The Bog of Lost Scholars

September 9, 2005

On Poverty

Filed under: People, Culture, and Society — castiron @ 6:56 pm

I’ve been pondering John Scalzi’s Being Poor ever since I read it.

On “it’s their own fault for bad financial management”: Off the top of my head, I can think of three acquaintances who have bad spending habits — routinely buying items on credit that they can’t pay off at the end of the month (unneccessary things, at that!), limited or no budgeting, impulse buying, etc. Yet to the casual observer, two of them would appear to be doing well enough financially, while the third is clearly in woeful shape.

Acquaintance #3 is managing money the same way as acquaintance #1 or #2 — but #3 makes $15K/year, and #1 and #2 each make about $60K/year. That extra money cushions a lot of errors and setbacks. If #1 or #2 had a catastrophic illness that made it impossible for them to work, cost hundreds of thousands in medical bills, and put them into utter financial ruin, most people would shake their heads in sympathy and consider it bad luck; if the same happened to #3, a lot of folks would shake their heads in disgust and consider it no more than #3 deserved for irresponsible behavior. But #1 and #2 are just as irresponsible; it’ll just take a bigger mistake to ruin them.

On being poor vs. not being poor: Having read the article and the comments, it’s clear to me that I’ve never been poor. I’m certainly not rich. I often have to put off fun purchases because the money’s not there this month. I don’t have cable or DSL, and if I get a cell phone it’ll be because they’ve gotten cheaper than my land line, which I’ll then drop. My PDA just broke, and I’m not going to replace it for several months if at all. And I’ve occasionally been really limited on funds — I remember, when I first moved to my current city, walking several miles to a feed store to buy a cheap tapeworm remedy for my cat because I couldn’t afford a proper vet visit (and certainly not a car). But I’ve never been poor. I had well-off parents who paid my rent while I was in school and would certainly help me if I’d had a financial disaster. I’ve never had to eat ramen. I’ve never had to worry about which bill I could pay and which I’d have to let float.

On luck: Damn straight it plays a role on whether you’re poor or not, and whether you can get out of it or not. Sure, one’s own decisions play a role too. (I would be much poorer if I didn’t regularly track my spending and force myself to stick to a budget. I would be much richer if I hadn’t wasted a lot of money on craft supplies that I’ve never used.) But luck is most definitely involved. I didn’t choose to be born into a well-off family who could afford to live in a good neighborhood with good schools when I was young, and to help me out as I started out on my own. I didn’t choose to be healthy, or white. And on the other side, I didn’t choose to have a mentally disabled child. (For that matter, my son didn’t choose to be mentally disabled.)

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