Making sure the poor are also miserable

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.


  1. CaitieCat says

    Indeed. And the heavens forfend if we have a television, or a mobile, or a smoking habit. Those things are for the worthy/well-off, not for unworthy scum who weren’t smart or enterprising enough to pick wealthy parents to be born to.

  2. slc1 says

    The infamous HerbBlock cartoon back in 1964 of Barry Goldwater telling a poor person to have some initiative and go out and inherit a department store.

  3. says

    Another manifestation of this blame-the-poor mentality is found in Rio de Janeiro’s tourist industry, which offers tours of Rio’s poorest favelas so the well-off tourists can gawk at how clever and adaptible the little people can be when we force them out past the margins of society (and, hopefully, come back to their hotels without getting caught in any traffic-snarling crossfire between gangsters and cops).

  4. says

    I see this all the time on Facebook. Thousands of people “like” comments that suggest people who receive social benefits should demonstrate their poverty by avoiding any outward sign of their concept of disposable income. One even went so far as to suggest that they should yield their place in a line-up to people who are paying their own way.

    I went from being gainfully employed to being on assistance due to mental illness. Perhaps I should avoid going out in public wearing anything but rags.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    In the 70s, there was a four-year experiment conducted in Dauphin, Manitoba, in which residents had access to a guaranteed minimum income (Mincome). The data was only wrested from the government recently by a persistent professor.

    One of the many nuggets to come out the analysis; poverty impacts health! Who coulda guessed?

    In the period that Mincome was administered, hospital visits dropped 8.5 per cent. Fewer people went to the hospital with work-related injuries and there were fewer emergency room visits from car accidents and domestic abuse. There were also far fewer mental health visits.

  6. MNb says

    “they suffer from a lack of that kind of planning”
    Oh, this is correct. They do suffer from it. I can witness as I live in a much poorer country than you, namely Suriname. On salary day they take all their money from the ATM and after three weeks at the max they are broke.
    The thing is – if I earned as little as they do I would not be able to plan my finances either. So I refuse to take the sermons of the rich seriously (according to Surinamese standards I am rich; not according to Dutch standards) until they have tried to live on say 300 USD a month themselves for say a year (I earn about double).
    Orwell is spot on. I see it every single day.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.

    Herman Melville

  8. DrewN says

    I seem to recall massive public outrage when it was publicized that people on public assistance living in the northeastern USA, were able to use food-stamps to purchase lobster. Even though in that area, when lobster is in season it’s often the cheapest protein available.

  9. says

    Thanks for this excellent post, especially for the quotes from Wigan Pier. Such a wonderful book, and woefully under-read.

    Re lobster, if you read novels that take place in 19th century New York or New England, you’ll often encounter lobster being fed to people incarcerated in prisons or mental institutions. It was considered trash-food, similar to eating squirrel today.

    And nichrome, thank you for the link.

  10. 2up2down2furious says

    I’d never read the Road to Wigan Pier, nor those excerpts (which is strange, because I love a lot of Orwell’s essays and non-fiction books), but the part about poor people wanting to “treat” themselves hits very close to home for me. Some time ago, I was working a near-minimum wage job with occasional wage theft. With my student loan payments, I could only afford to live in a miserable slum teeming with vermin. I couldn’t afford a bed, so I slept on the floor. A rat bit me once when I was asleep.

    The thing is, I could have purchased a mattress if I saved up my money and never purchased any luxuries. Usually every other week, I bought a six-pack of semi-cheap beer and had some pretty embarrassingly unhealthy food during that time. At present, I eat well and spend very little money and very seldom drink alcohol but when I was poor and depressed eating something starchy and washing it down with Yuengling could very well have been the only thing that day that made me feel good.

  11. Mano Singham says

    I wish everyone had the experience of being poor, really poor, even for a short time. Although I have never been wealthy or really poor, I grew up and lived in a poor country and had close relatives who were poor so I had an inkling of the fact that poverty and moral worth had very little to do with each other.

  12. Suzanne K. says

    Years ago, when my two daughters were toddlers, my husband was the sole breadwinner for our family. His company, a trucking business, suddenly went bankrupt after the owner embezzled the corporate assets and disappeared. Afterward, the company refused to give the drivers’ their final pay checks, resulting in a financial disaster for my family. We lived mostly hand to mouth back then and soon found ourselves broke. Having no other choice, I applied for food stamps. When I entered the social worker’s office, ashamed and desperate, I’ll never forget the first thing I saw. It was a large plaque on the wall, a plaque that said “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Oh no, I’ll never forget that.

  13. garnetstar says

    I read an anonymous article once by a middle-class guy who wondered about why drug addiction seemed common among the poor. So he started smoking crack to see what it did for people.

    He found that what it did was give some pleasure to their lives. And said that if his life was poor and stuggling and contained almost no enjoyment or hope of every having any, he too would inevitably turn to any reliable and available source of it.

    Even the rich very often turn to that classic anodyne, alcohol, to help them deal with trouble, stress and unhappiness. Imagine the level of those amplified, experienced continually every day of your life, with no hope of relief ever, and see what you would do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *