Politics and political scienceSocial justiceWorld matters

‘Being Poor’ and the Margin of Error

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Shortly after Hurricane Katrina came, when a bunch of people who should have known better blamed the poor in New Orleans for not getting out of the city, John Scalzi wrote a post on his blog Whatever called ‘Being Poor’.

It is an amazing post, one I revisit regularly, and when I do I read as many of the 2000+ comments it received. A good ways down that wall of comments that are equally amazing as the original post, Scalzi comes back in to refute a troll and clarify a couple of issues with this gem: “Being poor is not having any margin for error”.

That, folks, is the essential truth about poverty. A mistake, or even poor luck, can guarantee that a promising young person will never earn his or her way out of poverty but will remain trapped forever, having gotten caught in a Venus fly trap of obligations and problems that are impossible to escape.

It’s seven years later, and as I write this, Hurricane Isaac has been bumped down to a tropical storm again, after again leaving southern Louisiana badly flooded and damaged, with the death toll still not counted.

I’m holding my breath to see how the nation will react this time. This time, fortunately, New Orleans has better levees, but unfortunately that can’t be said of parishes bordering New Orleans, where at least one levee has been breached. We have a president now that believes in hand ups, instead of one who was almost comically (tragically) inept in his response.

But the folks who are affected by this storm who are also poor will still be poor when the cameras and microphones find a new target and the emergency aid runs out.

And since they’re human, and since they live in the real world, they will make mistakes, and they will be unlucky.

Why does it matter? It’s because that feeble margin of error is what creates generational poverty and the problems that come with generational poverty.

When you are poor you are held to a much higher standard than the rich. When a group of rich boys go joyriding in a car and get drunk and vandalize the neighborhood, the judge looks at the big picture (not just the events in front of him) and with the philosophy that ‘boys will be boys’ sentence them to a misdemeanor and some public service to make the blot on their records go away.

Imagine for a second that a different group of boys did the exact same actions. Perhaps Latino, perhaps black, perhaps Asian, perhaps white. But from a completely different neighborhood, the one where every fourth or third house is board up, where three families are living together in one home because the other two families have no utilities. The judge again would looke at the big picture, and instead of misdemeanors, these boys get charged with felonies, tried as adults, and sentenced to a long stint in the hoosegow, followed in many states by a lifetime of disenfranchisement and difficulties finding employment.

Think of all the ways a poor high school transcript, or dropping out of school because your family needs that income now, or an unplanned pregnancy, or any one of a thousand things that happens to teenagers because their brains are not fully developed and their impulse control is marginal can screw up a kid’s life, if they have no money or power to get out of the situation.

One mistake. A mistake that, if you’re honest, is very similar to one you probably made yourself, can completely derail an impoverished kid’s life… and now the track is laid. Your life choices have just shrunk, and at many decision points your only choices are a bad choice or a truly horrendous choice.

When I was poor as a single mother with no car, every laundry day was fraught with difficulties. Sometimes I could get my neighbor, who drank too much but at least was home, to watch my infant son while I ran up the block to the laundromat, but sometimes I would have no clothes left clean and was faced with the decision of trying to lug my infant son plus a full basket of laundry in 100 degree heat, or slip out during his nap and race as fast as I could to the laundromat and back, praying he didn’t wake up.

No good choices there, at least none I could see at the time. Sometimes I washed out that day’s clothes by hand. Sometimes I convinced a friend to give me a ride. But it was always something that had to be coordinated and planned in a way that someone who has always had access to a washer and a dryer (or even clothes line) in their home, and enough laundry soap to do the job, has never had to face.

Poverty (Photo credit: slynkycat)

And when you make that one mistake? (Or even two, or three or four) when you’re young, and confident, and strong and your dreams still feel like a real future – what happens to you? You become the ‘unworthy poor’, someone that deserves not just a lifelong sentence of poverty, but a generational one. You get compared to the mythical welfare queen. Everything you do is viewed through the lens of disapproval.
The worst of it is, sometimes it’s not your mistake, or even a mistake at all, that catches you in that trap. Sometimes its your parents’ mistakes, or something you were born with, or without.

Being poor means having no room for error.

Being poor means having no room for bad luck.

It’s so easy to fix this issue that it ought to be enshrined in our Constitution, right?

… We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America

Oh look! There it is.

Investment in ending poverty through education, safe and affordable housing, food security programs, medical programs, and assistance with barriers to these programs such as safe child care and public transportation are not a distraction from the business of government, but one of its key purposes.

POVERTY (Photo credit: whologwhy)

Investment in physical and human infrastructure has a far greater return rate than reducing taxes on the wealthy. In fact, historically, when taxes on the wealthy are high, they invest far more of their income and wealth back into society, because of the tax breaks such investment has historically earned.

So don’t believe in ‘trickle down’ economics. It’s like some drunk dude pissing on your shoe and telling you it’s raining.

Let’s widen that margin of error. It’s the least we can do.BTW, if you want to thank John Scalzi for his original post that inspired this one, buy his books. They’re pretty awesome.

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  • John Scalzi’s “Being Poor.
  • The Oppressive Psychology of Poverty
  • The Causes of Poverty (63): Stress, Ctd.
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