Maybe Poverty Is Better Than the Alternative

As we all know, “poverty” is bad. Having established that, the only thing left to do is to decide what “poverty” is.

In a 2001 essay in the New York Times, Louis Uchitelle observed that politicians in the U.S. have preferred to define poverty solely in terms of income. Uchitelle argued that this approach would say that a family with adequate income is not in poverty, even if that family must continue to live in atrocious ghetto conditions because it cannot find alternative places where its members would be accepted and could thrive.

The better approach, Uchitelle suggested, is to use several measures of deprivation. What would those measures be? While mentioning crime, his essay remained focused on the economic aspect — on the ability to afford “food, clothing, shelter, utilities, and a little bit more.”

In a more recent Times essay, Maurice Isserman cites Michael Harrington for a different but still predominantly materialistic characterization of poverty, as a lifestyle featuring “lowered aspirations and short-term gratification” surfacing in such specific maladies as “domestic violence, sexual promiscuity, and substance abuse.” Wikipedia similarly lists a variety of effects (and, cyclically, causes) of poverty — notably hunger, poor health, educational underachievement, substandard housing, and violence of various kinds.

The general idea appears to be that “poverty” is bad because “poverty” means being confined to a lifestyle characterized by these sorts of conditions. But if that’s what poverty is, its existence in contemporary America may be a little different from the standard thinking.

Consider violence. We are terribly concerned when someone slaps or punches someone else. A fight can get you into prison. And that is remarkable, because our prisons themselves, and the police who fill them, have been inordinately tolerant of their own violence over the years, and we have been pushing our fellow citizens toward police and prisons at an extraordinarily high rate (Weiss, 2010). This is not what one might expect from a population committed to nonviolence. Wealth does not seem to be getting us away from violence.

And then there’s the small matter of the arms trade. For decades, the United States has been a leading (usually the leading) seller of weapons to developing nations (Khanna & Chapman, 2010; Grimmett, 2008), where they have often been used to kill ordinary people seeking basic civil rights. In short, the nonpoor among us do abhor violence. More precisely, they abhor violence of certain types, when practiced among certain kinds of people, especially when it occurs nearby.

Sexual promiscuity is another dubious tale of poverty. Whatever may have been the case in Harrington’s heyday, promiscuity is not exactly confined, these days, to the poor (e.g., Dixon, 2012).

Substance abuse is certainly an issue among people of low income. Then again, abuse of prescription and illicit substances has been fashionable and destructive among the wealthy too. The key difference is not the fact of addiction; it is the degree of tolerance and support. There are also other forms of addiction that the better-off not only indulge but sometimes actually glorify. Examples include highly visible forms of inveterate thrill-seeking (e.g., extreme sports, gambling, stock trading) as well as various workplace pathologies (e.g., workaholism, aggression, corruption) (Sharma & Sharma, 2011; Turner, 2011; Burke & Cooper, 2010). All of these things seem much more agreeable when they are part of one’s own lifestyle, and they are portrayed as more agreeable by the literate classes that indulge them.

Educational underachievement is another complex issue. For generations, American teenagers have been told, “It’s not what you know — it’s who you know.” For educational purposes, poverty does not mean having little money. With little money, you have few distractions. You can become fascinated with the world of the mind — with things that might seem unappealing if you could afford to have more fun. Countless brilliant scholars, down through the centuries, have been quiet, reclusive individuals, living in tight quarters on small budgets.

Poverty in education can mean many things. It can mean a system in which getting into a certain school is more important than what one learns there. It can entail distraction from genuine learning, such as when someone in an elite school is too focused on networking to actually study. It can mean being taught by a well-known expert who is too self-absorbed to care whether his/her students understand him/her. It can mean being aligned with prevailing biases, so that one rarely encounters worthy opposing views, and learns to discount them unthinkingly. It can mean an assumption that one must be valuable merely because one knows how to sound good and look good. In short, poverty in education probably tends to mean being adapted to a culture, rich or poor, that very frequently values other things over actual learning.

Substandard housing is another culturally freighted notion. To a rich city dweller, few things could be worse than being a child whose house features insects, seasonal heat and cold, and dirt. But to a country kid who glories in the outdoors — indeed, to a city kid who grows up with a weak immune system because s/he was raised in excessively sanitary conditions — the city dweller’s alternative is not necessarily superior.

Housing also exemplifies another point. One year, I slept in a tent. Not every night, but typically about five or six nights per week. I had a place to go in the daytime; I just had this atypical nighttime lodging. This was out in the countryside. For the most part, I camped in very pretty settings — in the woods, in meadows, on the edge of a large river. It was beautiful. There was the time a deer stood, panting, immediately outside my tent; there were the nights when huge snowflakes came gently brushing down the tent’s sides. This cost me virtually nothing. Yet it was something that my Ivy League classmates in Manhattan could not afford. Their lives simply did not permit — in fact, their lives did not even notify them that they should desire — an extended outing like this. Some will spend their entire existence in their little boxes, barricaded by their own pity from seriously considering that some of what passes for poverty is actually not that pitiful.

As yet another example, lowered aspirations are not equivalent to poverty. A person can live his/her whole life without ever wanting terribly much, and yet can have a rich existence and die satisfied. Indeed, in a society that tends to reward high aspirations with mediocre outcomes, lowered aspirations may be a sign of healthy mental adjustment. Yet this sort of thinking is anathema to the striving classes. Their efforts have brought many comforts and enjoyments into the world. They have done so, unfortunately, with the growing risk (at this point, some say, the actual likelihood) of mass catastrophe through weaponry, pandemic, or environmental collapse. Like the factory owner who creates jobs, goes out of business, and leaves many cancers as his/her most enduring legacy, the striving classes have given us a beguiling game with a real prospect of a terrible conclusion. I mean, can you imagine: there are people who have, in essence, made concerted efforts to poison the water supply, for hundreds or even thousands of years to come, because this is behavior that the striving community rewards.

I have had to devote some paragraphs, here, to show why the alleged hallmarks of poverty are not as simple as some assume. I could continue in this vein for a while longer. This is not to completely discount the horror stories. But deprivation — of education, of mentally healthy conditions, of a good life — flourishes across the economic spectrum, although in different ways. Having little money and being impoverished are not the same thing at all. Uchitelle was on the right track, but apparently there were limits to how far a person might carry the point in a New York Times essay.

Economically advantaged individuals often speak of lifting people out of poverty. This is a rather disingenuous concept. The advantaged tend to praise an economy in which they are allowed — nay, encouraged — to take as much as they can from everyone else, including those who are most trusting or who are experiencing the greatest hardship. It is difficult to endorse noble words about lifting someone out of poverty, uttered by those who have facilitated poverty’s existence. There never seems to be a real-world plan that would actually end poverty. What comes through is, rather, an impression that some will make the great escape, and some won’t, and we will use the latter as object lessons in how not to live your life. One is reminded of the sanctimonious seventh-grade teacher who looks so petty in retrospect. There is more than one way to be pathetic.

The economically advantaged do not seem to believe that avoiding poverty is the main issue. If they did, they would not be seeking to rise so far above it. Poverty, for them, is often a shorthand term, used to refer to those who don’t share their values (not to mention their advantages), and whom society has thus rightly consigned to the scrap heap, rarely salvageable to the point of really becoming like themselves. For the wealthy, the poor tend to be a sort of group, like public school teachers or Mexicans, who are out there somewhere, not doing things very well, but in any case not personally relevant.

What tends to be more personally compelling, to the wealthy, is acquiring more wealth. The behaviors attending this propensity can be disgusting, as noted above. What the well-to-do commonly fail to recognize is that the door swings both ways — that there are many smart, capable individuals in this world who definitely do not want to be like them.

The life of wealth often yields forms of deprivation that are simply not appealing to sensible adults. It heralds an ugly world of sour adages: life is unfair; you have to look out for yourself; you have all the friends that money can buy. Wealth brings fantasies as to the specialness of one’s life and activities, when in fact there tend to be a dozen others who stand ready to take one’s place. It brings disproportionate responsibility for maladies cited above — for environmental destruction, exploitation of people, infliction of harm on innocents.

On a personal level, the respected professional who has spent his/her adult life being a somber individual will not somehow retrieve, from his/her career advancement, a replacement for the many years in which s/he virtually never experienced the intense laughter of those who are free to laugh. Indeed, due to skewed values, such a person can (in some professions, often does) make life worse for those who do laugh. Similarly, the person who has devoted him/herself to the accumulation and protection of personal security and comfort has missed the opportunity to experience a giving life — measured not in the dollar amount of donations that may impress others, but rather in terms of the experience of actual self-denial for the sake of a stranger in need.

The wealthy life is often an ignorant (sometimes a delusional) existence, peopled to a considerable extent by clueless hypocrites who tell themselves that they are hardheaded realists; that those Mexicans, those teachers, those poor people just need to work harder; that the government that funds and facilitates their own success should not take care of its citizens; that their own manipulations of that government are somehow privileged over the manipulations of others. As I say, it is not difficult for a person from a different background to find this repulsive.

There are different forms of poverty, and those forms can be assessed by divergent standards. Enduring material poverty below the survival level can be good from a Darwinian perspective, insofar as it eliminates resource hogs who would drag down others; yet from a more intelligent perspective, the threat of poverty below the survival level among humans is bad because it inspires adaptations that imperil the larger society. Criminalized behavior is an example, but so is the “success story” whose early exposure to poverty made him/her ruthless in the quest for wealth. Such a person is apt to be a blight upon society, over the course of his/her life. His/her very existence draws attention away from the fact that more balanced, kindhearted people cannot and/or will not behave as s/he has done — that, indeed, his/her success tends to be built upon harm to people better than him/herself. As the adage advises, behind every great success, there is a great crime.

Life can be construed as a predominantly material rather than social or spiritual affair. Among those seeing it that way, some go further and construe a material life as a necessarily exploitative life. That is, they orient themselves toward constantly taking from others, grossly exceeding their level of actual need. In this post, I have suggested that this twisted way of seeing life can result in ironic deprivation, even in ways that are commonly attributed to the poor (e.g., housing, education).

Another way to say it is that life is very complicated. It proceeds on many fronts at once. A focus on just a material dimension is likely to result in deficits in other areas. I have hinted at some of those. There is such a thing as working too hard or having too much money. In fact, the thresholds of excess, in such regards, are probably quite a bit below what may seem like “too much” by today’s standards. It would be better if more of our most gifted and motivated people were oriented toward living and modeling a less excessively material existence.

Down through the ages, many worthy people have been able to scrape by and, in so doing, have done wonderful things. It may well be that the optimal lifestyle, for many people, is one that averages somewhere near the subsistence line — sometimes below, and needing help from others; sometimes above, and being able to help others. A life at that level, entailing minimal loss of time to excess material preoccupations, may provide the greatest possible opportunities for being part of a community, a culture, and a life, bigger than oneself.

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