Perspectives, Chaotic Lives, and Policy

Perspectives, Chaotic Lives, and Policy

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.
Two Genocide Non-Factors

Two Genocide Non-Factors

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker examines evidence around numerous factors that contribute to violence or that we might expect would contribute to violence. In one section, he specifically looks at factors that do and do not contribute to genocidal violence. Better understanding what does and doesn’t cause violence can help us better understand how we should organize societies. And when we think about how we should organize societies and think about global populations given global poverty and ethnic diversity, the results that Pinker highlights regarding genocide can help us learn a lot.
“Measures of ethnic diversity didn’t matter, refuting the conventional wisdom that genocides represent he eruption of ancient hatreds that inevitably explode when ethnic groups live side by side,” Pinker writes. Genocide is hard to understand and ideas of natural ethnic group hatred and conflict seems like it must be a contributing factor to genocide. However, evidence indicates that across the globe many ethnic groups live side by side, without one side trying to completely eliminate the other. Either increased or decreased ethnic diversity relative to the global average isn’t what seems to be a sparking factor in whether genocide occurs, despite what we might assume.
“Poor countries are more likely to have political crises…” Pinker continues, “but among countries that did have crises, the poorer ones were no more likely to sink into actual genocide.” The second non-factor that Pinker highlights with regard to genocide is poverty. Economic development is also not a leading factor that determines whether a genocide will occur in a country or within a violent conflict.
These two factors are important to recognize as non-factors for genocide because both factors can be used to further harmful political goals. Claiming that ethnic diversity can lead to genocide might be used as a reason to restrict immigration and the movement of people across borders and regions. Some may claim that they are trying to prevent genocide by reducing the freedom with which some minority groups may be able to move. For the second non-factor, we can also see that poor countries are not inevitably inclined toward genocide as they try to increase economic wellbeing. We can dismiss poor countries and aid to poor countries relatively easily, especially in the United States if the poor countries are far away from us. Associating poorness with genocide may be a reason for some people not to support global aid and assistance, fearing that aid may be captured by a powerful ethnic group and used to wage genocidal violence against others. Showing that levels of poorness are not associated with genocide may be helpful in encouraging people to support global aid to poor countries.
Can Markets Work Without Human Sacrifices?

Can Markets Work Without Human Sacrifices?

In Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes, “Unemployment, underemployment, and substandard wages are system failures only when viewed from the bottom. Looking from the top down, they are seen as natural processes essential to the healthy functioning of a self-correcting market system. From that perspective, it is as if the market system requires human sacrifice for its good health.” Liebow argues that markets can and should function without such failures. He argues that we have deliberately crafted a system that allows and accepts these market failures at the expense of greater marginal profits and returns on investments. The costs of the failures become spread over society, while the marginal gains are concentrated in the few market leaders.
Liebow encourages us to see homelessness as a system failure. He encourages us to see the support of the homeless as a responsibility of everyone within society and as a responsibility of the system as a whole. His book argues that we cannot rely on the few shelters, the minimal government assistance, and family members of those in need if we want to reduce homelessness. We all have to recognize the costs of homelessness, the way that social and market forces can drive people to homelessness, and the actors who are not helping to solve the problem. In particular, Liebow argues that businesses are not doing enough to solve homelessness:
“As if by magic, the onus of welfare and dependency is lifted from the system of work and the employers and placed on the workers and the unemployed right in front of our very eyes, and no one is any the wiser.”
I don’t think markets need to operate in a way that sacrifices the poorest people. There are statistics about the numbers of employees at companies like Walmart who receive food stamps or Medicaid benefits. Companies are able to pay minimum wage to their employees, and Liebow argues the companies themselves are subsidized for their low wages by our system that provides free healthcare and food to those individuals who cannot earn enough through their job. This shifts the burden of supporting the workforce from the companies that require the workforce in order to be profitable to the workers themselves. This accepts that we will have human sacrifices in order for profits to stay high and for the price of cheap goods to remain low. Liebow thought this was a problem and believed that it was possible for effective markets to exist without such human sacrifices.
I would also argue that there are many jobs that are not being done because we focus so highly on private markets. Companies want to be as efficient as possible, meaning they focus on where they can generate the highest profit. As a result, we don’t build enough affordable housing, our parks and greenspaces are littered with trash that no one is incentivized to clean, and lots of recycling goes to landfills instead of being sorted and reused. These are not all wonderful jobs and it would be hard to get homeless people to do these types of jobs, but the point is that our system which sacrifices the poor also sacrifices those jobs that don’t make the marginal cost benefit analysis worthwhile for corporations. There is work that can be done if we can find a way to allow public institutions to do it. Shifting from a sense of sacrificing the poor may encourage them to actually participate in society by doing these jobs, especially if we can make them suck a little less. Such a system would be a big departure from our current approach to markets, but it is probably necessary if we want greater social cohesion and less poverty and homelessness.
Who Are the Homeless?

Who Are the Homeless

In the United States we have many housing insecure individuals. We have many people who are chronically homeless, and are unlikely to ever get off the streets. We have many people who experience homelessness only transiently, possibly during an unexpected layoff or economic downturn. And we also have many people who find themselves in and out of homelessness. For each group of housing insecure individuals, their needs and desires of people differ. However, when we think about homelessness in America, we typically only think about one version of homelessness: the visibly homeless man or woman living in the streets.
In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes, “an important fact about these dramatically visible homeless persons on the street is that, their visibility notwithstanding, they are at best a small minority, tragic caricatures of homelessness rather than representatives of it.” When we think about the homeless we think about men and women who don’t work, who are smelly and dirty, and who appear to have mental disorders or drug addictions. This means that public policy geared toward homelessness is a reaction to this visible minority, not policy geared to help the many people who may experience homelessness in a less visible way.
People do not like the visibly homeless who live on the street. They feel ashamed to see them begging, feel frustrated by their panhandling, and are often frightened of them. The visibly homeless are not a sympathetic group, and are not likely to be the targets of public policy that supports them.
The less visibly homeless, however, are a population we are less afraid of and less likely to strongly dislike. But because we don’t see them, we don’t think of them when we consider policies and programs designed to assist the homeless. Their needs, their concerns, and the things that could help them find more stable housing are forgotten or simply unknown to the general public and the policymakers they elect. We are often unaware of the individuals who are homeless but still managing to work a job. We don’t think about those who experience temporary homelessness, sleeping in a car for a couple of weeks at a time between gig work. We don’t consider those who live in shelters until a friend or family member can take them in and support them until they can find work. Without acknowledging this less visible side of poverty, we don’t take steps to improve public policy and public support for those working to maintain a place to live. We allow the most visible elements of homelessness to be all we know about homelessness, and as a result our policy and attitudes toward the homeless fail to reflect the reality that the majority of the homeless experience.
Exploitation & Poverty

Exploitation & Poverty

“Exploitation thrives when it comes to the essentials, like housing and food,” writes Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. People cannot go without housing, cannot go without food, and cannot go without other basic necessities that can be used against them to extract extra profit by those who control capital, markets, and essential goods. This exploitation is an extra rent (using the definition of profit or return derived from any differential advantage) that doesn’t mean as much to the person profiting as it does to the individuals and communities burdened by exploitation. But we generally don’t focus on this exploitation.
Desmond also writes, “In fixating almost exclusively on what poor people and their communities lack – good jobs, a strong safety net, role models – we have neglected the critical ways that exploitation contributes to the persistence of poverty.” We are caught up on what ghettos, slums, and worn down neighborhoods lack. We blame individuals for ending up in such poor situations and blame them for being unable to escape, even if we somewhat acknowledge how difficult it could be for anyone to rise up given everything impoverished communities lack. Focusing on what poor people lack brings the scale down to an individual level, highlighting a single case in isolation without consideration of larger structural and systemic forces.
The reality is that poverty doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and neither do any of us. As much as we want to think that poverty is an issue for individuals and defined by what they lack, we all play a part in establishing a society and an economy that can exploit the poor. By neglecting systems of exploitation, we tacitly approve of it, and approve of poverty and everything people in poverty lack. Addressing poverty will mean addressing systems of exploitation, and finding new mechanisms to help people in poverty obtain what they need without being exploited.
Without Stable Shelter, Everything Else Falls Apart

Without Stable Shelter, Everything Else Falls Apart

“Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart,” writes Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. Throughout the book Desmond shows how eviction, and sometimes just the threat of eviction, has the power to ruin people’s lives. People who are living in poverty and just barely holding on can be pushed over the edge by an eviction, and can find it impossible to get their lives back on track. Far from being a consequence of poor decision-making and poverty, eviction can often drive people to make poor decisions, cause people to lose jobs, and can drive people into grinding and inescapable poverty.
“The pursuit of happiness undeniable includes the pursuit of material well-being,” Desmond writes, “minimally, being able to secure basic necessities.” People who have faced eviction don’t have the ability to secure basic necessities, they are excluded from the pursuit of happiness that Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Homeless shelters limit people’s ability to own items and bring them into a shelter. Storage facilities, where people may hope to keep things safe during an eviction, often become a black hole from which people’s possessions never return. Eviction leaves people with only the things they can carry with them, or perhaps with the things they can stuff in a car.
When people lose basic necessities they are effectively shut out of society. Sure, someone doesn’t need a TV, doesn’t need 5 pairs of shoes, and doesn’t need a coffee maker (that last one is arguable), but people do need things to brush their hair and teeth, enough changes of clothes to keep garments clean, and other basic necessities to avoid being shunned in public. We need small comforts from time to time to enjoy some aspect of life and feel human. We need connections, and that means we need some basic level of material possessions and a way to keep them out of the elements. Eviction takes these things away from people and makes lives fall apart. Housing needs to be a basic right, it needs to be something we make sure people have, otherwise we can never expect people to live the stable and responsible lives we want for them.
Eviction & Poverty - Housing First

Eviction & Poverty

Housing first is a common saying among those who advocate for the poor and impoverished in our nation. Instead of housing being a capstone to a responsible, socially adjusted, and respectable lifestyle, housing is seen by housing-first advocates as a cornerstone to those things. Without a stable place to live, it is almost impossible for people to rise from poverty, advocates of housing first policies argue.
Matthew Desmond shows support for a housing first approach in his book Evicted by connecting eviction with poverty and a downward life spiral. Once a stable housing situation is taken away from an individual, whether due to their own poor decisions or unfortunate circumstances, maintaining any sort of respectable and laudable lifestyle becomes nearly impossible. Desmond writes,
“Losing your home and possessions and often your job; being stamped with an eviction record and denied government housing assistance; relocating to degrading housing in poor and dangerous neighborhoods; and suffering from increased material hardship, homelessness, depression, and illness – this is eviction’s fallout.”
Eviction is a cause of poverty Desmond argues. When you lose your house and have to scramble to find a new place to live, don’t have a safe place to leave your children, and don’t have a place to store your things, you can hardly continue to work or search for a job. By losing your housing, you often lose your job, eliminating any hope of increasing your financial well-being. Evictions may also cause you to lose government housing aid or the support of neighbors and family members, making it even harder for you to get by. Employers won’t want to hire you if you live in a homeless shelter and you may become estranged from children or relatives. All of this only drives you deeper into poverty and despair.
A housing first approach gives people a stable place to live. It gives them an address that they can use on job applications, it takes away the stress that comes from trying to find a place to rent and gives people time to engage with neighbors or search for a job. Housing is necessary to take steps to better ones life, and can’t be seen as a capstone to reach once one’s life is on track.
Denied Housing Assistance

Denied Housing Assistance

In the United States it is hard to build political consensus for any measure. Measures aiding the poor are especially difficult to build a strong coalition behind. As a result, many of the measures that our nation adopts in an attempt to help the poor or address issues for those in need have compromises that make them less effective. This means that sometimes our policies don’t actually end up helping the people who most need assistance.
Matthew Desmond writes about this in his book Evicted. Regarding housing assistance, Desmond writes, “often, evicted families also lose the opportunity to benefit from public housing because Housing Authorities count evictions and unpaid debt as strikes when reviewing applications. And so people who have the greatest need for housing assistance – the rent-burdened and evicted – are systematically denied it.”
It is hard to find political support to provide assistance to people we don’t find deserving of assistance. The things that make people deserving of assistance are things like personal responsibility, a strong work ethic, a good sense of moral and social expectations, and self discipline to bring all these qualities together. Unfortunately, for many people living in poverty, especially those who have suffered trauma, some or all of these characteristics may be missing. We judge these characteristics by people’s level of debt and missed payments, by their history of eviction, and whether or not they have been able to maintain a stable job. These proxies help us determine if someone has the characteristics that would make them deserving of aid, but they also completely miss the point.
People who are deserving of aid usually are not the ones in the most dire need of aid. Quite often people who possess all the qualities to be seen as deserving hit hard stretches and need aid, but quite often people fail, they lose support and struggle to maintain the characteristics that would make them deserving, and are left without aid, making it impossible for them to actually improve their lives and become deserving of aid.
Desmond’s book, and the work of others on housing issues, advocates for a housing first policy. We cannot make housing assistance an incentive, it must be the primary foundation. We cannot expect someone to get a job if they don’t have housing. We cannot expect someone to stay off drugs if they don’t have a safe place to live. We cannot expect someone to catch up on debt payments if they don’t have a house and can’t get a foothold in the labor market. Housing, and housing assistance, has to be a priority, not an incentive or reward that is only provided to those seen as the most deserving.
Individual Costs of Eviction

Individual Costs of Eviction

People who don’t live in poverty often don’t realize just how costly poverty can be. Living in poverty can be very costly in terms of money and also in terms of time, energy, and overall quality of life. While I don’t think anyone would expect the quality of life for those in poverty to be good, I think many would be surprised to see just how bad it can be, and how limiting it can be for maintaining even simple enjoyable aspects of life that are in many ways essential for being human and are necessary for living responsibly and improving one’s situation.
In his book Evicted, Matthew Desmond writes the following to show just how costly poverty can be:
“If Arleen and Vanetta didn’t have to dedicate 70 or 80 percent of their income to rent, they could keep their kids fed and clothed and off the streets. They could settle down in one neighborhood and enroll their children in one school, providing them opportunity to form long-lasting relationships with friends, role models, and teachers. They could start a savings account or buy their children toys and books, perhaps even a home computer. Their time and emotional energy they spent making rent, delaying eviction, or finding another place to live when homeless could instead be spent on things that enriched their lives: community college classes, exercise, finding a good job, maybe a good man too.”
There are a few notable points in this quote. When people hit rock bottom poverty and face eviction, they lose the ability to maintain a job, to keep their kids (or themselves) in a stable location, and run out of energy to take the additional steps they would have to take to improve their situation. Because they are evicted (or otherwise left with no option but to move) frequently, they cannot build strong connections with other people. They cannot find mentors, find additional support and encouragement from caring people, and cannot get an extra hand in paying for groceries or networking for a stable job. Things like human connection are things that all of us want and need in life and that greatly contribute to our overall life satisfaction, but which are denied to those in deep poverty who face eviction.
These deep costs of poverty work against the individuals who have the least among us. Low wages and high rents mean that there is no way to have enough money left over to be responsible and plan ahead for the costs of life. Time spent on busses, time spent searching for another place to live once evicted, and time spent commuting long distances to places to work or receive aid add up on the costs of poverty, making life even more difficult and making escape even harder. It is important to acknowledge and think about all these costs. With such low levels of life satisfaction and no conceivable way to make life better, can we ever hope that anyone will pull themselves up by their own bootstrap to improve their lives? People need support, and they need systems that reduce the costs of poverty, or they can never escape.
Saving Money in Poverty

Saving Money in Poverty

People in poverty are often criticized for the way they live and the decisions they make. From the outside it is easy to criticize the person in deep poverty who buys things they don’t need on QVC, goes to garage sales and buys junk that piles up inside and outside their home, and spends their money on fancy grocery items instead of the cheapest options. However, for people in the deepest poverty, escape to even just a more stable poverty can seem impossible, and when that is the case, there is little reason to work on saving.
Matthew Desmond demonstrates this reality by explaining the situation of a character in a trailer park named Larraine. He writes, “To Sammy [Larraine’s niece], Pastor Daryl, and others, Larraine was poor because she threw money away. But the reverse was more true. Larraine threw money away because she was poor.” Desmond walks through Larraine’s financial situation. She had a tiny amount of money left after paying the rent each month, and if she saved every penny that she could for the whole year, she would bank enough money to afford one month of rent. However, doing so would come at a huge cost, forgoing things that brought her a small amount of enjoyment in her trailer park poverty. Instead of penny pinching, Larraine splurged on frivolous fun items and enjoyed the small perk of getting something nice from time to time. This frustrated the people in her life who she sometimes asked for money because they saw her prioritizing face creams and steak over hot water and sufficient food for the whole month.
Desmond continues, “People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny.” When this is the life you are stuck with, then why continuously live with nothing. Why continuously try to save when a whole year of saving only gives you enough cash in the bank (or under the mattress) to be secure for one month of rent payments if something went wrong. If there is almost no hope of your financial situation improving, then why not enjoy what you can, even if it means you are going to suffer a little more in some areas or risk having a utility shut off for a few weeks.