Poverty and my back-up plan

There’s an interesting conversation going on over at Apt. 11D about new research into the causes of generational poverty.  That is, why can’t families seem to get out of poverty once they’re in it.  Children of poor parents go on to become poor themselves.  The new theory has to do with the cognitive abilities necessary to think long term, to postpone purchases or save money in order to get out of poverty.  The theory goes, roughly, that because poor people use up so much of their cognitive abilities just to figure out where their next meal is coming from or worried about whether they’ll be evicted, they can’t think about those longer-term solutions that would save them from having to worry about those issues in the first place.  The theory has been picked up by several outlets.  I first saw it in my feed reader a couple of weeks ago.  The 11D crowd is discussing David Brooks’ interpretation.  Do a search on the first author’s name and “poverty” and you’ll see that he’s been trying to figure this out for years.

In the comments, there’s some concern that this theory is another “blame the poor” theory.  I don’t think that’s necessarily true, and a couple of commenters give some specific examples of situations where a) the cognitive load of planning for the future is supported by agencies; and b) the system is broken because it takes too much effort for the poor to get access to help (including help with planning for the future).

For most of us, planning for the future involves putting kids through college, retirement, etc.  My biggest financial concerns at the moment are a) Geeky Boy’s college education; and b) planning a winter vacation.  Only financially stable folks think in these terms.  But I do sometimes–more often than is probably warranted–about what I would do if tragedy struck and we suddenly couldn’t afford our lifestyle.  I’d sell my house and my possessions (most of them) and move into an apartment with a much lower rent than my current mortgage.  That’s if I/we (the tragedy often involves Mr. Geeky’s death) stayed in the area.  In another scenario, I sell my house and possessions and move back home, where the cost of living is 1/3 of what it is here and I have family support.  I told my dad about plan A the other day, and he laughed and said he wouldn’t let that happen, which is, of course, how I would never be poor.  I have a safety net.  If things got tough, my dad (and other family, probably) would be there to help financially.  And I have my own safety net–somewhat depleted now because of my two years of underemployment, but it’s still there and building back up again.

Truly poor people, of course, have few possessions to sell much less a house.  And most, as the commenters pointed out, don’t have a safety net.  Their parents don’t have the financial means to help them out if they get in a tight spot.  The government is their safety net, though that’s dwindling, and navigating it is complicated.  Our safety nets are a phone call or a large withdrawal away.  Theirs are filled with filling out forms, showing ID, proving they’re poor enough.  Playing the lottery seems a lot easier when faced with that kind of red tape.

2 Replies to “Poverty and my back-up plan”

  1. I haven’t read anything on this yet, but it resonates with me. When I was in the home study process for adoption, I was struck with how often my back-up plan (for the thousands of papers where I had to outline one–what is your backup for child care failure, for losing your job, for a long illness on your part, for work-required overnight travel….) involved friends and family–both in terms of real support and in terms of financial backing. it was startling to see it all listed out there like that. It struck me because my parents are the first (on both sides) in their family to actually achieve financial stability. Their families wouldn’t have been able to provide that for them.

  2. and how my parents got out of poverty was largely related to my father’s academic ability and the mentoring and scholarships that he received. Had he been just an average student, it would not have been the case, I don’t think.

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