Sunday, October 13, 2013

When All the Choices Are Poor

Recently Slate and New York Times published articles on recent scientific research on decision making and poverty. Both articles make the excellent point that poverty in and of itself affects people profoundly and their ability to make "good" decisions.  Both articles point out that when money is scarce and is scarce over time, relentlessly, and even in short term situations, then ability to make what most would consider "good" or "future-oriented" choices is limited.  Now the New York Times article goes a bit further to explore how the options available to poor people are fewer.  For example, many poor or working class people don't have much in the way of savings or access to credit.  So people in this situation come to rely on sources like payday lenders and title loans. One does not have to be a Nobel-award winning economist to know that these are horrible options to be avoided.  Yet if one is faced with a cash shortage and the rent is due, one has no other borrowing options, then the only choice may be to take the payday loan.  If all the choices are poor - not paying the rent, taking out a payday loan, taking a title loan - then how does one assess what the "good" or "better" choice would be?

So while I appreciate these articles, I struggle with this notion of the poor "making poor choices" when poverty is restricting choices.  If the actual situation of poverty and scarcity is creating conditions of poor choices i.e., there are no good ones - then how do we label these choices "poor." I might argue that the poor have to be innovative and creative in their choices as demonstrated by the author of the Slate article.  The poor person knows that they can't shop at Whole Foods or maybe even the grocery store closest to them. The poor person may have to shop at multiple stores to make their food dollars stretch. I bet if we did a study of those receiving food assistance and who live on extremely limited income, the results might suggest that do more actual work to procure food and have to be more creative at it, then those who are more middle class.  They may know how to stretch a food budget, because they have to, then the person who does not struggle with scarcity.

Both of these articles brought to mind a quote from James Luther Adams in his critique of liberal religion. Adams wrote "...the emphasis on the quality of the will,on the disposition of the entire personality, was replaced by a one-sided emphasis on 'reason.'...Thus religious liberalism, in the name of intellectual integrity, tended to neglect the deeper levels both of the human consciousness and of reality itself." (The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses, p.59)  When it comes the decisions people make around money, there is tendency to believe that all decisions regarding money are made rationally.  That we make decisions about money without regard to our emotions, our past history or the messages we have received.  Yet as Adams reminds we are not simply rational creatures. These articles actually show the affect of scarcity on the brain.  If you want another example read SNAP challenge blog of Panera CEO, Ron Shaich. He points out that when food was scarce, all he thought about was food and what he could and could not have.  Anyone who has been on a diet for any length of time knows the same thing. Not to mention the sense of isolation from others.  This is doubled for people struggling financially because we are schooled early on, particularly those raised with any class privilege, one does not talk about money and one does not ask for help.

Adams also rightly points out that liberal religion has frequently only appealed to certain classes of people - upper and well educated because Unitarians in particular relegated emotions and conversion to those who are underprivileged and ignorant. (The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses, p.60).  Unitarian Universalists continue to struggle with class and even in their work for justice often end up coming as "great white saviors" here to rescue the poor from their bad decisions.  This comes through in attitudes towards those who shop at Walmart and other low-cost stores. There is a clear disdain that comes through; "I would never shop there."

There are many great suggestions about long-term fixes such as low cost loans, access to emergency cash that would make the lives of those living with scarcity better. What I want to add is that we have to stop characterizing poor people as making poor decisions.  Again if all the options are poor options, what is one to do?  If we continue to define things as "good decisions" and "bad decisions" then we continue the cycle of putting the burden of poverty on individuals rather than on a economic system that shuts people out and keeps people poor.  Again our language blames poor people for their poverty.  Even in cases where one might not understand the choice - buying expensive sneakers for a child, paying for a smart phone, or other "luxury" items might be seen differently if we thought about maybe those expensive shoes are the only "nice" thing that child owns or sports may be seen as the ticket out of the cycle of poverty.  Maybe that phone is the only internet access that family has or is needed to maintain whatever work is available.  Suddenly even these "poor choices" look differently when we take into account the whole of a person's life.

So I appreciate these articles for pointing out that poverty itself affects the whole of a person's life - it is not just about paying rent, buying food and making good rational choices about how to do that - but rather poverty itself affects the brain, the spirit of a person.  Yet please stop characterizing their decisions as "poor." When choices are limited, which they are for those who are poor, then people are just making the best choices they can given the options available.

Have you experienced scarcity in your life?  In what ways?  Have you experienced the narrowing of options and choices due to circumstances? When you have you experienced a time of "no good choices"?  How does your understanding of "no good choices" affect your understanding of those who are poor if you yourself are not struggling with scarcity of money?

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