Most if us live within our means and keep some sort of rough budget of what we can afford and it usually works to keep spending in check. It is tempting to think that that is what keeps us out of debt, and one of the easiest traps that those of us who are not poor can fall into is thinking that the poor get into financial trouble because they suffer from a lack of that kind of planning.
This explains the sermons that the well off constantly give to the poor on how they can live better lives even on their limited incomes if only they were thrifty and budgeted carefully and planned ahead. These people tend to see poverty as springing from character weaknesses (such as poor impulse control over purchases) not because of economic conditions. While this may be true in some cases, it is hardly the whole story.
McDonalds is the latest to provide the poor with that kind of advice, creating a website to show how people earning close to the minimum wage could manage (and even save money) if only they budgeted properly. But as Forbes magazine says, “Possibly with that idea in mind, McDonald’s decided to teach its employees how to create one. But in doing so, the company may have inadvertently done something else: Shown that it’s nearly impossible to make a living off the minimum wage.” Not only were some essential items completely missing, but the costs of some of the budgeted items were absurdly unrealistic (for example, health insurance was at $20 a month). The budget also assumed that the minimum-wage employees had a second job and worked a total of 75 hours per week. In other words, what McDonalds was tacitly conceding was that you need to approximately double the minimum wage to survive if you worked the normal number of hours per week.
Stephen Colbert also parodied the effort by McDonalds.
(This clip aired on July 22, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)
Some things never change. In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s masterful study of the living conditions of miners in the north of England, he described the efforts of well-meaning people in those times to show that the poor could survive and eat healthily on the pittance that they had at their disposal. (You can read the full book online here.) The McDonalds effort looks eerily similar to what he wrote in 1937.
When the dispute over the Means Test was in progress there was a disgusting public wrangle about the minimum weekly sum on which a human being could keep alive. So far as I remember, one school of dietitians worked it out at five [shillings] and ninepence, while another school, more generous, put it at five and ninepence halfpenny. After this there were letters to the papers from a number of people who claimed to be feeding themselves on four shillings a week.
Please notice that this budget contains nothing for fuel. In fact, the writer explicitly stated that he could not afford to buy fuel and ate all his food raw. Whether the letter was genuine or a hoax does not matter at the moment. What I think will be admitted is that this list represents about as wise an expenditure as could be contrived; if you had to live on three and elevenpence halfpenny a week, you could hardly extract more food-value from it than that. So perhaps it is possible to feed yourself adequately on the P.A.C. allowance if you concentrate on essential foodstuffs; but not otherwise.
He then went on to show that this expectation was wildly unrealistic because it ignored basic human psychology, that when you are very poor and living a depressing hand-to-mouth existence, one needs the little luxuries of life to simply get through the day. As Orwell said,
Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have threepennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the Englishman’s opium.[My italics-MS]
We know that alcoholism and drug addiction is common among the poor and homeless and we tend to assume that the former causes the latter. But I wonder how much of the causation goes the other way too, that the misery of being poor and homeless makes one more likely to take to drink and drugs, causing a downward spiral.
Like Orwell, I too find it disgusting about how well-to-do people carefully calculate the basic minimum amount of money that people needed to just survive so that the benefits could be reduced even further. The current debate over changing Social Security benefits to the so-called ‘chained CPI’ and the efforts to cut SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits is the most recent example of rich people seeing how to reduce the food assistance to poor and elderly and unemployed people so that they can just barely survive.
The thought that poor people may feel the occasional need to buy some cake or ice cream or even beer seems to strike some people with horror.