Thursday, February 21, 2008

Thoughts On Poverty

Check out Megan McArdle's great blog post-Making It- on the Morgan Spurlock-esque Adam Shepard, a young guy who set out with 25 dollars, started living in a homeless shelter, and built his life up from scratch. Shepard was inspired by Barbara Ehrenreich’s book about the trappings of law wage employment, Nickel and Dimed, which he thought was more about her agenda than about actual strategies for getting out of poverty. I won't bother linking to everything, but if you've got the time, check out the entire post along with the comments. It turned into a rather interesting discussion about the nature of poverty. I posted several times and I won't repeat everything I said there, but I would like to share with everyone the story I posted over there.

Allow me to offer up a personal experience. I work part time as a parking ticket hearing officer for the city of Hartford, CT and a young woman came in who's car had just been towed because she owed over $800 in parking tickets. She was in tears because she had no money and she needed the car to pick up her daughter at the end of the day, a daughter who happened to be over an hour away. I felt bad for the woman and did what I could to help her, but I couldn't just eliminate all her parking tickets because that's the sort of thing that would have cost me my own job. I did what I could and left the case in the hands of the city attorneys, who are paid much better money than I am to deal with these sorts of situations.

Now while I felt sorry for the women, the parking tickets were all of her own doing- they were for not having money in the meter, as she chose to park at the meter outside the restaurant where she worked rather than pay $7.00 to park in the parking lot. She had accumulated 12 tickets since the start of 2008, none of which she had paid.

To top it all off, the woman's daughter was over an hour away because that's where she lived- she was commuting over an hour to work as a waitress. I asked her- politely- why she didn't park in the lot and she said it was because she had to spend all her extra money on food for her child and gas to get to work.

Adam Shepard hypothesizes that getting out of poverty is- at least in part- all about attitude. He set out to succeed and he did succeed. His friend from the shelter, Derrick, also set out to succeed, and made enough money to buy his own house. And it all makes me wonder what poverty is really all about- how much is it about money and how much is about things like attitude and the choices we make?

Many of the liberal and left-leaning commenters on Megan's blog point out the numerous cases where poverty is seemingly not a matter of choice or attitude. Accidents happens, kids happen (although that is certainly a choice), family emergencies happen, and jobs can be lost. And not everyone is young, healthy and energetic. I posted some thoughts last night, but I was struggling to put meaning to everything rushing through my brain. And maybe the point I was trying to make was this:

In looking at poverty as this tremendous social problem, we tend to forget that the real facts of poverty are specific and unique to each individual. It's not about $6.00 an hour jobs. And while people's attitudes and people's choices play a role in their relative poverty, so does their background, their family, their friends, and yeah, there's even some luck in there. And truth be told, I don't think this is the sort of idea that lends itself to the liberal goals of solving and ending poverty. This isn't to say the government should have no role to play in helping the poor, but what sort of program encompasses all the unique circumstances of those stuck in poverty without stifling those who have the ability to get out themselves?

I suppose my big thing is, for all the good intentions in the world, short of actually running people's lives, you can't stop people from making stupid decisions. You can't prevent people from wracking up a ridiculous number of parking tickets. There are always going to be people in need because of the choices they've made, regardless of the effectiveness of various poverty ending programs.


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