Warning: This post is super duper long. If you have plans for today, you might want to bookmark for later.
A few days ago, I read a post over at Gen Y Wealth that really got me fired up. While I have a ton of respect for RJ, the blogger behind Gen Y Wealth, I nearly blew a gasket when I read the intro to his post about cause and effect. I’m pretty sure I can talk about it now while maintaining my blood pressure, but I can’t make any promises. The post began with this:
Imagine being poor was a disease. Something your doctor diagnosed you with.
The symptoms of poorness would include lack of money, no ambition, and the inability to learn new things.
When you have a disease, your goal isn’t to eliminate the symptoms by taking a pill. If that’s all you did, you would still have the disease. Your goal is to eliminate the disease itself.
In order to get rid of poorness, you need to attack its root cause– the hundreds of choices you make on a daily basis.
The highlighting is mine – that’s the part that has me so upset. Was this a Freudian slip? An oversight of some sort? Or does RJ really equate poverty with being lazy and stupid?
Let’s pretend for a minute that poverty is a disease. Poverty is defined as the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support. So if I catch poverty from someone (makes me think of the cheese touch on Diary of a Wimpy Kid), I suddenly don’t have enough of anything. No money, no stuff, no way to maintain any quality of life.
Now just where in the HELL does the definition of poverty tell us that its disease form would cause me to lose brain cells and become a lazy bum?
The Progression of my Disease
When I was a teenager, my dad made $15 an hour. That wasn’t much for a family of four. My parents made excellent financial decisions, but we were still poor on paper. At the time, my dad always worked at least one side job to make ends meet. He did a lot of research and built a house himself to save money. He has always worked 10+ hours a day to take care of his family. How was he lazy? How was he stupid? My dad is an engineer. He’s one of the smartest, most ambitious people I know. He might have had the poverty disease in the past, but he’s completely healthy now.
My ex and I made $19,000 the first year we were married. For a family of three in 2002, that was considered poor. My son received Medicaid and I’m sure we would have qualified for food stamps if we had applied for them. My ex was working as a state government employee (he was promoted to supervisor in 2003) and I was attending full time classes for my bachelor’s degree. How were we lazy? How were we stupid? At that point in our lives, we had definitely caught the poverty disease, but we managed to put it into remission.
When I got divorced, I was making less than $36,000 per year. While that doesn’t fit the federal definition of “poor,” it still isn’t much money. Add in utilities, debt, $50k in student loans, and day to day living expenses, and there wasn’t a whole lot left over. Yet I have a master’s degree, a professional career, and I took on a second job to increase my income. How was I lazy? How was I stupid? I had a poverty relapse – but the disease still didn’t get the best of me.
Maybe I Misunderstood?
I really think RJ was referring to generational poverty in his post. This is a concept I studied extensively in graduate school. Some people, after being raised poor, remain poor in adulthood and raise children who grow up to be poor. This cycle can be very difficult to break.
Having worked with families where generational poverty exists, I can tell you a few things about their way of life.
Imagine growing up without seeing a single member of your family get up and go to work every day. Your parents draw SSI/disability. You and your siblings may also receive an SSI check each month. You depend on food stamps and other government benefits to survive. Your neighbors live the same way. Other than your teachers at school, you never interact with people who live any differently than you do. Your grandparents don’t work. Your friends’ parents don’t work.
How do you learn what it means to go to work? How do you know that you’re supposed to grow up, go to college, and get a job? You don’t. Unless someone intervenes, children who grow up in the cycle of poverty may never break out of the cycle. But it’s NOT because they’re lazy and have no ambition.
People living in generational poverty are some of the smartest, most resourceful people I’ve ever met. They know every possible way to survive on next to nothing. They will go to extraordinary lengths to provide for their families, taking on odd jobs that many of us would refuse. They know exactly who to contact in the maze of county/city/state government agencies to resolve an issue. They rely on family and friends to help meet their needs. And they aren’t afraid to speak up when something is unjust. People who grow up poor usually don’t plan to stay that way – they just may not know how to get out. Not because they’re dumb, but because they aren’t sure where to start.
Choices DO Matter
RJ is right when he says our choices affect our ability to shake off poverty. I chose to go to college. I chose to go to grad school. I chose to change jobs in early August. All of these things affect my ability to earn money. But if I had made different choices, that doesn’t automatically mean that I have some kind of disease and need to see a doctor.
Middle class people often try to project our values onto the poor. Since we were taught that we should work hard and be self-sufficient, we think everyone else should, too. We look down on people who don’t live their lives exactly the way we do. We may call them lazy or stupid. We may feel better about ourselves when we insult them.
I may not personally understand someone whose ambition in life is simply to raise their kids, stay out of legal trouble, and just make it until they die. But does that mean those ambitions aren’t worthy? I want more than that for myself, but is there automatically something wrong with someone who wants different things?
Everyone struggles on his/her own level. My challenges may be increasing my income and balancing life with work. Someone else’s challenges may be putting dinner on the table tonight and finding shoes for their child to wear to school next week. But that person is still making an effort. Still trying. Still working, though maybe in a way that doesn’t guarantee 26 paychecks a year. It doesn’t make a person stupid or lazy to struggle with something that comes easily to me or you.
Poverty is NOT a disease.
For much of this post, I have discussed poverty as if it were a disease. Something you can catch, then later recover from. And while it is entirely possible to move out of poverty (I’ve done it at least three times in my life, as I discussed above), calling it a disease is just an excuse to treat poor people like crap.
Diseases are undesirable. We immunize our children to keep them from getting things like polio. We wash our hands and carry around little bottles of hand sanitizer so we don’t contract any germs or illnesses. We spend millions of dollars researching cures for cancer and AIDS. Why? Because we don’t want those things. And I totally understand, because I don’t either.
Poverty is also undesirable. So often, though, we don’t talk about eradicating poverty because we want everyone to have enough and be equal. We talk about it because we want poor people to go away. We stereotype them as lazy, unable to learn new things, maybe dirty and untrustworthy. Throw in a few more negative adjectives if you want. We warn people – OMG, make good choices so you don’t end up like THEM. Well maybe if we took a fraction of the energy we spend talking smack about the poor and used it to get to know a poor person, or help them out, we wouldn’t have to worry about it because poverty wouldn’t exist.
No one chooses to be poor. Just like no one chooses to have a disease like cancer. People may make choices that RESULT in poverty, just like smoking can result in cancer, but people also become poor or sick in ways that have nothing to do with choice. And even the people who made poor choices didn’t do it on purpose. As a smoker, I could be diagnosed with lung cancer someday. And if that happens, I’ll acknowledge that my choice to smoke resulted in my diagnosis. But that doesn’t mean I smoke because I want to have cancer someday.
You know what disease I think is really at work here? The disease that permeates RJ’s post on Gen Y Wealth, trying to infect as many people as it can? Bigotry.