November 02, 2010
Foolish spending as a survival strategy
In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell argues that it would actually not be a good idea for the poor to budget carefully to eat healthily because if they did and actually started to look healthy, the government would think they were getting too much aid and would reduce it. He writes:
I doubt, however, whether the unemployed would ultimately benefit if they learned to spend their money more economically. For it is only the fact that they are not economical that keeps their allowances so high. An Englishman on the P.A.C. gets fifteen shillings a week because fifteen shillings is the smallest sum on which he can conceivably keep alive. If he were, say, an Indian or Japanese coolie, who can live on rice and onions, he wouldn't get fifteen shillings a week--he would be lucky if he got fifteen shillings a month. Our unemployment allowances, miserable though they are, are framed to suit a population with very high standards and not much notion of economy. If the unemployed learned to be better managers they would be visibly better off, and I fancy it would not be long before the dole was docked correspondingly.
It is not always simply the case that lazy people become poor but that poor people need to be 'lazy' in order to survive. Examples of this abound. We all know that despite his idealistic rhetoric, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. He was also a scientific thinker and innovator and constantly devising ways to do things better. Some time ago I read (though I cannot track down the source now) that he once devised a scheme by which his slaves on his estate could more efficiently harvest his crops. But he was frustrated by the seeming inability of his slaves to understand and implement his new system and abandoned it in frustration, blaming it on the incapacity of the slaves to understand his modern methods or to change their ways of doing things. But in actual fact, the slaves quickly realized that if the male slaves adopted his new methods, the female slaves (often their wives) would have to haul much more stuff each day, making them more exhausted. So the slaves essentially sabotaged the project by acting dumb and uncomprehending. It does not surprise me in the least to find that people in mindless, low-paying, dead-end, physically exhausting jobs find ways to make sure that less is expected of them, even if it means that their bosses think they are stupid.
Some readers may think that Orwell is being somewhat too cynical here in thinking that if the poor did take the lectures about their allegedly thriftless behavior seriously and acted strictly according to those prescriptions and lived better lives, this would be used to cut their benefits. If you think that the desire to cut the benefits of the poor in this way existed only in the past, think again. Unlike in the case of wars or tax cuts or corporate bailouts, when it comes to providing benefits to ordinary people, the administration and Congress become very frugal about spending, demanding that spending increases in one area be balanced by cuts ("offsets") in others.
In a recent interview, retiring congressman David Obey, one of the few decent people in that institution, had this revelation about how the Obama administration doesn't really give a damn about poor people:
We were told we have to offset every damn dime of [new teacher spending]. Well, it ain’t easy to find offsets, and with all due respect to the administration their first suggestion for offsets was to cut food stamps. Now they were careful not to make an official budget request, because they didn’t want to take the political heat for it, but that was the first trial balloon they sent down here… Their line of argument was, well, the cost of food relative to what we thought it would be has come down, so people on food stamps are getting a pretty good deal in comparison to what we thought they were going to get. Well isn’t that nice. Some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change. (My emphasis)
In the end, $12 billion was cut from the food stamps allocation, now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), to fund teacher jobs and Medicaid, and more cuts in SNAP are being demanded to offset funding Michelle Obama's child nutrition proposal. As I have written before, it is when the Democrats are in power that the oligarchy can cut holes in the safety nets for the poor.
It is a curious fact that the government and well-to-do people seem to want the poor to be visibly poor and miserable. Even now, observe the annoyance with which some people criticize poor people for owning 'luxuries'. In days gone by, people would point to the ownership of color TVs to argue that the poor were not really poor. Since you can only get color TVs now, cell-phones have become the new symbol of profligacy. In actual fact, cell phones make much more sense for people who are constantly at risk of being evicted from their homes or have to move regularly in search of scarce jobs. In Sri Lanka, for example, cell phones have been a boon to the poor. It is the working poor, the street vendors and shade-tree mechanics and handymen and taxi drivers who all own cell phones because it provides them the means to better conduct their businesses. Landlines are luxury items, reserved for people who have stable places of work and residence. This recent Associated Press article says that in the slums of Mumbai, India, people have more access to cell phones than to toilets. While there is not a single toilet or latrine for 10,000 people, each household has at least one cell phone.
It is truly disgusting when rich people resent any small benefit that poor people get. It is bad enough to be poor. Why do we demand that they must also be permanently miserable? Why do we resent poor people getting whatever small pleasures that life affords them? There is a nice quote in James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson about Johnson's attitude towards the poor:
Dr. Johnson… was not contented with giving them relief, he wished to add also indulgence. He loved the poor… as I never yet saw any one else do, with an earnest desire to make them happy. What signifies, says some one, giving halfpence to common beggars? they only lay it out in gin and tobacco. "And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence (says Johnson)? it is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure, reckoned too coarse for our own acceptance. Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding; yet for the poor we delight in stripping it still barer, and are not ashamed to show even visible displeasure, if ever the bitter taste is taken from their mouths." (My italics)
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan (1651) spoke of the life of humans as being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." This is why religion, with its fiction of a happy afterlife, has such a seductive appeal for those who live miserable lives here. But those of us who realize that there is no afterlife to redress the balance need to pursue policies that ensure that the lives of people in this world, the only life they have, affords them at least some pleasures, not just survival.
My late mother was an inveterate do-gooder. At Christmas time she would organize a party for the poor children from the neighborhood, with gifts of toys and nice clothes and cake and other fancy foods. It could be argued that the same money could have been better spent providing the malnourished children with more nutritious meals for a longer time. But my mother had a good instinct for what people needed and, like Samuel Johnson, realized that we all benefit from some luxuries as we go through life.