In a previous post I began discussing the “culture of dependency,” a term used by a CNN writer to discredit social programs and infer that people on these programs are addicted to poverty. This series explores the ignorance of that thought and exposes the truth about America’s culture of dependency: that it is not created because people access (or abuse) these programs, but by the fact that they most have no choice but to utilize these programs at some point in their lives.
In the post, Coding Poverty I discussed the ways in which we code the language that we use to describe poverty. By coding the language we diminish the significance and pervert the truth about poverty in America. We fashion poverty to be a consequence of poor people’s actions and their lack of ambition when, in fact, the economic principles of this country and the prevailing ideals of individualism are the problem and poverty is its consequence.
I recently had a conversation with a White friend of mine concerning a twenty year old Black boy that lives in his neighborhood. My friend took pity on this kid and allowing the kid to come over and perform odd jobs for extra cash. The connection developed to the point that when the boy began to have trouble at home with his mother he would seek my friend’s house for refuge before disappearing into the streets for weeks at a time.
I had the opportunity to meet the boy once. After the boy left my friend and I began to discuss our thoughts about the boy. My friend felt the boy was a “good kid” but that maybe he had some cognitive difficulties because, to him, the boy didn’t seem to get “it.” The boy had no aspirations for college and a career and the boy didn’t seem to desire to want to make anything of himself. My friend felt that a lot of the boy’s problem was his mother and the lack of a father figure in his household. What my friend could not see through the veil of his privilege was that this boy was living a completely different reality from him. One in which survival is the only aspiration and it taxes your every resource to the point that you don’t have the time or energy to dream of dormitories and campuses and what to be when you grow up.
The hardest thing I have ever done in my life was being poor. It’s exhausting. You put your head down press forward and one day you look up and years have passed you by. You don’t have the luxury of vacations, luxurious holidays, shopping sprees, eating out and partying. Life is about survival and that which does not help you survive each day, doesn’t get your attention.
The Psychology of Poverty
We might shrug at the idea that poverty has an effect on mental health because it seems like common sense. Surely the impoverished are under stress and can’t afford to eat well or get healthcare, but the problem is deeper than that. Sendhil Mullainathan at The Institute for Research on Poverty focused particularly on the effect of poverty on attention and self-control. Mullainathan discovered that cognitive resources such as attention and self-control are limited. These resources are drained by the amount of time that we spend using them. Because the lack of resources means less margin for error, these individuals have to spend more time and more energy on less significant choices as other people. For someone living under the poverty line the decision to buy a combo for seven or eight dollars at Burger King might make the difference in whether or not they have bus fare or gas money to get to work at the end of the week. Therefore, they exert more cognitive resources to make this decision and similar decisions. So we begin to deal with things such as whether or not to go to college and/or planning a career path, they may run out of cognitive resources and pay less attention or cannot cognitively process the details of such a decision. And because this decision has no significant influence over their immediate situation, it becomes an irrelevant thought for which they cannot spare the mental resources to think about. This is the reality of poverty. It is not an issue of intelligence, lack of ambition, laziness, or mental incapacity; it’s a matter of survival and the best use of resources.
The problem is that we disregard the truth about poverty. It is more comfortable to believe that people who are severely impoverished are some self-destructive anomaly because in order to relate to these individuals and empathize with them, we would have to admit that we could be them. There are many people in this country who are a paycheck away from living in poverty. There are many people in this country who are not homeless and have jobs that are living below the poverty line. Poverty does not look the way society would like us to believe. The media shows us little kids in so e third world country with protruding bellies and glossy eyes and we think that’s what poverty looks like. Or we see people walking up the street at stop lights with cardboard signs asking for money and we think that’s what poverty looks like. We see bundled heaps of people tucked into corners of the street and we think that’s what poverty looks like. No doubt, those people are impoverished, but the majority of impoverished people do not look much different from us. Poverty is sitting beside you on the bus, it’s sitting across from you in the staff meeting, it’s standing in front of you in the grocery store line.
We have to have the courage to accept the truth. We have to be willing to look poverty in the face and see what it looks like. Until then we are lying to ourselves about the security of our own station and denying an epidemic the attention required to remedy it.
No matter where we were born in terms of socioeconomic status or what social class we currently live in, we have to understand that our perception is our reality, but not everyone has the privilege of sharing the wealth or abundance that our perspective affords us. Their reality is built on their perspective on life and we have to respect that reality even if it is foreign to us.
Poverty is an epidemic that is plaguing our country. It affects more people than we could possibly know. That woman beside you on the subway may be dressed stylishly, the man at the desk beside you at work may wear a nice suit and tie, that person you pass on the street might be begging for money, that guy on the corner might be selling drugs. But how are we to know their reality? How are we to know what life is demanding of them? We can’t. But we must consider that there are elements of their lives over which they had no control that have brought them to that place just as there are elements of our lives over which we had no control that have afforded us the opportunity to be where we are in our lives.
Who dares judge the inexpressible expense another pays for his life?
– James Baldwin
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man