Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Culture of Poverty

Back when I was an anthropology undergrad, the “Culture of Poverty” concept had not yet been branded politically incorrect and stripped of all respectability. We got to study it in some depth. I didn’t like the concept, not so much because I thought it was condescending, but because I thought it took the term “culture” way too far and got things backwards.

It is a fact that poor people have different challenges and must use different strategies to get by than more affluent folks. The existential similarities of poverty lead to similar adaptations, and this may appear to outside observers as a kind of “culture” in which an ethos of poverty is transmitted from person to person and from generation to generation. Poverty produces these social phenomena, and while they may appear to outsiders to reinforce or perpetuate poverty, the social phenomena do not in fact cause poverty.

Some of my conspecifics simply deem poor people irrational and/or immoral because they do not understand the choices poor folks make. Why don’t those poor people get checking accounts instead of using costly check cashing services? Why don’t they save up to buy a TV instead of renting to own? Why do they have children they obviously can’t afford instead of waiting until they are financially established and married? These questions wouldn’t even make sense to the impoverished. Almost everything poor folks do is completely rational within the context of poverty.

I have also heard many folks talk about the “short time horizon” of poor folks as if time horizon was a fixed characteristic. Time horizon varies within individuals as much as it does between individuals. I want some things right now. Some things are for the longer term. I don’t have a generalized all purpose time horizon applicable to every desire. Nobody does. In the context of poverty, thinking in the long term often makes no sense at all. You’d better enjoy what you can right now and take advantage of immediate opportunities because you are not going to be able to set anything aside for a rainy day. Every day is a rainy day when you are poor.

If you are poor, it does not pay to be ambitious or hopeful. Odds are, you will be poor until your dying day. You are probably not going to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and escape from your poverty. You are deluded if you think differently, and you will be whole lot happier if you accept your condition and get on with the business of being poor. If you pooh pooh the ambitions or dreams of your neighbor, you are not trying to bring him down. You’re not guilty of “negativity”. You’re just telling the truth. So enjoy a 40 and buy some lottery tickets and find whatever pleasures you can. I don’t blame you at all. I reckon I’d do the same in your position.
You are not doing poor people any favors by repeating the myth of social mobility or holding out the promise that schooling is an escape route. Very few will become professional athletes or entertainers or bosses of organized crime syndicates. A handful will move up to lower middle class status. Everyone else will stay poor, and the myth of mobility will just make them feel worse about it.

Jesus said that there would always be poor people. Jesus loved them and was particularly solicitous of the poor. I cannot, therefore, despise them and call myself a disciple of Jesus. That there appears to be a strong correlation between poverty and low general intelligence by no means renders the poor despicable. On the contrary, we are endowed with whatever intelligence we will ever have from infancy, and we deserve no more credit or blame for this characteristic than we do for our height or bone structure. A society that makes no allowances for the third of its members that aren’t smart is a failure. The neglected members are not failures.

It does not surprise me when my conspecifics despise the poor, but I cringe when libertarians are contemptuous of the poor. Some of them seem to envision a “free society” wherein everyone gets only the justice and security he can afford. The affluent will be free and will get to lord it over the poor who won’t be so free. The poor will be useful as serfs, albeit under voluntary contracts of serfdom. I see the poor as the principal beneficiaries of freedom. They will be liberated from barriers to entry into small business, liberated from the burdens imposed by the state, liberated from dependency on the state, liberated from surveillance and an oppressive criminal justice apparatus, and they will benefit greatly from the free flow of wealth that was once diverted to the state’s destructive purposes. They will also find that their neighbors will be able to be more generous and charitable in times of need.

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