Foolishness, Poverty, Mobility

Couple days ago Rod Dreher had a go at a poor teenager in New York City and his family. He titled the column, “Poor and Foolish.” It’s about all the things poor people do — like having children out of wedlock, taking jobs instead of going to school, and so on — that allegedly make them poor. The gist of the article is that poor people keep themselves poor, ostensibly because they’re stupid; if they weren’t so ‘foolish’, they would make better choices, and be less poor.

There is a lot to say about whether or not this is factually true. Will education actually undo poverty? Doesn’t seem like it: someone has to clean toilets, do week-long carpentry gigs, and mop up vomit in hospitals. If we all had college degrees from Ivy League universities, someone would still have to do those jobs. Furthermore, white high school drop-outs have more wealth than black and Hispanic college graduates — because wealth accumulates.

And those harlots having babies out of wedlock? They don’t actually do much better when they do get married, because poverty is a stressor that leads to divorce, and divorce hits women harder than men financially. Further, because women who get pregnant out of wedlock, especially as teens, are often already poor, teenage childbearing out of wedlock is actually not as disastrous (compared to poor teens who miscarry or marry) as one might presume. This doesn’t mean teen mothers do well, it just means that poverty is so terrible that whether you have a kid or not isn’t as major as whether or not you’re living in poverty when it comes to determining what your life will be like. Over the last few years, while rates of single motherhood have risen, the percentage of poor women who are not married has remained more or less flat, meaning single motherhood isn’t actually doing that much to shove women into poverty.

Of course, there’s more to the story here. Poor people aren’t stupid, they’re not irrational, and pretending that they are supposes what is open to a middle class or wealthy person is actually available to poor people. It severely underestimates stress and the cognitive effects of scarcity, and carries that snide air of I’d-do-it-better-myself. As for me, I’m not sure I would.

But that’s all really secondary; it just feels good to sass-talk people one perceives as less rational than themselves. It’s why there’s always this truly bizarre ejaculation of  “he put himself in harm’s way!!!” every time ISIS releases a videotape of a journalist or humanitarian’s execution. I sometimes suspect people who react in that way to terrible misfortune are like people who glimpse over a precipice and run several yards away, much further than is really needed to be safe from a fall. It’s comforting to know you’re really so far removed from danger, and to reaffirm it.

I also want to meditate here on worth. The notion that poverty is an obvious and appropriate end result of ‘bad’ decisions supposes the economy has a natural moral instinct, that the invisible hand that guides resources to people operates with respect to worthiness. But none of that is necessarily true. We know it isn’t, because there are plenty of rich people who do nothing but make horrible decisions and nonetheless remain rich, and because there are people who get rich through totally unscrupulous means. Further, social mobility is something we can measure, and we know different societies have differing degrees, and the ones with high social mobility are not the ones with a special investment in free market economies. Here again, then, we should be ensuring that the destination of resources honors human worth, not contenting ourselves that wherever resources wind up tells us who is worth what.

In Luke 6:24, Jesus says:

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.

In the story of David and Bathsheba, we get basically the same report: God is angry with David in part for taking Uriah’s only wife, when David himself had everything he wanted. The situation is this: if you are well-to-do, if you have everything you want, what are you doing taking shots at people who have very little or nothing? The fact that one’s wealth is consolation means people without it haven’t been consoled, it means they’re hurting, it means Jesus Christ is aware of the pain of poverty, and condemns those who are wealthy and consoled and still indifferent to the suffering poor. This is attitudinal. For God, who made all creation for people to have in common, the stupidity, foolishness, or irrationality that supposedly leads to poverty appears to be of much less interest than the approach those who wind up on the fortunate side of things take to those who wind up on the unfortunate side.

If you take Christ seriously, then, and you imagine how you conduct yourself in this life to be preparation for the next, the really foolish thing is talking trash about the poor.