Stay in your lane: Poverty edition

The American dream will always remain a dream because of the realities of poverty. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, and breaking it without intervention is a matter of dumb luck. Despite this, the “myth of hard work” persists.

Well-meaning people who have never been poor are convinced that they know what I should have done. That subtle tweaks to my budget could somehow stretch my $9.50 per hour. I should have gotten a roommate. I should have lived somewhere cheaper. I should have found a better job.

Anyone who’s ever lived in poverty has probably had this experience.

In the U.S., we have become so accepting of the fact that poverty is not a symptom of a grossly unequal economy, or the result of numerous systemic failures, or the product of years of trickle-down economics, but instead, that the only thing standing between a poor person and the life of their dreams is their own decisions, their own choices, and their own failures.

This is why I would advise any person whose immediate reaction upon hearing about a friend, relative, or stranger on the Internet who is living in poverty is to offer unsolicited advice to hold their tongue (or fingers), at least long enough to consider what other forces contribute to poverty and how their “help” may actually be insulting, incorrect, and downright damaging.

Read more here.



  1. says

    It’s everywhere – I paid an extra $150 last year and now I can walk through the TSA “precheck” line at airports and save 30-40 minutes of standing in line. Or, people who can afford SmartPass can drive on less crowded roads. Or, if you’re at an amusement park you can pay $150 extra and go through shorter lines. It’s fucking everywhere.

  2. ionopachys says

    Ha, I’d be thrilled to be able to afford to go to an amusement park or on a plane at all. Just paying for a car is a burden, not that I could get around without one, since there’s almost no public transit around here.

  3. says

    Something that grinds my gears is people who say you make your own luck. Scratch the surface, and you’ll find just about every one of them just happened to stumble across a good-sized proportion of ready-made luck lying in their path.

    All the hard work in the world will get you precisely nowhere without the right lucky break. If you work your tits off, all you’re likely to end up with is no tits, unless someone offers you a way out. Not many people are prepared to own up to that, though. Perhaps it’s just easy to pretend that the life-changing stroke of sheer, blind luck is some sort of “reward” for their effort, and the universe is not somewhere between supremely indifferent and openly hostile to our existence.

    I spent years working a job that just about paid to keep a roof over my head, and a sideline to buy food and top up the electric meter, before I got that break. Had I encountered C21H23NO5 during that time — and I actually came a lot closer to that than I realised at the time; the greatest of thanks to my friends who managed to shield me from it — that would undoubtedly have been the end of me.

    Of course I had some choices. Such as: Should I catch the bus home; walk home and have the fire on; or walk home and have something to eat? If you think that’s an obvious decision, you probably have never had to make it in earnest when it was raining hard (I mean “after 400m., there won’t be any wetter for you to get” hard), you were hungry but you needed dry clothes for tomorrow.

    Other times were just racing against the inevitable; will the meter stay in credit long enough to cook the meal for tonight’s guests? (It won’t matter so much afterwards, candles are expected at the dining table, but please, Thor, show me some mercy and don’t leave me wondering where I can borrow a camping stove from at this notice ….. let alone how I’m going to pay them back later for the gas I’ll have used …..) Don’t tell me I shouldn’t have been throwing dinner parties, either; breaking bread together with one’s friends is an essential bodily function, not an extravagance. (Well, you try it if you don’t believe me.)

    Bulk buying as a way of saving really is not all it’s cracked up to be. Not only have you got to scrape together more cash up front somehow, you still have to contend with perishability — it’s not going to go off any slower. If I managed to make use of every potato in even a 3kg. bag without them going soft or sprouting, that was a noteworthy occasion. And freezing is only worth it when you’re sure you can afford to keep the electricity topped up 24/7/52; one ill-timed run-out can ruin a lot of food in one go.

    I think it’s just generally easier for anyone to propose a “solution” to other people’s problems when they haven’t been in that situation themselves and understood fully why that “solution” had already been considered and rejected. If you compare it to that experiment, you can say that sometimes, one sweetie right now can actually be preferrable to two sweeties in five agonising minutes’ time.

    Also, I’d like to apologise to everyone who would have loved to have been as “skint” as I have just described myself having been, because I am painfully aware that I was still rich by many standards.

  4. Siobhan says


    I think it’s just generally easier for anyone to propose a “solution” to other people’s problems when they haven’t been in that situation themselves and understood fully why that “solution” had already been considered and rejected.

    Well, I have a solution, and it’s universal guaranteed income above poverty level. I can’t find the studies but I remember reading that poverty is one of the few problems that is well and truly solved by throwing money at it, as long as you actually put it in the hands of the impoverished.

    Of course, conservatives tend to self-immolate at the idea, so it’s a stretch where I live.

  5. says

    Universal Basic Income certainly would be an undeniable Good Thing, if only we could somehow sneak it past the Conservatives’ horror of anything unearned that they might spend on self-destructive behaviour (even although people tend to drink and smoke less and eat more healthily if they think they have a future worth living longer for).

    Perhaps more politically palatable might be to raise the threshhold for Income Tax to the equivalent of one year’s full-time work at minimum wage; so employers would incur no PAYE liability for taking on new staff at minimum wage. This should have the effect of creating more jobs, by reducing the administrative cost of taking on staff — true, they would only be minimum wage jobs; but when the employee asks for a pay rise after six months or a year, their employer knows they could walk out and straight into another job where they would not be earning any less.

    This probably would require safeguards to prevent a race to the bottom, though.