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Why Poor People Act Against Their Long-Term Interest

A reader who comments here under the name Peg, and who comes from Troy, New York, has made another insightful comment about why poor people often act against their long-term interest. What Peg says is in many ways what Megan McArdle says in her recent talk, the video of which is above. It’s well worth […]

A reader who comments here under the name Peg, and who comes from Troy, New York, has made another insightful comment about why poor people often act against their long-term interest. What Peg says is in many ways what Megan McArdle says in her recent talk, the video of which is above. It’s well worth watching if you have 18 minutes to spare. I learned a lot from it. Here’s Peg, on some of the same themes:

Troy is in some ways a lovely place to live–but, no, it has never really made the transition from Industrial Revolution boom-town to college town and satellite of the state capital. It doesn’t help that, like many IR boom-towns, it attracted hordes of displaced, often traumatized people who’d lost too much already, and who were likely as not to never win it back.

It’s not just Irish cultural tribalism, though God knows the Scots Irish came with a collection of pre-existing attitudes that do not help much at all. I really recommend reading Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, by David Hackett Fisher, not only for an explanation of what the Irish and Scots Irish brought into the culture, but of the “norms” of stressed and violently threatened communities.

That second is really vital here, as it addresses some of the elements held in common by poor blacks, poor whites, poor Latinos, and other demographic groups. In the process it has a lot to say about why it’s so hard to break through the “bad habits” of poverty.

Behaviors that are rewarding in the long term, that reward the patient (don’t get in violent fights, get an education, don’t spend your capital, save for the future) are actually reliably disadvantageous in the short-term. They involve investing present-day resources, giving up present-day bonds, refusing present-day rewards for some distant future pay-back. The more disadvantaged the individual, the less likely such investments are to pay off…and the more critically those denials of present-day pleasures and resources damages the individual.

To get out of poverty, you have to resist the short-term pleasures that frequently bind the family and community together. You have to resist unprotected sex, even when it’s seen as snooty personal rejection by everyone around you–whether you choose the obvious physical rejection implied by “traditional Christian” chastity or the equally biting denial of trust and genetic exchange implied by liberal-style use of contraception: you shame your lover by not trusting him to stay (even though he won’t) and by rejecting his sperm (which you would be much better off doing) and by putting yourself above him and your community (who consider the long-term planning of family a snooty preoccupation of brown-nose traitors to their class). You put yourself above your mother and your sister and your best friend, who don’t take the same precautions.

The immediate rewards offered in any poor community are a sense of shared threats and dangers, shared pleasures (often drink, drugs, betting, and sex, all of which are easily accessed and which carry high risks of destroying any attempt you make to get out of hell). The rewards include being knit into the ONLY social group that appears open to you: family, friends, gangs. To attempt to change is to commit to loneliness and lack of support–often it’s to commit to direct attack from your former peers with no promise that there will ever be future peers with different standards.

Rod has one thing right: a church can provide that peer set, and an orderly, organized life and tribe. The trouble is, most churches are not set up to make that offer work all that well for people who join. Churches look like potentially great engines to change the world, but they’re actually pretty iffy, if not least because at core they are aimed not at this life, but the next, and preach virtues presumed to benefit members in the afterlife, rather than in the present life. Churches are intended as engines to get you to heaven, not to a nice residential community and a good job in Poughkeepsie.

Worse, those churches that do aim at “decent living” in the here and now work regardless of what religion you choose. Godly, orderly communities in Buddist countries, in Islamic countries, in Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant or Hindu communities–they share the same virtues. Appreciation for hard work and for education. Respect for long-term social bonds: of family, of friendship, of business. Respect for lawful behavior and ethical commitment. The same is true, for that matter, for atheist communities that honor order and “decency.”

The point is that high-stress changes what best serves the individuals and the group. (grimace) There is, for example, a reason that over and over again poverty and stress generate gangs and violence and male pride and territorialism and obsessive fascination with stoical responses to hardship. In the long term those traits destroy the greater social order, but preserve small, aggressive tribal units under high stress. But if you internalize those ideals, you never leave the high-stress situations, becuase your behaviors not only succeed there, but perpetuate the violence and stress.

A lot of poverty behaviors are like that. They reward short-term behaviors that actually serve to keep the poor in poverty, and the threatened trapped in the heart of trouble. But the rewards are real.

As the child of “order,” it’s been fascinating to sit on a city tenement stoop and drink from a shared bottle with strange women with whom I held nothing in common but the stoop, and the bottle, and womanhood, and poverty. As a child of “order,” that wasn’t enough to make me want to keep doing it. But it was enough to let me understand at least a bit that the stoop and the bottle and the poverty can be as powerful a rite of communion and community as the goblet and the patten. Sometimes a more tempting and binding rite, because it promises less, but can be relied on more, at least in the short term.



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