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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  1. says

    It’s interesting when you say you don’t advocate just giving away money, because I think there’s been some good research done on ideas like guaranteed income which could amount to just that.

  2. says

    Research favouring simply giving people an income, regardless of whether they’ve worked for it? I’d be curious to see the research supporting that idea (as well as a definition, as I’m sure I’m getting it wrong).

    That kind of scheme is one of the major criticisms being lodged at the UK in the wake of the riots – a social program that allowed people to buy necessities in a culture that told them to self-evaluate based on access to luxuries. Not necessarily a problem unless you also have a social class system that makes it nearly impossible to become upwardly mobile. The result was gradually building resentment and eventual explosion.

    If I had a choice between a guaranteed sufficiency allowance for all people and increasing opportunity for them to be able to move away from needing the allowance, I’d choose the latter. Maybe they aren’t mutually exclusive, but I’m more-than-average skeptical of the idea of paying people without a focus on creating opportunity for them to do for self.

  3. says


    I do admire your reluctance to go down the path of rewarding people (with other peoples’ money) for being poor. Yet I see little difference between that and any sort of state-run poverty reduction strategy, unfortunately. In my view, states can best keep poverty down by refraining from any laws and regulations that regulate or prevent social mobility. Policies of giving people an amount of money inversely proportional to their income is probably the most obvious culprit.

    I maintain my own thesis on poverty: that in free and wealthy countries, proverty is mostly a product of one of three root causes: disabilities, anti-social nature, or (sub)cultural deemphasis on productive attitudes and choices. It is the third one that, in my view, produces poverty along racial and/or ethnic lines. It is also the third one that, in my view, creates the impression, in free countries with no real barriers to mobility, that poverty begets poverty.

    As for the Cracked article, apart from the constant and annoying references to being prodded with a male member, the difficulties described are for the most part fixed costs that apply to all members of society. True, the fact that they are fixed costs means it affects low-income people more than high-income, but then you could also say that any fixed price of an essential good or service is a barrier to economic mobility. The fact remains that the cost to produce essential goods and services is fixed.

    Otherwise, the only other point raised was concerning credit checks. If the laws weren’t so unbalanced against landlords, I think property owners might be a little more willing to rent to less qualified tenants.

  4. says

    Do you live in Abbottsford or Chiliwack or somewhere with a lot of agricultural land? Because even when you ostensibly agree with me, the straw men fall all over the place. What are these programs that ‘reward’ people for being poor? Where do I sign up for one of these programs that gives me money that is inversely proportionate to my income?

    Your general view of poverty seems to be that if we can make it suck just a little bit more, then people will say “all right, off my lazy ass! Let’s go out and get jobs!” This, after I spent 1100 good words explaining just how difficult it is to get out of poverty once you’re in it – welfare or no welfare. And after I go to a great deal of effort to point out the many ways in which disparities in access/achievement exist at a societal level, and that fall along racial lines, we get the old Patrick Bateman canard of “minorities just have a bad attitude!” It’s a particularly Randian view that displays an (intentional?) ignorance of psychology and sociology, and divests those of us above the poverty line of any responsibility whatsoever for our fellows (dare I say comrades?)

    But beyond that, even if your view was correct, it provides exactly zero solutions to a problem that affects us all. Even if you don’t think you should be on the hook because your neighbour is poor, the fact is that her poverty affects you. Failing to actively provide solutions to poverty is cutting your nose off to spite your face. You can hold your John Galt head high as the walls fall down around you, or you can recognize that offering a helping hand is not only a decent human thing to do, but an act of self-preservation.

    in free countries with no real barriers to mobility

    If you wanted to know where I stopped taking you seriously, it was there.

  5. says

    By stating, “free and wealthy countries” and “free countries with no real barriers to mobility” I was trying to enter hypothetical grounds to avoid the inevitable argument over the free-ness and barrier-less-ness of our society, which I felt is not necessarily the core issue of this discussion. My bad for not clarifying my intention. The fact remains that there are quite a few white, heteroxesual, able-bodied males who are impoverished; clearly there are some factors that transcend race.

    Programs like welfare reward people for being poor – for every dollar they make over a certain threshold, a dollar is removed from their benefits. So they are penalized for trying to get out of poverty. There are many other small tax benefits and credits which only go to low-income people, who would lose them if they ever began to work their way out of poverty. If you do your own taxes you would know that. In addition, consider that our tax regime mostly taxes (penalizes) income, which is the very thing necessary to escape poverty. Better, in my view, to shift taxation away from income and towards consumption and property.

    Other government regulations significantly restrict the abilities of individuals to escape poverty. Certification restrictions are one of them. If you are impoverished, but are willing to work and have skills as a plumber, you can’t work as a plumber because a government-supported trade association will prevent you. Only by paying money and forgoing income while you achieve your certification can you begin to pull yourself out of poverty. These barriers are erected legally by monopolistic trade associations in order to restrict entry into their profession, and thereby drive up their own wages.

    As for straw men, you pull out a familiar one: that Randian indifference is the only logical antipode to moral busybodies extracting charity at gunpoint. By what basis should I be “on the hook” because my neighbor is poor? When and where did I promise to be my brother’s keeper? By what authority can the impoverished claim the labour of the productive? Assuming that assisting the impoverished is a form of self-preservation, can others suspend my liberty for what they believe is my own preservation? (I’ll remember that when we discuss euthanasia again…)

    My answer to these questions is simple – religion is the source of my compulsion for helping the needy. And yes, I may be blessed indirectly by doing so. Since we both agree it is best to live in a secular society, religious ends should be pursued voluntarily and never be imposed on anyone else. But since you clearly derive no ethics from religion, I’d like to hear your answer to the above questions. Or maybe there is a god named “decency” 🙂

  6. says

    Ah, yes I did misinterpret your use of that phrase. My apologies for jumping to that conclusion.

    I support your call to reform the welfare system, as well as the influence that trade unions have. I say ‘reform’ because I recognize the value that both of those systems have, and think that the world we have now – flawed as it may be – is better than one with no welfare or unions at all. I am confused by your alternative to income tax though. Surely taxation based on consumption and ownership of property would disincentivize acquisition of wealth, which would be just as negative for those in poverty (and the economy at large) as a tax on income. Not to mention that those kinds of taxes (particularly sales taxes, if I am understanding you properly) hit poor people disproportionately hard as a percentage of their income. A 15% increase in the cost of my monthly groceries would suck, but my income is flexible enough to absorb that. Not so for someone who makes much less than me, but still has to eat in order to live.

    I thought I gave a fairly compelling argument for why you and I are on the hook for each other’s well-being. A population that is well-educated is better than one where only the wealthy can attain knowledge. A population that is healthy is better than one in which health is a luxury good. A population that provides incentive to reach success through merit and hard work is better than one where success can be gained by exploiting the person below you on the ladder. Surely these are not radical statements. However, these kinds of things do not happen spontaneously (and I have yet to see any group accomplish this successfully through religion) – they require sacrifice. This may boil down to the fact that you see taxation as a penalty, whereas I see it as the price of living in a society.

    As far as your “can others suspend my liberty” argument goes, I could probably just say “seatbelts”, but that might not be clear. Yes, the state is justified in curtailing certain freedoms for the general welfare. This decision should never be made lightly, and must be considered on a case-by-case basis. I am sure you do not view income tax as being the same issue as chronic, unrelenting pain that drives the wish for self-termination. I can understand the general point you are making, but it really is a discussion of two different issues. If society were to proclaim its right to torture you to death as an instantaneous cure for poverty (bizarre, yes, but bear with me) then I would oppose that. Asking you to give up a chunk of your income… I’m not going to lose too much sleep.

  7. says


    wrt income tax, I admit it’s not something that I have fully thought through. Nevertheless, it seems that a move towards property tax would be more equitable than income tax. The cost to a state of any particular individual is a fixed cost for his personal safety, and then a variable cost proportional to the property (not income) that must be maintained with services (e.g. roads) and protected from domestic and foreign enemies. Income is the very thing necessary for socioeconomic mobility, and therefore I propose we minimize any impediments to it. I concur with your hesitation to slap taxes on essential goods, and am willing to discuss how to implement a sales tax strategy that exempts essentials while minimizing the ability for interested parties (i.e. corporations) to take advantage of it.

    I reluctantly and respectfully disagree that your argument as to why I am “on the hook” for my neighbor’s well-being is in any way compelling. Your first two examples (education and health care) ignores individual ends and focuses solely on collective ends. To illustrate, I could say that a population that is forbidden from eating sodium-free foods is “better” than one that is free to make its own decisions. Likewise, a society that is forced to be religious is “better” than one with free religion, from a psychological health point of view. Nevertheless, the effects of these uses of force go well beyond education and health outcomes. For example, an isolated society of PhDs would be worse off because too much resources would be put towards education; not only would you have rocket scientists flipping burgers, but a PhD wouldn’t be indicative of any level of achievement. Your last example is somewhat misleading by the use of the word “exploit”; if you are referring to fraud or the use of force, the state has the duty to intervene in the protection of individual rights. However, it is the free market, and not the provision of the population, that provides appropriate and objective “incentive” for merit and hard work.

    Rousseau once said that if the state, vested as it is with seeing to the common good, believes it is expedient for any citizen to die, then he ought to die. In the same way, you could say that if the state believes it is expedient to enslave a citizen, then he ought to be enslaved. I say this not because I think you agree with either statement, but because you do believe that if the state believes it to be expedient for a citizen to pay, then he ought to pay. It illustrates that you make a distinction between life and property. Yet what does our life grant us but the ability to labour? And what does labour accomplish but the satisfaction of our own ends? And what is wealth and property, other than an accumulation of labour to meet future ends? Property is indivisible from life and liberty.

  8. says


    Seatbelts! Like helmets, if it is solely for personal safety then I don’t agree with the laws. Unless it can be shown that not wearing seatbelts presents a significant danger to those around them (plausible, but bear with me), then the state should leave it up to individuals to make that decision. Society may be slightly “better” with a seatbelt law, but it would be monumentally better if it had achieved 100% compliance through non-coercive means. Let me explain.

    I don’t put my seatbelt on because of a law. I put it on because I know what will happen if I don’t. The law generates contempt for good laws and reduces people’s trust in their own judgment because it puts the state in the place of a person’s good judgment. It absolves people from determining for themselves what actions are safe and what are not. In addition, it generates a false sense of security (e.g. NFL helmets vs rugby no helmets scenario). Sure, the law might cut down on auto injuries (a measurable effect) but the other effects I mention are difficult or impossible to measure.

    Of course, all of this is moot if the justification is to protect the genuine rights of others

  9. Angela Squires says

    One of the really scary things is that one is better off with minimal income than with say $30,000 per annum where you have to pay for MSP premiums, prescriptions, and so on. It’s been so long since I lived above the poverty level I don’t remember all those expenses that kick in once you have a reasonable income. I know of lots of people who have simply given up looking for work and get by doing odd jobs while trying to develop viable self-employment.

    Ian B. has a good point and I was told that Scandinavia has some form of guaranteed income. The problem as Crommunist says is hauling yourself up out of poverty, keeping a roof over your head, food, clothes – the list goes on. I’d have been out on the street years ago if it hadn’t been for my acting ability persuading landlords to rent to me! There are simply not enough decently paid jobs to go round which is why we have some highly qualified people doing entry level jobs. We not only take ages to recognize non-Canadian qualifications but even once we do there are not the positions available.

    The malaise that exists in Britain is here too. We cannot discipline our kids, teachers are not allowed to either, some young people thus never learn self-discipline or self-respect and just do not care. The police ignore them unless they do something really bad because our court system is broken and putting more people in more jails is absolutely not the answer. Capitalism is broken but my online debaters haven’t yet come up with a new workable idea. All suggestions welcome.

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