Chronic Poverty

 Posted by on 7 September 2005 at 10:58 pm  Uncategorized
Sep 072005
 

Last night, I read the Washington Post article “Living Paycheck to Paycheck Made Leaving Impossible.” It described the plight of various impoverished New Orleans residents unable to gather the funds necessary to evacuate before Katrina hit. (Paul linked to the article from his recent post on The Plight of the Poor in America, but I found it from another source.)

Today, while searching for some comments on the status of rights in emergencies, I found this timely gem from Ayn Rand in the essay “The Inverted Moral Priorities”:

Except for short periods of unforeseeable emergency, a rational person cannot stand living hand-to-mouth. No matter what his income, he saves some part of it, large or small–because he knows that his life is not confined to the immediate moment, that he has to plan ahead, and that savings are his means of control over his life: savings are his badge of independence and his door to the future–if he is to have a future.

Project fully and concretely what a hand-to-mouth existence would be like. Assume that you have a job which takes care of your immediate physical needs (food, clothing and shelter), but nothing more: you consume everything you earn. Without the possibility of saving, you would live in a state of chronic terror: terror of losing your job and terror of sudden illness. (Never mind unemployment insurance and Medicaid: insurance is a form of saving, and compulsory savings leave you at the mercy of the government.) Could you look for a better job? No–because you have no reserves to carry you a single day. Could you go to school to learn a new skill? No–because this takes savings. Could you plan to buy a car? No–this takes savings. Could you plan to buy a home of your own? No–this takes an enormous amount of savings over a long period of time. Could you plan an unusual vacation, such as a trip to Europe? No, nor any kind of vacation–a vacation takes savings. Could you go to a movie, a theater, a concert? No–this takes savings. Could you buy a book, a phonograph record, a print for your bare walls? No–these take savings. If you have a family, could you send your children through college? No–this takes a small fortune in savings. If you are single, could you get married? No–you have no way to increase your income. If you are an aspiring young writer or artist, could you hold a job, and skimp and go hungry and deny yourself everything–in order to buy time to write or paint? Forget it.

Would you care to go on living in such conditions? Since you are a person able to read, the answer is: No. Yet this is the state to which today’s intellectual leaders (who are led by the egalitarians) wish to reduce you.

Worse, it’s the state that thousands upon thousands of people voluntarily inflict upon themselves by their own bad choices over the whole of their lives. Probably the most fundamental cause is the widespread adoption and strict enforcement of an egalitarian ethic, as described in All Our Kin, a landmark anthropological study of an black ghetto community. In that egalitarian system, any influx of wealth, whether in the form of money or goods, is quickly (if grudgingly) distributed through the family network. This redistribution helps smooth the daily ups and downs of poverty — but at the cost of preserving the poverty itself, since no one can possibly accumulate any wealth. This system does not spring from ignorance or stupidity: the alternative of “hoarding” wealth to climb out of this grinding poverty is both widely known and bitterly resented.

Such is the degrading life to which the chronically poor voluntary submit themselves. The unsurprising consequence of their incompetence in the basic task of living is the incapacity to perform even the simple task of removing themselves from a dangerous city given adequate warning of impending disaster. And for that, we are apparently supposed to feel pity, if not guilt!

(Just to be clear, I’m not speaking of people who choose to live within modest financial means, thanks to their own careful and prudent planning. Although they may live their whole lives on a small income, they are never poor. Such people deserve respect, if not admiration. Nor I am speaking of responsible people temporarily thrown into financial dire straights by unaccountable calamity. Although they may be poor for a while, they are not poor for long. Such people deserve pity, and perhaps benevolent assistance.)

Aristotle suggests the proper approach to such voluntary poverty in his discussion of moral responsibility in Book III of the Nicomachean Ethics, most explicitly in his discussion of vices of the body:

But not only are the vices of the soul voluntary, but those of the body also for some men, whom we accordingly blame; while no one blames those who are ugly by nature, we blame those who are so owing to want of exercise and care. So it is, too, with respect to weakness and infirmity; no one would reproach a man blind from birth or by disease or from a blow, but rather pity him, while every one would blame a man who was blind from drunkenness or some other form of self-indulgence. Of vices of the body, then, those in our own power are blamed, those not in our power are not. And if this be so, in the other cases also the vices that are blamed must be in our own power.

If a person who chooses to live poorly ends up desperately impoverished, that’s not misfortune. It’s justice.

   
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