Wednesday, December 14, 2011

More on Poverty

Following up on yesterday's post...

One of the most pernicious aspects of poverty is touched on by a post over at Sullivan, relating to what the deterrent effect (if any) of the death penalty (news flash: There doesn't seem to be one).

The issue relates to what's called locus of control: Basically, do you see what happens to you as the result of choices you make that are under your control, or the result of events outside your control.

As Megan McArdle pointed out in the post I linked yesterday, there's no margin for error when you're poor. A careless, frivolous expense early in the month may mean you live on PBJ (or just skip a few meals) by the end of the month. Yes, you can save for something--but an unexpected car repair can wreck your plans completely. (And of course, since a beater was all you could afford, it's more likely to break down in the first place.) There was an NPR interview I heard a while back of someone trying an experiment of living on food stamps for a few months, and then writing about it. What she described was interesting--she said she expected money to be tight, but she wasn't ready for how exhausting it was. You couldn't just decide "that looks good, and it's on sale, I'll get it." You still had to think through how much you had left, what else you needed to get, what other expenses you had this month...on and on. Day after day.

Or, as my mom once said, "There's no shame in being poor, but it's damned inconvenient."

And eventually, the grind wears you down. And you stop considering possibilities. You saved up for the class at the community college but then your car broke down the 4th week of classes and by the time you got it fixed you'd missed two weeks of classes and couldn't catch up. You tried to get into that training program but your job changed your schedule and you couldn't go. The kids got sick and you couldn't get anyone to care for them so you had to stay home, and that got you fired.

And eventually, it really does seem as if life is happening to you rather than being under your control. Your locus of control has been externalized; and once that's happened, changing that way of thinking is very difficult. The narrowing of possibilities, the not even considering certain options because "that isn't for people like me" or "that wouldn't work anyway" or "I'd never be able to afford it," the lowering of ambitions and goals until it's "Just make it through to the weekend." Keep your head down, don't make waves.

Unfortunately, the "ground down and kicked around until ready to just give up" state can also be interpreted as "some people just prefer poverty to getting off their butts and doing something about it." Because, of course, when an unexpected $500 car repair bill is inconvenient but not catastrophic, when a day's work doesn't involve backbreaking labor--in short, when you're comfortably middle class and have convinced yourself it's all entirely because of your own achievements--it's plainly self-evident that anyone else could do it too. And as Heinlein pointed out, "Anytime 'everyone knows' thus-and-such, it ain't so, by at least a thousand to one."

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