One of the things I try to remember is that my experiences and perspectives are limited. What makes sense to me, what seems reasonable and rational to me, is all based on my background and the opportunities I have had. I haven’t experienced the same lives of others so I cannot always fully understand their perspectives.
I think this is incredibly important to keep in mind when we think about poverty in the United States. From a middle or upper income perspective, poverty can be incredibly misunderstood. Those misunderstandings in turn shape attitudes, opinions, and policies regarding poverty and those living in extreme poverty. We lack the perspective to understand just what it is like for people who are the worst off and therefore fail to approach them in appropriate ways and fail to produce policies that will actually help improve their state of being.
For example, we often criticize people in poverty for being lazy and undisciplined. If only people in poverty would work hard and save money, they could get to a better place and not be stuck in poverty anymore. There is no policy that we should introduce to help them if they are not willing to help themselves first. This is a standard mindset and thought process related to those in poverty. And it also fails to take into consideration what life in extreme poverty is really like.
One thing I think we should consider is how chaotic and unpredictable a life in poverty can be. When people find themselves in a state of homelessness, it can be incredibly challenging to find any stability from which to begin approaching life in the way that a middle or upper income person would be able to. As Steven Pinker writes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, “it doesn’t pay to save for tomorrow if tomorrow will never come, or if your world is so chaotic that you have no confidence you would get your savings back.”
If you don’t know for sure that the work you managed to find for today will be there tomorrow, then it is hard to plan ahead at all. And if you can’t plan ahead and count on some stability in terms of housing, in terms of maintaining possessions, and in terms of work, then you can’t begin to save money or resources in any meaningful way and you can’t demonstrate what others would consider wise self-discipline. At the very bottom, life is chaotic and that chaos makes it impossible to do the things that middle and upper income people require of you before they are willing to help you.
Perspectives and understandings matter. The people who make policies and vote for people who shape policies often lack the correct perspectives to understand something as complex as what Pinker’s quote gets at. We look at those in poverty and make assumptions about their laziness and lack of self-discipline, never realizing that sometimes it doesn’t pay to save or be self-disciplined and that an incredibly chaotic life makes even basic activity feel impossible. We then vote for politicians who also misunderstand the very poor, and consequentially we introduce policies that do little to help life be less chaotic for those in extreme poverty.