I find critiques of people living in poverty to generally be unfair and shallow. People living in poverty with barely enough financial resources to get through the day are criticized for not making smart investments of their time and money, and are criticized when they spend in a seemingly irrational manner. But for low income individuals who can’t seem to get ahead no matter what jobs they take, these critiques seem to miss the reality of life at the poorest socioeconomic level.
I wrote recently about the costs of work, which are not often factored into our easy critiques of the poor or unemployed. Much of America has inefficient and underinvested public transit. The time involved with catching a bus (or two) to get to work are huge compared with simply driving to work. Additionally, subways and other transports can be dangerous (there is no shortage of Youtube videos of people having phones stolen on public transit). This means that owning and maintaining a car can be essential for being able to work, an expensive cost that can make working prohibitive for those living in poverty.
The example of transportation to work is meant to demonstrate that not working can be a more rational choice for the poorest among us. Work involves extra stress and costs, and the individual might not break even, making unemployment the more rational choice. There are a lot of instances where the socially desirable thing becomes the irrational choice for those living in poverty. If we do not recognize this reality, then we will unfairly criticize the choices and decisions of the poor.
In his book Evicted, Matthew Desmond writes about scarcity and short-term thinking, showing that they are linked and demonstrating how this shapes the lives of those living in poverty. “research show[s] that under conditions of scarcity people prioritize the now and lose sight of the future, often at great cost.” People living in scarcity have trouble thinking ahead and planning for their future. When you don’t know where you will sleep, where your next meal will come from, and if you will be able to afford the next basic necessities, it is hard to think ahead to everything you need to do for basic living in American society. Your decisions might not make sense to the outside world, but to you it makes sense because all you have is the present moment, and no prospects regarding the future to plan for or think about. Sudden windfalls may be spent irrationally, time may not be spent resourcefully, and tradeoffs that benefit the current moment and the expense of the future may seem like obvious choices if you live in constant scarcity.
Combined, the misperceptions about the cost of work and the psychological short-termism resulting from scarcity show us that we have to approach poverty differently from how we approach lazy middle class individuals. I think we design our programs for assisting those in poverty while thinking of middle class lazy people. We don’t think about individuals who are actually so poor that the costs of work that most of us barely think about become crippling. We don’t consider how scarcity shapes the way people think, leading them to make poor decisions that seem obvious for us to critique from the outside. Deep poverty creates challenges and obstacles that are separate from the problem of free loading and lazy middle class children or trust fund babies. We have to recognize this if we are to actually improve the lives of the poorest among us and create a better social and economic system to help integrate those individuals.