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Poverty: fallen and can’t get up

I’m stepping outside my area of expertise far more than usual for this one, so I hope you’ll forgive me for my even more amateurish look at this topic. The reason I’m even bothering is because it’s been cropping up more and more in my own explorations of race, racial disparity and social program development. For those coming here for atheism stuff, I promise that I’ll have a dynamite anti-theist screed ready for action next week. Cross my heart.

On Thursday I tipped my hand a bit on this topic when I spoke about the way that prison can (and often does) lead to an increase in the very same poverty that, in many cases, was the impetus for the same crime that lands someone in jail. If our goal as a society is to reduce and prevent crime, then we should be looking at ways to reduce and prevent poverty. It is not simply a bleeding heart “think of the children” kind of approach – reducing poverty can be an act of self preservation. If we don’t pay to reduce crime, we pay to clean it up far later. I was first turned on to this topic when I read an article on Cracked.com:

I’m not blaming anybody but myself for getting into this situation (I was drunk for two straight decades) and I’m not asking for anybody’s sympathy. What I am saying is that people are quick to tell you to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and just stop being poor. What they don’t understand is the series of intricate financial traps that makes that incredibly difficult.

It details the author’s struggle to regain solvency after going broke, and the number of hurdles he had to overcome. The piece goes far beyond the simple problems of making enough money to live on, pointing out the number of things that keep you poor once you’re already down in the hole. Little things that only affect those who live below the poverty line.  Things that prevented him from regaining financial independence, even when his household was pulling in a dual income.

As the author takes pains to point out, he is not asking for sympathy or trying to blame anyone else for his situation. It is immaterial both to his point and mine. It is not really necessary to understand why someone lives below the poverty line, except insofar as we need to understand what the best way to get that person out of poverty is. The point is that once you are there, it’s incredibly difficult to get out on your own, and the problems are often things that we who live above that line don’t see or think about.

The link between poverty and crime is a strong enough one that it should be sufficient motivation for us to want to eradicate poverty. After all, crime has the potential to harm any of us, even we innocents who haven’t done anything so stupid as to put us in that bad financial shape. All the jails in the world won’t be enough to save us. And of course jails don’t protect us from future crimes – they just temporarily lock up those who have already committed crimes. I’m not sure what the state of the evidence is supporting the old chestnut that people go into jail as minor criminals and come out as major criminals, but once again it’s immaterial to my argument.

But let’s say that take a particularly hard-line view of crime and decide that more jails will be sufficient. There are still reasons beyond crime prevention to want to reduce poverty. People who have low incomes and low economic security also consume far more health care resources than those in the middle (or upper) classes. Even outside the confines of our socialized health care system, poverty creates a greater burden on the health care system. Scarce resources go to treat conditions that would not exist save for the poverty of the afflicted. Even in a for-profit health care delivery system, these are the same resources that non-impoverished people use, and drains on them hurt us.

But let’s say that you exist in even more of a vacuum than most, and you have a private doctor that tends to your every ache and pain. Let’s also say that you don’t mind your tax dollars going to the health care system (because they do, even in the USA before the dreaded Health Care Reform Act). Even then, eliminating poverty is still in your selfish best interest. Impoverished people are a drain on the economy (it is important that this not be interpreted as a judgment on people living below the poverty line – it is simply a fact). Even those that work are often mired deeply in debt, which is only good news for the lending agencies that make money off of interest – until, that is, the poor default on their loans and declare bankruptcy. This is to say nothing of social assistance programs that get a disproportionately high level of criticism and a disproportionately low level of funding and autonomy.

Poverty also has a racial component, since people of colour (PoCs) are far more likely to be impoverished for reasons that I have hinted at before. While it is easy (and fun) to blame PoCs for their condition, the fact is that poverty isn’t a product of laziness. It is, as the Cracked article so aptly puts it, “like trying to climb out of a dick pit but the ladder is also made of dicks.” There are any number of forces that pull you down deeper into poverty and make it unbelievably difficult to leave. It is a trap into which people and families can sink forever.

Poverty should require work to get out of – to be sure. I am not advocating the opening of government coffers to give a slush fund to every street person with a hand out. What I am advocating is much more simple than that – create opportunities for people to learn to do for self. Put training, education, housing, and opportunity  within the grasp of every street person looking for a hand up. Give people the wherewithal to improve their own situations through hard work and innovation. Yes, this will require sacrifice on the part of those of us not living in poverty, and this may seem unfair. What I am hoping is that they (we) are smart enough to realize that, for the reasons I point to above, reducing poverty and inequality is in the best interest of everyone, not just the poor.

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