Thursday, September 05, 2013

The peril of poor-people habits

I know all about poor-people habits. When I was less-than-scraping by as a movie extra, my refrigerator was often completely empty. I'd walk to the grocery store next door at meal time and buy enough food to eat then, sometimes spending no more than $2.16.

You learn to make it stretch. With $2.16, I could buy a single-serving frozen pizza and a bag of 99-cent chips. That bag could last through the next meal, so maybe next time I'd only buy the pizza (hoping the sale price didn't surge to $1.29), and maybe a fruit pie with the extra change. Buying a drink was too much of an indulgence.

Because I am educated and had past professional success, I fully understood how far I fell and how it affected me physically and morally. But a lot of people live their whole lives this way and thus can't see any bigger picture.

Now, I have a full-time job again. It pays the most money I've ever made and offers full benefits. I have my own apartment again. I don't have any kids or pets to feed. My bills are manageable and my debt is only to my mom. And yet, I'm still getting used to the idea that I can undertake a massive shopping trip anytime I want. It seems overly indulgent. Time was, I'd buy mostly healthy (expensive) food, but it's been two years since I had that standard of living. When I go shopping now, the guilt of recent setbacks is still there. I'm used to austerity and all the self-defeating trappings that go with it. I'm not sure the feeling will ever entirely go away. People I know who have made lots of money for years after decades of struggle still exhibit extreme thriftiness.

On one hand, it's absolutely vital to have a healthy sense of thrift and perspective, regardless of income level. You need to know where you come from and all the good and bad that goes along with it. On the other hand, you have to figure out how to jettison the worst, self-defeating habits.

Chris Rock said (I'm paraphrasing for my purposes) that when poor people get a lot of money, "it's just the countdown to them being broke." This is because people who never have money are wired to scrimp, and overcompensate when falling into more money than they can comprehend. 

In my experience interviewing successful business owners, most had any combination of capital, education and grounding. All of these external factors require, to some degree, not being hungry. Poor people are so often in survival mode that they can't even begin to ascend to that level of ingenuity without a lot of help. To quote Rock again, "Chris isn't dumb. Chris is tired."

I don't know if wealthy conservatives really believe that poor people are too lazy to be innovative, or if that's a self-aware excuse to gut the safety net. Either way, the playing field is not level as long as access to basic necessities is imbalanced. And it never will be if continue to abandon our worst-off. 

It's not about dependence. It's about making sure people are in the right shape to begin improving their lives — preferably in childhood, when the brain's wiring is still fresh. The poor aren't the enemy, but poor-people habits are everybody's worst enemy.

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