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November 20, 2006

The Difference Between Feeling Poor and Being Poor

Hilzoy writes:

I've been broke at various points in my life, though it always made an enormous difference that while I was determined never to ask my family for help, I always knew that if I were run over by a bus, I could. The difference between me and genuine poverty was like the difference between fasting and starving. That said, the time I learned most from was my stint at the biker bar.[...]

I would have walked over hot coals to avoid hitting up my parents for help, and sometimes came pretty close to doing just that, but my assumption always was that if I ever really needed help for some reason that was genuinely not my fault -- if I were diagnosed with some awful disease and needed urgent medical care, or something -- there were people I could turn to. A lot of people, actually. And my co-workers at the biker bar had a lot of people they could turn to for emotional support, but no one who could help them if they needed money for some reason that was absolutely not their fault.

And the upshot of this was: not only did they have no margin of error, they also had no margin for bad luck.

This reminds me of a favorite quote from David Shipler's The Working Poor:

Breaking away and moving a comfortable distance from poverty seems to require a perfect lineup of favorable conditions. A set of skills, a good starting wage, and a job with the likelihood of promotion are prerequisites. But so are clarity of purpose, courageous self-esteem, a lack of substantial debt, the freedom from illness and addiction, a functional family, a network of upstanding friends, and the right help from governmental or private agencies. Any gap in that array is an entry point for trouble, because being poor means being unprotected. You might as well try playing quarterback with no helmet, no padding, no training, and no experience, behind a line of hundred-pound weaklings. With no cushion of money, no training in the ways of the wider world, and too little temptation against the threats and defenses of decaying communities, a poor man or woman gets sacked again and again -- buffeted and bruised and defeated. When an exception breaks this cycle of failure, it is called the fulfillment of the American Dream.

November 20, 2006 | Permalink


There are two problems with this concept of poverty and how to escape, though. First, if it were so difficult to get out and easy to get in, there would have never been a wealthy or middle class.

Second, there is no proposed solution.

Posted by: Deep Thought | Nov 20, 2006 10:02:40 AM

you're probably too old to remember the TV ad in which a balding, pudgy, middle-aged guy (looked a lot like me, come to think of it), was playing half-back in an NFL game. His team is Met Life (or Prudential or some financial firm). As he runs down field, his team blocks out the players on the opposing team: temporary disability, career change, all of the other perils.

Finally he toddles into the end-zone as the crowd cheers and the announcer yells "You've done it, George! Financial security!"

made a big impression on me.

oh--and deep thought? If you don't think Ezra has some proposals about how to make it more possible for people to get out of poverty and stay out, then you haven't been reading his blog very long.

Posted by: kid bitzer | Nov 20, 2006 10:50:24 AM

Deep Thought- the vast majority of the wealthy class earned it the old fashioned way- they inherited it. The second largest come through serendipity- their product/skill/look/sound is the right one at that moment in that area- look at celebrities and their pay scale, squat to exhorbitant.

Most people in poverty are now fed an unending stream of pipe dreams as the way out of poverty. Most get out of poverty when they are given a good dose of reality. Education is the best solution and it starts with the basic life skills that are no longer being taught at most schools- home economics, personal finances and personal responsibility.

Posted by: Hawise | Nov 20, 2006 10:53:35 AM

Adding on - Deep Thought, the USA also saw a period of almost thirty years (1945-1973) where the federal government made a high priority of helping people achieve upward mobility and financial security. That's an incredible help. A lot of people were able to buy houses, send children to college, help their children to get established after college, and to have a secure retirement.

Posted by: Barry | Nov 20, 2006 10:57:00 AM

Education is the best solution and it starts with the basic life skills that are no longer being taught at most schools- home economics, personal finances and personal responsibility.

I'm all for teaching to expand horizions, etc but I totally agree with this as well - there needs to be more emphasis on personal finances and money management in school, for all grade levels. I went to (supposedly) one of the best schools in my state, lots of white-collar professional kids, and it was only by the grace of one grumpy, brilliant econ teacher that we had any taste of real-world financial discussion at all.

(Yes, I know this is adding an extra demand to the already packed school schedule, but I think it could be done.)

Posted by: twig | Nov 20, 2006 11:07:05 AM

GI Bill, unions, progressive tax structure and all the rest coincided, fascinatingly, with the rise of the middle class. Quite a coincidence, that.

Posted by: Ezra | Nov 20, 2006 11:07:30 AM

I would be interested to know:

1) What definition you are using for 'wealthy'
2) What percentage of those you define inherit their wealth.

I am looking around for this now. Anyone got a quick link?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 20, 2006 12:02:14 PM

Actually, if we're talking about the ultra-affluent, fundraisers know that the majority of them own their own businesses. A big chunk rise up through the corporate ranks. Few inherit.

Check the Chronicle of Philanthropy or Giving USA for details.

On the other hand, I think I feel better about a society that takes bad luck out of the equation when it comes to esacaping poverty.

Posted by: gwangung | Nov 20, 2006 1:24:25 PM

I have felt and been poor. Poor is poor. For me the difference was the fact that I could get my college paid for by a Pell Grant. If not for that I would have stayed poor.
that grant allowed me to end up in a good job with benefits and able to raise my children decently.
I firmly believe that education is the key. We need to get to the kids early and to fix the education system not with hodge podge but, a streamlined and pragmatic program that works everywhere. We need to make sure the kids also get good food and not garbage. We need daycare that is affordable and to help with costs and afterschool programs for working mothers.
We need to make college an option and not a dream or so hard to get.
Mostly we need to stop this anti-intellectual bias and looking down on smart people. We have to stop rewarding the dofus and the dolt because they are funny or charming or athletic. We have a bias that kids learn early against learning, being smart and doing well. We need to change that.

Posted by: vwcat | Nov 21, 2006 2:20:53 AM

please don't make me laugh.

you only get rich by other people paying for your children's education. if you paid for it yourself you would be poor! nope don't need families, daycare and any other rubbish!!!!!!!!

Posted by: warped | Dec 12, 2006 8:26:57 PM

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