This is a New One For Me
Posted on September 20, 2012 Posted by John Scalzi 105 Comments
I am one of the lede stories on the CNN.com site. No, that’s not me in the beard. The other story you see there is taken from an interview I did earlier today with a CNN reporter about my “Being Poor” piece. Here’s a direct link to it, as it will inevitably leave the front page at some point. Even so, it’s cool to have made it there, and not because I did something horrible.
As I just noted on Twitter, one of the things that amazes me (and depresses me just a little) is how the “Being Poor” piece continues to be relevant. It’s been seven years since I wrote the thing. It’s still one of the most visited pieces on the site.
Incidentally, if you wander down into the comments, you will perhaps appreciate even more the assiduousness with which I moderate my own comment threads.
Incidentally, I expect that, given the influx of people I see coming to the site via CNN, there will be some folks from there to take the opportunity to comment here. For these new folks: you might want to read the site disclaimer and comment policy before you post. It will save me having to walk through the comments later with The Mallet of Loving Correction.
Also, just as a heads up, I’m hoping this particular comment thread doesn’t turn into a rehash of the already substantial comment threads attached to the original article, which are now closed. If you haven’t wandered through those, you might do that; there are several hundred comments there and there’s an excellent chance that the points you wanted to make are already made there. You making the same argument that someone made seven years ago will be an indication that your argument is full of a not-so-fresh feeling. And I do like to keep my comment threads fresh!
Oh, no, I no longer wander into unmoderated comment threads. Hic sunt dracones!
Truth is truth, Mr. Scalzi. Of course it’s still relevant, and resonates strongly. It’s a very well-written piece. I wish I didn’t know how accurate it is.
Isn’t that being a bit unfair to the dracones?
As a child growing up, we didn’t have a lot, but I recognized there was some financial strain even though I don’t feel like I wanted for anything big. We shopped at K-Mart, not the pricier department stores, but some school clothes came from Sears.
As a newlywed in a new city and a small apartment in a kinda crummy part of town, we shopped a lot at the Salvation Army store across the street and as I bought groceries, I rounded everything up to the nearest dollar, tallying in my head, and stopping when I’d reached whatever amount I was allowing myself. We could have gone on food stamps, but never did. For Christmas one year, my parents bought us a gift card for the grocery store.
We had hard times. We’ve struggled. Things have never been to the level you describe in that older blog post. I am grateful. I am humbled.
When I shop at the grocery store, I don’t worry about tallying up before I check out. I just took the dog to the vet for x-rays (she ate a corncob) and didn’t stress (too much) about the cost. I do still shop at the thrift stores, because I’ll be damned if I pay $30 for a pair of jeans. A friend of ours once described what her version of what rich was: Walking into Target, buying what you need, and never sweating the cost. I feel like we’ve achieved that.
I was in a very similar experience growing up as were/are so many, thank you for your voice
I doubt your “Being Poor” will ever stop being relevant or true. It certainly resonated with me when I read it.
Agree with mintwich. Unmoderated comment threads are a sure-fire way to bring out the inner supervillain sans puissances. Which is just sad.
Hah! Funny. I saw that CNN article and didn’t click the link; I just came here. And whaddya know, my instincts were correct. Scalzi Had Something To Do With It.
And with relevance… it’s very telling that ‘Being Poor’ is still relevant after all this time. Telling, and unhappy-making.
I am happy you keep the mallet out and in hand…
John, I had never read your original essay before; it’s really good and painfully true. On the uncomfortable side for me, it took me back to a time 13 years ago when I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from or how I would keep a roof over my daughter’s head. These days, I’m proud to be living proof that people can and do pull themselves out of poverty with hard work, determination, and resourcefulness. I’m a libertarian and sometimes have argued against raising minimum wage or instituting nationalized medicine and have run into the counter-argument that I just don’t understand what it’s like to be poor. I wish I hadn’t, but I still don’t think that poverty is something the government can fix. Industry and efficiency can go a long way though, lowering the prices on things. I’m not against outsourcing if it means the poor here can afford that extra shirt, blanket, or pots and pans. Education (not degrees, but just actual education to keep us from the perils of ignorance) is important too, and I think we should see a return to the apprenticeships of our grandparents, actually learning useful skills on the job from craftsmen.
Maybe trying to solve it is beyond the scope of this post, but I just wanted to say how powerful I found your now several year old essay.
Our host’s initial comment in this thread gives me the mental image of television advertisements. You know the sort, with piano music in the background as someone sits at a kitchen counter with a mug of coffee and looks somberly into the distance.
“Are your comment threads not feeling so fresh any more? Are you worried that others are judging your blog? Has it begun to impact your social life? Then you may want to look into prescription-strength Mallet of Loving Correction! Studies show that Mallet of Loving Correction can reduce the number of asshats per post by as much as 70%, freeing you to enjoy your blog once more. Four out of five blog-readers recomment Mallet of Loving Correction. (Side effects may include the necessity to provide a FAQ link about Mallet use, angry asshats repeatedly trying to post comments as they’re deleted, and possible heart failure due to discovering intelligent discourse is possible in comment threads.) Check your local WordPress installation for the Mallet of Loving Correction today.”
Close on a shot of the person running, laughing and carefree, through a field in slow motion as the sun shines almost artificially bright.
This is one of the few sites where the comments are worth reading.
If anything, that essay’s even MORE relevant now. People I know who weren’t living on the brink when you wrote it are now, and in the vast majority of cases it’s nothing more than shit for luck that brought them there.
I always imagine that the mallet looks like those medical dosage buttons that they give you just after you’ve had surgery at the hospital. Just squeeze it down once, the problem goes away and you feel all better. Inevitably there will be another pain in your tush, but luckily the button remains at hand.
Thank you, kind sir, for your comment moderation. I appreciate that there is a place on the internet where I can read the comments without fear of raising my blood pressure.
I don’t have much to say about this really, except that I now have a better idea of what poor is. I grew up poor-ish as a kid, but have been fortunate enough not to have experienced it as an adult.
Against my better judgement, I took a peek at the CNN comments. Yikes. All hail the Mallet of Loving Correction!
I am glad, however, that “On Being Poor” is being brought to an even wider audience. It’s one of your most well-read pieces for a reason, John – it’s a heartbreaking but brilliant piece of writing the encapsulates experiences we all need to hear about and keep in mind. And the comment thread on the original post is also damn good reading.
Pro tip: Never read a comment thread on CNN unless you like to collect hobby horses, because every Uncle Toby on the planet likes to ride his through it.
Yeah. CNN comments make me weep for humanity. People who think you’re not poor unless you lack shoes and underwear altogether. Nor do I think they would be for relaxing public indecency laws to accommodate the people with no clothes. Voila! No poor people! Either you have clothes, and you’re not poor, or you don’t and you’re a criminal. Simple!
Rachel: we can probably track down people willing to make that commercial. :-)
John: Unhappy it makes one that the essay still holds up. Slight modifications needed on a nation-by-nation basis, but it still holds up. Would that it didn’t.
Michael and Tapetum: Sadly, the like exists in the comments of CBC News’ articles as well. There is a truth to the stereotype of the Ugly Canadian that I wish were not there.
Wow reading through the comments there I had only one thought ” How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mallet!”
One of the comments hit home is a strange way though. It was something along the lines of “being poor is having your brother steal feminine products because he knew you felt too bad to run fast enough from the store”
I just had a conversation with one of the women that helps out in a local church food pantry just this week. She said that those products are in severe need since people somehow view that donation as a stigma. I need to go to the store and keep them stocked.
I still don’t think that poverty is something the government can fix.
I dont think that anyone rationally does think that. What the government is perfectly suited to is helping people living in poverty. School lunches would be a perfect example. (If local charity took care of this, then there would be no school lunch program.)
My response after reading “Being Poor” the first time, after laughing and sighing, was that we live in Paradise. We have everything. To not help those with nothing, even a little, is immoral. And this coming from a devote atheist.
Rachel @7:28, you win the thread! OMG! I scared my wife laughing at that. Well done, you!
Those comments might be a step above the ones on Yahoo News, but it’s an exceedingly small step. Lift off and nuke the entire site from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure.
Reading all this is very sobering for me. I’ve always had money in my pocket all my 59 years I’m blessed I guess
Last week I went to my granddaughter’s 7th birthday in a small town and the amount of gifts she received was unreal. I noticed all the other kids that were invited were starring in disbelief at all the stuff she got. I was told later most of the kids lived in a nearby mobile home park
I felt like a piece of crap afterward…
CNN does have a lot more posts and a lot more commenters. They also have more blowback from moderation. NPR is going to start moderating comments. It will be interesting to see how well it works.
Wow. Am glad to see the “Being Poor” post reaching an even wider audience.
“…one of the things that amazes me (and depresses me just a little) is how the “Being Poor” piece continues to be relevant.”
That saddens – and angers – me, too. And it seem as though I know even more people who are living close to the edge.
“Incidentally, if you wander down into the comments, you will perhaps appreciate even more the assiduousness with which I moderate my own comment threads.”
And that was before you had that lovely real world Mallet of Loving Correction. *grin*
@ karlsoap: NPR already has some comment moderation – at least, I’ve definitely seen messages like “comment removed for violating NPR community standards.” That said, I wouldn’t mind them raising the bar on those community standards.
in general/ Peter C.: I tend to agree. I just came across “Being Poor” a few days ago, after reading the comments on “Hey! I Don’t Have to Pay Income Tax!” I’m still trying to formulate a plan, but it pushed me to finally commit the money I kept saying I was going to spend on worthwhile charities.
(As an aside, it’ll be my first year paying an income tax. So yay for that, too, I guess.)
After reading just 2 pages of the CNN comments *shudder* All Hail the Mallet!!
I admire your ability to write an article about the 2012 election in 2005 (at least according my quick skim of the CNN comment cesspool). I assume that you used the SFWA time machine?
I read the essay when you first posted it, and since then even more of the items apply to my life. Depressing.
John et al.,
A while ago, I came across the following quotation, supposedly from Confucius:
“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”
I re-read your essay every few months and have posted it several times on my FB page.
I would like to be rich enough to go to Target and not be worried about price. Right now, I’m uninsured and in bed with a sprained ankle but lucky enough to know a registered nurse, an ex sports medicine guy, and a massage therapist who have been bullying me into taking care of myself. More people need to be reached by your op-ed.
I grew up on a farm. As far back as I can remember, we always owed the bank a lot, lot, lot of money. I didn’t understand it was different for anyone else until I was 5 or 6 watching TV and the cop called in a hit and run by a blue chevy. We were watching on an old black and white, tube TV we had inherited from someone when everyone else was watching on color, solid state TV. And I realized that most everyone else was able to see that the car was blue.
We burned wood for most of our heat. We cut it with a chainsaw and then split it by hand. Truckload and truckload cut every winter, stored to dry, then split by hand. I can still hit a wedge in a stump and sink it to the head with a single swing. It’s muscle memory and I can’t forget. I remember my parents getting into a huge fight because I needed braces and it was going to cost a lot of money, like enough to buy a used tractor or a car or something, and all I could think was it was my fault, that something more than my teeth was wrong with me.
We werent as poor as John. Growing up on a farm has its advantages. Food was available every time we sent livestock to market, and would end up in a big chest freezer that we would dwindle through the next year or so. We had a huge garden, maybe half an acre, that was a third potatoes (cause they store for a long time), a third corn (cause you can can it), and a third other random vegatables. We had a root cellar in the fieldstone basement of our house. It was damp and cool and full of spiderwebs and the occasional mouse. And that’s where we kept the potatoes, and the jars fo preserved vegatables. We had an apple orchard and picked apples and canned them to make pies come winter.
Kraft mac and cheese with hot dogs was a great dinner.
And I got an allowance. Save up a couple weeks and maybe I could buy a model airplane and glue it together and think about flying, or being somewhere else, or maybe not even think at all. But to get it home, I had to face the same question every time, “How much did THAT cost?”. As if the money for a model airplane might make a difference to the bank. I probably would have given the money if I thought it would have made a difference, but when the chores were done, when supper was washed up and put away, when there wasn’t much to do but watch black and white TV, the only thing I felt was a kind of fatalism that there was no way we were going to win.
It took the bank until I was in high school to foreclose on the farm. I remember my parents fighting over money constantly, but it got really bad leading up to the foreclosure. Afterwards, when they’d lost everything, they got divorced.
Oh, I almost forgot the moral of the story.
To anyone who says poor people are poor because they’re lazy, and that hard work and determination will be rewarded, the moral of the story is this: fuck you, you ignorant sack of shit
Thank you for moderating your comments. Every time I wander into comments on news sites I am appalled at the human race.
Are you sure that’s not you in the beard? Didn’t you used to play in a little old band from Texas? Zizzy Stop or some such, wasn’t it?
I, for one, would have been proud to have contributed to the Amish beard-terrorist article. Still, helping out with the other front-page article is a fine complement justly given to your work.
I was just thinking about your “Being Poor” article the other day, because as of next month, I’ll finally be able to afford “full” health coverage through work for the first time in 8 years! Except… I probably won’t be able to afford the co-pay that goes along with it any time soon. But it might keep me from going bankrupt if an emergency arises.
While some (many) don’t care for later Van Halen, I did like the line in their music video “Right Now”: Right now someone is working way too hard for minimum wage.
The “lazy” poor are the ones sweating out doing physical labor. The “hard-working” wealthier citizens are sitting at desks, talking on the phone, and attending meetings and conferences.
Duder. I LOVE the Mallet now. Those comments make me wonder if any of these people have heard, or understand, the phrase: “Category error” – cos, y’know, Being Poor is all about squabbling about Bush and Obama apparently!
Liam: No kidding! Newspeak is alive, despite our hopes to the contrary.
I don’t know; I sort of dug the exchange between Obama, Bush, Clinton, etc. on the CNN thread–may God have mercy on my soul. (Monica: I’ll bring the cigars! Bush: Why do you need the cigars? Bill Clinton: God you’re an idiot, George. Dick Cheney: George! How many times have I told you to keep your mouth shut when the grownups are talking! Hillary: Get off that laptop this instant, Bill!)
The monumental untruth of the poor being lazy really gelled for me in the last abysmal job I took “just to have a job”–I’m sitting there, pulling a twelve-hour shift Christmas Day and wishing it was overtime as well as holiday pay–and it occurs to me: I’m working for a base wage of $8.50 an hour, no benefits, the boss does crazy contortions to avoid a single minute of overtime, and I’ve already caught the company blatantly breaking the law several times (sending an armed SO to work in an area where he wasn’t licensed to carry a gun, keeping a sex offender on the payroll), to say nothing of the caliber of the ordinary non-criminal fellow coworkers you get for that wage. Because of my position in the company, I’m legally liable if a client ever finds out and goes to court. I’m doing private security, guarding the homes of people who buy their kids Ferraris for wedding presents, making less money than a grocery store check-out girl does so the owner of the company can buy HIS nephew a wedding-present Chevy Tahoe, and I’m not even making enough money to insure my Saturn–forget taking it to the shop to find out why it won’t go over 40 mph an hour after a long drive in the hot sun. I wonder how many of the smug people who think bootstraps are space elevators have ever been turned down by Burger King because they were only hiring hamburger-flippers with experience.
There’s something seriously sick and wrong going on in America, and people like me are not the problem. The last time I took government aid or welfare was, ironically, during Katrina. We didn’t suffer as most did; our home only needed some roof work, but we were all completely uprooted and had to drive back and forth across the country, renting hotel rooms and buying food, while my mother was in chemotherapy. Smaller things have broken better people.
I pretty much agree with the earlier post: “To anyone who says poor people are poor because they’re lazy, and that hard work and determination will be rewarded, the moral of the story is this: fuck you, you ignorant sack of shit.” Except I think he’s way, way, way too nice. I’d involve chainsaws, lemon juice and paper cuts, myself. Just for starters.
I grew up poor. We moved a lot, and never had money for more than the most basic ammenities. I don’t regret it, because it turned me into who I am. I am an infinitely better person for having known want that i would have been otherwise. I worked hard to claw my way out of poverty. I’m not a wealthy man, but I have a job and I own my home.
I take immense satisfaction out of knowing that I goddamned well earned everything single thing I have. I didn’t get any hand outs, and everything is the direct result of hard.
I’m not saying that hard work alone will get you out of poverty. It won’t. A lot of the time it is just luck, or planning. For me, its because i joined the army and got a skillset. My brother couldn’t join the military, and he’s stuck in the same rut as our parents were. It sucks, because he works so much harder than I do. However, he’s decided to go back to school…so I’m hoping this helps.
I do, however, believe there is a victimization mentality in this country. I don’t think it is 47%, but there are people who think they’re owed. My aunt is one of these people. She refuses to work because she is overweight (not in a debilitating way), and her son has tourettes. Also, I’m from Kentucky. In Eastern Kentucky, the most wealthy man in town in the Social Security lawyer. My wife if from Floyd County…and quite literally nobody in here family works. None of her friends work, nor their parents. Its like they work for a couple of years, make an appointment with the SSI Laywer, and then live out the rest of their life with the rest of their extended family pooling their meager SSI payments. Most of these people are capable of working, it just isn’t what they know. To them, the government gives you money, and you take it. There isn’t a culture of trying to escape from that. If you think I’m wrong, I invite you to take a drive through eastern kentucky.
That is probably a statement that will get me flamed, and it isn’t meant to incite people.
Yep, the mallet is the best thing ever.
Sometimes I despair at the human race and it’s lack of empathy for each other, just to prop up their own illusion for safety. “I did everything right, I will never be poor/raped/ill.”
It’s a simple fact, John. This is one of the few websites on the ‘net where the rule ‘NEVER READ THE COMMENTS’ does not apply. You’ve managed to cultivate a higher standard of poster here, both intellectually and in civility. And you make it hilarious when morons show their faces.
I wonder what would happen if more people knew some basic National Accounting.
Private Sector Surplus – the Current Account Balance – the Government Deficit = Zero
Private Sector Surplus – the Current Account Balance = the Government Deficit
or in simple language,
If Imports and Exports cancel each other out, the Private Sector Surplus is the same as the Government Deficit.
Such a simple equation, but with profound implications for the bigots against the poor.
“That is probably a statement that will get me flamed,” Ha. “and it isn’t meant to incite people.” Bloody ha.
You realize the army counts as a handout, right?
Why is the army a handout? It is just like any other job where I work for pay. The only difference is that I get shot at occasionally and they have really good benefits. Its no more a hand out than getting a job at wal-mart is.
As far as getting flamed, Other Bill, I honestly am not trying to really argue anything. Im just saying the the people in Eastern Kentucky subsist on government aid because that is what they know to do. Its not like I’m taking a casual glance and labeling them lazy. They’re not really lazy, they just don’t have jobs. Part of this is because there are limited jobs there, but another part is because there are literally billboards saying “Tired of working!? Call me! We’ll get your SSI soon!”
Seriously? Even this thread couldn’t pull out the need for the Mallet? Will it never be used again or are you just waiting for that perfect comment to be the first?
Don’t ever read the comments on any mainstream-news-media website. Just don’t.
It’s a hand out in that it is government-provided, taxpayer-funded. I’m not faulting you for taking it, and it’s a great route out of poverty for many people (including people in my own family), I’m just pointing out that it is a route directly provided by the government.
The CNN comments are dominated by people with political blinders on, but at least that is better than threads dominates by juvenile insults and scatological references like youtube. 40% of the comments were “poverty is Obama’s fault” and 40% were “poverty is the Republicans fault”. But 20% were personal insights that weren’t too bad.
” Im just saying the the people in Eastern Kentucky subsist on government aid because that is what they know to do.”
Only you aren’t **just** saying that. Which isn’t to say that even if you were just saying that it would be a friendly observation.
@warlordgregor: 
I really wish it weren’t just in election years that poverty in the US got public attention; as much as I want to drape John Edwards in a suit made entirely out of angry fire ants, I will say that he was one of the few major candidates who talked about poverty in public. Until he, you know. Ruined everything with his dick and his arrogance and his hubris.
@minaria: I suspect that you haven’t served in the military.
Enlisted folks go through hell and then put their lives on the line for our country (in one way or another). Sure, there are a few bad eggs in the service, but they’re few and far between. The rest of them work hard doing jobs that most people can’t imagine, in unpleasant conditions, and few leave the service with much more than their training and a strong work ethic.
They deserve the pay and other benefits they receive in exchange.
Where did I ever even give the barest hint of a suggestion that they don’t work hard?
All I’m saying it’s an opportunity provided for by the government.
(I actually think there was a compelling point someone linked to about the 47% debacle — someone pointed out, “There are soldiers that don’t pay income tax; are you saying they give nothing worthy to the nation?” (badly paraphrased) )
By your logic, Teaching/firefighting/law enforcement/government civil service is a hand out. Just because your employer is the government doesn’t mean that is a handout. You are working a job and recieving a way.
Observations don’t always have to be friendly. It wasn’t supposed to be. I don’t think there is a friendly way to say that a society in eastern kentucky is keeping itself down.
I agree with you that poverty is woefully absent from political platforms. I’m not against programs to help the poor at all. I don’t think we’re going to solve a problem by throwing money at it though. Primarily, you have to educate people.
And sorry about not having a citation on the billboard quote. I’ll snap a pic next time I go through town :)
It’s sad what comments on most news sites have turned into…
I can point you to the law offices of Eric C. Conn, who literally built a statue of himself in Pikeville. His website is http://www.mrsocialsecurity.com
This guy is the one with the billboard.
We can certainly disagree on what constitutes a handout. I tend to count government jobs as receiving government assistance/help/support (there was a lot of government spending on construction in my parents’ area, as an example). What bothers me is when people insist that they have gotten nothing from the government when their very salary has come or does come from the government. If I read too much into what you were saying, I apologize.
(Disclosure: my own salary comes from the government/ military.)
I found this after a quick google:
Although it is just statistics, it doesn’t go into the root causes of anything. I would certainly expect logging and mining to cause higher rates of disability, but have no basis for that other than intuition and, well, manual labor takes a toll.
Wow. Even trying to moderate the CNN comments would have meant deploying the mallet so that it resembled a game of Whack-a-mole”.
Reading almost any comment thread on the Intertubes makes me weep for humanity. I love this place & coates over at Atlantic simply because the arguments are civil because of judicious use of the MoLC.
Most comment threads make me think of a line from the Lampoons “Deteriorata”
“Be assured that a walk through the ocean of most souls would scarcely get your feet wet.”
I suspect our issue is only semantics. I don’t consider recieving pay for work from the government a handout. And I don’t have a problem with handouts in general, I just hate to see them abused.
Here is a little bit more about the situation in eastern kentucky:
“I don’t think there is a friendly way to say that a society in eastern kentucky is keeping itself down.”
I don’t particularly disagree that observations have to be friendly. But -my initial point – you said the opposite of that. Unless you’re suggesting that unfriendly observations about the character of the people of an entire area could possibly not incite an angry response…then, minor disagreement.
Throwing in that sentence at the end is the same thing as saying “no disrespect” right before you disrespect somebody. “But, I said no disrespect!” Its like a passive voice version of Speaking Truth To (No) Power.
How about something more like “Yeah, I said what I said.” Or, “I said it like I meant it. Get a helmet.”
Apropos of absolutely nothing else, and completely off-topic, but with the very best of intentions: @maskirovka, try loosening the gas cap on your Saturn when it does that. If that works, it’s possible that the gas cap just has a clogged vent and you can fix the problem by replacing it (or just leaving it loose.)
I haven’t read through the CNN comments, but I have read through much of the original post’s. It really breaks my heart that it is still relevant, but what breaks my heart even more is that it will be relevant for a long time to come. Congrats for making the front page of CNN’s site, though. You deserve the recognition :)
That’s fair, then.
I don’t think most people would disagree with you that it stinks when “handouts”, or any form of government program, really, are abused. (food stamps, disability, grants, jobs: everything!) I think the friction you have anticipated a bit from commenters here arises from the fact that the statement “oh this system is abused” is often an argument to get rid of the entire system, or warp it to the point where the system’s ability to good is severely hampered, which quite a few people don’t want to see happen, either.
And during a discussion of “wow being poor can be awful” it comes across very easily as that kind of argument.
@ … everyone? In general?
Yes, the comment moderation here is amazing. Thank you, Scalzi!
Get a helmet :D
I definitely do not advocate the abolishment of the system. I just want some standards or something.
warlordgrego, what kinds of standards do you envision? I agree that there are individuals, groups, and even mini-subcultures that deliberately game the system. Human nature is what it is. There are poor people gaming the system in ways that are legal but arguably not moral, such as those people you describe in Eastern Kentucky. There are also rich people gaming the system in ways that are legal but arguably not moral. The discussion of Mitt Romney and Bain on another thread might be an illustration. I don’t think all rich people are dishonest and gaming the system, but can we agree that some do? Likewise some in the middle class? People (though not all people) everywhere look for ways to get something for nothing. What standards could be put in place to make sure nobody, rich or poor, games the system? Personally, I’m not sure it’s possible. I think we have to do the best we can and not threaten to dismantle safety net programs because of the relatively small number of people who consider them part of their way of life (I realize you said that *you* don’t want to dismantle them, so I don’t mean you here). By the same token, I don’t think we should dismantle capitalism because of the CEOs in the bank bailout who got their golden parachutes or because Bain-owned companies borrowed money to fund dividend payouts and drove the businesses into financial instability in the process.
There’s plenty of bad acting to go around, not just among the poor. How can we clean it up on all levels, do you think?
Thank you for sharing this link, I completely missed the essay when you first wrote it. Everything you wrote was very true and very accurate but the depressing view point begged for a more lighthearted counter essay. You can find my response at http://thedarkgenesis.blogspot.com/2012/09/being-poor-response.html
Well-moderated sites are a pleasure to read (and participate in). There’s a reason that Whatever, Making Light and Crooked Timber are as popular as they are, and it’s a combination of civility and relevance.
Scalzi, once again, you’ve pushed me to look up a word. When I saw ‘lede’, I assumed you were making an Amish joke, so thanks for the education.
I’m well-paid for what I do, and yet can’t quite rise out of being constantly broke. I’m almost finished paying off the debt for my brother’s cancer treatment, which I put on credit cards. Which had their interest rate almost doubled immediately after, not because I didn’t or couldn’t pay, but because of my ‘debt-to-income’ ratio, or so the credit card companies said. I believe that’s illegal now, post-Obama, but it wasn’t then.
warlord: I definitely do not advocate the abolishment of the system. I just want some standards or something
By all means, I’d be interested in hearing an objective, specific example.
This is nothing more than a form of the hawk/dove problem. It’s another game theory idea. Basically you have some population of birds, the doves are cooperative, the hawks are selfish. The desire is to remove the hawks from the popolation. But what game theory basically shows is that you can’t remove all of them. It’s impossible.
But certain right wingers can’t do math, and have no concept of the hawk/dove problem. So they will point to anecdotal examples of abuse and use it to attack the entire system. Just like you did, warlord.
Oh, and going on a full frontal attack of the kinds of government assistance you disprove of, and then several posts later saying “I do not advocate the abolishment of the system” doesn’t really cut it any better than a “People abuse unemployment. Well, of course, I don’t mean you” escape clause. Shotgun wide blasts make for bad targeting.
And on the larger scale, I think this “people abuse the system, that’s not fair” is just bullshit. Because people who point THAT out are consistently people who don’t point out an even bigger truth.
Laissez faire isn’t fair.
In a laissez faire system, bad luck is a bitch. People are born into poor and rich families and for the most part, the zip code you were born into is biggest influence in how you turn out. That’s not fair. Being born into a poor family means you can’t go to college. That’s not fair. People get sick randomly. That’s not fair. People work their asses off and can still get laid off. That’s not fair. With absolutely NO SYSTEM AT ALL, (i.e. laissez faire) people would be starving to death, people would be losing their homes, people would be getting sick and dying, all because of random shit occurring completely outside their control.
Government can’t make it all fair, but it can at least try to lessen the impact when someone falls. Unemployment benefits. Help putting food on the table. Help putting a roof over people’s heads. It results in a system that is still unfair, but is LESS unfair than laissez faire. And since nothing is perfect, it also results in some abuse. But even considering the unfairness of the abuse, that’s STILL more fair than laissez faire.
People who point out “there are lazy bums out there abusing the system, that’s not fair”, are poeple who consistently do NOT acknowledge that laissez faire is even MORE unfair. Because if they acknowledged THAT, if they acknowledged that laissez faire is unfair, they’d support government assistance. And they don’t.
poeple who say “welfare gets abused by the lazy” quite often come packed with the implicit idea that “laissez faire is fair”, and they want to remove governemnt assistance and get to a laissez faire system.
When confronted with an example where government assistance legitmately helped someone who legitimately deserved it, they’ll respond with a generic “Well, of course, I don’t mean YOU”. But in reality, they do. One cannot subscribe to the fantasy that hard work is always rewarded and poor people are only poor because they are lazy without subscribing to the sheer idiocy that a laissez faire world is faire. And if you think laissez faire is fair, then government assistance, no matter how it is implemented, no matter how small or limited in scope it is, can only make it UNFAIR.
And when the UNFAIRNESS of government assistance is the ONLY thing a person points out, I generally take that to mean they’re a laissez faire believer and think ALL government assistance is unfair.
If they can’t come up with specific, objective circumstances (not anecdotes of individuals, but a set of circumstances that might be true for anyone over time), then that just reinforces my belief that they’re a laissez faire believer and can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the need for government assistance except for cases of specific individuals they’ve interviewed. i.e. “Of course, I don’t mean YOU.”
First, thank you for writing “Being Poor” in the first place. It was a painful eye opener.
We were by no means “rich” growing up, but I know now we were *never* even close to being poor. Reading that post made me almost burn with shame for having the things we have, which we do not NEED, but we have. The small comforts that I take for granted, like having mayo for my sandwich – heck, having bread and lunchmeat for a sandwich!!
I wish I were able to find all the people struggling like the ones commenting on the article and who the article describes – and buy them gift cards to food stores, or buy their kids shoes that are “less obviously” from the grocery store (there is a store near us, Gabriel Brothers, who sells name brand things for a song, though you have to look over them with a fine toothed comb to make sure there aren’t rips so big or stains so obvious it’s not worth buying), pay their bills a month or two ahead just so they can get caught up…..but how does one find these folks? The ones who truly need it, I believe, are the ones who don’t go advertising. My heart is truly heavy for all those who endure this life – and may I be able to in some small way, help them one day.
And forgive me if I sound naiive about trying to help. I do mean it with the best intentions.
Rachel @7:28 – HA. That is awesome. Somehow I have an image of Wil Wheaton being the spokesmodel in the commercial, with a cutaway to Jon doing some malleting.
Oops. John. Sorry.
I can’t tell if I’m being included in one of your “people” or not…. so to be clear: I don’t support a laissez-faire (lack of a) system at all. Along the lines of what I was saying before, I think it would actually be highly hypocritical for me to do so, as I’ve benefited from the government, beyond the basic cruelty of letting people stave.
Several people deep into the “Being Poor” comment thread suggested https://www.modestneeds.org/index.asp. I have no other information about them, so this isn’t a personal endorsement, just a link. =)
http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=10708 (Charity Navigator seems like a decent site for evaluating the money spent on administrative costs of charities; it doesn’t seem to look for any studies on the overall effectiveness.)
Other than that… choose carefully who you vote for? Inform your representatives at all levels that you care about this issue? If you have the time and money, visiting your representatives in person I think has been shown to be much more effective at communicating your views and influencing their opinion than phone calls (and emails lag behind the phone, especially non-individually written ones).
These are just ideas; I certainly don’t have a magical solution to poverty. If only!
My hubby had to take a telephone survey job once, before he found something better (this was back in the late 90s) and told me of a woman who worked there that never brought a lunch, but would snack on a baggie of what was clearly dry dog food. After that, I never complained about how little we had.
@minaria: Laissez-faire is not lack of a system, it is a system by which government lets business act without undue influence. As an example, a system that seeks to eliminate tariffs and other barriers to entry, but encourages entrepreneurship and open competition. I dare go no further for fear of derailing the topic.
I was continuing with greg’s general use of the term; I thought the systems under discussion were of the safety net variety, which would not exist in either a world of “only enough government regulations sufficient to protect property rights against theft and aggression” (wikipedia) or “a policy or attitude of letting things take their own course, without interfering” (whatever dictionary is built into my computer).
I’ll also agree to stop dictionary derailments here.
Kilroy: Laissez-faire is not lack of a system,
Of course it is. It’s french for “let do”, as in “let them do as they will”. Government is entirely removed, (LACKING), in economic transactions, buy and selling goods and services. Monopolies are allowed to rise on their own (no anti-trust laws), companies are allowed to sell what they want (no FDA etc), companies are allowed to treat workers however they want (no OSHA), companies are allowed to dump whatever toxic wastes they want (no EPA), and so on.
This can be generalized as companies can do whatever they want because there is a LACK of government involvment among those transactions.
A lack of a system.
Of course, laissez-faire crazy people will say that the government SHOULD exist to make sure those company transactions get enforced (allowing for the existence of a minimal civil court system), that government should do the work of enforcing property laws and laws against physical violence (allowing for the existence of a minimal police force, court, and prison system).
But in the market place, laissez faire insists on a LACK of government involvement on anything not involving breach of contract, theft, and physical violence.
Likewise, laissez faire applied to government assistance would simply mean a LACK of government involvement in that area. i.e. NO government assistance. No food stamps. No unemployment benefits. No housing assistance. No government involvement of any kind. It’s laissez-faire because its above and beyond breach of contract enforcement, and above and beyond theft and physical violence enforcement, which defines the limit of the kind of government laissez faire will allow.
Laissez faire would insist on a LACK of government assistance.
Anyone saying differently is trying to make laissez faire sound far more reasonable than it is.
@Greg: we aren’t actually disagreeing. We are just operating under a different concept for what a system is. Lack of regulations is as much a system as a highly detailed set of regulations. Preventing tariffs and barriers to entry is harder to do than just enacting a whole bunch of regulations and limitations to competition. Even laissez-fair economic policies allow for restrictions on unfair business and corrupt business.
@barbara, @minaria I had just left a comment (on Kevin Riley’s excellent addendum to Being Poor) about Modest Needs. I love that organization because it was started by a man who decided to stop waiting until he won the lottery to become a ‘philanthropist’. Its goal is to help the working poor when they are struck with an unexpected expense.
Say you’re injured in a car accident, so you miss a few day of work while you heal, and you fall behind on your utility payment to pay for the car repair, then the medical bills start arriving, so you have to choose between rent and medical bills, etc. Once you start missing payments, the dominos start falling – missing work or not having a car might mean you lose your job. Added fines and interest makes it exponentially more expensive to be poor. One of the goals of Modest Needs is to stop that cycle before it snowballs.
Modest Needs also lets you decide where the money should go. And all the payments are verified as being necessary – and made directly to the billing agency. For example, if an applicant needs to pay a car repair bill in order to get back to work, Modest Needs pays the mechanic directly. It’s pretty awesome. https://www.modestneeds.org/about-us/
Being Poor is never being able to afford little league, pop warner, youth soccer, or Boy Scouts.
Just give yourself a big ole’ pat on the back…..
Kilroy: Lack of regulations is as much a system as a highly detailed set of regulations.
If you are trying to turn “system” into the engineering term of system defined as “a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole”, then you’re still wrong.
An engineering system might be something like a helicopter. The components would be things like the main rotor, tail rotor, rudder, engine, transmission, and so on. The components form an integrated whole that is the helicopter. The helicopter is the system.
If you want to talk about a system of ECONOMICS, then fine. There is an economic system. And its COMPONENTS include individuals, businesses, charities, and government agencies, among others.
But a “highly detailed set of regulations” is merely one COMPONENT of the economic system.
So minaria used “system” to mean “government intervention”. Then you corrected minaria to appeal to the engineering definition of “system” and government intervention is just one component of that system. But then you end by using “system” to mean a “highly detailed set of regulations”, which is “government intervention”, the same as minaria was using it.
in short, you corrected her use of the term, then used the term exactly as she did.
Razzum frazzum… html markers… mumble… grumble…
Uhm. No, I didn’t. But thanks for trying to tell me what I did.
I thought it was a typo, but then I thought, “It’s Scalzi… I’d better check this before commenting.” So I learned a new word today: “lede”. Thanks, John!
Reminds me of an aside in an interview with Stephen King, that as dreadful as being hit by a car was for him and his entire family the one not-at-all-small mercy was that he could pay years of six-figure medical bills without worrying about ending up bankrupt and on the street. (As an aside: Our host got covered in frosting to, in part, help out writers whose medical emergencies aren’t as easily covered. All contributions welcome!) A pretty big change from the days when, the first thing the Kings did when Carrie sold was go buy a bottle of ear drops for their baby’s ear-infection. Which, if you’d pardon my French, is pretty fucked up considering Stephen and Tabatha King weren’t sitting around being trailer park welfare queens by any definition of the word.
And, it needs to be said, so often from people who become downright hostile when that argument is applied to Wall Street instead of Skid Row, or Fortune 500 corporations and “too big to fail” banks instead of elders and veterans who’ve never tried to game the system in their lives.
I grew up middle-class. It was easy to get $20 to go to the mall (This was the ’70s) any time I wanted. I wish to all the gods that I’d learned about money then, because I’m cash-poor now. I was “lucky” enough to inherit my mother’s house, so I don’t have to live in the street. I am a veteran, but I don’t claim any benefits; I do, however, collect disability benefits because I cannot hold a regular job. My benefits just barely cover the bills, most months, but I haven’t been to the eye doctor in over a year. Thank you for your essay, Mr. Scalzi. You said it so much better than I ever could have. I’m grateful for the safety net; I’d be totally screwed without it. And believe me, my pride eats at me every day. It isn’t easy needing help.
@rebeccalyr – Thank you for the kind words. Unfortunately I do not see any comments on my blog in regards to Modest Needs but thank you for posting the link here. It looks like a great organization.
I’d suggest donating to your local food bank – call first to find out what they need most. (I’m doing about 1/3 of my food shopping there, now, and it really makes a difference.)
Also, check with local homeless shelters. One of the most prized things in the women’s shelters were the trial/travel size shampoos, lotions, soaps. And deodorant; there never seemed to be any of that. Oh, and underwear – check to see what sizes they need most. (One of the first things I did when I started getting welfare was to buy shampoos etc. in the unscented brands I liked. Such small things make such big differences.)
That map of disability payment recipient percentages was interesting. Wish there were data to see if it was SSDI (meaning one had worked a sufficient number of quarters) or SSI. I’m wondering about the reasons for disability in those areas; as @minaria said, logging and mining have very high on-the-job injury rates. Farming and fishing are also way up there.
John, feel free to delete the rest of this if it’s derailing, ‘k?
(I get really upset about the whole “deserving poor” thing. Everyone deserves food and shelter and medical care, even if they’re addicts, even if they’re mentally ill who’ve no place to go since the whole “care in the community” thing started. Everyone. I was so fortunate, in a sad-making way, when after working 30+ years I became disabled and then became homeless; I still had enough privilege to move up the queues for Section 8 much faster, just because I could cope with the labyrinthine rules for qualifying (It still took four years.) I started out middle class, expected to retire with a modest but adequate income, and instead am now grateful beyond words for SSDI and Section 8 and Medicare, though I’m still well below the povertly level.)
Just to follow up on glwilson’s post. If you want to help you can buy a huge amount of supplies at most dollar stores. The simple, non-food, but none the less important, things that the shelters need toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, soap, feminine hygiene, can be purchased easily. If you can afford even $20 worth of supplies it can go a long way! If you want to help, find a local shelter or pantry and see what they need..
I can’t guarantee that it will make you feel better but it sure as heck has for me!
Some recent black lung rates: http://www.npr.org/2012/07/09/155978300/as-mine-protections-fail-black-lung-cases-surge
The census bureau has a decent exploration tool, actually – you can look out how many people were below the poverty line in your county/state in 2010 easily (as well as other demographics). They make a fair amount of stats publicly available. Kentucky mining county example:
glwilson: thank you for the suggestions. I wonder if those labyrinthine rules you experienced will ever meet some people’s expectations of standards, or just serve to hurt those who haven’t grown up with the opportunity to train in the navigate-paperwork skill.
(aside: is the -a ending of the handle what coded me female to Greg?)
The most generous donations in this country come from the lower middle class and from anyone who has been poor at some point in their lives. This is because they understand how it is. The reason Scalzi’s post is so popular is because it provides a window for those people who have always been solidly middle-class or above into a world they otherwise have only the vaguest conception of. (Yes, I will end sentences with prepositions as appropriate.)
We weren’t poor when I was growing up but I was always very money-conscious. This is partly from the legacy of my parents, who both grew up fairly poor and who had a few poor times post-marriage (but before I was born as the last of their children.) It was also partly because I attended a magnet school and virtually all of my classmates were richer than me, or so it appeared. And one thing my parents never let me forget is that we were very fortunate—my dad had a good job, my parents were well-insured and up-to-date on all the bills, and we had plenty of food (though I must admit, my dad’s vegetable garden wasn’t just for show but virtually our only source of vegetables through much of the year.)
So some people work the system rather than work a job. That’s always going to happen. Slightly more worrisome are the generational ones who see welfare as a way of life… but the solution at that point is to figure out how to change the culture, not penalize the folks who literally don’t have a clue that there are other options. We’ve got a local private high school that is financed entirely by companies who agree to take a student as an intern for part of the week… and these students have to literally be taught what work culture is, from the importance of punctuality to the need to dress appropriately. They aren’t bad kids; they’ve just never had an uncle who was a doctor (or even an RN), or a mother who’s a lawyer, or even a dad who works his low-level corporate job to the best of his ability. They’ve had no role models to show them how to get and keep a job. So the goal of this high school is to get them a good education… and get them the skills to do something with it later in life. But they need to be shown how, because it isn’t magically obvious.
On the “ways to help” thread: some food banks, such as the one I donate to regularly, take cash/cc donations because they can get deals buying in bulk that an individual shopper can’t. What this particular food bank often needs help with is making deliveries to clients who can’t get to them, so that’s another way to help if you have a vehicle and time.
Contacting local shelters and service centers is a great idea too. There’s a homeless encampment not far from my house that always needs everything, from funding for water delivery to clean socks to firewood.
The nice thing about donating to organizations is that they already have a reach into poor or homeless communities that individuals can’t match, and can stretch donations farther. And YES what glwilson and dhubghall said about hygiene supplies. People don’t often think of those when deciding to donate. The travel sizes are especially convenient if, for example, your living situation is so transient that you have to carry everything with you most of the time.
Re dhubghall & welltemperedwriter: Having been on food stamps, one thing that I keep having to explain to people who had no idea is that food stamps don’t cover any cleaning or personal hygiene products, period: no soap, shampoo, dishwashing liquid, toothpaste, laundry detergent; heck, no bathroom tissue! Every new person I explain this to freaks out over it, as well they should. So I have to sigh yet again, and explain to them that in America, the food stamp program isn’t funded as an anti-poverty measure. It’s in the farm bill. It’s an agriculture subsidy.
And, of course, none of the “canned food drive” programs at people’s workplaces, or at various public events, solicit personal care or household cleaning products. Neither does the Boy Scout canned goods drive, as much good as it does. (The first couple of months after the Boy Scouts do their drop-offs at the food pantries are the closest a poor person comes to understanding what luxury feels like; there are, while they last, trace amounts of canned vegetables other than the cheapest known brand of canned corn, which is what half the people donate when there’s a discount for bringing a canned food item.)
So I tell people who want to help and who want to know that their help is doing some good, I tell them to find a food pantry with good hours (not one of these tiny self-serving food pantries that are only open one hour a week and where you have to go to that church to know who to ask when that is) and ask them which they’d rather have, cash, or donations of personal care and household cleaning items. Because the demand is huge. Of course the demand is huge; how are people supposed to look for work if they can’t brush their teeth or wash their clothes?
Brad Hicks – At our office’s last “food” drive, toiletries, baby care products (including diapers), and sanitary supplies were most definitely on the list of what was needed. I think some organizations are beginning to get a clue in that regard.
1) John, I’d read “Being Poor” before, of course, but I just went back and read it again, including most of the comments on the original. It’s one of those things that I feel like it’s good to go back and read every year or so, no matter how sobering it is, so as to make sure I don’t forget. (I do the same thing with the most useful of the posts from Racefail.) Thank you so much for writing it.
2) I made the mistake of wading into the comments on CNN. BAD IDEA. I then scurried back to the comment thread here. (If I’m going to spend time reading Internet comment threads, I should spend it on useful and coherent ones.)
3) In addition to the usual BS, one thing in the CNN comments that made me hopping mad was all the people sounding off about “how DARE some of the poor people in the picture have the GALL to be overweight!!” (CNN commenters: I just . . . in what world do you live??) I had to sound off about the economic reason they are WRONG WRONG WRONG; my rant on that is here:
(John, if it’s too off-topic feel free to delete point 3 — I thought about posting it in the CNN thread, which is what it’s actually a response to, but I kind of don’t want to invite those people to my blog.)
“By your logic, Teaching/firefighting/law enforcement/government civil service is a hand out.”
Since when is teaching and civil service not treated, essentially, as a handout? (Or just one step above, in any case?)
Also, I think you will find that people are taking issues with your original comment not because army pay is a handout, exactly, but because taking a government paid job that specifically recruits young, unskilled workers is hardly doing it all on your own.
“I take immense satisfaction out of knowing that I goddamned well earned everything single thing I have. I didn’t get any hand outs, and everything is the direct result of hard.”
Your army job may not be a ” hand out” (or it may, depending on the definition) but it is a government created, tax funded opportunity, a very important point that is missing from the two sentences above and, in fact, the entire sentiments of your comments. Whether or not your army job was “a direct result of hard” is not being debated. What is being debated is whether or not there are other factors that equally “direct[ly]” influenced your ability to access this job – and how that changes the general conversation about poverty and your assertion that there exists a “victim mentality.”