Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Weak Impulse Control Hurts More if You're Poor?

Some people will read this article at The New Republic, "Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?," and without going very far into have a knee-jerk reaction and reject its information because the article can be misread to say that all poor people lack impulse control. That's not what it's saying, but I know that's what that I thought until I realized I was wrong.

What the article is saying is that when people who are not poor lack will power, they have more wiggle room to indulge and can make more impulse purchases because they have more disposable income. If you're neither wealthy nor poor, you still have more wiggle room than someone who is poor. As the article suggests, if you have adequate income, choosing to buy an empty calories item such as a doughnut because you feel like eating a doughnut, while probably not the best choice for your health, is not going to make that big a difference in your budget. However, if you're poor and you buy the doughnut, a relatively small purchase for those with adequate income, the ripple effect in your budget will have a greater impact at the end of the month.

It's something we know already, right? If you're earning $7.15 per hour, buying one talle Starbuck's latte per week proportionally hurts your budget more than if you are someone earning $40 per hour. The person earning $40 per hour could buy a venti latte everyday at $5.50 a pop, actually have zero willpower when it comes to resisting the daily purchase, but that indulgence will probably not prevent her from paying her light bill unless she's living waaay above her means.

So, again, the article is not saying that all poor people lack will power or have impulse control issues. It's saying that if you are poor, self-indulgence does more damage. Having more money cloaks lack of will power and may also hide relatively small errors in decision making. If you have money, you can do dumber things. Poverty magnifies bad decisions.

It's sort of like being overweight due to having a medically documented slow metabolism issue such as hypothyroidism. The skinny person with the normal-to-fast metabolism may not be able to resist chocolate milk shakes and can drink two a week and it never shows up on her body, but people assume because the person is skinny she must really work out at the gym and have great willpower although neither is true. The fat person, however, may be working out at the gym daily, and only indulging in a dessert once a month. People nevertheless assume that the fat person's sitting on the couch all day and has never seen a sweet she couldn't refuse. They attribute a host of character flaws to the fat person such as laziness and lack of self discipline, and they are wrong. The skinny person's great metabolism cloaks that she lacks willpower while the fat person must work harder to battle a visible physical circumstance. As the skinny person, due to her great metabolism, is freer to make bad food choices, the person with more money is freer to make bad financial choices, and society attributes supposed better character traits to both the skinny person and the wealthy person.

Having a great metabolism as the result of genetics is a benefit you did not earn. In context of discussing poverty, being born with a great metabolism is analogous to being born with more social and cultural capital. Better social and cultural capital, other than the obvious one of being born to wealthy parents, can be benefits we otherwise don't consider such as being born to a mother or father who spent time with us and taught us how to live on a tight budget or who stayed on top of us about school work and went to PTA meetings. Better social and culture capital can also accumulate later in life hrough having the advantage of going to a school where we encountered better role models and didn't have to worry about gang violence or being born to a family in which no one, including us, has a mental disorder or a substance abuse issue or we may even have social and cultural capital because we were born with some kind of higher intelligence--emotional or academic--or natural self-discipline or some special talent or personality trait that helps us cope better with hardship and drives ambition.

In other words, some people are born with more benefits or through good fortune after birth encounter someone or something in their lives that gives them an extra edge that makes it easier to escape poverty through avenues not totally dependent on their individual hard work. Consequently, if they are not born into poverty but fall into it later, they may have an easier time escaping it, and if they are born into poverty but have one or more of these social and cultural assets, the deck is stacked in their favor to escape poverty. What can we say? Life is not fair.

I'm making this point about differences in our natures and circumstances to counter arguments from people who seem to measure everyone as though we're all exactly the same and have had the same experiences. Usually these people make statements such as, "I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, and so can everyone else" like everyone is born with boots like them or the same level of social and cultural capital. (When such people do not reference themselves, then they speak of some ancestor who started with what they claim was nothing.)

Once past my first wrong conclusion that the article suggested poor people have less will power than the financially sound, I looked at potential solutions presented. One mentioned a project in a rural area that helped poor people set limits on their bank accounts that helped them to not make impulsive purchases. I know some of us do this for ourselves to keep us from buying that hot pair of heels we just saw at the mall. And isn't this the same idea behind why some of us opt for part of our paychecks to go straight to a savings account? If we don't see the money in our checking account, we're less tempted to use it for something idiotic.

The article also mentions the following:
Third, money itself can go a long way toward altering the dynamic that leads to willpower depletion among the poor. Government transfers of money have proven successful in Mexico and Brazil, for instance. In particular, attaching conditions to these transfers—such as requiring school attendance, regular clinic visits, and savings behavior—may allow for an end-run around the kind of willpower-based poverty traps that too frequently seem to end with the poor making unwise decisions.
I think a lot of people struggling with poverty would like this kind of help, but I also think it would be hard, if not impossible, for the government to implement any program like this in the United States. On the conservative side such a proposal would face opposition from people like those mentioned above who perpetuate misconceptions about everyone having boots as well as small government ideologies that only allow for dog-eat-dog economics. On the progressive side, opposition would come from the mindset that government assistance should come with no strings other than proof of poverty--the handout model. Some of my progressive friends feel that in a democracy the government should not be able to tell you what to do with your own resources. I agree and disagree. If the money in your hand came from the government, then it is not your personal resource but a collective resource.

I agree with objections to some welfare-to-work programs that have been proposed to force poor people to work full time in government service to receive housing and food stamps because that's a sneaky way to force someone to work for less than a living wage in a job that keeps them from finding a better job elsewhere. But if the person receiving the assistance elects to do this, then who am I to argue?

I disagree, however, with the idea that any expectation of accountability is insulting or akin to violating civil liberties. I think that if you are receiving money from the collective fund, you owe something to the collective. How we arrive at what that should be is open for debate, but that you don't get something from the collective without giving something back is not, even if what you give back is something that benefits you more than it obviously benefits the collective such as you seeing your children grow up to at least finish high school and stay away from criminal activity, a feat that's not as easy for some poor parents as it is for some middle-class parents. Nevertheless, unfortunately our birth circumstance, such as being born into poverty, may saddle us with hurdles others don't have to jump. We get nowhere by complaining that we should not have to jump them. Life is what it is until we overcome.

Money sent as a gift has no strings attached, but money provided by the government is not a gift; there's a rarely-articulated string attached. The premise under which the government provides money for poor families is not simple compassion. Charities function on the simple compassion premise, not governments. American government should function on compassion plus improving the commonwealth. Helping poor parents feed, clothe, and house their families is an investment in human resources that contributes to domestic stability and tranquility. If the result of how we implement the programs only establishes a system of generational poverty for some families, then we're doing it wrong.

(I feel the same way about corporations that get subsidies but do not produce jobs that pay a living wage and continue to harm the environment. If we don't hold them accountable, then those subsidies are a gift and we're idiots because unlike the poor, "successful" companies shouldn't need government assistance.)

I'm not suggesting that in order to get food stamps you should have to go scrub the White House steps or that work will somehow magically form better character. Being in a work program is good for some people. For others, such as a mother with a one-year-old at home or a young man who could earn more in the private sector if he were taught a skill first, not so much. I'm thinking more in terms of giving people additional assistance that they can choose to accept or reject, but if they accept it, then it comes with strings such as requirements to take a class in money management or letting someone else help you learn what your mama and daddy may not have taught you about planning for the future or determining needs versus wants. We need to stop assuming people have knowledge when their lives indicate otherwise and least provide a way for them to get that knowledge.

Our schools apparently are so burdened with teaching children how to pass standardized test that other important lessons never get taught. If I didn't run into people who have never learned some life skills that go hand-in-hand with life achievements, I wouldn't be saying this.

Many people who struggle with poverty don't need any kind of paternalistic help. They are doing everything they can, including not buying doughnuts and Big Macs, to work their way out of poverty. They may need only seed money, the kind of financial boost up that some of us get from parents. But there are some who need more hands-on guidance toward intangible but practical knowledge because no one in their families ever provided them with such guidance. (The same can be said of some who grew up in middle-class to wealthy families but they've got other resources through family to help them. In cases of generational poverty, no one in the family may know how to dig out. And local community resources have dwindled.)

So, I think this notion that it's an insult to provide a system that requires some kind of accountability is irrational. If people with money can lack self control, then so can people without money. If people with money feel they need help with becoming better parents, then so do people without money. If people with money need lessons about how to plan for the future, then so do people without money, and if some people who have money in our consumer-driven culture need to learn the difference between needs and wants, then some poor people may also need to learn the difference. Therefore, let's stop acting like below the poverty line there exists some special class of Magical Poor People who are more emotionally stable, super-effective at coping with life challenges, and better spiritually adjusted than all the financially stable humans on the planet.

And yes, I have had to apply for public assistance before and been part of what the government and media call "the low-income class." It's a humiliating process, but if someone had told me, "You're entitled to the minimum amount of food stamps, but you can get $10 more if you sit through a few classes on childcare," my answer would not have been "Don't insult me." It would have been, "I'll do it because I love my child, and maybe I'll learn something I don't know. I need help and know that there's no such thing as a free lunch." At the same time, I was born with the kind of social and cultural capital that someone trapped in generational poverty does not have.

Yes, nobody, poor or otherwise should be forced to participate in a program against his/her will, but what about people in poverty who want to participate? Living in poverty limits freedom in ways far more isolating and insidious than a requirement to finish school or manage a meager savings account would. I know poverty is a far more complex issue, and it must be addressed through a variety of measures. I guess I'm just tired of programs that might help being shot down on the basis of abstract and impractical notions of what it means to be free.

Freedom is not free. Freedom comes through a balance of power and accountability. Name any freedom, such as gun ownership, freedom of speech, or the right to pursue happiness, and you will find there's a cost somewhere. There's always a price for freedom.

But this discussion is moot because I sense in this country little desire to help poor families and a stubborn insistence that being poor is always the result of laziness or some kind of genetic deficiency. We're trapped in dual cycles of blaming the victim and indulging victim mentalities that shun accountability. Where's the balance? As a collective, we're stuck on stupid. America, we're in trouble.

Photo: I used that iconic photo from Hurricane Katrina survivors in New Orleans because I think that while it's true the government--local, state, and federal--made excessive mistakes following that catastrophe and race was obviously a factor, too, the suffering we witnessed was also the result of the persistence generational poverty in New Orleans.