On poverty and self-description


When you’re offering advice, it’s sometimes hard to know what kind of tack to take to be most effective. Would it be best to offer some gentle hand-holding, or do they need a swift kick in the pants?

I prefer the hand-holding approach, at least most of the time. I know that some people prefer something more pointed—”if you’re poor at age 35, it’s your fault“—but I don’t think that’s helpful at all.

And yet, it’s all too easy to be flippant and dismissive, and this came to mind after I suggested that you spend more for food. What if you really can’t? How do you know?

Suck it up

I’ve talked before on why you feel poor. My belief is that most of us we are wealthy beyond almost any measure, and we just don’t realize it. We are generally safe, have shelter, clothes, food, can keep the lights on.

Whenever gas prices rise, it’s a big news story, and the media will always go and interview a person on the street. The quote is almost always something along the lines of “this is an outrage, paying [whatever the price is]. I’m going to need to cut back on food.

And I have to be honest, my response to that usually is “that’s total bollocks.” It rather conveniently overlooks the aspect that just by owning a car, it likely puts this person above and beyond the truly impoverished.

Feeling poor is a problem, but that’s very different from actually being poor. Gas prices high? Suck it up, or drive less. You’re not going to starve.

Falling behind

Except what if you really are going to starve?

The face of poverty is a complex one. I believe we’re living in a new kind of Gilded Age, where the spoils of our economy go to only a small group of people, who are already doing quite well. Inequality is real and getting worse, and it’s hard to deny it with a straight face.

If you are born to unfavorable circumstances, such as a poor or single parent, or in an economically disadvantaged area, or have the inestimable misfortune to be born with a certain skin color, your chances of upward mobility are distinctly reduced, now more than almost ever.

Maybe you didn’t have the ability to make it to college. Maybe you had to care for a sick parent or other loved one. Maybe you’re in a job making $9/hour. Oh, and did I mention that you had mouths to feed?

Just then, did you immediately just jump to the thought of “well maybe they shouldn’t have had kids then?” Did you really think that? Ask yourself what that implies.

It’s not bad enough that we’ve built an economic system that not only creates and entrenches poverty (and then criminalizes it) but then we also blame people for being poor. We are better than that.

What about you?

So on one side, we have the people who feel poor, but who really have misplaced priorities. (First-world problems, as the great philosopher Alfred Yankovic said.) On the other side, we have people who are poor, who really do have trouble putting food on the table. (And of course, everyone in between.)

The difficult fact for us to have to accept is that no one can make the decision on whether or not we are impoverished other than ourselves. Judgement is not allowed here. I don’t know anyone else’s situation, and to belittle someone talking about how gas prices will affect their ability to eat, when they drive a Mercedes, is to judge people based on surface values and will most likely be wrong. You don’t know, so don’t do it.

Whatever kind of cake

Back to food. A reading of my post on spending more for food could very easily be misconstrued as a let-them-eat-organic-cake type of screed depending on your perspective. And that is not my intent at all.

The issue comes down to one of audience. There are some who, with a little bit of planning and intentionality, could in fact spend a little bit more on higher quality food and reap many health and lifestyle benefits. I’m willing to bet that if you’re reading this, you fall into this category.

But maybe not. Just because you’re reading a site about personal development (and about sticking it to the man), it doesn’t mean you’re living a luxurious lifestyle. If you’re struggling to make ends meet now, maybe you need to get through an unhappy situation and get on your feet first.

The point is that only you know for certain what you can accomplish now.

But no matter what your situation is, I believe that a better life is attainable for you. It may not be easy, and the system may be designed to encourage your failure, but you have the final call on determining whether you let that overpower you. No kick in the pants necessary.

But enough about me: What do you think determines poverty? Do you now, or have you ever fit into that category?

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