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When Poverty Is The Fault Of The Poor

Great Evans-Manning comment by Josh McGee on the “Why Poor People Act Against Their Best Interest” thread. Josh had written about a hobo coming to his great-grandfather’s door begging for food, but declining the offer to help out for a bit on the farm in exchange for it. Josh wrote that his great-grandfather was not a wealthy man. Reader Todd asked how his grandfather got the money to buy the farm in the first place. Josh responded:

I don’t know, maybe he did it one day at a time, over a lifetime? There’s a great scene in Gran Torino where the boy in the story is in Clint Eastwood’s garage, admiring all the tools he had. Eastwood reminded him that he didn’t get them all at once, they were acquired over a long lifetime of diligent labor.

Why is it so shameful to forcefully preach that message to the poor? Why must everyone who did pursue that route be viewed with suspicion? Why is it wrong to point out that failure to diligently work can come at great cost and may indeed be utter foolishness.

The last thing the poor in these situations need is for folks who have it somewhat together to constantly point out how utterly hopeless it all is because The System is against them anyway.

Yes, the system is against them. Yes, the system would just as soon sterilize them and bring in other poor from around the world to replace them, and call it Compassion. Work diligently anyway. I’m not blind – I see the destructive loss of buying power in this country. Work diligently anyway. So you won’t get a garage full of tools, but just a closet or a drawer? Do it. Work diligently anyway. Yes, the choices the poor may have to make to truly escape the situation – if they desire to – will be painful. Work diligently anyway. Yes, the poor in these circumstances may get knocked down frequently if they try to make a better life. Keep moving forward. Keep working diligently.

Why are we embarrassed by that message? Why must we always remind them that they have no hope (which is a lie)?

I recognized during the crash of ’08 that even with my advanced degree and good job, I don’t (and won’t) have the buying power of my own grandfather, who was a farmer and school teacher. I don’t think it will come back in my lifetime. But, who knows, maybe in the lifetime of my grandkids or great-grandkids. So, how to weather that storm? How to avoid this family line going back to the outhouse?

Yes, part of this is happening because of wicked crony capitalism, our rejection of the wisdom that the borrower is servant to the lender, and other structural things. But part of it is happening because of our attitude.

I can’t do anything about The System. I can’t change The System. But, I can adjust my attitude. I can also avoid car payments by driving hunks of junk. I can avoid nice cell phones / texting / data plans that add up to a couple hundred a month. We’re cutting the cable bill. We don’t take nice vacations every year. This year we went camping for a few days, and had a memory/experience with a bear that our children will cherish forever. And there are 50 other tiny choices we’ve made all designed to position us to weather this rather long economic storm. And guess what, I’m 32, my wife is 30, and we’re about 2 months from having only a house payment. Even 2-3 years ago, I doubted whether that was possible for us. It turns out it was. Why? I trusted the Proverbs, the Old Wisdom. The System does indeed still suck and it is screwing us over. But we still have the opportunity to make a choice, today. It turns out, too, that our (already good) marriage is also MUCH better now. There was an immediate non-financial benefit to going down this path. There were immediate rewards.

Is it fair that my generation has to do this, has to live well beneath our means, or struggle finding means, while also funding the boomers and others, and listening to them remind us how much they care about the poor because Great Society. No, I don’t guess. But it wasn’t fair that an earlier generation had to go through the Depression and then spend time in the Pacific and Europe in war. Life isn’t fair. Could I go out and get that nice car payment, knowing that if it doesn’t work out, I can drive up to the food bank in my nice car because ‘it can happen to anybody’? Yeah, but I’d rather not do that. There is a reason people feel ashamed about it, and seek out voices telling them ‘it isn’t your fault’. Yes, it is their fault. They made an ignorant choice about cash flow, and it cost them. I’d rather make a different choice. We may still need the food bank someday, but we’ll use it knowing we made choices to live well beneath our means year after year after year to try to help our family weather this storm. And hopefully we will have been generous enough to the poor – as people – that they can help us through that, if it comes.

And you know what, there is nothing wrong with telling the poor that message and showing them that message as we live among them. But how many of us want to live among them, after all? Better to beat our chests as we put money on the EBT card from a distance, is it?

Diligent work, invisible on a day-to-day basis, adds up over a lifetime. It allows you to possibly weather storms when times are bad. It allows you to catch back up (a little) if things turn around. And it builds character. All of that is true no matter how The System is screwing you over on any given day – and yes, it is screwing you over.

This reminds me of something a friend of mine said his mother, a schoolteacher who had been raised in great poverty during the Depression, and overcame enormous odds to earn a college degree, would tell her students when they would complain that they couldn’t do their homework because of this, that, or the other: “Yes, but 2 + 2 still equals 4, and you still have to know that.” The point being that reality doesn’t feel sorry for you, and no matter how many obstacles it throws in your way, you can’t avoid doing certain things and expect to succeed in life.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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