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Being Poor by John Scalzi (scalzi.com)
257 points by skmurphy on Sept 21, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 218 comments

Being truly poor is not being able to imagine anything else.

Both of my parents grew up with absolutely nothing.

My mother shared a bed with her sisters and wore nothing but hand-me-downs until she got married.

My father never had 3 meals in the same day until he joined the army.

They both tried to explain what life was like to us many times, but every story ended with, "Never mind. You just wouldn't understand."

They were so determined to escape their situations, almost every decision they made as adults was shaped by growing up with nothing. They worked hard almost every day of their lives so that none of us would ever have to experience what they went through. There was never any discussion or debate about what life would be like in our house: we were all going to finish high school, go to college, and build lives of our own. None of us has ever missed a meal or gone without anything essential.

I realize many people are just as determined as my parents were, but still don't escape poverty. There are no guarantees.

I just don't know how anyone can reverse the cycle without imagining that they can. Having no money is bad. Having no hope is worse.

This is so very true. I grew up sleeping 3 to a bed, no food, no clothing, and no utilities more often than not. I'd never wish it on my worst enemy's kids. But I would not trade my upbringing at all.

Thankfully that was long ago, but those memories give me the determination, and humility,that i need to advance myself each day.

This is similar to how my parents grew up. My mother shared a bed with all her sisters at one point, but as they got older I think they were forced to be 2 to one bed and 3 to another until the eldest married.

My dad didn't graduate highschool, he dropped out at 15 to start work and move out of his home (because they had more problems than a lack of money), literally at the first chance he got. He worked around to become a mechanic and eventually opened his own shop. He got into fuel injector programming, which got him a job at Ford, which when me and my brother were little meant we had 3 meals a day (literally sometimes 4), got almost everything we wanted but already had everything we needed. We had family vacations to places even my friends didn't get to go to.

I think what he taught me most was to not give up and just keep trying. He said he had over a dozen jobs in a half-dozen years while paying his way to get qualified as a mechanic. He's had 3 companies, all successful in their time before he moved on to bigger and better to get solidly middle-class from not even a working class upbringing.

This post reminded me of my own father.

My family migrated to Canada when I was 3 years old, my mom came with 60 cents in her pocket, my dad just a little more than that. One thing my Mom has that my Dad could not find was faith, and a hell of a lot. She always had faith that she could escape poverty, fast forward to the present, she now has a wonderful government job and she is well on her way to starting her own business. I can't say the same about my dad, he is still buying those $800 cars, living in shitty apartments and has been working at the same barber shop since we first came here. My parents split up about 7 - 8 years ago and to be honest, I was happy. My dad was bringing us down with his mentality, my mom has always sheltered me from it, so even though I was growing up in poverty, I never felt poor.

People wondering why you didn't leave

You can always leave. They're called feet: use them.

I have been very, very poor. And I've made a million bucks in a short amount of time. In fact, I've flopped back and forth about as many times as anybody I know, so I know both sides of this.

I would not idolize poverty as some kind of state of nobility, and I would't spend a lot of time agonizing over it either. It is a thing that happens to you, like cancer. You get to make choices in life, no matter where you are or what your situation. The last day of your life, if you were lying in a ditch somewhere, you can still choose how to confront the end of your existence. These choices are all we own. The only person that can stop you making choices is yourself. It is extremely possible to dwell on all the bad things in life and despair.

If you are poor and reading this, whatever you do, please don't despair. Make some different choices. The only way you're not making a difference in the world is if you've decided that you're not. Don't let others -- no matter how well meaning -- give that to you.

> You can always leave. They're called feet: use them.

I'm not sure. I've never been poor, so I can't speak from personal experience, but being poor is not necessarily about choice. Certainly I can start off rich, and make bad decisions. Perhaps that's my fault, perhaps I got unlucky. But if you start off in poverty, it's not easy, as I understand, to get yourself out of poverty. If you had a crap education, and a rough home life, you probably didn't leave school with good grades, so you can't get a decent job etc etc. There's a whole life-defining set of knock-on effects. And if you're trapped in debt, struggling to pay the rent and keep yourself warm, how easy is it to get out of that? If an opportunity does come along, will you have the cash to leverage it (think train ride to job interview).

I don't know how you got out of your fix, I'd be really interested to know.

How have you made a million bucks in a short amount of time?

I agree there are always options, the problem is knowing them. For example, I suppose at any time there is a stock I could buy for little money that would make me a millionaire over night. The problem is I don't know which one.

Of course other options are maybe simpler to judge than stock prospects, but the general problem still holds. In fact, if markets are efficient, wouldn't it imply that choosing anything in life is as difficult as picking the right stocks? Because making a choice (on actions) is an economical decision, hence it is subject to the efficient markets theorem.

If you have contact information I'll email you and we'll talk. I don't think it's relevant to this conversation and I'm not comfortable talking personal finances on a public board.

I have email in my profile. But don't feel obliged, I am just naturally curious :-) (Would welcome email)

> I have been very, very poor.

Me too, man. That's a very compassionate and honest comment you just wrote. I tend to be shorter and less patient with people who self-pity, and especially people who come from more who treat poor people like helpless children. But I should be friendlier, more compassionate, less short tempered, more steadfastly guiding. Very nice comment by you - you managed to be patient and kind while still being strong and emphasizing responsibility and choice. I should emulate this, this was a great comment.

Let's be real though -- sometimes "shit happens." I'm not saying the majority of poor people are pure victims of circumstance, but there is also significant evidence that being poor and dealing with those struggles is permanently damaging to the human psyche. One has to look no further than an abused animal to see that this emotional baggage is a very deep part of the mind. It takes much longer to undo the damage than it does to inflict it.

You make a good point that poverty isn't something we should obsess over or try to make ourselves feel guilty about. If we are successful, we should feel good about that and have a healthy sense of empathy towards those that are less fortunate.

"I have been very, very poor."

The key question, then, is whether you were _born and raised_ poor, or did you become poor in your later life. There is a ingrained mental barrier of hopelessness being born into poverty, especially in America where the cycle of poverty consumes communities and perpetuates all manner of things that are easily contested by people on the outside looking in, but is palpable to those trapped within it.

The difference, interestingly enough, can be found in a line in the song "Common People" by the English band Pulp, which follows the story of a rich girl who "slums it" with the poor narrator:

"But still you'll never get it right

cos when you're laid in bed at night

watching roaches climb the wall

if you just called your Dad, he could stop it all

You'll never live like common people"

I was born and raised poor. Like, picking cockroaches out of my cereal box poor. Like, magic block of cheese appearing on the doorstep poor. Like qualifying for free lunch at school poor. Like pink bicycle with sissy bar bought from the thrift shop and handed down from eldest daughter to two youngest sons poor (I broke the cycle of shame with black electrical and silver duct tape).

I never blamed my parents; they were immigrants fleeing an oppressive regime with nothing but a suitcase of hastily gathered clothes, papers, and photos. But, to say it's "just a thing that happens to you, like cancer" doesn't really speak to how stifling poverty can truly be.

My family pulled themselves out of the cycle, but millions don't. MOST don't. Getting out has less to do with "using your feet" and more like pulling an entire base of people out of a mindset that they can't succeed even if they tried their damndest. It's not only cultural, it's systemic.

"The only person that can stop you making choices is yourself.

Not always the case. My wife's family came to this country in 1978. Her father's job for the first five years was to mop the floors and clean toilets at schools, for which he was (legally) paid less than minimum wage because of his immigrant status. Then, the church that promised the family free admittance to their school in exchange for Dad's reduced salary rescinded it upon his offer to take ESL classes by day and cleaning the schools by night. So, he pulled them from that school and into public school, which, because of redistricting and rezoning, was among the poorest and most dangerous in their state. I guess it is about choices, but don't think there aren't people out there who disincentivize you from making them.

Hell, it wasn't that long ago that some people couldn't eat at the same counter equally as others. I mean, could you even make a clear-headed choice in that scenario?

Choices to pull oneself up from a cycle of poverty is as risky as entrepreneurship, perhaps even more so. If you fail at business, you have your firm footing of educational background and network of employees, peers, investors, and family to watch over you and give support. If you fail at pulling yourself from the ghetto, the next stop could be homelessness and the soup kitchen. And, if you have a family, they'll suffer doubly so.

It's almost never cut and dry.

Thank you for sharing that. I enjoyed reading it.

I think you misunderstood, however. Nothing is cut and dry. Did I say it was? When I say that you own your choices, I am not promising some kind of magic future if you just get Positive Mental Attitude. This is not a Tony Robbins seminar, and I am not trying to just throw out slogans. I believe most of your reply was based on this premise, and that was not the intent of my comment at all. I am also not trying to get into a "who's the poorest" contest. There are lots of ways these conversations can go off the rails.

As an example, and to specifically counter this idea of quick-fixes, I used the scenario of the person dying from cancer in the ditch. Will proper choices make them any less dead in a day's time? I seriously doubt it, and that's completely not the point.

Any life in any situation can be celebrated and you can use your mind to make choices about your attitudes. People in concentration camps awaiting death can be cheerful. Perhaps you would stop by the ditch an lecture the dying person on the futility of it all, how you knew many people who also died this way, and how painful it was. Perhaps you would go on about the pointlessness of action, and how tens of millions are in the same place and we must do something to begin " pulling an entire base of people out of a mindset" About how few ever make it out.

I would not do this. In fact, I would go so far as to say that those who do this to someone are not their friend.

"Perhaps you would stop by the ditch an lecture the dying person on the futility of it all, how you knew many people who also died this way, and how painful it was"

I happily pay my taxes, try to vote with my conscience for those engaged in healthcare reform, and contribute freely to causes to help prevent people dying of cancer in a ditch. It's not self-righteousness or soliciting thanks from poor, sick people or anything else that drives me to do that; it's my belief that we're more than just the successes we've made in this life -- the actions we've managed to perform to get a positive result. There is community outside of the self.

Sometimes people are frozen into a rut because they've never seen what it's like at the top (except for watching those that succeed in nearly impossible scenarios, like sports athletes or heiresses-turned-celebrities), and they likely never will. So, platitudes that "there is a there there" is cold comfort for them. Working hard and still not being able to pass the "first-month rent + last-month rent + security deposit + credit/background check" gauntlet put forth for anyone wanting to break that cycle is oppressive to the psyche.

And, before anyone in this thread ever decides to veer off into blaming "degenerate cultures", I'll cut it off at the pass and say there is about a nickel's worth of difference between being poor in W. Virginia and being poor in Harlem, NYC. It's the same down, with very little upside (aside from working for the mines or for the state, respectively). Makes the sentiment "been down so long, it looks like up to me" even more resonant.

I'm not trying to argue, but I believe you don't understand.

My point was that you seem very happy with explaining the systemic reasons for problems, even being very proud of your progressive social attitudes and willingness to pay taxes, but none of that money, explanation, or enlightenment does the actual poor one bit of lasting good. They deal with despair as a primary obstacle. Explaining sociology to them and the systemic nature of poverty does not help them despair less. In fact, and this is critical, for many it may have the effect of making their lives substantially worse. There's a very fine line between explaining a complex problem that you don't currently have the solution to and telling people their life is pointless. In fact they can look and sound like the same thing to an outside observer.

I have no qualm with you -- the things you have said are most likely true -- but there is a difference in talking about a thing from an external clinical standpoint and living the thing, as you know so well.

As a sidebar, why would you even mention that you weren't angry with your parents? It seemed such an odd thing to say. Why would anyone think of being angry with their parents for something like wealth?

I'm done here. Sorry to take the thread so far down. Just sounded like we were talking past each other. Thanks again for the conversation.

"none of that money, explanation, or enlightenment does the actual poor one bit of lasting good."

Tell that to Joe the Plumber, who went from growing up on welfare to being the everyman who just wants to run his own plumbing business if it weren't for a then-Presidential candidate taking his money. Ditto Sarah Palin and Craig T. Nelson (who once famously said on the Glenn Beck show, "I've been on food stamps and welfare, did anyone help me out? No!")

I figured you were a "supply-side" kinda guy, so we'll truly never see things eye-to-eye. Fair enough.

Just know that poor people actually _do_ want to know why they're poor, as that kind of sets expectations, pacing, and gives them some wiggle room to strategize solutions to their problem. State support helps them with essentials, education helps ameliorate their thinking, and charitable causes and people give them the helping hand to see through the hardship.

"There's a very fine line between explaining a complex problem that you don't currently have the solution to and telling people their life is pointless."

That's why you give them cold facts and then real solutions based on what you and others have experienced. If you don't want to talk publicly about success, you're essentially telling them, "I'm a millionaire and so can you!" and then leaving. In other words, show don't tell.

"Why would anyone think of being angry with their parents for something like wealth?"

I would be positively _ecstatic_ if I were born into a wealthy family. It would bring no end of awesome, warm feelings. I will never know what that feeling is like, unfortunately, as they were the poorest of immigrants. I was just implying that I didn't begrudge them being poor, as I still had a decent childhood, even in the ghetto.

Please don't put me in a box. You don't know me.

Yeah I think there is a deep infection here, but it has nothing to do with poverty. It begins with the idea that if you take social assistance then social assistance must be a good thing. Or that somehow you must support it. As you are demonstrating by your words, this isn't any good at all. For Joe, Sarah, you, or anybody else. This same logic holds that if you don't send your kids into the military, you can't support a war. One supposes that everybody must volunteer at the local fire station or go without emergency support, or that those who took a pencil in second grade must somehow support armed robbery as a way of life. Give a man a fish, and he must support government sanctioned fish distribution for his entire life. It's the one-size-fits-all, if-you-were-touched-by-it-you-must-endorse-it thinking. Not good. Not good for anybody. Let's move past such rhetorical nonsense.

Here's the thing: it's one thing to explain something that you understand and know how to fix. It's quite another to simply cite statistics and general correlations. There are a lot of folks who think that positive mental attitude can lift you out of poverty -- I am one of them. And there are folks that think it is mostly luck. (I also think luck has quite a bit to do with it as well) But I can guarantee you that anybody who thinks that life is pointless will never make it. I also observe that after trillions spent on LBJ's War on Poverty (one hopes it did not involve shooting poor people) we are no further along than when we started. So for all the bluster, we do not have the answer. We have a lot of complex ideas and theories, but we have no answer.

We do not know how to lift people out of poverty. We DO know that hopelessness and despair will prevent folks from succeeding. You can either sit around and dress up correlation as "giving them cold facts" or you can help with attitudes. That's just what every poor person with a poor education needs -- some rich college guy with a $50 vocabulary going on and on about how the system is against them and how they'll never make it.

When I was poor, I knew people like this. Oddly enough, many of them were college educated. It was always pointless, the system was always corrupt, the rich guys always got richer and the poor guys always got the shaft. It's mental disease masquerading as wisdom. Guys who felt that way are either still there, dead, or in prison. You can be in a hopeless situation and still have joy and hope. Unless you listen to some people.

Like I said, you sound more part of the problem than the solution.

"I've been on food stamps and welfare, did anyone help me out? No!"

Don't tell me he actually said that. That's just so deliberately idiotic.

Very well put. I lived a similar childhood, as did my 4 siblings, and its shocking that I am one of 2 to see my way out of the cloud of hopelessness. I would say its because of a connection to the hope in art and literature, in my case, that allowed me to see through the cloud, while sadly most of my siblings are still in the cycle.

Its sad that I am seen as almost a hero in my own neighborhood for owning my own business. I have tried to help everyone I know out of this thinking, but its truly difficult when you tell a person who has had nothing all of their life how easily it is to change that situation, and they see it as a wild fantasy.

Sometimes it really depends on which side of the imaginary lines your mother's womb happened to be when you were spilled out.

> You can always leave. They're called feet: use them.

Context is important. This was posted about a week after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

Some people who are poor don't have feet.

You get to make choices in life, no matter where you are or what your situation.

Let's say there's been a rash of home invasions in a town, a criminal gang ripping people off, holding them at gun point, that sort of thing. Would you say that society shouldn't increase police protection because this is ultimately about the victims making good choices? What if the victims complain that the criminals need to brought to justice? Maybe the victims should be dusting for fingerprints, collecting evidence and investigating leads themselves, trying to recover their property themselves. If they can't, this just shows that they lack good morals and strong character traits like hard work and determination.

This is wrong because it doesn't matter whether you're a hard worker, you have the unconditional right to police protection and justice. We don't say that some groups of people are excluded from those rights because they haven't earned them - those are part of human dignity and you get them for free.

The argument that society ought to address poverty is argument about justice, that the suffering endured by the poor is a violation of their basic human dignity. When one of us is deprived of justice, all of us are deprived of justice, and the question of whether they can make choices to change their situation or whether they are morally worthy is irrelevant to this argument. The counter-argument is either that human dignity doesn't exist, or that the horrors and suffering endured by the majority of humanity so that a few can enjoy luxury doesn't constitute a deprivation of human dignity and justice.

From the comments:

> Being poor is discovering that that letter from Duke University, naming you as one of three advanced students in your class invited to test out of HS early into their scholarship program, is just so much firestarter because the $300 it costs to take the test may as well be $3 million.

Despair is finally realizing, at nearly 36 and with a barely-afforded AA in English from a community college, just where you could have been by now had you had $300, and what that missed opportunity has truly cost you.

Don't you think Duke University has financial aid programs in place exactly for this scenario? I realize the poster might not have known this at the time, but I would be willing to bet that if they called the admissions office and explained their financial situation they would be able to waive the test fee.

Usually they don't and/or if they do you have no guarantee of qualifying for it. At one point in my life I made about $12k a year working two full-time jobs, believe it or not, even though a meal at a "sit-down restaurant" was a once a year extravagance, I didn't qualify for many financial aid programs when I went to school. And student loan programs said I didn't have the guaranteed financial means to pay the loans back.

I've personally been on the begging end of paying for tests and the calculus is this, "how many meals do I have to skip to pay for this?"

I think that's another side effect of poverty: not seeing ways out. (Although I don't know what kind of programs Duke had decades ago.)

$300 is 15 lawns mowed, or 2k cans collected, or probably one post on your facebook page asking for donations.

"or probably one post on your facebook page asking for donations"

I seriously doubt facebook was around back when this person was in school.

And, how do you mow 15 lawns with no transport, and the people around you are too poor to even have a lawn, let alone have people mow their lawns for them? Hell, where could he even get the lawnmower in the first place?

And, 2000 cans collected is a noble (and green!) act, but there are states where they'll give a big fat nothing for recycling; in fact, the home state of Duke University (NC, USA) doesn't offer money for aluminum like up North, unless you're willing to collect a pound of it and sell it for 20 cents. I guess he could move to another state to get better recycling prices, but then there's moving costs.

Sometimes being poor sucks, and there's NOTHING you can do. Not saying his case was completely hopeless, but it's easy to find solutions when there are zero consequences.

There are scrapyards all over the country. See http://realcent.org/viewtopic.php?f=11&t=71 for example.

$300 is a whole lot of suppers you (and your siblings, parents, and whatever other dependents) won't need to skip.

Being poor is having people who were never poor tell you to do things that simply won't work.

When you work 80-100 hours a week just to keep a roof over your head, and eat at least 2 square meals a day, when exactly should this poor person mow 15 lawns (provided they had a mower and transport to get around) or collect 2000 cans (and again haul all that around)?

Being poor is living where nobody pays for lawn service.

Being poor is living where everyone collects aluminum cans for money.

But you and I know that it isn't the $300 that is preventing her from getting it.

It is the belief that she can't.

You realize that probably most poor people don't have friends that can trivially part with $300, right? Apparently not.

>Being poor is off-brand toys.

>Being poor is a heater in only one room of the house.

No... this is being "poor", i.e. still in the top third or more of humanity as far as living standards.

Being poor is what the people I visited in barrios in Ecuador do - living in huts made of corrugated aluminum and scraps of wood, with a dirt floor, no plumbing or electricity, access to education, healthcare or clean water. Oh, and also having almost no way of changing your situation, no matter how hard you try. Surprisingly, these people were in general happier than well-off people in America, because they had a strong faith, strong families, strong relationships with others in their community, and were just plain tough.

I guess after visiting a third world country and seeing how hard the truly poor work every day, how much they care for what little they have, and how thankful they are for everything, I feel a little less sympathy for the "poor" in America. I wish they could spend a few weeks in a truly poor country, and then realize what an amazing land of opportunity they live in.

It's an easy argument to make but it isn't quite that simple. I'm sure the poor of the US would love to take a trip abroad, then come back and realise things aren't so bad & make a start on getting themselves out of their situation.

Telling someone to be grateful that they have a roof over their head since most of the world doesn't won't make them any happier about shivering under a blanket because they can't pay the gas bill for heating. Yes, it could be worse, but it could also be a lot effing better, From my own experience, the whole thing tends to dull the mind to an extent where opportunities are no longer so obvious - or so easy to pursue (£5 for a domain name that may not pay off, or £5 to eat for a week and I'm bloody hungry).

True, absolute poverty is horrific and all efforts should be made to ensure that no one has to endure this through no fault of their own, but that doesn't make relative poverty a non-issue where people need to man-up. Of course, you weren't so extreme as to say that, but it gets side quite a lot and I don't really think it helps much tbh.

I'm sorry but I can't help but think that my ancestors (5 brothers that came over from Italy with almost nothing) who were poor from the start, had few if any social programs (other than help from other poor people in the community) to rely on, and were openly discriminated against as "Dirty WOPs" in the late 1800's / early 1900's, made it out of poverty and in the process helped make this country great. Generation 1 - low wage factory worker, Generation 2 - post man then small grocery owner, Generation 3 - first college educated one who started a body shop and then a neon sign business, Generation 4 - my dad, partner at a top CPA firm, Generation 5 - successful tech entrepreneur.

It just feels to me that the poor in first world countries have a victim mentality that keeps them from working with the kind of hard determination that not only gets people out of poverty, but builds up the nation in the process.

Do they need more help to develop that work ethic? Probably. Do they need more handouts? I think that is what's keeping them where they are.

Being poor is having the child of a partner at a top CPA firm tell you that you don't need more handouts.

I think there's something to not giving handouts. I'd prefer a hand. The strange thing is that we look at the poor as if we are a meritocracy. the general distribution of talent, intelligence and ability is likely to be statistically the same for all classes. And since there are more poor people there should be more success stories. Under a meritocracy there would me more processes in place that reached out to the "underprivileged." But what we see is a war on drugs...

Sure is. STAYING poor is feeling like a victim of society and wallowing in that instead of taking a series of small steps in the right direction.

<q> Do they need more handouts? I think that is what's keeping them where they are. </q>

Right. And staying where you are is exactly what you want to do when you're almost drowning.

There are lots of anecdotes like these, but one factor often overlooked is social capital. That's difficult to measure, but consider the difference between a fairly cohesive and inter-reliant sub-community on the one hand (Italian) vs. one riven by gang warefare and in which high grades may get you branded as "too white," on the other.

Not that that proves anything. Discussions like these are 90% a game of "re-enforce my confirmation bias," imho. Believe people are poor because they make bad moral choices? I'm sure you can find lots of great examples of that. Believe people are poor due to external societal forces? Ditto. A question I'd like to see more of in these types of discussions is "what would falsify my theory of poverty?"

I'm glad your family made it but you should realise that it could have gone wrong in a million ways outside of your ancestry's control.

Oh I'm certainly not arguing for more handouts. As an other commenter pointed out, these tend to mainly go on keeping your head above water anyway. For true betterment I agree totally that it's up to that person to make it happen. They just maybe need a bit of help to get started.

> Telling someone to be grateful that they have a roof over their head since most of the world doesn't won't make them any happier about shivering under a blanket because they can't pay the gas bill for heating.

But, the thing is, every US state that gets cold enough in the winter has heating assistance aid available from the utility companies. If you can't afford to pay your gas bill in the winter, it gets paid for you. This seems to be mandated by the public utility commissions.

So, if you're shivering under a blanket because you didn't pay your gas bill, it's probably your own damn fault that you didn't apply for home heating assistance. I've even had the gas company mail me a big letter in multiple languages when I was a few days late paying my bill saying "do you need help paying your bill? Please call us." And in a lot of northern states, it is illegal for the gas or electric company to shut off your utilities in the winter months, as long as you can prove financial hardship.

One more thing I want to comment on that you wrote:

> From my own experience, the whole thing tends to dull the mind to an extent where opportunities are no longer so obvious - or so easy to pursue

The way that is written shows a huge problem in peoples' perception - why do we assume the poor can only get by if opportunities are "obvious" or "easy to pursue"? Working your way up society's ladder is HARD, but people are capable of amazing things when it's their only way out. Throwing scraps to the guys at the bottom of the ladder will only take away motivation to make the long and difficult climb. Don't we want people to look back on their lives with pride on what they accomplished, in the face of difficult odds, rather than disappointment that their lives were spent living off of others' charity?

Throwing scraps down to the guys at the bottom of the ladder is to keep them from setting the house on fire. Ethically, stealing is considered a right if your situation is so bad that starving is the alternative. Don't agree with me? Consider that practically every religion on this planet reaches the same conclusion.

So while I don't think that throwing scraps to the guys at the bottom is going to be effective it still better than all the alternatives that have come before. Those tend to end up as revolutions, civil wars, or worse.

>Consider that practically every religion on this planet reaches the same conclusion.

I consider practically every religion on the face of the planet as unethical, and I doubt I am the only one on this board who do so.

So if you forgive me, that argument has negative weight too.

Doesn't matter what you or anyone else thinks about religion. The majority of the people on this planet believe in some for of religion.

And if the only thing that you don't like about my post is religion than you can piss off too. Because you've completely missed the point.

There's always someone worse off than you. There are people living in sub-saharan africa that would probably trade places with anyone in Ecuador given half a chance.

Being poor is miserable because you look around you, and see how other people have it better. Poor people in America don't see Ecuadorians living in shacks, they see people driving to their big house in a Lexus, and relaxing by taking a dip in the pool.

There is a huge difference. Poor people in America have a much greater ability to change their circumstances - public education, needs based financial aid for education, job placement programs, military service, etc. Poor people in third world countries generally have almost no way of doing so.

True, but it seems to me that Scalzi's article was focused on what it feels like to be poor, not on the actual objective reality, etc., etc.

This. Nothing in the essay says “being poor is thinking that absolutely nobody in the world is worse off than you are”.

You're missing a big piece of the puzzle here, though.

In third world countries, there is an infrastructure to support expectations. You aren't the only poor person, there is direct feedback that "we're all in this together".

However, in the first world, there is a great amount of isolation that can be crippling. We have very fragmented communities, especially in the suburbs.

Poverty is real, and dismissing it because it doesn't seem as "legitimate" as some other place and different social context doesn't help anything. It's very naive to assume that because we've got access to "better tools" we should be grateful.

Read the Bell Curve. See how IQ is affecting the utility of the workforce in the United States. Imagine being born below the magical IQ to be effective in modern American society.

Imagine being useless to the world around you. Imagine waking up every day feeling hopeless.

Poverty has nothing to do with dirt huts. It has everything to do with feeling as though you can control the situation of your life. It has everything to do with not feeling like a net drain on the world.

Mostly agreed, but I'd suggest that, instead of The Bell Curve- which is full of highly questionable and mostly-discredited pseudoscience- you instead read Stephen Jay Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man". The most recent edition, I believe, has an entire chapter devoted to dissecting exactly what's wrong with the arguments presented in "The Bell Curve".

Thanks for the heads up. I agree, the Bell Curve was a bit of a crapper, but also the only reference I could come up with off the top of my head.

All of those are valid points, but honestly unless someone is truly mentally handicapped, there are simple things they can do to improve their situation, and the situation of their dependents.

I look at the "illegal immigrants" to this country who stand out front of Home Depot every day by my house, looking for someone to pick them up for work, and see hope. I imagine this was similar to my great great grandfather standing in a mob outside a factory hoping for a day's work. These new Americans will give rise to a generation following them that saw their parents work hard to provide them with opportunity even though they were faced with incredible hurdles. Hopefully that generation continues the hard work, and keeps this country vital.

The fact that I only see new immigrants doing this though, is what is disturbing. If the rest of the poor were so eager to get ahead, they'd be doing the same - and eventually, succeeding.

Edit: re-reading the nlavezzo's comment, it really isn't as dismissive as I had initially read it, and the reply below is more because this topic really touches a nerve for me. I'm leaving it here because I don't want it un-said, but I don't want to target someone who doesn't deserve it. Sorry.

This encompasses a lot of my reaction when I first read this article a few years back, and before I spent some time volunteering with charities in the US. I was, frankly, angry. Most of the time, being poor in the US is not a matter of sheer survival (except for health care), but simply a very deep hole which is hard to climb out of. But possible, right? So why not just do it?

But these days, this reaction is what really angers me. It's still a fucking deep hole. And the psychological effect of being raised in these circumstances is what doesn't get acknowledged a lot. A lot of the time you have to be taught that it's even possible to dig out of it, let alone how. This is especially true if you were raised in poverty, by parents who were also raised in poverty, in a place where the schools are a joke and you don't know anyone who has been successful. It's very easy to simply despair in these conditions, and not even realize it might be possible for things to change, because as far as you know it's not. And while the rare person might be able to summon the willpower to escape this, I'd like to know how many people truly think they could if they had never even seen what success looked like, except on TV.

Hell, I was raised in an area which was simply rural middle class, not poor by any definition; and almost no one there could imagine that good schools, good health care, or a substantially better life were in reach. The idea of attending any private university, let alone an Ivy, was a joke. And we were luckier than 99% of the world, and knew it! For some... I simply can't imagine.

The dismissive attitude exhibited in so many tech forums towards the poor is just infuriating, both in the "lazy poor" category and the "it's not as bad as elsewhere!" type. If you're in that situation, it doesn't matter that there's someone out there worse-off. What does matter is if you were brought up to think success isn't possible, you despair of making anything better, and you've lost hope. I won't argue back and forth about "handouts" because a lot of the time that's used to be dismissive too. But making it known that it's actually possible to have a better life--that is what needs to be done.

(Tangentially, it's worth pointing out that Scalzi acknowledges the difference between being poor in the US and in the Third World, as in his followup post here: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2005/09/04/quick-followups/ .)

Leaving five dollars laying around with friends over strikes at a crucial difference in that being poor means living outside of the generally accepted rule of law that most take for granted. The difference between a housing project or rural tract in the US and other nations is largely one of degree and similar in character to living in a war zone.

The Wire, though fiction, is a pretty compelling antidote to the attitude you describe, imho.

Or read the nonfiction book "The Corner." David Simon, one of the authors, went on to create The Wire.

This is why I don't like the article. Being poor in America means you might have to take a $8 an hour job working in a fast food restaurant flipping burgers. At least you get enough money to live off of (granted, living at a low standard), and all the junk food you can eat at work for half price. If you work there long enough you'll probably even get health care benefits. Being poor in another country means not even having the ability to find a job.

He is complaining about having heat in only one room of the house, when people in other countries don't even have 4 walls and a roof. In the US we have heating assistance that will pay your gas bill if you can't afford it. You just have to have 2 brain cells to rub together and enough literary skills to fill out a piece of paper and apply for it.

So the folks in the barrios live in makeshift shelters, assembled from whatever materials they have available; they have to worry about where they're going to get clean water and food from one day to the next, etc.

How is this any different from how all of humanity lived for millennia, up until about ten thousand years ago?

I don't mean to sound condescending or dismissive, I'm just wondering why more people don't see these circumstances as an opportunity to develop mature, self-reliant communities, and instead presume that some external catalyst is necessary to improve the situation.

Many do and in very creative ways. The real problem your not factoring in is the role of predators and their affects on survival strategies.

What sort of predators are you referring to?

Surprisingly, this is the first time this article was submitted to HN.

It's quite interesting. Some of these things happen in all developed nations, but quite a significant number of them only happen in the US. For example, it did not realize just how fucked up health care is in the US prior to reading this article.

I'm pretty sure he is not talking about the US.

Being poor is knowing you work as hard as anyone, anywhere.

This is definitely not the US. Most of our poor don't work at all (and are not trying to work), and about 90% don't work full time.


Being poor is not enough space for everyone who lives with you.

In the US, 67% of poor households have 2 rooms per person (compared to 70.2% of non-poor households).


Being poor is stealing meat from the store, frying it up before your mom gets home and then telling her she doesn’t have make dinner tonight because you’re not hungry anyway.

In the US, being poor is eating the meat, the potato chips, the bacon and the ice cream. But it might be a quart of Krasdale rather than a pint of Ben & Jerry's.

[Edit: I'm speculating that the poor get fat off a broad sampling of typical American fatty foods. I could be getting specific food items wrong. Thanks krschultz for pointing out that my comment was unclear.]


I really don't know what part of the world he is talking about.

[edit: changed secondary source to original source on obesity. ]

You've performed some artful misrepresentations there; the labor statistics you cite, for example, don't actually agree with your characterization, since the definition of "working" used by the BoL is at least 27 weeks in the labor force in a given year. So apparently, to you, someone who works 26 weeks (half the year) and gets laid off "doesn't work at all"...

The housing data is a similar problem. That "2 rooms per person" statistic is correct, but is the wrong statistic, since the Census Bureau defines the statistic by saying:

Rooms counted include whole rooms used for living purposes, such as bedrooms, living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, recreation rooms, permanently enclosed porches that are suitable for year-round use, lodger’s rooms, and other finished rooms. Also included are rooms used for offices by a person living in the unit.

Thus a four-person family in a one-bedroom house is "luxuriously" enjoying two rooms per person...

So how about you try again and get the numbers and methodology right this time?

27 weeks includes both time spent employed and time spent unemployed. If the person you describe looked for work even once, they are counted as "working poor" (having spent 1 week unemployed). Try reading the article.

A one bedroom house with 8 rooms? That works out to what, a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, a home office, an enclosed porch, a recreation room, a dining room and one bedroom?

I recently found out how much money WIC pays out for "supplemental" nutrition.

$50 a MONTH. In vouchers. For only certain foods. Ice cream would definitely not be one of them. White bread is not one of them. Soda is not one of them.

Get your facts straight.

Could you remind me where I claimed the poor were getting fat off WIC supplemental nutrition, rather than other sources of food?

I've edited my comment to reflect the fact that I'm only speculating about specific food items making the poor fat. But make no mistake, the poor are fat - their average BMI is 29, only one point short of obesity. If you ever live in a poor neighborhood, all you need to do is open your eyes to see that everyone has plenty to eat.

I work in your neighborhood. Walk a few blocks off the NYU campus and you'll find plenty of people who are not exactly overeating due to their financial situation.

Ever seen footage from a famine in Africa? All the people appear to have huge bellies, but that is because they don't get a specific vitamin, not because they are fat.

Maybe something like that is the case here?

No. Clearly you aren't American. The situation we have in the US is so ridiculous, it needs to be seen to be believed.

Early on during the recession, NPR, an American radio station did a report on people going hungry as a result of the recesssion. Go look at the picture. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9259254...

No starving person in Africa or anywhere else had a BMI of 29.

My state offers food stamps as well. Several of my friends have been on them, and they have more money to spend on food than they can eat. I want to say it's something like $50 per week, but I'm not positive. And I used to work at a grocery store, so I know for sure that you can buy any food (even soda) with it, as long as it's not pre-prepared (rotisserie chicken, salad bar, etc.).

Well I'm going on, my girlfriend is a consultant for the WIC program and she has both the numbers and the diet plan in front of her at this very moment, not speculation. And the requirements are federally mandated.


The only vouchers are for "Juice (without extra sugar), Milk, Cereal, Cheese, Eggs, Fruits and Vegetables, Whole Wheat Bread, Fish, Canned Vegetables, and Peanut Butter".

I wasn't disputing you... as I said, I worked in a grocery store; I know exactly what you're talking about. The poor in my state get WIC and the Ohio card. WIC is a federal supplement (for Women, Infants, and Children) to any state programs (income-based for all) that exist.

WIC is different from SNAP (food stamps).

Or the couple of mentions about poor people having shitty cars.

Where I'm from poor people take the bus, as they could afford neither a car nor the gas.

Not all places in the US are reachable by bus, especially smaller towns.

The geographical disadvantage of the US is probably to blame for this. I don't think that there's a substantial number of rural poor in western Europe.

I don't think that there is any town in Germany that is not reachable by bus, and our inner cities have at least adequate public transit.

Apart from free health care, good public transit could turn some things in the US.

Agreed; I'm originally from the Netherlands myself, and the situation there is the same as in Germany. Over here in the US, it's a different story. If you live in a rural area (like I do) you really need a car, because there is no public transportation anywhere around.

In most industrialized cities, the bus service is good enough to use as a primary transportation mode.

Depends on the city and the job imo. Many cities have very bad late-night bus services (often non-existent), which is a problem if you're a janitor or fast-food worker who gets off at 2am. And many of the better-paying jobs available to the poor are in wealthy suburban areas with bad bus services as well, so with no car you're cutting out a bunch of employment options, like cleaning houses or waiting tables in upscale suburbs. Atlanta has interesting rush-hour traffic along those lines, with a large group of poor people from southern Atlanta driving to jobs in the suburban/exurban counties to the north.

Surprisingly, this is the first time this article was submitted to HN.

It was already discussed here before (with many comments), but it was submitted as a comment:


Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.

Plus knowing that your kids are likely to ignore your guidance and follow your example, making the same mistakes you did, no matter how much they know it's a bad idea, and that it will be your influence at fault when they do. I mean, everybody deals with this, but I imagine the worse off your situation, the worse the fear is.

Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.

I still have this now!

Of course I was never poor for any real hardcore definition of the word, Third World-style, but I spent a good few years totally flat broke. Money coming in only occasionally covering the rent, utility payments never paid as I couldn't justify spending that much money when I couldn't afford to eat, living off dry bread and instant mash etc etc. It was an experience for sure, and one I never, ever want to repeat! It's only relatively recently that I've stopped dreading the arriving of mail or jumping when there's a knock at the door, or even keeping the curtains closed so no one can see I'm in.

But yeah, I still buy the cheap brands if they are there out of habit. I'll walk down the road to save 10p on a bottle of milk and so on.

Being poor is relying on people who don’t give a damn about you.

Most of them are about being financially poor, but this one is about emotional poverty and can happen to the richest of us.

"We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty." - Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa was no saint: http://www.slate.com/id/2090083/

Christopher Hitchens isn't exactly an impartial source when it comes to Mother Teresa.

He has an opinion, and he states it. It's not like he has some sort of conflict of interest.

My point was that Hitchens has an axe to grind. It makes entertaining reading, but should be taken with a hefty dose of salt.

Specially given his propensity for excessive self-promotion. That piece might have been written to spread his name around. Just like that dipshit in Florida who gained international recognition by threatening to burn a book.

What can we do to help people who are this kind of poor? Having given a decent bit to charities in the past, I somtimes feel a bit odd not knowing where it really went, or even if it really helped anyone. Or is this just me?

give directly to local charities, like your food bank or library. you could ask around at your civic center or library for groups who don't have a lot of overhead - i personally try to only donate to groups who are very local and don't have high administration costs, e.g. run by volunteers. if you aren't bothered by church groups they also can do a lot of good. if you have children at school, as your local school if you can help out by donating books or music instruments for those who can't otherwise afford these things. you can make a difference in someone's life, believe me.

This. My better half is director at a small non-profit here that is part of an ecosystem focusing on helping people get out of this cycle.

Her non-profit is the last step in this local ecosystem, taking people who are at about 75% of the local median household income and helping them with more affordable housing while they get back on their feet (or find their feet for the first time). However, it's no free ride. They require that the participants go through financial education, require that they continue making forward progress in bettering themselves, and monitor/mentor them all along the way.

They've taken nearly destitute families and guided them to the point of sustainable, unsubsidized home ownership, requiring far less monetary assistance along the way than comparable (less effective) government programs. I'm generally jaded by the waste, fraud, and ineffectiveness that we so often hear about regarding charities, but the work that her charity has done is amazing.

It's depressing to watch her smaller, deserving organization have to fight a desperately uphill battle against huge, inefficient organizations when it comes to funding and donations. So, I strongly second the notion of finding good, local charities to donate to.

"This" is not a complete sentence.

</grammar nazi>

I'm going to try this donating to the local school, thanks for the constructive ideas.

I grew up poor, not "oh, we're short on money" poor, but "people would randomly leave grocery bags with food in them during the holidays on our doorstep, of which some people stole food out of before we knew it was there" poor. It's hard to sum everything up properly in just a comment here on HN, it's not a lack of effort, or drive, or want to improve the situation. It's literally everything in the deck completely stacked against you. Get a $100 bonus? Well, that means we can pay the past due on the electric and water bill both this month instead of paying only the one that is about to get shut off. There's so much ground to make up that there is never any appearance of improvement, any and all progress results in "less behind" than you were before, but you're still behind and still have the same problems. I started my own lawn mowing business when I was fairly young (~11-12) by borrowing someone's lawn mower, dragging it from section 8 housing to middle class neighborhoods and charging $20 a lawn. I gave half of the money I made to my parents. One of the things I bought from my portion of it was an 18 speed bike. I eventually ended up getting hit by a car, and could afford to replace the rim of the wheel that got screwed up. Eventually, my parents replaced the rim and gave the bike to my brother for Christmas. Yes, they took my broken bike, spent less than $10 on a used, not-quite-right part and then gave it as a gift.

From all that I saw during this, I never once knew of a charity that provided any actual help. Around the holidays, several different charities, churches and caring folks would drop off food. But the food all had a shelf-life of less than a month, so we would eat really good for November/December and then immediately go back to how it was before. I've worked for a few charities/non-profits since dragging myself out of that. I wouldn't ever contribute a single dollar to a charity. However, my time is worth far more value (to me and to those receiving it) than a dollar could be. Volunteer regularly somewhere, like one Saturday a month. The day given up is less cost than a corresponding day's worth of salary and the benefit you can provide is larger than the dollar amount. In the past, I've provided efforts such as: plumbing/electrical/construction/maintenance at zero cost to the person receiving it (including replacement parts), child herding (three of us would take and pay for a trip to a local amusement park for the day, along the lines of a carnival in terms of rides), free tutoring (this one went a long ways, 2 kids and free "babysitting" all day, as well as providing a lot of benefit for the kids). It is much easier to find people who are in need via religious organizations or shelters.

The key takeaway is that if you give dollars, it will be spent on what they absolutely need to survive. There are no more decisions about sacrificing a little bit somewhere in order to do something "nice" such as fixing the leaking faucet because they just can't be made. By providing the things that are sacrificed, you give a glimpse that things can be better while providing for what they cannot manage to. I'm also of the opinion that it doesn't introduce a dependency on charity, which means that it would be better for them in the long term.

Thanks for your insight. Would you agree with the "Bee Sting" theory of poverty that was discussed here before, then?


(article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2008/03/30/... )

Somehow I managed to miss when that article came across HN, and they auto-detect mobile devices so I couldn't read it till I got home, but it is a much better fit that the typical ones people assign. It's a somewhat flawed analogy though, if you have 6 bee stings and can relieve one, there's noticeable improvement. A better description would be "Imagine you get stung 6 times per day and you have the option to treat one sting a week". The entire problem is that they're losing ground every day and any progress they make is to lose less ground per day, not actually making forward progress.

There's a program in Germany which has well-educated non-teachers teaching and tutoring pupils in low-income areas. It's quite new, but from what I've heard (from a teacher), it's going to help, mostly by showing pupils possibilities.

If you can, try engaging or tutoring pupils in low-income areas.

I just had a thought for a charity that could really help people who are stuck in a bad (physical) location: enough money to cover, specifically, the first and last month's rent deposit required by most apartments.

Living paycheck-to-paycheck (I've been there... although by my own fault and not for long enough to be desperate) means you can't make certain changes because they require some money up front, and those changes would help break the cycle of poverty (such as moving to take a better job).

I think this is a great idea. I know the microfinance people love to do photo ops in the third world, but there is a great need for microfinance to the poor in the first world too.

Enforce minimum wages that people can actually live on. Most poor people work significantly harder than your typical white collar office worker. The only thing that separates most of the middle class from the poor is that the middle class had a solid foundation from their family on which to build their future.

What if minimum wage laws actually perpetuate the problem by preventing low skill workers from getting hired in the first place?

I don't think minimum wage laws are a significant cause of unemployment, but there is plenty of dispute about that. Even if you're right, what good is having a job if it gives you nothing more than the ability to spin your wheels and never progress in life or provide your children with some good opportunity? It seems preferable to have a system where workers are paid well and there is higher unemployment, but also stronger safety nets as opposed to a system with lower unemployment, few safety nets, and swathes of working poor that will never make progress.

Also, there is reason to believe that higher minimum wages encourage your workforce to become better skilled in order to compete on the world market at their higher price, as is the case in Germany.

Being hired on the US minimum wage is hardly going to lift people out of poverty. One thing that really seems crazy to me is that the US minimum wage isn't even tied to inflation and went though a period of no increase from 1997 to 2006.

Almost need some kind of subsidy somewhere to give these people at least a decent standard of living.

"Enforce minimum wages that people can actually live on. Most poor people work significantly harder than your typical white collar office worker. The only thing that separates most of the middle class from the poor is that the middle class had a solid foundation from their family on which to build their future."

What would stop companies from increasing the costs of their goods and services because they know minimum wage is higher (and people can now afford it)?

Minimum wage in the US is $7.25/hour (many states are higher). A person couldn't support a family on this, but they could find a place to live (either renting a room, cheap apartment, or sharing a bigger apartment with friends) and have enough left over for the bare-minimum.


Following your comment through to it's logical conclusion: why not make the minimum wage $1,000,000/yr?..that should take care of poverty altogether.

That's not even close to the logical conclusion: the statement was "Enforce minimum wages that people can actually live on", not "Higher minimum wage is always better."

Contrast that with many right wing arguments about taxation, which usually take the form "Lower/more regressive taxes are always better, and here's why" - disturbingly many of those arguments are "valid" (i.e. if you accept the arguer's claims, the conclusion follows) no matter what the starting point is, and the end result would either be zero taxes for everyone or (surprisingly common) almost 100% taxation of the lower classes and no tax on the upper; hell, if we allow for redistribution, many of the conservative arguments actually imply that the upper class should be given money by the lower class, for the good of the economy.

If your argument pushes some number in one direction but doesn't turn around for some value of that number, then there's typically a problem with the argument; here, that's not the case, the poster explicitly provided that stopping point.

That really depends on what you are willing to risk. You could volunteer\Donate directly to your local food kitchen. Then you know you have stopped someone from starving today. If you are willing and able to risk more for greater effect give a homeless person a job.

Don't have kids before you're ready to and can afford to. It seems like a lot of these are related to kids.

Getting pregnant is natural and easy. As die_sekte points out elsewhere on the page:

(a) Sex is cheap, good entertainment. (b) If you are already poor, children aren't going to make it any worse. (c) For some reason, most people really want to have children. (d) Humans aren't exactly rational creatures.

And I'll add to that: when you're poor and poorly educated, you neither know much about contraceptives nor can you afford them. Hell, in the US we have a lot of kids who are perfectly well off and don't know how condoms work, because of various kinds of screwed-up politics. If you're poor? You might not even know you have a choice in the matter. And "abstinence only" doesn't work.

I find it very hard to believe that a significant part of the US population doesn't know enough about condoms or pills. The problem is that a large percentage of people don't use contraceptive methods and have kids out of wedlock.

I don't know for sure but it sounds like kids happened when there were two people, and then a partner took off. If all you can act on is that this person promises to be around to help you pay for and look after your (theirs too!) kids, and they break that promise.. what can you do? never trust anyone? It's just not quite that simple, though I absolutely agree with the sentiment.

Daniel Markham here said you're never ready to have kids ( http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1474454 ), but I strongly agree with the statement that you should be able to afford kids before having them.

In the sense that yeah, just like there's no good time to get married, there's no good time to have kids, since life just gets in the way.

That said, I think at a young age, like in your teens (and nowadays in your early 20's), there's still a lot of things that you need to do in order to make your childrearing easier.

If you don't get to that point, you're always trying to do short-term gains to raise your kid, while not being able to invest (either financially, educationally, or situationally) in long-term gains.

Funny this is being upvoted, seems to me as a completely blind to reality thing to say, telling poor people not to have kids. Sure, that'll work.

I meant it more as a mental note for personal behavior, not as a public policy to implement.

How about doing public education along those lines? Government campaigns? Monetary help contingent on doing that?

I hope there's something that can be done, knowing (or believing) this to be the case.

I've never been anything near poor. I was wondering how really hard it is to get out of poverty in today's society, and if people really wants it (i'm NOT implying that they don't want, i'm really just asking myself).

This is more for homeless-poor than just poor: I would really like to try taking someone homeless, let him shave and dress him nicely, get him to an interview even for a shitty manual job, that'd make me feel really useful in this society, I could probably host him in small building we own in the city (no heating but still it's a shelter and it's not that cold here) UNTIL he finds something else.

"Unfortunately" I can't find any homeless guy in my city (smallish northern italy town), let alone the ones that truly wants to change their situation which i suppose are a % of the homeless people

I don't deny the reality of poverty, but this discussion leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

The world is full of pain and nastiness, but this particular list accentuates and celebrates it. Can you imagine a similar piece writing about the woes of Terminal Cancer or Business Failure or Having An Autistic Child?

Everyone's got problems, but people who are actually suffering don't write this way. Nobody defines themselves by their problems; ask a poor person if he's poor, and he'll probably say, "Oh no, I'm not that poor, I have an X." Or maybe, "Oh, I'm poor all right, but I'm not unhappy." Or perhaps even, "Yeah, I'm poor, and it is kind of miserable, but X makes it okay."

What you won't get is, "Oh, I'm so poor and miserable, and you have no idea what poverty is like, let me list the ways I suffer, and let me drive home how very impossible it is for you, from your life of privelege, to ever comprehend how much I suffer every minute."

Well, unless you ask an angsty teenager. ;)

Just about everybody has problems, but nobody defines themselves by their troubles. Everyone thinks of himself as a complex person, with some miseries and some joys, some problems and some opportunities, some strengths and some weaknesses.

Think over your own life; you could almost certainly write a piece like this about some problem you've had. Something has been miserable and unjust for you, in a way people who haven't been there would have a hard time identifying with.

But do you define yourself by it? Neither do The Poor.

That gets at the heart of what I find troubling about this piece.

This is not about a particular person's or a particular community's experience of poverty. This is about The Poor, as a monolithic, mythical entity. And anytime you see someone cast a community of people, who are inherently diverse and complex by virtue of being people, as a simple, mythical stereotype, you're seeing intellectual dishonesty in action. Leftists are socialists, Christians are stupid or evil, Hacker News readers are well off, Iraqis approve the occupation, Americans are arrogant. These things can only be said from a distance; those who have spent time with these communities up close and personal would be hard pressed to say anything was true of all of them. People are diverse.

Let me call these sentiments what they are: bigotry. They divide the population into "us" and "them", and say we are this way, and they are that way.

(That's not to say you can't make useful generalizations. You can. But an honest generalization acknowledges that it is a simplification of a complex reality, and welcomes statistics and counterexamples that heighten the clarity of the image. Bigotry says reality is simple, and don't argue with me, dammit.)

Step back a moment and you know that poverty is complex, and poverty is relative. There are transient homeless and chronic homeless. There are ambitious immigrants without a dollar to their names, there are musicians living the bohemian life, there are barely-profitable-but-proud startup founders living on ramen, there are third generation prostitutes who will never know their fathers, there are children sold into sexual slavery before they're even teens, there are women trapped in polygamous, fundamentalist Mormon communities, there are parents who helplessly watch their children starve to death. So what "is poverty"? By what authority does this author say, "Poverty is..."?

This is not a rational attempt to characterize poverty. This is not a reference to studies which say "67% of households in XX neighborhood in 2008 had to go without a meal at least once a week for lack of funds." This is a series of emotional statements. This says, "Poverty is having to hunt squirrels in the park for food and being so hungry that you'll even eat the nasty bits."

And if someone comes back and says, "Actually, poverty isn't that bad," is their diverse viewpoint into a complex problem welcomed? No, the response is, "Clearly you've never experienced true poverty, you insensitive bastard."

What's going on here?

Emotional, self-serving bigotry. These are not poor people talking about contemporary problems, looking for practical solutions. These are people who know what Poverty Is one-upping those who Don't Know What Poverty Is with their superior Social Awareness. It's a race to see who can be the most heartbroken by this emotional Reality of Poverty, criticizing nothing, adding to the tales of woe, acknowledging that yes, by God, it's true, it's all true.

I have no doubt that the anecdotes are true, that they have roots in real experience. People really do suffer despair, hunger, and degrading treatment. But an emotional characterization without any roots in reason, a construction of a mythology of The Poor as objects of pity? I think that's actually destructive.

Impersonal pity is degrading and infuriating. You see it in some of the experiences recounted in the original post and comments. People would anonymously leave us food or presents, one commenter says, and even though we needed them it provoked us to white-hot rage. We were not that poor.

Kindness and compassion are encouraging and uplifting, whether you are going out to lunch with a poor friend or complimenting a rich friend on his poetry. It doesn't matter how miserable or happy a person is; he can be made happier by love, by personal kindness. But depersonalized pity is always degrading. If you do not think of yourself as The Poor, how insulting is it that your neighbor does, that he thinks your life is so unbearable that you would rather have a few crumbs from his table than keep your sense of dignity?

There is a subtle art to being kind. It's all about treating people with dignity, respecting their personhood.

Kindness is your friend, the rich professor, treating you to an extravagent dinner at the best club in town as a thank you for your hard work helping him grade papers. Pity is an anonymous millionaire giving you $200 for the same dinner just so you can "feel like a human being for a night." Kindness is your neighbor, the fit, poor, stay at home mom, offering to help her elderly and disabled neighbor with some chores after chatting over lunch. Pity is $50 in an envelope taped to your door with a note that says, "I can see your living room from the street and feel sorry for you; this is to hire a housekeeper for a day."

The original post provokes pity, and I find that degrading. Here, for comparison, is what compassion sounds like:

http://jmchoul.spaces.live.com/Blog/cns!F04579021E6249A3!143... http://www.delanceystreetfoundation.org/grads.php

Poverty is real, complex, and generally miserable, but even the poor are human. Treat them with human dignity and kindness, not with self-righteous pity.

  this particular list accentuates and celebrates it.
It doesn't do that in any objective way: that's your interpretation, which you use as a stool to easily climb on a hobbyhorse.

  Can you imagine a similar piece writing about the woes of
  Terminal Cancer or Business Failure or Having An Autistic
Yes I can. Actually, I think I've read those and they were equally inspiring as a reminder of my wealth and health and how small my problems really are. What of it?

  people who are actually suffering don't write this way.
But people who have suffered may. Survivors of any traumatic experience can reflect on their experiences in a wide variety of ways. Your typification of the author in this way is not supported by any evidence.

As to the rest of this piece: I find several of the viewpoints commendable, but you're conflating them by interpreting this list as 'self-serving bigotry'. The problems of generalisations, pity and lack of understanding really don't need to have anything to do with this list. Only the author can tell.

Survivors of any traumatic experience can reflect on their experiences in a wide variety of ways.

John Scalzi is not reflecting on his own experiences. He is just as privileged as you or I; he is merely claiming to be so much more aware of poverty that he has the authority to emotionally define it.


I believe that Scalzi grew up in a household which was "poor", at least for some years, and that he was simply hard-working and lucky enough to be able to get out of it. See his comment on the OP here: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2005/09/03/being-poor/#comment-64...

Which is not to say that he isn't doing well for himself now, and it's hardly surprising that this wouldn't feature prominently in his "brief bio".

I dunno. In that comment, he describes being the first in his family to graduate from high school or college, and his mom sending him away to live with an aunt so she could work.

In the original post, he described not being able to scrape together $300 for a test to go to college at all, and "not taking the job because you can’t find someone you trust to watch your kids". Sounds like exaggeration to me.

I still don't think he's writing from experience. He went to a high school he liked, a nice out of state college, and got a nice job. Just like the rest of us. He hasn't had to "try to think of a way to make the kids understand that the box [of Raisin Bran] has to last." Maybe his parents or friends did. Or maybe it's exaggerated and mythologized.

Who knows?

I'd rather access the reality of poverty through reason than emotion. Practical compassion for the people I know personally (and he is not the only one with friends and family who are poor!); statistics for communities and definitions and trends.

In the original post, he described not being able to scrape together $300 for a test to go to college at all, and "not taking the job because you can’t find someone you trust to watch your kids". Sounds like exaggeration to me.

Minor correction: the $300 for college story is from a person called Soni in the comments, not in the original blog post. The bit about not taking a job, I can easily see being observation of his parents; that's how I interpreted a lot of the items in the list, as things he saw his family go through as he grew up. He himself has obviously done pretty good, but that's not to say he couldn't have shared at least parts of these experiences.

In general I agree with the superiority of reason over emotion; but there are a lot of people out there who can't be reached easily through reason, for whom statistics just sit there, meaningless. I think it's useful to have these emotional appeals out there, as it hits at a different level.

  John Scalzi is not reflecting on his own experiences.
But the point is that you can't decide that from what he wrote. A work of fiction can contain extremely accurate descriptions of peoples' experiences, as judged by people that have experienced what is descrined, even though the author hasn't lived through those experiences himself. The ability to conceive such descriptions is one of the skills that can make someone a great writer. You're basically arguing against that and asserting that someone that hasn't experienced something cannot and should not write about it.

I think there's many things to take away from the post given the way it is written, all of which are valid interpretations. I got the exact opposite of you. The end take-away I read from it was "The destitute are people. There are real problems and real situations that cause it. They don't want pity, they don't want handouts, they want to be in a better place but there is no hope left of that so they just make do and try to be happy like everyone else." I may be biased and read more into it than was intended given my personal past, but I got the message from the post that you ended with, "Treat them with human dignity and kindness, not with self-righteous pity."

You hit on what I don't like about this post better than I could, so I'll mention something else.

Yesterday was Anthony Bourdain hammering home the message that if you aren't young, fit, talented and working in the top 10 restaurants in the world you are nobody and may as well not bother trying.

Today it's this essay harping on about how if you haven't below his arbitrary level of poorness then you arent worth bothering with and how dare you think to have an opinion.

This seems a common enough attitude around - that only the top few or the extreme failures are real people and everyone else is a schmuck, and it's mechanistic, compasionless and unhelpful.

Not that I disagree with you. I've been poor and would never had thought along the lines of this piece in that present tense. But looking back now, I certainly do in the past-tense.

Many people once where poor. My father grew up poor in the US and missed many a meal. The closest he ever came to describing it was "15 pounds in basic training from actually having enough to eat." However, after he started making 6 figures he could joke about being poor. It's not really complaining so much as saying, relative to that things are great.

It's a poem.

Being poor is wanting as much stuff as the people around you.

The article came across to me as a whiny. Being poor is having a car (but not a nice one), having toys (but not nice ones), having shoes, shelter, food (but...).

If I have one complaint about the article, it's that his idea of poor, and my idea of poor seem very far apart. My idea of poor makes his idea of poor look like a lavish paradise.

This guy's suffering was real -- it's just that, contrary to what the article implies, it was not caused by the lack of material comforts, but by the low social position relative to others he compared himself against. If he time-traveled to Eastern Europe thirty years ago he would be the coolest kid on the block owning a car, American clothes and high quality toys and he wouldn't consider himself poor or deprived.

On the other hand, in the future, when everyone has their own planet, some people will still have planets with designer ice caps and others will have to contend themselves with off brand ice caps and the latter will feel underprivileged and unhappy.

Interesting looking at the Australian minimum wage of $15/hr ($14.21 USD atm). Whereas from what I have seen of the US one it seems really hard to get by at all with the Australian one you could rent out a nice 2 or 3 bedroom house in an outer suburb but nice area which would only take up about half your weekly wage.

I believe the U.S. federal minimum wage is $7.25/hr before taxes are taken out (and it can be less than that if you work in a job that expects to collect tips, like waiting tables), or about $15k/yr for a full-timer. In my area, which is a suburban area, 600 sq ft. single bedroom apartments go for around $900-$1200/mo. Significantly more if you live closer into the city. For reasons of transportation, many poor people live in the city.

Keep in mind most apartment complexes won't let you have the apartment if your credit is bad, or the rent is more than 1/3 monthly income.

You can rent bedrooms or basements though for $500-700/mo.

Supposing you got the $900/mo apartment. That leaves you with around $100/wk to feed yourself and cover all other expenses. Once taxes are taken out, that can leave you with significantly less. No amount of budgeting can turn that into night school + transport + clothes + utilities + anything else you need like furniture or medical insurance or dental care.

Most people trying to get a leg up work two full-time jobs which, while getting you more money (and enough money to qualify for the cheapest apartment possible), it doesn't leave any time for life advancement plans like night school. So it's a vicious cycle and you can only break out of it by being lucky in many areas simultaneously. You have to find the job that pays more than minimum wage, and compete with all the other poor people trying to get that same slot...so you can work only one job...so you can have time to take one class a semester at community college (so long as they happen to offer the classes you need at time that don't interfere with your work schedule and your work schedule doesn't change during the semester to interfere with your classes)...so in 5 or 6 years you can get an Associates degree, which isn't really worth much, but can be transfered to many state schools in lieu of the first two years of a 4-year degree (at much less cost).

Of course many people stop at this point because they can't afford the last two years of school, and the A.A. or A.S. didn't really help them get a better job. So they feel like they've just wasted 5 or 6 years of their life scraping for every penny they had to put themselves through school.

Escaping this kind of life requires so much luck and so many people in so many places to turn a blind eye, or offer a meaningful helping hand, that a person simply can't do it on their own. It's numerically impossible in the U.S. Most immigrants who come here with nothing never escape it themselves, but end up in a better life through their children.

My grandmother grew up during the great depression. She still hoards food in nooks and crannies throughout the house and when let loose on a piece of chicken will eat every last scrap of digestible item on the bone. She habitually makes soup with boiled beef bones to get every last ounce of nutrition.

My father grew up just post-depression in a very rural area. While he never missed a meal, many meals consisted of only a few slices of bread as a filler and maybe some soup and not much else. I've never seen him eat a meal without eating some bread with it, he said it makes him feel uncomfortable.

My family was pretty low-end middle class growing up, and a couple of unlucky business decisions set us homeless for the better part of a year, with my entire family of 4 living in a single room subsidized motel room (rent 5 days, get the weekends for free) followed by two years of living out of two rented rooms in somebody's basement. We also never missed a meal, but I can tell you that I, to this day, cannot eat a cup of noodles meal without thinking about drug addicts banging at our motel room door thinking we were the room down the hall. We did better after that, and then later in life, as an adult, I found myself in not-quite-so-bad-but-not-great circumstances. A time when I used to decide if I could buy lunch at McDonald's or Taco Bell by counting how many hours extra I would have to work to pay for McDonald's.

Some of the things Scalzi mentions, would have been luxuries at certain moments in my life...like having toys. I've spent time as a child with no toys at all.

People who have never been poor, have absolutely no understanding, cannot fathom, why people are poor and why they stay poor. Being poor is not about having a lack of money, it's about having a lack of wealth. It's a way of life. A person who has never been poor cannot understand why you can't "just go to night school" to improve your lot in life because they don't understand that between two 40 hour a week jobs, and 2 or 3 hours a day of walking between jobs, home, the day-old-baked goods store and the salvation army, you have maybe 4 or 5 hours that night for sleep...every night. And what intense sleep deprivation coupled with intense, dangerous and stressful jobs can do to a person after decades. We worry about soldiers deployed for 18 months, imagine that type of life for 18 years solid.

"Being poor is picking the 10 cent ramen instead of the 12 cent ramen because that’s two extra packages for every dollar." This is the type of calculation one has to make all day every day when one is poor. It's very easy to be critical when you see a poor person buy a pack of cigs or a 6-pack of beer instead of a head of lettuce or that month's electricity bill. But I dare anybody to live that kind of life and not be so stressed and so damaged from the constancy of it, that you seek any kind of escape possible and that desire for escape infects all of your decisions. When your eating decisions are down to decisions about pennies, there's really not much worse things can get. Having the lights turned off because you didn't pay the bill does not really make things all that much worse in your day to day.

"Being poor is four years of night classes for an Associates of Art degree." The prime question asked by those who have never been poor, and are unable to empathize with those who are, is this..."why don't you just go to school and make your lot in life better?" There are lots of reasons to be poor in the first place. If you are lucky like I was, it's not because you have a mental disease or a severe learning disability, or are crippled or in some other way handicapped or not raised in a generational environment of poverty where you honestly don't understand that going to class can translate into a house in the suburbs because you have absolutely no life experience for you to understand that. Just in the same way some people don't understand what it's like to be poor, poor people can't understand what life is like to be not poor.

I was able to spend the 6 years in night school to get my 2 year A.S., which brought me up a step in life so that I could spend another 3 years getting the last two years of my B.S. which brought up a step in life so I could spend another 4 years getting my M.S. But at each step, if I hadn't had a person at that time to help me up that step, and give me an opportunity, I'd still be comparing Ramen prices, or figuring out how many meals a 10-pack of tacos from Taco Bell would last. And if I hadn't had the emotional support from good friends, or people who believed in me...well, 10 years is a terribly long time to keep motivated to change your lot in life while also doing all the other things people do in their day-to-day, like keeping down full-time jobs, career advancement, marriage, etc. Basically, being poor is a full-time job on top of your other full-time jobs. But I don't think that every poor peer I knew while I was poor could do the same. I got lucky and had great opportunity, and I worked hard to seize those opportunities when they came along. If nobody ever opens the door for you, you can't ever go through it and nobody is strong enough to carve their path in life to success all on their own.

My friend, who was born with the after-effects of an alcoholic and drug addicted mother, was unable to keep passing grades in his 6 year quest for a 2 year associate's degree and has never held a salaried position. That means he's never had health insurance, which means he's lost 3 jobs because he spent 14 hours in an ER getting basic medical care. It means he's had cars repossessed because somebody hit him and he had no auto-insurance and couldn't pay the repair bill out of pocket. It means that sometimes, to escape the shitty life he has to live every day, he sometimes buys a used book to escape into instead of a head of lettuce. It also means that sometimes, at the beginning of the month, he's just paid his rent, and he has $12 left in his bank account to stretch out till his next paycheck.

And then, after you've been poor for a long time, it shows. There's an aura about a poor person that no amount of hair product and tailored suits can shake. It sits on them in how they walk, how they talk, how they sit, how their skin hangs, what their build looks like, how the hold themselves, where they look in a room, how they behave at a meal. Because of this, no matter how hard they've worked to "make it", they'll always have that stigma attached to them, even by people that never knew they were poor. They'll present like a poor person so they'll interview worse, they'll get promoted less frequently, they'll get scored lower on yearly reviews.

Going from poor to not poor, is not about climbing a ladder. It's about being on the front of a seige engine attacking a fortress while arrows and bullets and hot oil rains down on you.

> People who have never been poor, have absolutely no understanding, cannot fathom, why people are poor and why they stay poor.

It's amazing to me how many of the comments on this thread remind me of how I would describe depression.

I'm not poor and never have been. But I have felt hopeless despair that I don't think people can understand unless they've experienced it. It is an emotional response that is radically disproportionate to the actual circumstances that triggered it.

I won't argue that depression has any of the long-term effects you describe though.

Depression is often a result of feeling trapped by life's circumstances. Being poor can often feel like one is trapped. It's not a stretch to say that many poor people are also highly depressed people.

I agree though, it's like describing what color is to a person blind from birth. In some cases (as are represented on this thread) it's like describing it to a blind person who thinks they already know how all the senses work, and a person can just get over the "seeing thing" if they just sniff hard enough.

Jeannette Walls' "The Glass Castle" is a memoir of her poor, nomadic childhood that is at times shocking and heartbreaking.

It's often good to remind yourself of just how fortunate you really are... Those lines are so easily blurred.

Or not... actually I - AM - fortunate, and I've never been poor, but I can identify with many of the points in the article (many are too US-centric as someone pointed out), and U$ 8 an hour sounds like a good deal even today for me.

Of course, I live in Uruguay, South America, and mostly by choice (I was born here, but I've had my opportunities to emigrate).

It's funny, but many of the "being poor" points, would not be considered "being poor" here in Uruguay (I should write a similar article about "being poor" from the Uruguay point of view - let's say it would be much worse in several parts, a bit better on the healthcare bit.

Being poor is buying only Oatmeal and Mac & Cheese because they don't require electric refrigeration, can be purchased in bulk inexpensively, and you just add water to eat.

That brings back bad memories. Granted, compared to many parts of the world it's a walk in the park.

I'm sorry, I know this is a serious subject but this thread reminds me of this Monty Python sketch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xe1a1wHxTyo

Instead check how rich are you http://www.globalrichlist.com/

I had grass growing in my first car.

I do understand this article; however I would point out that among the "poor" (in America hardly anyone is poor like in the 3rd world) I have met, TV is present and books are not.

TVs are much cheaper per hour, so what's the surprise?

I mean, yes, I know what you're getting at, but a $50 used 25-inch CRT that you use for several thousand hours is going to beat out a book on the price front any day. Even just the effort of going to the library and back adds up to more human capital per book/hour than watching TV. I'm not endorsing it, just observing it.

Just a quick comment; most books one cannot even give away. A lot of used books are sold on Amazon for $.01. The local used bookstore won't even take boxes of nearly mint books for free, because they can't give them away either.

I read thousands of books as a kid and paid for nearly none of them.

http://www.bookthing.org/ for instance will generally take those books.

It is not about cost per hour, but about improving yourself vs. entertainment.

TV's information density, even for good shows (however defined), is very low; you can learn far more in 1 hour of reading than in 1 hour of TV watching. And TV is a passive activity while reading a book requires mental involvement.

What people, even poor people, choose to spend their time on has an effect on what they are able to do later.


My post was only four sentences, couldn't you have troubled yourself to finish it before replying?

The same could be said for many of the "rich" in America too.

being poor is not having a blog.

Great list.

I grew up in a very poor family (although Canadian poor is global rich by some measure, that didn't comfort me). It's an experience that I seldom comment on because I've discovered that many people simply cannot understand. They really can't.

Being really poor is more about a lack of hope, opportunity and options than the more obvious lack of resources. It's impossible to play poor -- you can't cut your budget as an exercise in restraint and then assume that you've experienced what it's like to be desperately poor.

The few luxuries we did have were grossly irresponsible luxuries.

I remember a period shortly after our dog died of malnutrition -- when the infrequent bath was facilitated by my older brother using a blow torch on the hot water heater, and boiled hot dogs comprised about 80% of our diet -- and my father blew the few dollars he got on a laser disc player.

Here we were living miserably, living in a toxic environment as our only indoor heat was a kerosene heater (that we didn't die of carbon monoxide poisoning was courtesy of the gale force winds that would blow through the uninsulated house), and yet we had a very rare laser disc player for our shitty little second-hand television.

I don't begrudge my father it, though. Life had become such a trial that it was simply an escape and gave him something to feel pride about providing. It was irrational, but it gave me perspective that judging the poor is a fool's game unless you can empathize with the situation.

Being poor was thinking "what's the point" about almost everything, because fate had a way of conspiring against you. Or at least that's what it felt like when every initiative or enterprise relied upon layers of fragile proppings.

Where a flat tire was economic destruction.

Now I sit in the top 1% of earners. Though that is purely a result of natural interests and natural abilities (thank you genetics), and was no herculean motivation to escape the situation of my parents.

Every item on the list applied to my upbringing I had to stop half way through to avoid depressing myself too much this morning.

There's two reactions to this. One will be people saying these problems aren't like what's compared to "real" poverty in third world countries. Well, perspective doesn't feed you, pay bills, or support a roof over your head. Because there are people living in situations that is really fucked up doesn't invalidate you. Suffering is not a zero-sum game.

Second, the common thread of being poor is the inherent limitations. You do and behave certain ways because you have no other choice, stuck on a treadmill. Some will never get an opportunity to learn the skills to make better choices. It will take an overwhelming amount of energy and effort to change the momentum of where a life goes. Being full on dollar meals and drunk on two dollar wines doesn't help with that situation.

In all these years I have not been a god-believing man but I have become a faithful man. I have kept hope that things will always be better down the road. That it's up to me given the hand I've been dealt to play it as best as I could. And at the end to let go the bitterness or the awkwardness. There's no choice to be made when you're blinded by your own madness of being hopeless.

Being poor means having to constantly worry about money to the point where you're not sure where your next meal is coming from.

I attacked this Scalzi post almost five years ago.


Leftist propaganda on how we comfortable middle class folks have no idea of what money management is, and no idea how hard the poor are oppressed by The Man, with some observations sprinkled in between:

> http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/003704.ht... > > Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.

Being middle class is knowing how much things cost; being low-class is not knowing and just spending money.

> Being poor is getting angry at your kids for asking for > all the crap they see on TV.

Being low-class is letting your kids watch TV all day long, when there are free libraries, parks, playgrounds, Boy scout, Girl scout, and church organizations.

> Being poor is knowing your kid goes to friends' houses but > never has friends over to yours.

Being a low-class is keeping your home, no matter how large or small, in a manner that is embarrassing to you.

> Being poor is coming back to the car with your children in > the back seat, clutching that box of Raisin Bran you just > bought and trying to think of a way to make the kids > understand that the box has to last.

Being low-class is buying expensive name-brand cereal, instead of bulk oatmeal, at a fraction of the price.

> Being poor is wondering if your well-off sibling is lying > when he says he doesn't mind when you ask for help.

Being low-class is getting yourself in a situation where you need to ask folks for loans you won't pay back.

> Being poor is off-brand toys.

Being low-class is caring about the brand of toys.

> Being poor is knowing you can't leave $5 on the coffee > table when your friends are around.

Being low-class is considering people who would steal money from you your "friends".

> Being poor is stealing meat from the store, frying it up > before your mom gets home and then telling her she doesn't > have make dinner tonight because you're not hungry anyway.

Being low-class is stealing.

Being low-class is choosing meat over pasta when you can't afford it.

> Being poor is Goodwill underwear.

Being low-class is not shopping sales at Sears.

> Being poor is not enough space for everyone who lives with you.

Being low-class is having more kids than space.

> Being poor is relying on people who don't give a damn about you.

Being low-class is worrying what other people think about you, instead of just living your life.

> Being poor is finding the letter your mom wrote to your > dad, begging him for the child support.

Being low-class is leaving your spouse, or settling for the kind of person who might run off.

> Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach > skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if > your kid saw.

Being low-class is leaving garbage around enough that cock-roaches breed.

> Being poor is people angry at you just for walking around in the mall.

Being low-class is shopping at the mall, when your money would go much further at other places.

> Being poor is not taking the job because you can't find > someone you trust to watch your kids.

Being low-class is having kids with out the spouse or means to support them.

> Being poor is a sidewalk with lots of brown glass on it.

Being low-class is discarding garbage on sidewalks.

> Being poor is people thinking they know something about > you by the way you talk.

Being low-class is walking in a way that demonstrates attitude.

> Being poor is your kid's teacher assuming you don't have > any books in your home.

Being low-class is not having books in your home.

Being low-class is acting such that people would assume that you don't have book in your home.

> Being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.

Being low-class is not budgeting.

> Being poor is having to live with choices you didn't know > you made when you were 14 years old.

Being low-class is letting your children make bad choices then they are 14.

> Being poor is deciding that it's all right to base a > relationship on shelter.

Being low-class is whoring.

> Being poor is knowing you really shouldn't spend that buck > on a Lotto ticket.

Being low-class is wasting money on lotto tickets, then stealing meat for dinner (see way above).

> Being poor is feeling helpless when your child makes the > same mistakes you did, and won't listen to you beg them > against doing so.

Being low-class is not having an intact family to set a good example for your children.

> Being poor is making sure you don't spill on the couch, > just in case you have to give it back before the lease is > up.

Being low-class is eating and drinking in the living room.

> Being poor is a $200 paycheck advance from a company that > takes $250 when the paycheck comes in.

Being low-class is living beyond your means.

> Being poor is people wondering why you didn't leave.

Being low-class is refusing to listen to advice.

I feel bad for the poor, but in a rich, capitalist, free-market place like America, ALMOST ANYONE can become middle-class or better, if they just act like responsible adults.

Yeah, by the time you've pumped out four kids by three different fathers, and picked up $10k in credit card debt, you're reasonably screwed…but the fact that bad choices have consequences doesn't negate the fact that every day people come to this country with nothing but a shirt on their backs, a set of morals, and a work ethic, and end up retiring to a nice air-conditioned three-bedroom in Florida a few decades later.

Enjoy this article about how a 37 year old manual laborer who came to the country at 21 just bought a condo in NYC for $1.4 million.

If you want to work two shifts, and save your money, and eat oatmeal, you can become a millionaire.

If you want to label yourself as a victim, rent furniture you can't afford, buy name brand crap food you can't afford, and watch TV all day, you can live like the white (or other colored) trash that you are.

What this society needs is more accountability, not less.

Poor people shouldn't be spoon-fed aggrieved resentment sauce by middle class leftists; they should be reminded that they wake up every day and face a set of choices, just like the rest of us.

I was born as what would probably now be considered "poor white trash". I didn't realize it at the time because my parents worked their butts off to provide for me and for my sister, and to see to it that we did well; it wasn't until I was an adult and living on my own for the first time that I really started to understand some of the sacrifices they made and some of the choices they had to face.

I have been poor. I have been soul-crushingly under water. I've had to do things I'm not proud of just to stay afloat. But now... I live comfortably, have a job with a decent salary, and have the respect of my peers.

Did that take a lot of work? Yes. Can anyone put in the work? Yes. Is that the only factor? Not by a long shot; the number of contingent factors along the road from where I started to where I am now is staggeringly huge. Much as I'd love to toot my own horn and talk about how I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, I know perfectly well how lucky I was, on multiple occasions, simply to be in the right place at the right time, or to make a decision -- on a whim, not on any sort of prescient wisdom -- that later paid off in ways I couldn't have imagined, much less anticipated.

I also don't know any "bootstrapper" who could honestly say anything different; achievement and advancement simply don't happen in a vacuum, and they don't happen unaided. I know it's popular in certain circles to pretend otherwise, but that's just the way it is, and posting demeaning screeds whose sole clear message is "it's your own fault if you're poor" always makes me think someone's ego has gotten in the way of actual understanding.

It's simplistic to think that "it's your own fault if you're poor" which is what tjic is implying.

I was irritated by the above post because I don't think the above poster has really been poor before. When you're 13 years old, with no home, no parents, perhaps in 70s Taiwan where government services were at a minimum, living off a bowl of white rice every day, trying to study and get into the best college because that's your only ticket out for 4 or 5 years, I don't think there is much you can do at all. To say that you can fix your situation in any state is insulting.

My father did get out. But he suffered for four years, which seemed like eternity. One bowl of rice, passing out because he didn't get enough nutrition. What would you have him do? Go work and forfeit a college education?

He didn't need anything, by the way. But to imply that there was more he could do about his situation is INSULTING.

When he said something like "Being low-class is not budgeting." You know he's just an ignoramus. He's never been poor and has absolutely no concept of what that means. He also doesn't know what it takes to claw and scratch your way out of poverty and I'd bet dollars to donuts that he wouldn't have what it takes to do it.

Clearly tjic is talking about life in the US now, not about life in Taiwan in the 70s.

When I was young (0-2 and 4-7), my family lived in a remote part of Alaska where we needed very little money and correspondingly earned very little money (~$3k/year for a family of 4). But we lived like kings, with hundreds of square miles for just us, moving around between different cabins my dad and a couple other people had built on a whim (public land, acceptable at the time), fishing and eating wild game as we pleased. Then we moved to the city because land regulations had changed and so that my younger brother and I would have more contact with people. I don't view either of these decisions as irresponsible.

Pretty much at the worst possible time, shortly after moving, my brother had some serious asthma issues (several emergency room visits), but of course we had no health insurance at that time. It took several years to recover from that debt despite long hours (e.g. 90+ hour weeks in wildfire) and good budgeting. Both my parents have Masters degrees and professional jobs now, but these kind of scenarios happen, it's not always laziness or poor fiscal planning.

"I feel bad for the poor, but in a rich, capitalist, free-market place like America, ALMOST ANYONE can become middle-class or better, if they just act like responsible adults."

"If you want to work two shifts, and save your money, and eat oatmeal, you can become a millionaire."

So let me get this straight -- being a responsible adult is working 16 hours per day, living off of oatmeal, having no disposable income?

I'll be perfectly honest with you. Morals aside, I'd be much more inclined to just rob you. In the off chance I go to jail, my life wouldn't be much worse.

I know in your idealized world people just do as their told. I think I'd make more calculated decisions... and I don't think they're likely to be decisions that you're a fan of.

> So let me get this straight -- being a responsible adult is working 16 hours per day, living off of oatmeal, having no disposable income?

If you want to own a house, or bootstrap yourself into new skills, or otherwise escape poverty, then yes.

That's what most of our ancestors did, and we're living in the society that they created and bequeathed to us.

That's stupid. I'm not doing that. No one I know who has escaped poverty has done that. No one. In fact pretty much everyone I know who has "escaped" poverty has done so through their kids. I know a few NFL, NBA players. And some that went the academic route.

Of the couple of adults I know who escaped poverty. They did so by less legal means.

> That's stupid. I'm not doing that. No one I know who has escaped poverty has done that. No one.

I was born with a net worth of $0.

I now own two companies, and a house with no mortgage.

I did it by working hard, and by working smart.

This post reminds me of an interesting phenomenon I keep noticing in my friends-- those who are the least sympathetic to the poor (in the 'those poor darlings never had a chance' sense) are those which came from the most modest backgrounds and have achieved some measure of success.

The sympathy seems to be inversely proportional to the modesty of the background and the level of current financial success.

Similarly, it's those who had everything handed to them who are most sympathetic (at least, vocally so).

tjic said they were born with $0 net worth, which is generally true of all newborns, no?

Your assumption that they bootstrapped themselves up seems misplaced. I would very strongly guess that they had a comfortable middle-class existence. Only such a person thinks it's just a matter of work hard versus laziness.

And apparently by not acknowledging any single person who helped you along the way. Way to spit on all of those people with such shameless self-aggrandizing pomposity.

How can you make such a statement knowing nothing about how he achieved his success?

Because he attributes his success to his own singular superhumanity. Nobody makes their way in this world completely on their own.

Sure, but there's no basis for knowing whether he had more or less help than any other human gets from just being a member of society.

If you spent most of your life working two jobs for 16 hours per day, eating oatmeal, I quite frankly don't think you worked very smart.

But each to their own, and what they want to spend their time on Earth doing.

The point he is making, and that you don't seem to understand is that you need to live within your means. If your means consist of $8 an hour, $320 a week, $1000 a month after taxes, that means buying bulk oatmeal instead of Raisin Bran. That might mean eating beans and rice instead of stealing steak.

Having been a poor, starving college student before, and living off of ramen noodles, mac and cheese, hot dogs, etc, I know this reality. I wasn't smart enough at the time to realize how unhealthy a lot of cheap food is, and if I had to do it over again I'd eat beans and rice and oatmeal as they're much more healthy.

Anyway, the point he's trying to make is that even if you are extremely poor, making $8 an hour, you can choose to live on a budget. Rent a room somewhere for a few hundred dollars a month, buy cheap food for a hundred bucks a month. If you're smart and live within your means, you can be saving 10% of your income even with only $1,000 a month. Work a second job, pick up more income. Maybe splurge and buy some meat once in a while now that you can afford it.

If you're getting a $200 payday loan every week and paying $250 a few days later, you're just plain stupid. That ends up taking $200 a month out of your money. And $200 a month can buy a lot of oatmeal...

The point he is really making is work hard, read your bible, and shut up. Everyone can make it, just do those three things. And if you end up broke and having wasted your life, like so many others, at least you have heaven to look forward to.

For some reason here I'm reminded of Malcolm X's autobiography...


Thing is... I don't know your dad.

Yes, you need to work 16 hours and, at the same time, make sure your kids go to the library instead of watching TV. He sounds like an expert.

> I'll be perfectly honest with you. Morals aside, I'd be much more inclined to just rob you. In the off chance I go to jail

As I sit here typing I've got my Sigpro 2340 and 10 rounds of Federal hollowpoint in a concealed holster under my t-shirt.

Poor decision making is another hallmark of people who opt into the low class.

I support the second amendment and all; I think its a more important part of the American psyche than most people realize.

Sorry to riff on your meme, but dude, typing at your computer with your gun in your belt, that's seriously low-class. Almost as much as telling everyone about it.

You pull the gun. He pulls one.

Stalemate? Double homoicide? Flight? You survive but get injured? Or worse yet you injure yourself?

Have you ever been in a situation where you pulled a gun on someone in a moment of fear? Are you sure you can? Have you trained? Or do you just have a permit?

There's a very good reason why the police recommend letting the burgler get his money and leave. Macho posing about hollowpoint bullets aside, the money isn't worth anything compared to your life and your general well-being. If you haven't figured that out yet, you haven't escaped poverty yet.

Oy, all I can say is that grinding poverty changes your mental state. I've seen both sides: my father grew up middle class and my mother grew up poor. My grandparents were the "frugal poor" that you think about -- my grandfather ended up having a heart attack in his 30s and never quite recovered. The difference is that both of them were intelligent, in spite of not having a high school education, and they lived in an era where you could get a job in that environment. (My grandfather grew up in a farming community where people were taken out of school after the 4th grade to work the fields.)

But not everyone is lucky like that. Poor people often grow up malnourished, and their IQ suffers. Everyone here is blessed with above average intelligence, but many don't have the educational foundation to develop the skills to make the right choices, and we don't exactly have frugality shows on TV to explain how to be an informed consumer.

Being poor is having the nearest grocery store a 30 minute bus ride and walk away from you and your kid. http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/news/grocery_gap.html

The thing is, everyone agrees that poor people should do all those things. But, like most things in life, the reality is harder than the ideal. My grandparents were able to do it.

In IT, we talk about stupid users. Many of the people we complain about are IQ 100, and many of the poor we're talking about are as close to them in intelligence as the average IT worker to the clueless worker.

How do you teach an 80 IQ mother the skills necessary? (Remember, the malnourishment throughout her own childhood, combined with the poor decisions of her parents, contributed to this problem - it's environmental, not genetic.)

That's the rationale behind spending money on WIC programs - if you can get the children proper nourishment, they can be attentive enough in their education that they can escape the problem.

I agree with a lot of this. Too often we promote a victim mentality. While that may help people feel better, it doesn't actually do much in the long run, it just makes everyone think they are victims of the inescapable Man and therefore have no hope or opportunity. So your counterpoints about low-class are somewhat helpful.

That said, I think you are way too extreme about some of it, especially the points about not marrying someone who will run away and not having "more kids than space". Seriously. I know several people intimately who grew in a "more kids than space" situation and I can assure that none of them would rather delete a sibling than have a little more space. It is nice to give lots of space to people if you can; if you can't, it is better to have people than space.

As far as a spouse running off or going crazy, that happens sometimes. Nobody marries someone thinking that they are just going to end up divorced. Things happen to people, including things beyond their own control. My father-in-law is bipolar and ultimately left his family and gave them no money. He was normal the first ten years and then started acting strangely ... is my mother-in-law at fault for not detecting this illness that did not manifest until ten years post-marriage?

You should cool it on the really personal family stuff, not only because it's offensive and uncouth but also because it is incorrect and ignorant.

My father's mother died when he was 13. His father abandoned his family around the same time and later died of a stroke. My dad lived in a slum for five bitter years in Taipei living off US$20 a month, and never let anyone know how poor he was or that he ate white rice every night. His only ticket out was betting it on the College Entrance Exams.

What saved him was that in Chinese culture, you have the ability to move up through tests and exams. So while I have a lot of problems with standardized exams, he was also able to move up because he was smart.

However, my main beef with your post is that you seem to think that anyone can fix their problems at any time. I don't know why you turned this into a pro-Capitalism article, or why you turned this into a you-can-fix-this-yourself article, because I don't think my Dad needed help from anyone, but the empathy to understand that when both your parents are effectively dead and you're trying to get an education and basically enough food to subsist, it's more than about leftism. It's about being a human being. When you're 13, and have no parents, what choice do you really have? There is no easy fix until you have that degree.

And for your information, my Dad relied on no government help, other than what was provided to everyone, public schools. But to think that anyone can make decisions to be move up is foolish thinking.

Should he have dropped out of school and "fixed" the problem as you proposed by working long days? My Dad didn't need any help from anyone. And he worked hard getting into the best university in Taiwan, National Taiwan University. But don't imply that poor people have control over their situation. That is arrogant and wrong.

When you're faced with a Hobson's choice--to drop out of school and forfeit a future with maybe a bit of comfort, or to stay in school but have little comfort--I think you'll agree with me that there's little choice at all. But it is insulting to assume that there were better choices he could have made. Save money on food? He's already eating white rice on 67 cents a day! "Being poor is not budgeting" -- how is this even possible, being a high school student, with no sources of income or parents?

Moving up, as a young kid before even having the opportunity to be in college, isn't as easy as you think.

Scalzi also replied in case anybody missed it.

And once again, I’ll note that when one is poor, one can take perfect care of one’s teeth — and despite that still get a toothache. Some people have bad teeth naturally. Some people my bite down on something too hard and crack their enamel. Lots of things can happen in spite of doing something conscientiously. And that’s where being poor is a problem. However one got the toothache, when one is poor, one hopes it simply goes away.

As with the toothache example, are probably quite a few other examples here that you would ascribe to “being white trash” which are equally ascribable to bad luck or event to which the person has no control.

What is interesting is that you choose to imagine a simple desciption of a toothache as an example of someone being low-class, when in fact, it’s just about a toothache, and what having one means when one is poor.

Or, for another example, let’s take the “stealing meat” thing. If a kid steals the meat and cooks it up before his mother gets home because he knows his mother is a day away from a paycheck and doesn’t have enough food in the house to feed both herself and her kid and he doesn’t want to see her go hungry, where does that rank on your empathy scale? I ask, because, being the kid in question, and having done it, I’d like to know what’s inherently “low class” about wanting one’s mother to be able to eat when she gets home from work. Bear in mind the mother was doing all the right things — job, maintaining a house, raising her child adequately — and yet, for whatever reason, at the end of the day, she would have had to skip a meal.

I don’t think all the examples you would choose to list are orthogonal as you think. Or more to the point, most of the things on this list could be ascribable to people being trashy and wallowing in their own loserdom and they are equally ascribable to people doing everything right who are unable to catch a break.

As I’ve noted before, people seem take out of this list what they put into it. You seem to want make this list examples of how people can’t, don’t or won’t help themselves. Interestingly, this is one of the reasons I put this one in the list:

Being poor is knowing you’re being judged.

It's posts like these that make me want to stop reading HN comments.

It's articles like these that attract them. You've got to flag them or they'll keep creeping up.

> Enjoy this article about how a 37 year old manual laborer who came to the country at 21 just bought a condo in NYC for $1.4 million.

They wrote an article about that and published it in a newspaper precisely _because_ it is so vanishingly unlikely that it could happen, for the same reason that a dog biting a man is no story, but a man biting a dog is. Boring stories don't make it into newspapers!

Poor people face a vastly different set and far more constricted set of choices than the rest of us do and are armed with much less knowledge. Be nice if more people realized that.

It's much more complicated than that.

There's so much to say about your post that I'm not even going to start.

As written by a person who's never been poor.

Your position is completely uninspired, unintelligent, uncreative, and boring. It's the standard simpleton fare that has continued the circle of poverty for decades.

Just out of curiosity: You a Glen Beck fan by chance? I'm going to guess yes.

I wrote a long post refuting your points, but ended up erasing it because I don't think you can reach sociopaths. Let's just leave it as sometimes shit happens to people in life, and folks with money and financial resources have a much easier time of it. Also, you're an asshole.

Sociopath? Asshole?

Let's at least try and keep the discussion civil.

A lot of what was said was right. Don't buy expensive, name brand cereal...it doesn't matter if you're Bill Gates or Tiny Tim, spending more than you have to on food is just stupid. Now, Bill Gates can afford to be stupid. He can float around on a boat that is made for 200 people, he can drive around in a race car, he can fly around in an airplane made for the same 200 people, and he can spend far, far more than he should be on food.

Don't keep people who would steal from you as friends, spend time reading books instead of watching TV.

This is all good advice.

Sorry, how is this being upvoted? He doesn't present any coherent argument other than "shit happens" and calls the guy an asshole.

It is upvoted because:

1) the subject is politics. People have such strong feelings about it that HN policies about downvoting and name calling aren't followed as usual.

Compare to discussions about, say, web design issues, programming languages or copyright law. While articles on these topics tend to lead to heated debates, most people still follow the policies.

2) the majority of HN readers have liberal-leaning beliefs, and being judgemental about certain topics is frowned upon.

2) the majority of HN readers have liberal-leaning beliefs


What I tend to see around here is that people are liberal socially (homophobia, anti-drug sentiment, religious fundamentalism and bigotry seem to be mostly absent here), but rather conservative economically - most people are very free-market, in favor of lower taxes, and believe that almost all government meddling is bad. Classic libertarian stuff.

And they're doubly conservative when we get to personal finance, which is especially surprising to me - based on the investment advice most people around these parts give (which tends to be vastly more conservative than even the stuffiest investment adviser would suggest), you'd think this was a community of 75 year codgers, not risk-seeking young'ns shooting the moon with their crazy business schemes.

> I don't think you can reach sociopaths.

Wonderful ad-hominem attack: "I can't make a convincing argument, therefore I'm going to write the other party off as not a true human being".

I salute you.

Maybe this is just a nit, but calling someone a sociopath isn't necessarily calling them 'not a true human being,' so I wouldn't put words into his/her mouth. Saying, "You can't argue with a sociopath," could simply mean: "Any argument that I could pose, couldn't be rightly understood by the other party, so I would be wasting my time."

Why have kids when poor? Haven't the humanity progressed from "increase the reproduction rate when circumstances are dire" mechanism?

(a) Sex is cheap, good entertainment. (b) If you are already poor, children aren't going to make it any worse. (c) For some reason, most people really want to have children. (d) Humans aren't exactly rational creatures.

Free birth control, as well as better sex education (which is, from what I've read, hilariously bad in the US) would probably help quite a bit.

>If you are already poor, children aren't going to make it any worse.

And yet considerable of his pain points are about not being able to cater for his child(ren)

People don't plan to remain poor forever. Some of them become poor after they have kids, while others hope things might improve in the future, since the life of the poor always fluctuates from bad to relatively better off.

Besides, who are you to tell someone they couldn't have children of their own just because they're poor? It's their right to conceive and adopt children, just as it's yours.

In fact, they could easily afford to feed their children and lead a happy life, wasn't it for the rest of the well off society that's making their lot worse than it is, by comparison. Being poor in a rich town is worse, both materially and psychologically, than being one of a larger poor community.

Well, if a person complains about being poor and still have kids, I find the right to point out to that person the obvious planning mistakes in his life, It's not like I am shouting at random poor people now, is it?

Yes but many of the complaints centered around not being able to provide for said children. Is the purpose behind having children just to hold them up for pity?

It is their right to have children, and it's my right not to pay for their children. How is it that the rest of society makes it harder for them to feed their kids?

(c) For some reason, most people really want to have children.

"For some reason"? Is natural selection not a good enough reason that people have this desire?

(d) Humans aren't exactly rational creatures.

True, but not relevant when talking about goals. Reason cannot tell you that your highest goals are right or wrong, only that some action or lesser goal is right or wrong with respect to a higher goal. I think the drive to reproduce is probably a pretty high-level goal, and while wealth has temporarily short-circuited it somehow in many developing countries, that situation doesn't seem stable.

welfare benefits are based off the number of children you have. more children = more money.

while this is not the motivation for most people, some people are shortsighted enough to think another kid will actually help the situation.

However, the amount of money per child is (at least in Germany) so small, that it would be dumb to have a child and expect to profit from it.

I don't know when this was written, but some of the "facts" listed are simply not true.

"Being poor is hoping the register lady will spot you the dime." The minimum wage in California is $8/hr, so $0.1 is equal to only 0.75 minutes of labor.

"Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor." A burger at McDonalds costs around $1, or only 7.5 minutes of labor.

There's only so many hours in a week one can work to earn this money. Once it's spent, it's gone. You can't just add a few more hours onto the day to make up the difference.

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