I am poor. I am one of “the poor.” Statistically, by the current standards of measurement, I live below the poverty line. At a time like the present, when the poor of the US represent such a touchy political subject, both parties constantly elicit the plight of the poor in order to buttress their political philosophies. Since the 1930’s and the dawn of neo-liberalism the Democratic Party has consistently formed its rhetoric around being the “party of the poor and downtrodden.”
Creating such a division seems certainly politically advantageous. Humans have a penchant to root for the underdog. Whenever I happen upon a sports contest in which I am truly ambivalent towards the outcome, my emotions vacillate with the plight of the team or individual that is losing the game. If one team is clearly the underdog then I find my allegiances drifting, almost unnoticed, towards them. Likewise, the Democratic Party, or any political party, can always find support when brazenly championing the cause of the underdog. However, when the Ôø?underdogÔø? in question is a nearly immeasurable class of individuals each living and choosing under vastly varied conditions, the situation of “championing” their cause becomes a little more complicated than a simple football game.
I wait tables. I am a poor waiter who often has to pick up double-shifts of 12 to 14 hours to make rent payments. I consciously strive to butter-up my customers in order to get good tips. My situation could certainly be related in such a way that I come off as a anecdotal pity case–an often used strategy by Democrats (and sometimes Republicans) to bring a person in front of congress who has been failed by the system and needs help, specifically governmental help. The politician would comment on my college degree and me not working in my field (The field of philosophy? I consider this essay working in my Ôø?field.Ôø? But I digress.) They would comment on how hard I work and how the rising costs of heat do not help in frigid Colorado. “He lived with his parents for a year just to save up enough money so he could move out on his own. Is this the America we want for our children?” (Yeah, if I didnÔø?t choose to drop thousands of dollars on guitar equipment I could have moved out faster.) The possibly teary-eyed Democrat would then ask me to sit down and proceed to embark on an incensed rant about my case being one of only millions whom the “Great American system” has failed.
The Great American system has not failed me. I love my life and I, to the greatest extent, am completely responsible for my situation and my “poverty.” In this situation “poverty” needs to be in quotes. I live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. I own a dog. I have cable television, a refrigerator, heating, a nice computer, a cell phone, many many books, thousands of CDs, a plethora of video games, and that only scratches the surface. I have made choices that have led me here for which I am completely responsible. I spent money on an expensive college to major in a completely non-lucrative skill. From buying thousands of dollars in guitar equipment, owning a dog, choosing to buy the entire Sonic Youth back-catalog rather than saving up rent (thus having to work doubles), to not wanting to work a job in which I have to wake up before 10 am, my current situation cannot be understood without understanding the choices I have made and the desires I have. Likewise, I am angered by politicians who speak for me,
“the poor,” and fight for me, “the impoverished,” without thinking of the individuals that construct such abstract statistical classes.
It is somewhat humbling to be a member of “the poor” in America and understand what it means to be truly poor in other parts of the world. America is a country where the poor can be fat. Furthermore, they can be fat, own two cars, have cable television, and decorate their house with knick-knacks from Pottery Barn.
The true deprivation of poverty can be seen all over Africa, where corrupt systems conspire against the well-being of the people. It could be seen in the former Soviet Union–where, in a small mining town, a riot started in 1962 when it was announced on the same day that the workersÔø? wages, which were already at poverty level, would be cut 25% and the prices of bread and meat would be going up 30%. True poverty can be seen in Western European countries (i.e. France) where governmental controls and artificially high minimum wages help keep unemployment between eight and twelve percent. What the poor have in America is a wonderful indicator of the greatness of our system.
The popular idea of the “poor” in America–the one that incenses politicians, idol leftists, and often helps create governmental policy–is based around the concept of the “static poor.” These are the people who are always poor, have always been poor, and can do nothing about being so. Furthermore, their poverty is not their fault and they cannot be held morally accountable for their abject state. Their entire existence is a perpetual struggle against the ever-present possibility of lethal deprivation of the essential goods and services.
It is exceedingly ironic that I am a member of the class that the Democrats are constantly fighting for. When championing and basing policy around a somewhat arbitrarily defined statistical set it is easy to miss the trees through the forest. The “trees” in question are individual Americans each choosing a path based on their desires, the available information and the available alternatives. It seems that the staunchest criticism of this statement centers on the negation of one, or all, of the relevant aspects of the situation. Perhaps a certain person has “false” desires that are the product of the system in which they live. This would be represented by the ever present criticism of the pejorative effects of the idea of “the American dream”–the ability of individuals to Ôø?make itÔø? in America despite their socioeconomic starting point. Following from this would be false information about what can be done about their situation–information that derives from a military/industrial complex that is interested in placating the subjects of their system. Of course, their alternatives are non-existent. They have little choice but to be poor. All of their efforts will be for naught and they will find themselves continually in an abject state of deprivation. Adding to this pain is the existence of the “static rich”–those who have money, have always had money, and gained that money at the cost of the “static poor.”
Both of these categories are phantasms. In America over 90% of the population do not stay in the same quintile of income distribution for more than ten years. (I must admit a lack of source for this statistic. I do not have the source in which I encountered this data on hand. However, the pure numbers are irrelevant. Sufficient for my argument is the fact that the vast majority of Americans do not make the same amount of money and live at the same standard for a very substantial period of time.) This seems, in many ways, clearly true. First and foremost, income and wealth in the United States are incredibly age-dependent variables. Those in their early twenties (as I am) do not make as much as those in their mid-thirties. Likewise for those in their mid-thirties and those in their early-fifties. This is, of course, to be expected. Income varies with skill, experience and seniority. And justifiably so. As workers age and become more difficult to replace, their skills become more refined and more valuable to the workforce. Strictly speaking, they become a rarer “good” that cannot be easily substituted for by any other worker with less experience and less refined skills.
However, the subtleties of an individual’s advancement in job skills and their subsequent movement through economic brackets are completely missed by statistics that simply lump classes together. Although statistics can be useful for many ways of understanding an economy they are very ill suited in determining the “justice” of an individual’s situation. Whether or not I deserve what I have, whether or not my “poverty” is a choice, whether or not I am an exploitee of the “system,” or whether or not my situation can be remedied are all questions that cannot be answered in umbrella fashion. Understanding individuals’ situations is paramount to forming opinions on whether or not the situations are just.
I choose to work the job I do for reasons other than money. I work a very short week–20-30 hours. I could change this if I wanted, but I don’t want to. By working sparingly I am able to free up my leisure time for friends, reading, writing this essay, or simply relaxing and watching The Jerk. I certainly could find more lucrative employment. Right now, however, my cost-benefit analysis keeps me where I am. I work amongst friends whom I don’t want to lose. I have seniority. The process of finding a new job, training new skills, gaining friends and the respect of bosses, and losing the familiarity and experience of a comfortable working environment is simply too costly right now. Of course I don’t mean monetary cost, but rather the cost of trading-off to find new employment and possibly lose everything I like about my current situation. Therefore, I am continuing to exist where I am right now. Will I be in the same situation making the same income in five years? I hope not. Not if I can help it. And I can help it.
It is very important to realize that my situation as a “poor” American is not even remotely unique. Although I cannot begin to throw out numbers or percentages I would be wholly comfortable in saying that there are many, many people in a very similar situation. All my roommates, the majority of my coworkers, and nearly all of my friends are in the exact same situation as I am. They are statistically poor yet live very good lives. Furthermore, their choices have made them so.
I am prepared to argue that the majority of the statistically poor in America fall into a similar class as me. I am not an aberration. I am young and impulsive. I am an intelligent guy, but I have seriously considered foregoing health insurance in order to buy a new guitar. Had I done so I would immediately have been a member of two classes that are salient issues for Democrats, “the poor” and “the uninsured.” It is very easy to make the simple, all too human mistake of supplementing immediate rewards for long-term prosperity and stability. For others who are also “poor” they may choose to work a lower-paying job with their significant other than attempt to find more gainful employment. Another member of the “poor” may continue to work a short night-shift at a gas station in order to free-up time to write lascivious science fiction. People such as these are far from being the exploited “static poor” whose image the Left has such an invested interest in maintaining.
When speaking about such an important subject as “the poor” it is vitally important to be clear in our discussions. No one is helped by statistical abstractions that fail to account for individual choice. We all want more justice in our societies. Towards this goal our debates often center on the most impoverished members of our systems. If we are to help them we must be concerned with what they want to do. With many members of our society that are described as “poor” their status may result from decisions that reflect exactly what they want to do given their current desires. So it is the case with me, and many other members of my statistical set.