Lately I’ve been frustrated with the personal finance blogosphere. Many of the sites I read have taken on an attitude toward poverty (or maybe it was there all along) that absolutely makes me sick. Basically, I’m talking about the attitude summarized in this article from the Washington Times, where Ted Nugent states:
Being poor is largely a choice, a daily, if not hourly, decision. If you decide to drop out of school, fail to learn a skill, have no work ethic or get divorced, a life of poverty is often the consequence.
Now, I will agree that those who drop out of school, fail to learn a skill, don’t develop a work ethic, or get divorced are more likely to end up poor than people who finish school, work hard, and stay married. However, I don’t believe that any of those things are just a choice someone makes one day. They are a culmination of multiple choices over time, some of which an individual cannot control.
Dropping Out of School
Think back to your freshman year of high school. You’re in your awkward stage, trying to avoid upperclassmen and adjust to a new school. The work is harder. The teachers are meaner. Your locker combination doesn’t work half the time. What if you became so frustrated you dropped out?
In my case, that wasn’t an option. First, because I was under 18, I couldn’t have dropped out without permission from my parents. Second, even if I could have quit, my mom and dad probably would’ve murdered me when I got home. Third, I was a nerd who loved school, made good grades, and wanted to go to college, so there’s no way it was happening.
But what about someone who doesn’t have those things going for him/her? What if neither of my parents graduated high school, and the first time I got upset, they agreed to sign for me to drop out? As a 14 year-old, I wasn’t capable of thinking about the long-term consequences of dropping out of school. If my parents had approved, I would have felt like it was okay.
No Skills, No Work Ethic
How do people develop skills or a work ethic? Usually through a lifetime of watching the important people in our lives work hard and benefit from their efforts. Our families teach us that we’re supposed to finish school, get a job, and contribute to society until we’re able to retire. People often learn skills as children or teenagers – usually from watching a parent or grandparent – and develop them further as they enter adulthood.
But what if you never saw any of that stuff growing up? What if your parents received SSI/disability? If you truly never spend time with anyone who goes to work every day, how do you develop a work ethic? How do you learn any skills when no one around you shows you anything worth emulating?
Some kids are lucky enough to have an outside influence, like a teacher or coach, who encourages them to do things differently. But many, many other kids grow up and fly through job after job. Because most of the time, work isn’t fun, and it’s hard to convince yourself to do it when everyone else in your family is sitting at home collecting a check.
I can’t imagine not working to earn money. However, I’m also honest enough to admit that if someone told me, “Hey, we’re going to give you enough money to get by, and you just get to sit at home,” I’d be like, “HELL YES!” I mean, technically, that’s what I’m doing now. Yes, I’m doing something to earn money, but I left my career to write for a living, which is far easier and will allow me to sit at home in my pajamas all day. And people have applauded that decision. Why is it so different?
Divorce is definitely a choice. But as someone who is divorced, I can tell you that it’s not a choice you make because you feel like it. It’s a choice that comes when the alternative is more than you can stand.
If your spouse cheats on you, refuses to stop drinking or using drugs, abuses you, or is convicted of molesting children, why is that YOUR fault? It’s not. If someone has the guts to get out of any of those horrible situations, I will be the first to praise him or her for a job well done.
I’m sorry, but if some guy ever hit me (luckily I’ve never been there), loss of income would be the last thing on my mind. I would be more concerned with protecting myself and my child. My own divorce, while not related to abuse, was a situation that was nonetheless unwise to remain in. And anyone who condemns me for it is an asshole.
Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged
It’s easy to sit back and blame poverty on poor decisions. But those decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. No one can pinpoint ONE thing that caused them to be poor. And there is no ONE way to eradicate poverty.
I’ve made a million mistakes in my life, many of which are directly correlated with poverty. First, I was a teenage mother. Then a spendaholic. Then divorced. And now technically unemployed. Were all of those things a result of choices I made? Yes. Were any of them a single, identifiable choice, separate from any other conditions or circumstances? No.
What saved me from a lifetime of poverty when so many others in those situations end up poor? Was it my superior decision-making skills? Obviously not. To put it very simply, I was equipped for success way before I started screwing things up.
I had great parents who were involved in my life. I was raised middle class (even though our income didn’t necessarily match up). I was a smart kid who loved to read and learned quickly. I had enough food. I had a reliable, safe home. I had the same clothes as everyone else. I had the “right” peer group in school. And when I did mess up, I had a family full of hard-working, intelligent people who provided guidance and support.
What if society had simply written me off? What if, the first time I messed up, I was immediately classified as “choosing to be poor” and told I was a burden to the American people? That sounds stupid, yet that’s what we do to people who “make poor choices,” a phrase that makes me want to choke people.
The Bottom Line
Of course there are people who abuse the system. Of course there are people who are perfectly capable of earning a living, yet prefer to live off taxpayer dollars. Look around online and you can find a million anecdotes about welfare queens, people selling food stamps for drugs, or someone committing fraud to receive social assistance.
But the question I’d love to ask Ted Nugent, as well as some of my fellow personal finance bloggers, is this: What about the people who AREN’T those people? What about the ones who are trying their hardest and just need some help figuring out how to recover?
When all you have to say is,”Oh, you screwed up. You made poor choices,” what exactly are those people supposed to gain from anything else you say? Why would they listen to your advice about money when you obviously have no clue what they’re dealing with?
Many of the people who are so quick to make assumptions about those in poverty have never been poor. And until they have, they need to shut their mouths. [steps off soapbox]