Social scientists for decades have sought to explain the dogged persistence of poverty. The received wisdom is the poor are passive victims who would like nothing better than to exchange their hoodies and droopy drawers for the Polos and plaid slacks of the middle-class. To illustrate this, sociologists have concocted numberless arcane and byzantine theories.
One such theory is called “depletable self-control.” Humans, you see, have only so much self-discipline, and then all hell breaks loose. Because everything is harder for poor people, they use up their allotment sooner. By 9 or 10 in the morning, depending on what time they crawl out of bed, the poor have gone through their entire reservoir. The same goes for their decision-making skills. The poor can make a few good decisions at breakfast, but by lunch all bets are off.
In contrast, the ancient’s view was that the poor are impoverished precisely because they have less self-discipline and tend to make bad decisions. Today this is considered blaming the victim; since the 1960s this has been a major no-no.
More and more I am becoming convinced that the reason many poor do not escape poverty is simply because they do not want to.
No one is arguing the poor do not face substantial barriers to escaping poverty. However, the idea of depletable self-control is an insult to the hard working poor who get up every morning, get their kids off to school, take the bus to some dead-end job, and return home in the evening to prepare dinner before spending a relaxing hour at the Laundromat. These folks simply do not have time to be depleted of their reservoir of self-control. They have responsibilities to attend to. But, ultimately, it is worth it. It is their children who may someday escape the cycle of poverty.
FOR SOME TIME NOW I have lived in the ghetto. For me, every day is a rich learning experience. Mostly what I am learning is that the ‘hood is not a place all people wish to escape from. Most middle class folks are unable to comprehend this. They think, “If I were them (the poor), I’d want to get the hell out of there.” But that’s not the mindset of many urban dwellers.
The ghetto is home; it’s where one’s friends and family live. For some the ghetto exudes an aura of romance. It is celebrated in film and song. Moving to the suburbs would be seen as selling out. Besides, people are too uptight in the suburbs. They wouldn’t let you play your loud music all night long.
And it’s easier to get by in the city. You can get away with a lot more. Drugs are plentiful. You don’t necessarily need a car. You can find cheap housing. There are free medical clinics. Hell, my neighbors’ kids are driven to school in a taxi — on the taxpayer’s dime. You don’t necessarily even need a job in the city. Most of my male neighbors never seem to work. (This includes the artists and hipsters in our neighborhood.) And no one judges you if you don’t, because there is a good chance they don’t work either.
Sure, city-living has its share of problems. Murder, crime, constant gunfire. But you’d be surprised how quickly you adapt. I was. At first I was a little jumpy when a round of semiautomatic gunfire exploded down the street. But after six months you get used to it.
Obviously, the middle class is beyond the reach of some of my neighbors. But for those who dropped out of high school, have no marketable skills and are functionally illiterate, they could at least decide their children are going to get out of the ghetto. Some do decide this, but many don’t.
It’s not like they don’t know how to escape the cycle of poverty. Four simple rules: 1. Don’t have babies in your teens. 2. Finish high school. 3. Learn a marketable skill. 4. Keep out of prison. It’s not rocket science.
As I write, I am staring out my second-floor window overlooking my neighbor’s yard. It is Friday morning and there are four young men in their twenties, shirtless, covered in tattoos, hanging out in a grassless backyard, smoking and drinking beer and listening to loud, thumping, misogynistic music.
Evidently their allotment of self-control has been depleted for the day (though I’m not sure how, since all they’ve done is light cigarettes and open beers). Because of this they are obviously too worn out to look for a job.
I would pity them, but there’s no time. I have to go to work.