekly rates. That costs more than the 2-bedroom apartment I rent.

    The writer says cooking attracts cockroaches--but not cleaning up, not storing food properly, attracts cockroaches.

    I don't doubt that the writer is in a hard situation. I don't doubt that the writer is in a prison of circumstances that may keep her in her hard situation. But her situation now is a sum of innumerable past choices, as well as circumstances she may have had little control over, and her reaction to those circumstances.

    A great deal of how she got to where she is is being left out. A weekly hotel costs more than an apartment, and they don't let you stay without money. How did it come about that she couldn't get a similar apartment for less money? The answer has to do with credit or criminal record or something else that is not mentioned here.

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    1. Before I get slammed for blaming poor people for being poor, let me hasten to add that I am aware that bad things happen that people can't control. The hardest part of being poor is that you have no reserve. You can function, you can save money to try to improve things, but sometimes things happen, not your fault, that knock you back down to zero or worse. I am well aware of that and have experienced it myself.

      There are some things that are practically unrecoverable if they happen early enough. Drug addiction, going to prison, not finishing school, single motherhood. These things do not fall out of the sky. It may be hard, in the wrong sort of environment, to evade them.

      Making good choices is a necessary part of escaping poverty; I am aware that it is not sufficient. I am aware that sometimes one is not able to make any good choices.

      I am pointing out, however, that there is not enough information presented to know what, in the writer's story, is left out, but there is enough information to know that something is left out about how she got into the situation that she is in.

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    2. People without normal ID can't write checks, buy cigarettes or alcohol, board a plane, drive a car--and many states provide a state identification for free.

      People without normal ID have a host of other problems of which the lack of normal ID is a symptom, not the cause.

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    3. Incidentally, I can remember times when we had to choose between food, heat, or laundry. My parents were terrible with money and had too many kids for their income and expenses. Their children, most of them, learned better--all but one of us have grown up, gone to college, and become tight with money--the fourth is recreating the cycle of poverty. My mother had to marry out of poverty and her new husband doesn't let her touch the money.

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    4. I apologize for deleting my comment, but I've realized that I'm not capable of having a reasonable conversation about this topic. The scars of my childhood and my mother's death in penury are all too fresh and too real.

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    5. If you read the voluminous comments on the original post you will see that the author answers these questions about her circumstances quite beautifully, including the one about why she does not have a bank account.

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    6. Actually I found that she DIDN'T answer that question at all--in fact she says

      Well, right. My point was that I never said that I personally couldn't or hadn't, it's that the ID requirements are more cumbersome since the Patriot Act.

      When I worked minimum wage jobs I had a bank account. So did my equally impoverished siblings. My college roommate with bad credit cashed checks at Walmart.

      The writer of the article talks about bounced checks and the associated fees as if they fall out of the sky on you, or as if the math for balancing the check book is just way too hard for anyone to do. There are a lot of unaddressed problems here--which may not be her fault-- that she is not talking about, and from what I'm reading her poverty is as much the result of her other problems as her problems are from her poverty.

      Assuming of course we are dealing with a real person to whom these things really happened, or maybe it's like I Rigoberta Menchu.

      Did you read her explanation for her pregnancy? Too poor for condoms or the pill, but she can afford cigarettes, and is quite defensive about the smoking. A pack of smokes is about $7.00 around here.

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    7. Rich people get accidentally pregnant all the time and everyone has vices. We shouldn't expect more of the poor than we do of anyone else. And the fees are a perfectly good explanation for not having a checking account. If you're exhausted and afraid you might overdraw your account due to communication issues with your husband, which I can easily see happening to me, it makes sense

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    8. Excellent point, Ursula. I hadn't thought about that.

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  3. Every poor person is proof that Capitalism is a physical success and a moral failure, and poor people in the United States (where the safety net is completely shredded) have to live in more extreme versions of poverty than their European cousins.

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  4. European style social programs work because they are funded by European style middle class taxation. Choosing one is choosing the other. That is not a criticism, it is a fact.

    There's three tax brackets in the UK: 20%, 40%, and 45%. 20% kicks in at 0. 40% kicks in at the equivalent of about $50K--or what an assistant professor makes. $50K in the US puts you in the 15% tax bracket.

    It's not that it wouldn't work in the US, it's that it's VERY different from what the US has.

    Furthermore, I would dispute that the safety net is "shredded". More Americans get government benefits for poverty or disability than ever before. There's subsidized housing, WIC, food stamps, and these things add up. Poverty sucks, but it's not Dickensian.

    I have a close relative who gets all those benefits, who has a bigger TV than we do, spends $100 / month on cable, spends what we do on cell phones, and has the same size apartment.

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  5. Kimmie, I would give you a hug if I could.

    My mother was a single parent as well. She worked two jobs but still, frequently at the end of the month when money ran out, my brother and I went to bed hungry. I still remember the frustration of not even being able to get to sleep properly because of the hunger pangs. I was a bright kid and my mother expected me to attend college. She would bring books for me to read that people at work gave her, and when we did eat it was healthy food. Eventually, I dropped out of high school to work full time to support us. Of all the things that my mother went through, I think that was the final event that broke her spirit.

    Anyway, I worked into my 30s, then joined the military (in part to pay for college), then finally graduated this year. The most painful part for me is my mother died when she was only 50; she didn’t live long enough to see me graduate.

    I don’t think my mother made any truly bad choices that caused our situation. But I can also see Flamen’s point as well. My brother’s ex-girlfriend has five children by five different babydaddies. She has never held a job, has a widescreen TV, a house full of donated toys for the kids, but she has never set foot in a library with her children. The kids drink more soda than milk or juice. I wish she would make better choices.

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  6. Flamen Portunalis, the most horrific thing about your comments is that you assume that every single thing that has precipitated the writer into her current condition is a choice that SHE made. It doesn't seem to occur to you that the cycle of poverty begins for many before they were born; that with the best will in the world, if you are born into poverty it is very, very hard to climb out of it, particularly in the US, where the wealth transfer from the middle class to the obscenely rich in the last 30 years is unprecedented, and has dropped many, many working poor into the jaws of unsustainable poverty. You apologize and claim that you are not blaming the poor for being poor, but you are. You are.

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    1. you assume that every single thing that has precipitated the writer into her current condition is a choice that SHE made.

      Actually, I explicitly said I did NOT assume that. Learn to read.

      if you are born into poverty it is very, very hard to climb out of it,

      A fact I acknowledged. Learn to read.

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    2. Acknowledged in order to dismiss.

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  7. What disturbs me about this is the hopelessness. It reminds me of “Nickel and Dimed,” by Barbara Ehrenbach, published over a dozen years ago.

    America used to be where one went to get a fresh start. Daniel Patrick Moynihan made a famous speech in the ‘60s to a bunch of student radicals about why they should care about the economy. He pointed out that we know Europe from its novels. Dickens, the Bronte sisters, and others describe a society in which the size of an inheritance determines one’s whole future. People know their place. Moynihan warned that America must never be allowed to become a society like that.

    Over the past 30 years, that is the kind of society America has become. Is it still even possible to get ahead by putting in a large amount of physical labor, the way my grandfather did? Obviously, the American Dream was never for everyone, always, but dreams do matter.

    What disturbs me even more is that education has traditionally been a way out of poverty. Now, between student loans, the family unfriendliness of the postdoctoral lifestyle, and who knows that else, it is increasingly making a mess of people’s lives.

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    1. Poor people get 100% financial aid awards for college. Fill out a FAFSA sometime. That is still true. The only lender now for student loans for poor people is the Federal government, which accounts for the vast majority of all student loans. Those loans are at 3.5% which is almost zero at today's inflation rate.

      You can't get any Federal student aid if you have drug convictions, however. That can make it harder. If you don't have grades good enough for ANY school, if you don't have study habits, you're going to flunk out your freshman year, but it's not as though you couldn't get the money to go.

      Education can be the way out of poverty if you are bright and able to take advantage of it. If you're already screwed because you got pregnant or on drugs or went to prison or dropped out of high school, it will be almost impossible, even if those things were not your fault--but you'll get 100% aid awarded when you fill out your FAFSA.

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    2. And if you're not bright, of course, you can always still major in education...

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    3. When I first filled out a FAFSA, one still had to put a name down of someone who be a guarantor of some sort. In my family, no one I knew could possibly qualify.

      Hiram and Leslie, with genuine respect, I ask that the thread not be closed. If anyone thinks I personally have done something here to be a troll, I just ask that you let me know. I am not a troll and I don't want to post things that are hurtful to people. I know there are strong emotions and convictions on both sides here. Maybe there's more than two sides.



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  8. Leslie, I ask that you close this thread. I am sickened by what I have read here. I will not engage with someone who is clearly trolling. No reasonable person can think these things.

    Please shut it down.

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    1. @HIram: Why don't you write a reasoned rebuttal, then? I'd be interested in what you have to say.

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    2. Grumpy Sergeant, I am not talking about you. Good grief. You've said nothing outrageous at all. Sorry for the confusion.

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    3. At this point I'd like to leave the thread up. There has been a little mail asking Flamen to temper the rhetoric a bit. It's a shared space; everyone try to be aware of other perspectives.

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    4. Late to the game here, but I'd like to keep this one open, too. Many sides of this issue to see and to be considered. I am finding the whole thing one of the more compelling debates I have seen here lately.

      It's words on a site.

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  9. Frod, you'd like me to write a reasoned rebuttal to a guy who suggested that poor people live in weekly hotels because they might be addicts or convicts?

    And the story of his poor friend with the big tv? I cannot help but think he's baiting, and if he's baiting Kimmie, well that's just too much.

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    1. This is a good start, Hiram. Another problem is that student loans, even at 0%, are no longer so easy to pay off, thanks to college costs having gotten so out of control.

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  10. I'd like to ask everyone to consider that this is a shared space.

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  11. The linked post is, as the author admits, a bit incoherent, and that incoherence includes not, as far as I can tell, linking to one of the sources that presumably started her thinking -- the book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means so Much, or perhaps some of the popular press coverage thereof:

    http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-08-29/national/41584468_1_latest-study-cane-iq

    http://www.marketplace.org/topics/your-money/money-secrets/how-poverty-changes-way-we-make-decisions

    http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2013/09/poverty_and_cognitive_impairment_study_shows_money_troubles_make_decision.html

    I've only read/heard the coverage, but my understanding is that the point is that being in a state of scarcity consumes a lot of mental energy, leaving less available for decision-making, especially good long-term decision-making. One tends to focus on solving immediate problems, like where to sleep or what to eat in the next 24 hours, leaving little mental room for making a plan to get out of the immediate situation which is consuming so many scarce mental (and financial) resources (so, for instance, trying to figure out the conundrum of raising a security deposit and/or first and last month's rent, or finding a landlord who is willing to waive same, when all one's time is consumed with earning enough money to pay for a weekly-rate hotel room, which in turn consumes the vast majority of one's pay. ).

    I'm not sure any of us can say for certain what kind of decisions we'd make in this sort of vulnerable position, unless we've been in such a position (and I'm not sure those who have been in such a situation briefly, and/or while relatively young, healthy, and energetic, are in a position to imagine how they'd react to living in such a situation for years or decades, or while coping with acute or chronic physical or mental illness). Flamen, you're right about one thing -- "her situation now is a sum of innumerable past choices, as well as circumstances she may have had little control over, and her reaction to those circumstances. " The tricky part, according to the authors of _Scarcity_, is that, when someone finds herself in difficult circumstances, that in itself tends to make the decisions made in, and the reactions to, those circumstances worse, and things have a tendency to spiral downward from there. By the same token, I suspect, a few lucky breaks, and/or the experience of having a few good decisions be rewarded (which can, itself, be a lucky break -- e.g. getting a job with a responsible, stable employer vs. one who either exploits employees or, despite good intentions, goes out of business without paying them) can start a virtuous cycle. Although it predates the book, I think this is part of the thinking behind the "housing first" approach to homelessness, which takes people off the street and puts the into simple single-room housing *before* trying to get them hooked up with various social services, rather than having them "earn" housing by getting clean, getting a job, etc. Apparently it works quite well -- at least better than the old system.

    I see the author has received a fairly substantial amount in donations. I hope it's enough to buy her a bit of stability, and the space to begin making decisions that will serve her and her family better. The research suggests that's a real possibility.

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  12. Here are my two cents worth on the article: I believe the original author's point was to open everyone's eyes to the myriad of issues and hindrances faced by the poor. Any one of us, no matter how educated, experienced, intelligent, or wise we may be, can fall into poverty.

    My mother grew up during the Great Depression, and my father was actually born on Black Friday in 1929. Families were hit hard who did nothing wrong, and families were hit hard who exercised bad judgment. Bad things happen -- but the key is to remember that one day the very bad things we are so judgmental about can happen to us.

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