Friday, November 16, 2012

The Undeserving Poor

The "Welfare Queen", courtesy of MemeGenerator

Allow me a moment on my soapbox, here. 

So, I've been eagerly following Strike Debt's Rolling Jubilee movement.  In just a few days, they've already abolished $5 million in debt and counting.  That's huge.  And I can only imagine what might happen once the people whose debts have been relieved learn what happened and begin paying it forward. 

The unfortunate thing, though, is as I eagerly read more updates and follow the news, I see a whole lot of nastiness spewed all over the Internet.  It ranges from the polite, "I think this is good for some people, but what about the ones who were irresponsible and just bought a lot of unnecessary junk on their credit cards?" to the rather nasty, "If people are too stupid to know how to pay their debts, they don't deserve help." 

This notion of the "undeserving poor" really upsets me.  It's the same as the (equally upsetting) complaints about the "welfare queens" or those people who have shiny new cars and iPhones but buy food with food stamps.  It's ridiculous.  Yes, some people are probably gaming the system.  I won't deny that: Some people are jerks.  But the vast majority of people aren't, and if you took a moment to get to know them you would understand that.

"If You're Poor, Why Are You Wasting Money?"

But here's something in particular I wanted to touch on.  One comment I read recently really struck a chord.  It was from someone who use to work in a check cashing place in a convenience store, and he was saying how he used to see the same poor people coming in every week to cash their paychecks, then waste that money on lottery tickets, cigarettes and beer.

I've seen a lot of people point out that same thing -- people who are broke spending their money on frivolous things -- and use that as a defense for why those people don't need anything.  So let me just take a moment to explain why that happens, and why the "If they're so stupid, fuck 'em" attitude just doesn't work.

"I Need to Use This Money While I Still Have It." 

When you're broke, saving money is next to impossible.  Payday is the only time of the week when you know for sure that you'll have money.  For a few, ephemeral moments, you have purchasing power.  Soon, that will all go away because the money will be eaten up not just by bills, but by debts -- sometimes debts that have already gone sour, have already destroyed your credit and you've been carrying like a rotten albatross for years.  Worse, that money may get eaten up by overdraft charges.  

When I used to work for Petsmart and made a pretty stunning $150 a week  (if I wasn't getting my hours cut), I would sometimes lose whole paychecks to overdraft fees.  Thanks to the way Bank of America would process its transactions, you could end up earning $35 fees on several transactions all back to back even if you'd only really gone over your balance by a couple dollars on one single purchase.  They've since been sued for that, by the way.  Anyway, I finally ended up canceling my bank account and lived on a prepaid debit card for a while -- but the feeling of "If I don't spend this on something right away, it will be taken from me" is hard to get rid of. 

That's the first thing people who have never been poor need to understand, because it may not be intuitive.  If you give someone $5 and say, "Either you can spend that $5 now or hold onto it for a year and I'll give you $100 if you still have it," the obvious responsible choice is to hold onto that $5.  But when you're poor, the answer is often like, "If you still have that $5 in a year, I'll give you $100, but I might also punch you in the gut and take your $5 away at any time randomly throughout the year and there is nothing you can do to stop me." 

"I Deserve to be Happy Sometimes, Right?"

Here's what it comes down to, the single greatest difference between people who live paycheck to paycheck and people with low incomes who never get into financial trouble:  Hope. 

Well, hope, and also education.  If you don't know how to get out of debt, no amount of hope will help you.  But even if you know all the steps, even if you know exactly how to get out of the situation you're in, that knowledge isn't going to help you if you don't genuinely feel, in your heart, that things are going to get better. 

For a poor person, the odds of winning the lottery might seem pretty similar to the odds of paying off debts and achieving financial security: In other words, not fucking likely.  If that's the case, why not just buy the lottery ticket? 

For a poor person, the choice between "Have something right now that will make me feel better about my life instead of taking a chance that I will lose everything to some stupid charge later" doesn't seem too hard.  Instant gratification is, well, gratifying.  Especially when you combine instant gratification with addictive substances -- nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, fast food. 

A Gift of Hope

But if these people are given hope -- real, genuine hope for the future -- maybe it will help to undo some of that self-destructive skepticism.  If they can start to believe, "If I set this money aside, nothing bad will happen to it.  In a year, I really will have $100," then they can finally start making some changes in their lives. 

One of my goals here at the Nonconsumerist is to provide education and real, usable tips that can help people achieve some financial freedom -- or at least financial breathing room.  But all of that education in the world won't do a damn thing if the people who need it most don't believe that life can get better.  And it's especially hard to tell people that life can get better if you're simultaneously telling people, "You're lazy and stupid and worthless." 

When people are already without hope, is it really fair to take away their dignity? 

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