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.
Community & Trauma

Community & Trauma

In many ways I think it is a good thing that our nation does so much to celebrate the individual. We mythologize our greatest national founders, we try to embody the spirit of our greatest leaders, and we look up to great entrepreneurs today who are trying to solve some of our most challenging problems. Hard work, ingenuity, personal responsibility, and talent are the things we praise the most in these individuals, focusing on how great our society can be if we all strive to be as good as these leaders. Unfortunately, this hyper-individualism focus of the United States seems to be pulling us away from engagement with our communities as we focus inward on our selves, and can have devastating effects.
US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has argued, especially with the COVID-19 Pandemic, that our nation faces a crisis of loneliness. We have fewer social groups and organizations that we engage with. We spend more time in our homes watching TV and less time participating in social and community focused groups. When we are shut away inside, this puts some individuals at risk of domestic violence, drug abuse and addiction, and mental health challenges like depression. Ultimately, as our community institutions are left to dwindle with our relentless focus on the individual, we risk increasing the trauma that individual members experience, which has a positive feedback loop on diminishing notions of community.
In the book Evicted Matthew Desmond writes, “Milwaukee renters who perceived higher levels of neighborhood trauma – believing that their neighbors had experienced incarceration, abuse, addiction, and other harrowing events – were far less likely to believe that people in their community could come together to improve their lives. This lack of faith had less to do with their neighborhood’s actual poverty and crime rates than with the level of concentrated suffering they perceived around them.” Trauma destroys community, and destroyed communities create more opportunities for trauma. The more trauma and the weaker a sense of community, the more isolated and hopeless people become.
I don’t think anyone can overcome trauma on their own. People who have experienced any trauma, from minor to extreme, need the help of stable, compassionate, and trained individuals to live healthily. However, our hyper focus on the personal responsibility of the individual fails to account for trauma. You cannot pull yourself up by the bootstraps, demonstrate extreme grit, or maintain self-control when dealing with trauma. You need community, you need other people to help create safe places where you can engage in the world around you, and you need caring people who can serve as role mentors and coaches to help you get through.
As we have allowed community to dwindle, we have removed the supports that help us overcome trauma. We have removed safe spaces for us to see that we can interact with others, come together to have fun and complete socially beneficial projects, or to provide support for one another. We focus on what we as individuals can do (even when it is being socially responsible and volunteering our time), not on what we can be as a community. This drives our isolation, leaves those who experience trauma without positive and healthy outlets, and diminishes our sense of community, further crumbling the lives and institutions of those living in poverty or trying to get through deep trauma. Celebrating the achievements and success of the individual is great, but not when it comes at the expense of our community and the institutions that help support all of us.
Poverty & Prophecy

Poverty & Prophecy

My wife and I have been listening to the Harry Potter books on Audible so I have been reminded of one of the key ideas from the series – the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy. A prophecy is made about Harry Potter, the big bad guy, Voldemort, hears part of the prophecy and acts on it, ultimately fulfilling the prophecy and bringing about his own doom. The question, which is asked directly in the book, is whether any of the events of story would have happened if the prophecy had not been overheard. If the bad guy hadn’t been afraid of the prophecy to try to prevent it, would the prophecy have been meaningless?

This idea came back to me when thinking about a quote from Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. When I think about the poor and about the way they are treated, I often fall into a similar mindset as I do when I think about the prophecy from Harry Potter or any other story about a self-fulfilling prophecy. I find myself asking if the way we treat the poor effectively tells them they are not worthy and valuable, effectively creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that they realize. When we tell someone they are not good enough, not worth the time and attention of society, do they begin to believe it, and do they give up on themselves?
“Research shows that the intrusive treatment people typically receive at the welfare office can undermine their confidence in government and erode political participation,” write Edin and Shaefer. Their book shows that research on how people in poverty are treated finds that the treatment of poor people directly influences how they understand their position in society, how they understand whether they are supported, valued, and whether they should even try to participate in democracy to improve  their lives and fight for what they need to live better. Edin and Shaefer continue, “it stands to reason that this kind of treatment could also erode the very confidence that is so necessary for pulling yourself out of a $2-a-day poverty.”
This is where my ideas about self-fulfilling prophecies reconnects with poverty. Shaefer and Edin demonstrate that what we tell poor people becomes the reality they live within. We set up systems to aid the needy, but we treat them terribly when they seek to access such systems. We tell them they are not worthy, that they are failures, and that they don’t deserve the assistance legally provided. As a result, poor people believe they are not meant to participate in society, they may truly believe they are not good enough to improve their situation, and they may give up and accept that they are not deserving of a better life. The way we treat the poor effectively creates a prophecy that they live out, preventing them from meaningfully participating in our democracy, and limiting their chances of doing the things necessary to be seen as worthy of more help and assistance to escape deep poverty.
Misperceptions About AFDC

Misperceptions About AFDC

Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was the welfare system in the United States from the 1930’s to 1997 when it was eventually replaced with a new system for welfare. In the book $2.00 A Day authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write about the history and legacy of AFDC to explore how America ended up in a place where so many people in our country still live in a poverty that many don’t believe could exist in the richest nation on earth.
One of the challenges, the authors note, about welfare programs in the United States is that most people have serious misperceptions about how the programs operate and who is being served by the programs. These misperceptions are worsened by our country’s troubled racial history, and narratives about welfare beneficiaries in some instances are more influential in the design and implementation of welfare programs than real facts.
Edin and Shaefer demonstrate that this was true of Ronald Reagan who focused on AFDC and presented a racialized stereotype of welfare beneficiaries. Reagan popularized the narrative of the welfare queen which the authors describe by writing, “she was black, decked out in furs, and riving her Cadillac to the welfare office to pick up her check.” This narrative played on racial stereotypes, fears, and the dehumanization of black and poor people.
Edin and Shaefer continue, “None of these stereotypes even came close to reflecting reality, particularly in regard to race. It was true that as of the late 1960’s and beyond, a disproportionate percentage of blacks participated in AFDC. But there was never a point at which blacks accounted for a majority of recipients. The typical AFDC recipient, even in Reagan’s day, was white.”
The racialized stereotypes were used to justify changes to the welfare system, less generous benefits, and to demonstrate the idea that aid to the needy actually harms them rather than helps them. A narrative that was based more on anecdote and fear than reality shaped public opinion, perception, and policy. Misperceptions about AFDC meant that policymakers and their constituents were focused more on the narrative of welfare and less on the actual needs, systems, structures, and institutions of those living in poverty and ways to help them improve their lives.
Compelling Narratives

Compelling Narratives

“Although there is little evidence to support such a claim, welfare is widely believed to engender dependency,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in $2.00 A Day. People hate welfare and distrust welfare recipients. Part of the reason why is because compelling narratives have been developed and routinely deployed to argue that welfare creates dependence, that it weakens the person receiving aid, and creates a cycle where those who are poor lose skills and work ethic, becoming more dependent on a system of support.
“Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed that welfare is a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit,” write the authors. Rather than viewing welfare as a system that ensures everyone is able to meet their basic needs or as a system that provides a stable foundation for everyone to live a healthy life, welfare is viewed as a system that ruins the lives of those who receive it by draining their motivation to anything productive with their life. In the United States, a country founded on Protestant ideals where hard work is rewarded with divine riches, the idea of welfare runs against the concepts that have fueled capitalism and our independent spirit.
But the narratives around welfare are often little more than narratives. When it comes to government aid and social support, people are more interested in stories than statistics. A single anecdote about a greedy individual is more powerful than research on economic mobility, the long history of racism in the United States, or randomized controlled trials and natural experiments which show the benefits of social support systems. Research shows that economic mobility is not as simple as hard work and pulling oneself up by bootstraps. The long history of racism in America shows how black ghettos were the result of deliberate racist policies designed to hinder the economic and social advancement of black people. And natural experiments from Oregon regarding Medicaid lotteries show that individuals who receive Medicaid experience less stress and are more willing to engage economically when they are not worried about providing for their healthcare. “Sometimes evidence, however,” write Edin and Shaefer, “doesn’t stand a chance against a compelling narrative.”
When it comes to social support, we want to feel as though we are generous and we want to use charity to signal our wealth and success. Welfare provided through the government does not help us achieve these ends. Additionally, in our own narratives we like to tell ourselves that we are hard working, that we overcame obstacles, and that we are making worthwhile sacrifices for the good our families and communities. Providing welfare through the government to anyone who is below an economic threshold accepts that failure is not due to personal work ethic, challenging the idea that our success is purely a result of how hard we work. It acknowledges that racism has played into the economic outcomes (positive and negative) that we see today, it acknowledges that having a stable footing helps people get ahead, diminishing our personal narratives of overcoming obstacles. The narratives around our own success and the failures of others drive our views and opinions of welfare much more than the evidence of how welfare actually works and impacts the lives of those around us. This is true for the every day citizen on the street and many of the presidents and political leaders throughout our country’s history. These narratives also prevent us today from truly moving forward in a way that supports those who are the poorest among us.
The People Don't Know What They Want: Social Support

The People Don’t Know What They Want: Social Support

The General Social Survey (GSS) is a long running survey of Americans that considers numerous factors  and capture’s the country’s general thoughts, feelings, demographics, and experiences regarding a range of issues. Sometimes the GSS is useful in distilling the American will, but sometimes it reveals how confused American’s are and the extent to which we don’t know what we want.
 
 
Surveying the public can be notoriously tricky and misleading. When individuals are surveyed about specific clauses of the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare) – for example the requirement that insurances allow young adults to remain covered by their parent’s health insurance until age 26 – people are highly supportive of the policies. However, if you survey Americans about the ACA and  refer to it or any of its policies as Obamacare, then support drops substantially. What people want competes with political identities, and in the end people express a seemingly confused set of political preferences and desires.
 
 
The same happens with social support and welfare, as demonstrated by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. The authors write:
 
 
“The largest, most representative survey of American attitudes, the General Social Survey, has consistently shown that between 60 and 70 percent of the American public believes that the government is spending too little on assistance for the poor. However, if Americans are asked about programs labeled welfare in particular, their support for assistance drops considerably.”
 
 
What the survey shows us is that people don’t understand poverty well, don’t understand social support programs, and don’t understand the role of the government in assisting the poor. The term welfare has been colored to represent lazy people who are taking advantage of the system. People don’t like welfare, even though they like the idea of being charitable and helping those in need. In America, the idea of social support is that it helps someone get back on their feet to provide for themselves, whereas welfare is seen as a system of dependence that devalues the individual receiving the aid and enables laziness and degeneracy.
 
 
This idea is supported by the primary way that many American’s prefer social support and charitable actions to be handled – through religious organizations. In my eyes, religious charity seems to have a quid pro quo element, where the individual receiving support is implicitly expected to attend the church or be more deferential to those who give, and donors also expect some sort of Divine reward. There seems to be more acceptance of strings placed on donations through churches, with the idea that it will be support provided based on the standards set by the church community. This can be a way to screen out individuals who use drugs, atheists, and those who are unwilling or unable to receive counseling that aligns with the worldviews of the donors. Welfare, on the other hand, is simply support from a government bureaucracy with seemingly little to push the recipient to change their lives to the standards of the donor.
 
 
This seems to me to be why people dislike welfare but support the idea of providing more social support. People don’t really know what they want with social support, but they know they don’t want to see homeless people around and want to look charitable. The result is a distrust of welfare, but a feeling that they and others (possibly through government but possibly through other avenues) should be doing more to provide social support to those in need, especially if that support can shape the needy to fit with the ideals of the person donating money or providing taxes to support the poor.

Paying with Time - $2.00 A Day - Edin & Shaefer - Joe Abittan

Paying with Time

“One way the poor pay for government aid is with their time,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day.  In the United States we are wary of people getting things for nothing. We have a social support system that ensures people are worthy of government aid before they receive any support. We often tie work requirements, job search requirements, and drug screens to government aid, ensuring that people who accept aid are still making efforts to contribute to society. Still, even with these requirements people who don’t receive any government aid (at least not in the form of direct cash or in-kind welfare benefits) dislike the idea that so many people can access government aid for nothing.
 
 
However, as the quote from Edin and Shaefer shows, government aid is not really free, and the costs can be significant and even counter productive. On one hand it is understandable that locations to access government aid for things such as food, housing support, or direct cash transfers, would not be located on every street block. It makes sense that service centers would be relatively limited to reduce the government costs for administering programs. However, while this can make fiscal sense for government, it can also be a deliberate strategy to limit the number of people who access welfare benefits and receive services that are available to them on paper. Having a single location that operates standard business hours will necessarily mean that some individuals and families are incapable of accessing aid that is only distributed from that one location. A failure to co-locate aid offices also means that individuals and families may be strained in trying to access the aid that they need. Time can be a limiting factor that prevents people from accessing the aid and services which should help them get to a more stable economic position.
 
 
If people are able to make it to the location, aid often comes after lengthy applications, long lines and wait times, and lengthy commutes. Politicians may deliberately design aid programs to have these time costs as a way to reduce fraud and reduce the appeal and dependence on government aid, but for those who need it, it may mean forgoing necessary aid to help get one’s life back on track or to help put food on the table for a hungry family.
 
 
Often, the programs that provide aid are intended to temporarily support people until they can provide for themselves. However, if short-term aid is truly needed, to the point where the time costs are necessary to go through, then individuals may not be spending time looking for jobs, addressing child behavior issues, or otherwise using their time in a productive manner. These time costs are real, and can limit people’s opportunities in ways that actually make them more dependent on the governmental aid, and less capable of providing for themselves. The aid that people receive may seem as though it is free, but the time costs need to be considered, especially if programs are unwieldly and actually prevent people who do access them from taking steps to no longer need government aid.

Shifting Away From The Drug War

Shifting Away from the Drug War

In the context of supporting the war on drugs, Johann Hari, in his book Chasing the Scream, describes most people as, “admirable people who have a series of understandable worries about the alternative. They support the drug war out of compassion for all the people they fear might become victims if we relaxed the laws. They are good people. They are acting out of decency.”

 

However, Hari believes that support for the drug war is actually more costly in the long run, and damages the lives of those who use drugs to an unreasonable extent. In the book, Hari looks at recreational drug users who don’t develop addictions and don’t generally cause a lot of harms through drug use. He compares these individuals to those who do develop addictions, and who contribute to crime and public health problems as a result of their drug dependencies. A key difference between the groups is that many of the people who develop addictions also have severe trauma in their lives. They are often isolated, have had adverse childhood experiences, and are suffering from physical or psychological pain without a supportive community to aid them. Not all harmless recreational drug users are free from pain and trauma, and not all addicts have a traumatic past, but the frequency of past trauma and ongoing psychological pain is a substantial difference between the two groups. Punishment and making life harder for drug addicts who have experienced pain hurts them and makes it more likely they will feel stuck and isolated, with no alternatives to alleviate their suffering besides the temporary relief of continued drug use.

 

The idea of punishment for drug use makes sense when we think about recreational drug users who we want to prevent from causing problems as a result of drug use. But those individuals, aside from contributing to an illicit economy, are not  contributing to the major drug use problems that we see. We can see this in our alcohol policy. Responsible recreational drinkers are not problems, but people who either have trouble consuming alcohol responsibly or simply chose not to consumer responsibly (perhaps college binge drinkers fit in both categories) do create problems for the rest of us. Helping an alcoholic is often understood as helping them develop a safe social setting where they can avoid alcohol or use it responsibly with people who understand their addiction and/or other alcohol challenges.

 

At another point, Hari writes, “We all want to protect children from drugs. We all want to keep people from dying as a result of drug use. We all want to reduce addiction. And now the evidence strongly suggests that when we move beyond the drug war, we will be able to achieve those shared goals with much greater success.” Moving beyond the drug war means that we will develop real, meaningful treatments and supports for drug addicts. It means we can have safe, legal drugs that people can use in supervised settings. It means that people with a history of drug use won’t be barred from ever finding even the most menial of jobs, and will be able to reintegrate back into society, rather than being forced out into situations where continued drug use is almost inevitable. Our approach to drug policy via the drug war has had disastrous consequences, and Hari encourages us to reconsider the path we are on.
Addiction Can't be Fought with Pain

Addiction Can’t be Fought With Pain

With the exception of the copious amounts of caffeine I consume thanks to a high coffee intake, I don’t use any drugs and don’t really have any personal direct experience with the world of recreational drug use or drug addiction.  Nevertheless, our nation’s opioid crisis has always stood out to me as an important and intriguing policy issue. Despite not having first hand knowledge of drug culture in the United States, I have been able to recognize the changing landscape as more states provided legal avenues to obtaining marijuana, as policy discussions popped into my orbit about racial disparities in drug sentencing, and as prominent American figures opened up about drug addiction in their family. To better understand the issue I selected a handful of books to read to better understand drug use and addiction in America. One of the books I read was Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream.

 

Before my mini dive into drug policy and drug use literature, I didn’t have fully formed thoughts about our nation’s response to drugs. The idea that we would lock up drug addicts and those who tampered with or misused prescription medications seemed normal. I figured that putting people in prison where they would be away from drugs and monitored as they went through withdrawals made sense, and I had no reason to question the system and approaches we used to curb drug abuse and addiction. However, as the opioid crisis spread, I recognized how incomplete my understanding was, and sought out new information to better understand why our county has faced such serious drug problems. Across the books I read, what I learned was that drug policy has been racially biased throughout American history, and that drug use and addiction is often deeply tied to pain and trauma, and worsened by the loss of community.

 

These themes ran throughout the books I read and made me re-think the way we approach drug addiction and how we are so quick to punish drug abuse. My sense is that most Americans think along the same lines that I previously thought along – unaware of the deep social factors that run through so much of the drug abuse and addiction in our country.

 

Johann Hari writes, “The core of addiction doesn’t lie in what you swallow or inject – it’s in the pain you feel in your head. Yet we have built a system that thinks we will stop addicts by increasing their pain.”

 

So many of the people who fall into drug addiction originally turn to drug use and misuse as a way to ease some sort of pain stemming from a deep trauma. America’s suburbs have reduced our sense of community, and furthered isolation in our country. People with pain and trauma have minimal support for mental and emotional challenges, and as a result, often turn to drugs to attempt to manage the psychological or physical pain they live with.

 

Our response has been punishment, not support. People with deep pain and trauma cannot be healed by making their lives more painful, more traumatic, and by putting more barriers in front of a successful and healthy life. We assume drug addicts need to face more severe consequences to scare them away from drug use, but that is because we fail to see the common threads I have been writing about over the last several weeks. The result has been disastrous for those who find themselves misusing drugs and facing a road to addiction. Punishing the thing we are afraid of in an attempt to stamp it out only entrenches it further, and makes it worse for all of society. We have to recognize the reality of pain and trauma combined with a decimation of our sense of community in regard to addiction. We have to solve those problems first before we can ask people to work with us to fight through drug abuse and addiction.
Addiction and Community

A Final Thought on Addiction and Community

In the afterword of his book Dreamland, author Sam Quinones includes a quote from an obituary written for a 24-year-old man who lived in Avon Lake, a town of about 24,000 people just west of Cleveland. The parents of the young man who died from addiction wrote in their son’s obituary, “They say it takes a community to raise a child. It takes a community to battle addiction.”

 

Everyone, including those of us who are not parents, know that it is true when we say it takes a community to raise a child. Historically, new parents have been in their early to mid twenties (this is changing now – possibly for these communal reasons), and with lower incomes in early stages of their careers and fewer immediate resources, new parents have relied on family members and friends to help with child rearing. As kids get older, they enter public schools, where everyone, parents and non-parents, contribute financially, typically through local property taxes. We know that it is hard to raise a kid on your own, and that it makes a big difference to live near family, to have close friends who are raising kids at the same time, and to have supports from work for the times when our kids are sick and need extra love and attention.

 

The quote from the parents in their son’s obituary, and all of Dreamland demonstrate that the same is true for how we should approach addiction. Asking someone to overcome addiction on their own is like asking a child to raise themselves. It can happen, but it doesn’t often turn out well. People battling addiction need supportive relationships in their lives. The family members and friends of people with addiction need help, because it can be challenging and taxing to help someone else stay sober and find meaning in life beyond addiction. We need communities where we can help each other, watch out for one-another, and provide support in times of need. Many of us have lost this along our way, as our culture has pushed us toward staying inside, watching TV in our own homes, and filling our lives with stuff rather than with the people we love and care about.

 

This is a tough time to find new connections and community as we work to prevent the rapid spread of a new virus, but we should be thinking forward nonetheless to a time where we can better connect with those around us and find new ways to live in community with those who matter. It might just save the life of someone we know whose struggle with addiction has been hidden from us.