To make this long rant convenient to for your Instapaper / bus riding needs, here’s the full, concatenated series.
Note 2/21/2014: I’ve made some edits to make this piece stronger and shorter. I’ve removed most of the fourth section, where I’d gone into conflicting motivations to solve poverty, and global resource constraints. That’s a whole other conversation, to be had differently, later.
I’ve been planning to start this blog for a while, but until now, I wasn’t sure how I’d kick it off. Then I read Linda Tirado’s article about poverty, and the reactions (like this one, this one, and this response), and that answered that.
I’m not going to lie, folks. I did not want to write about this topic, even before those articles came out. Watching the internet take its ritualistic bite out of Tirado, as it turns out, did not make me want to write about it more. But apparently this isn’t going to leave me alone until I write it, so here it is.
Long story short, over the next four entries, you will rapidly notice that I have a lot to say about this subject.(1) But poverty is just one of the things we’ll talk about on this blog.
Ok. Let’s do it.
A round of Introductions
Hello! My Name Is: Wealthy
Hi there. We’ve just met. You may know me as a happy, successful person, on a fast track to an exciting professional future. Things have picked up for me in the last year. I’m being regularly introduced to people I’ve previously heard of on the internet. Colleagues have begun to ask me – even badger me – to speak about my work at schools and conferences. I am contacted about twice a week by recruiters; in fact, I was recently recruited for an executive role at a large international corporation.
To be fair, this isn’t that unusual for someone who moves in my circles. I’d say at least 60% of my friends nowadays have advanced degrees. I have one, too. At least half of my friends make over six figures’ income. And, there are a lot of those friends. They are kind, balanced, interesting, intelligent people about whom I genuinely care, and who genuinely care about me. I’m active in my community. My input is valued. Friends of all ages come to me for advice. I’m athletic, attractive and charismatic. I live in a safe neighborhood in a beautiful condo with a security door and a loving spouse.
In short: I live well. Specifically: I live wealth.
What is wealth?
This is wealth.
I don’t need to know anything about the cost of the furniture in this photo to know it is a picture of wealth. This room is a statement – a fantasy – of its inhabitants’ complete mastery over their environment, options and circumstances. It is an urban dream of peace, stability, cleanliness and safety. These people have the time to change in some fresh flowers, and to balance pretty things precariously upon other things. A week from today, it will still look just so. Their white will stay white, their vases intact. Knowing nothing else about this family, we can say with 99% certainty that dad has not just come home drunk and thrown the Christmas tree across the room. Nor is he expected to. This is a world composed entirely of knowns.
What is poverty?
This is poverty.
World, meet my 18th year. Eighteenth year, meet world.
Right after I graduated from high school, my main parent succumbed to long-term illness and began quickly to die. My other parent, a distant, abusive psychopath, had chosen that moment to cut off my only other trickle of financial support. We had never had much. Now, “we” became “I,” and I had nothing. I followed a classified newspaper ad to a woman who was willing to rent me her unfinished, unheated basement for $125 a month. She was a petty tyrant, like many I have met before and since. She and her series of thug boyfriends had loud sex and louder arguments, stomping over the thin, spider-infested floorboards above my mattress. During my first week, a recently ousted tenant returned for her things with a full police escort.
The landlady had had me move her boxes aside to make room for my things: boxes on one side, me on the other. There was no lock on my door, and she and her partners would wander in and out of my room to rummage through boxes or do laundry. It was late fall. The walls weren’t sealed, and the first time it rained, it flooded, soaking my mattress and my meager belongings. My problem, she said. She could evict me at any moment, for any reason, and I knew it. And if the truth be told, I was paying my rent by stealing someone else’s social security checks. I would have done anything, and said anything, to be allowed to stay in that hellhole for another month.
One morning, in some weird fit of inspiration, I took a piece of white chalk and wrote words all over the white concrete walls. I wrote words like “hope”, “safe”, “love” and “home.” I tried to make them just bright enough that I might read them subliminally, but not bright enough that I would get caught. I hoped they would make me feel a little better. If you look very closely at that picture, above the green dresser on the left, you can see the word “kind.”
And if you think this is my only story about poverty, well, have I ever got news for you.
That was then. This is now.
I live wealth. But I am not wealthy. I will never be wealthy, no matter how much money I make or what title I hold, because I have spent over thirty years of my life, the overwhelming majority, orbiting poverty’s gravity well. I have not just “been poor.” I have drunk poverty straight from the jug. I’ve been over, under, and through it. I have at various times hated it, hidden it, rebelled against it and worshiped it, and after 35 very long years, I seem to have clawed my way out of it. But no matter how long or far I walk in the other direction, it’s there. It’s always there.
It’s hard to capture the depth of my sincerity when I said I didn’t want to write about this. If I’m any indication, the last thing your average Recovering Poverty Citizen (RPC) wants to do, is talk about being poor. You don’t climb out of the poverty tar pits by accident. If you get out, it’s because you really want out. Talking takes you back in.
But you know the other thing your average Recovering Poverty Citizen doesn’t do? Besides talk about poverty on the internet? The other thing we don’t do is exist. Because the view from where I’m sitting is that almost nobody makes it out.
And the ones that do? We have to talk about it. There is just no other way to beat this thing.
So. Here, you can find me, talking.
Over the next couple of months, I’m going to post what’s currently looking like five follow up entries about poverty. I predict that they will be as full of opinion and subjectivity as this one was. You do not have to agree with them. In fact, don’t! Disagree with them all over the place. Nothing would please me more. As long as you talk about poverty.
To Linda Tirado, I say this: You got people talking. A lot of people. For that, I thank you. I don’t need to know one thing about you beyond that. Thank you. Your article caused me to write this one, and the many more I expect to follow it. Maybe they will cause someone else to write, and lather, rinse, repeat until we figure out what to do about this shit. Linda, you could be Little Orphan Annie in a pinafore or a trophy wife with diamonds on the soles of your shoes. In the inimitable words of Bo$$: I don’t give a single, solitary fuck. You keep doing your thing.
To the internet, I say: with respect, you are watching the wrong metric here.
The measurement of truth of an article about poverty, is not the financial status of the person who wrote the article. It is the number of times the article was shared by poor people.
Put another way, if you’re not sure whether Tirado’s reflections on poverty are right, I have good news for you. Linda Tirado is not the only poor person you can talk to about this topic. You see, we are right here on the internet with you. We may not be in your offices, your schools or your neighborhoods. But we are here.
A whole lot of us.
So be a sport, would ya, internet? And don’t be a dick about this. All it will accomplish is making a lot of already miserable people, even more miserable. Show us your good side this time. Show me your best impression of the chalk words on the concrete walls. Because god help us all and damn the odds, I believe in you.
Now let’s talk.
Footnote: this “wealth” image is not a picture of my home. It is a random picture off the internet. It is a metaphor.
Or: What we are talking about
In the last segment, I introduced myself and why I care about this topic. In today’s segment, we’ll illustrate, then decimate, the current modern-day conversations we are having about poverty. Enjoy.
Behind Frenemy Lines
conversations about poverty. Specifically, I’ve overheard conversations about poverty held by wealthy people, who did not know I was poor. As I mentioned in my last post, I can now pass.
Talking about poverty seems to be one of the social rituals of the wealthy. Which is great, right? We like talking. As long as it’s getting somewhere. But it isn’t. It’s just the same conversation, over, and over, and over again.
And it sounds a little something like this.
What we are talking about
The first thing that we do in a conversation about poverty, is review whether it’s a conversation worth having. We do this by evaluating whether poor people are redeemable. Poor people are either noble, good people who are trying to get hard to get out; or, poor people are lazy, degenerate jerks who sunk to the bottom of the pile. This decision point creates two swimlanes: the “bad people” camp, and the “good people” camp. (I’m not naming any names here, political wings, but you know who are.)
Let’s take Swimlane 1 (the left side) first: the poor are not redeemable. They’re lazy jerks, and if they ever decide to knock that off, they’ll figure their way out. Boom. Conversation over. And the time is? One minute, six seconds.
Swimlane 2 has more phases. If we decide poor people are redeemable, we review why they’re still poor. This breaks down to a kind of ritualized systems analysis: poor people try their best but can’t get money. Mostly, this is because they can’t get education. If they had education they could get money, and if they had money, they could get education. It’s a problem, and one (we heavily imply) we’d have a pretty good handle on if those guys in the other swimlane would just leave us to it. But, they won’t, so…
But in the end, all this is neither here nor there because who, really, are we to talk about it? At this point the conversation degenerates into several rounds of what I’m going to call the “Four New-Yorkshiremen Ritual,” detailed in an upcoming entry. And there, as above, the conversation ends.
So I’ve heard this broken record a number of times. Usually, I just listen, but as of the whole Tirado thing, I’m officially tired of the tune. Now I’ll attempt to take it off the record player, throw it out the window like a Frisbee and shoot an ironic bullet hole smiley-face into it, so that we can dance to something interesting for a change.
Point #1: “Poor people aren’t motivated” is the start, not the end, of the conversation.
Lane 1, your ritual is the shortest, so you get to go first. There’s a lot to talk about here, but the biggie is this: once you decide that “poor people aren’t motivated to escape poverty,” the next step is not “the end.” The next step is “why not?”
If your answer is “because they are bad,” that’s predestination: the idea that we will always be the thing we were made to be. I recognize this is an old tradition, and it worked for a while. But predestination just ain’t the wave of the future, guys. It doesn’t “have legs.” This is because people who believe they’re predestined, don’t waste energy trying to do things they think they aren’t destined to do. So, Predestination Camp people try fewer things. People who try more things, succeed at more things, and people who succeed at more things take the future. Trying shit, and learning from it, is the future. It’s also the present. If you’re not sure, check out this thing the kids are doing called The Internet. It is basically wall-to-wall, 24-7 “people trying shit.” Folks seem to like it.
The only people who get out of poverty, are those that try. Whether “poor people are bad” is true or not, is immaterial. What we want is fewer poor people. Right? So if you want fewer poor people, you need more poor people trying to get not poor. If your main message is that poor people are fundamentally flawed, you’re telling them not to bother.
So, what do you want, here? What do you, Lane 1, want from this conversation?
Point #2: Poverty is not about money.
Lane 2: first of all, I know you folks are trying here. You want this poverty shit fixed, and I personally really appreciate that. But progress means change, right? That’s your whole thing. So how are you going to get change from having the same conversation over and over again? You don’t get change from doing the same thing again. We all already agree on this one. You don’t need me telling you this.
In my personal opinion, the lack of momentum produced by this conversation is mainly because the poverty you’re talking about, in no way actually resembles actual poverty. What you’re talking about is a tiny shorthand notation about poverty, with a vastly simplified physics. Trying to solve poverty starting here, is like trying to ID a criminal using only a child’s stick figure drawing. It is a huge waste of time.
Step #1 to getting any traction at all on this topic is to think bigger. For the rest of this blog, when I say “poverty” and “wealth,” I want to be clear: I am not talking about money. I’m talking about options and motion.
The wealthy experience moving through the world as though they’re in aboat with a motor and a rudder. The rudder = options; the motor = motion. Poverty, on the other hand, is being in a boat with, max, one out of two. You can go quickly (but not steer), or you can steer, but make no progress. When you have both motion and options, you move forward. When you don’t have both, you don’t.
Point #3: Wealth is about resources, momentum and options.
“Motion” and “forwardness” are made possible by resources. Money is one of them. Others include, but are not limited to: community, lifestyle training, social training, health, looks, mentorship, mental stability, psychological stability, perspective, sense of self-efficacy, ability to plan, and education. You can have money and have no other resources. You can have the other resources, but no money.
The more resources you have, the more you can gun the engine and steer. Wealth, aka the ability to move forward, is having so many resources that you can deftly steer the boat away from things human beings don’t like. Namely: pain, death, fear, shame, illness, violence, chaos, loneliness, humiliation, and all the petty predators swimming around looking for easy prey. Poverty is not being able to steer away. (Footnote: geek definition)
The wealthy are people who have gotten so good at navigating away from those things, that they almost never encounter them anymore. Families who have been wealthy for several generations, have often forgotten they exist. But, they still do exist. They haven’t gone anywhere. They are the default state for most of the world. And if God forbid you ever become poor, they’ll be happy to see you again. The world hasn’t changed. You have.
Poverty is not money. Take the first entry in this series. What makes a smart, driven person try to solve their problems by writing comforting words in white chalk on a white wall? Which so pathetically, flagrantly, obviously will not help? Because they honestly think that of all the options before them, that’s their best bet. That is the secret. That feeling, that moment. That’s poverty.
Not convinced yet? Still think poverty is about money? Let’s test it out. Story problem:
Use case A is a single guy with two kids, who was doing ok until some shit happened and he lost his job. Fly over him with a helicopter and air-drop him some money. Does he get out? Probably.
Use case B: same parent, but this one is third generation American poor. He has never had a stable relationship with anyone who was not poor. He has never seen people plan a future (direction) and successfully act on it (motion). Air-drop money. Does he get out? … Maybe?
Use case C: same guy, but now he has a low sense of self-worth. Why? Lots of reasons, but it doesn’t help that he’s mildly schizophrenic. He’s outside the medical system, undiagnosed, no social support. All he knows is that people think he’s weird and that inside his head, everything sucks. So he self-medicates with booze, and when he can get it, coke. Back when this guy had a job, on payday, his two kids would hide behind the sofa. Now fly over and air-drop money on that guy. How’s that going to go?
Guy A has $600. Guy C has $700. Which one is poorer? Choose A, B or C.
Lots of people go through a period of time when they don’t have money. That’s not the same as not having motion or options. So when I say “poverty,” World of Wealth, I don’t mean someone who went through a rough patch after undergrad. I mean someone whose plight scares the living shit out of you. That person over there in the corner that it hurts to look at. That is who we’re talking about. That is the poor person you’re trying to help. That’s who’s here, reading your articles, on your forums, in your internets. If you want to work with us to solve poverty, which you so clearly do, then look it in the eye. Look us in the eye.
Big problems mean big conversations about big ideas. You can’t hold big ideas in one metric. Thinking big is one of the greatest luxuries of wealth. So think big.
[Footnote: poverty in geek terms.] Sure, let’s call it “poverty,” because that’s the standard index. But really, it’s more “non-motility.” These aren’t accounting-class deficits, they’re physics deficits. Newtonian poverty: no energy, potential or kinetic. The opposite of immotility is velocity: speed and direction. That’s wealth.
The original version of the article was published here, and I gathered in some internet response to the article so far. I heard the following points. In the continued post, I’ll attempt to address them.
- The premise of “poor people are either good or bad” is silly (Yay! I strongly agree!)
- People in the developing world have it worse
Point #4: Poverty is not one single thing.
Point #4.1: There is more than one kind of poverty.
Use cases A, B and C above are different types of poverty with different traits and dynamics. There are many, many more than that. Since poverty is a lack of resources, and there are a lot of different types of resources, there are one heck of a lot of types of poverty. Yet another type of poverty would include the Russian nesting doll of the developing world, with the thousands of different poverties that contains.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the developing world, talking to people. Lots of things are really different from our poverty in the first world. The main difference, to my eye, is that if you’re poor in Nigeria, everybody pretty much agrees that it’s probably because you’re in Nigeria. We here in the first world, don’t have that excuse. So for the sake of this four-part series, I’ll focus on the first world. (1)
And while we’re defining things, for the sake of this series, there is no “middle class.” Just “wealthy” and “poor.” Oversimplification? Totally. Wealth isn’t a set of categories, it’s a continuous spectrum. It’s not two classes (poor, and wealthy), it’s not even three (poor, wealthy, and middle class). It’s complicated.
But, words are way better than no words, so for the rest of this entry, we’ll just have to use them badly. For this series, “wealthy” means anybody who isn’t “poor.”
Point #4.2: There is more than one kind of poor person.
Are poor people good people? Or are they dumb, lazy jerks? The debate rages. Which is true?
Buckle your seatbelts, folks. Both are true.
Poor people are not only one way. We are people. Just like you, we have our share of garden-variety assholes, with no brains, drive, or morals. And, just like you, we have pillars of strength, kindness and wisdom who will go to any length, no matter how absurd, in order to be decent to each other. Some of us are extremely driven: our boats may be broken, but our motors are nuts.
There are different types of poor people. Some poor people, like Linda Tirado, even get out. Part of what affected me most about the response to Tirado’s article, was seeing the specific factors used to debunk her. For example: she speaks multiple languages, and has had some modicum of success in her career. She now owns a home, and has visited Las Vegas on vacation. She has been educated.
Linda is getting somewhere with life. She’s educated. Therefore, she can’t be poor. Right? She can’t ever have been poor.
You might think you’re a member of swimlane 2, the “poor people are good people” camp. But you might not be. Take a hard look, in the privacy of your own head. You don’t have to tell anyone what you see. We all have it. I have it too. It’s in our wiring. Check out this cognitive bias: The Just World Hypothesis. It’s the pervasive, ubiquitous human tendency to try to see the universe as fair. For the universe to be fair, poor people must deserve what they get. If poor people deserve poverty, they must be flawed. It’s written into our very neural code to think so.
It’s vile, but it’s real and it’s there. So we have to keep an eye on it, or it creeps into everything.
(1) That’s why I talk mainly about the first world here, not because I think it’s more important than developing world poverty. I don’t think it’s more important, I just think we’re going to need the home team advantage for this one. If we learn from it, that should help us make headway globally.
The Four-New Yorkshiremen Ritual
Multiple factors, multiple poverties, multiple personality types. Well, this is starting to get complicated. Let’s take a 3-minute comedy break.
This is the Monty Python sketch “The Four Yorkshiremen,” which deliciously illustrates a stereotypical old-wealth ritual: competing for who used to have it hardest. Myself, I don’t see this one so often anymore. What I do see, nowadays, is the opposite of that old routine. It’s a ritual enacted by swimlane 2 just before ending the conversation.
In it, we go around the room and take turns establishing how easy we each had it, and how much we had going for us, and how, therefore, we really have no right to talk about poverty. I call it: The Four New Yorkshiremen.
It’s another extension of ye olde Oppression Olympics: the more you have, the less you’re supposed to talk. It’s bizarre to me, because all day long, I hear people boldly hold forth about things they’re not authorities on. I hear about the Middle East conflict from 8th graders. I hear about what America is like, (constantly in fact,) from people who have never lived anywhere else. We talk anyway, because we want to see what happens when we talk.
Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great when people acknowledge there’s a part of life they don’t know about. It’s literally the only way to learn. The problem is that it stops there.
Point #5: Despite how it looks sometimes, most people care about poverty.
This “we’re not qualified” ritual is an expression of helplessness. Rituals grow on systems like barnacles when systems stop evolving. Systems stop evolving when they work well enough, or when they are stuck. Wealth distribution doesn’t work well. It’s stuck. And the worst thing about this is that people assume it’s stuck because nobody cares.
No, we all care. Everybody cares. One, wealthy people really do personally care about the poor having miserable lives. On top of that, wealthy people care about how even with poor people living miserably all over the damn place, we’re about to crash the planet into a brick wall. Back in the day, wealthy people truly believed they were superior. But, those people made idiots of themselves and got murdered a lot, so we’ve backed down from that cliff, thank god. We really do want to give people what they need and see what they can do with it. We just can’t figure out where to put our energy in to get an acceptable result out the other side.
The human mind, however miraculous, is filled with all kinds of bugs called “cognitive biases,” which basically roll up to mean “ways in which humans are bad at thinking.” One thing humans are especially bad at making sense of, are problems with lots and lots and lots of factors. They’re “wicked problems”; when the human brain sees them, it just kinda runs screaming in the other direction. Poverty is one of these: there are many poverties, made of many factors, stimulating many human responses, some of which are sad and creepy. All of this creates a fascinating mosaic of countless unique, crystalline snowflakes of depressing shit and there isn’t a brain in the house that wants to look at it.
The lack of apparent engagement about poverty
is not a sign that people are selfish jerks.
It’s a software glitch.
Accusing people of being assholes, just because they aren’t doing anything
just makes them feel bad
it doesn’t make them more useful.
As a human race, we just haven’t got a bead on the resource distribution problem. It’s over our heads, it’s intimidating, so people shut down.
The conversation is stuck because individual people are stuck. And people are stuck for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that everyone is freaking out. When somebody opens their mouths to talk about it, somebody else rips their freaking head off and spits down their neck hole.
This conversation isn’t working for anyone. Let’s don’t have it anymore. Let’s start with what we should be talking about.
(or: What we should be talking about)
Thus far, we have covered:
Section 1: Introductions: who I am and why I care about this.
Section 2: What we are talking about when we talk about poverty, including:
– A handy flowchart diagram of the current poverty dialogue
– Point #1: “Poor people aren’t motivated” is the start, not the end, of the conversation.
– Point #2: Poverty is not about money.
– Point #3: Wealth is about resources, momentum and options.
– Point #4: Poverty is not one thing.
– Point #4.1: There is more than one kind of poverty.
– Point #4.2: There is more than one kind of poor person.
– Point #5: Despite how it looks sometimes, most people care about poverty.
Which brings us to section 3: what we should be talking about when we talk about poverty. In this episode, I’ll present “The Moderator’s Official 4-Word Solution to Poverty.”
In the internet response to this series, I’ve heard the following points raised. In this post, I’ll attempt to address them.
- People are afraid of poverty: both that it might happen to them personally and/or as a society, and just generally the existential plight of it all.
- Whoever is speaking is not qualified to talk about poverty, either because they aren’t poor, or because they are and they’re too pissed off to know how to start.
Numb and Number
Every time I see an article about poverty, it’s followed by a number. Numbers are an incredibly useful neurological convenience. They are a way of compressing truth into one single, universal icon, which transcends language and culture. But, as such, they are “low bandwidth”, in that they can’t carry much information.
Poverty is not money, but we reduce it to money for a reason. We don’t talk about the real big-picture poverty because basically we aren’t smart enough. Humans can’t hold the whole thing in our heads. And, we can’t do much about that. Computers help, but not nearly enough. We are nowhere near to understanding the large-scale systems of poverty.
So, to keep from going nuts, we fall back on numbers. Numbers are the lens through which the World of Wealth conceives of the poor. It is the tiniest aperture that can be opened between “us” and “them,” the keyhole through which the wealthy peer at the chaotic shit show on the other side of the door. With one number, comes one poverty. Under the poverty line? You are poor. Over it? You are not. But on the other side of that numeric keyhole are a hundred thousand poverties. Their situations, their worlds, their outlooks, are entirely different. And they need different kinds of help. That is why your attempts never really do anything. You are looking for one single way to help big groups of people. It does not exist.
The only way you can help poor people is to stop lumping us together.
Q: But didn’t you just say that was basically cognitively impossible, like, three paragraphs ago?
A: Good point! Yes, I did say something that was almost, but not quite, just like that. I said it was impossible to imagine the whole of poverty at once.
Q: Well at that point you’re basically talking about a custom solution for every single poor person. Which is also impossible. Nobody could design a solution that detailed. So isn’t acknowledging that, basically the same as admitting defeat?
A: Yes, that is what I’m talking about, and no, it isn’t admitting defeat. There is an answer. It’s free and everybody can do it. And I am going to tell it to you….
The solution to first world poverty in four words, is:
a poor person.
Yes, that is it, folks. That’s the solution to poverty. To solve poverty, you must personally know a poor person. Perfectly-tailored solutions for every individual poor person: you get to know them, and as time passes, you find different ways to help them. Problem solved.
The remarkable thing about this statement – the only thing about it, really – is that it isn’t obvious. To demonstrate, let’s break it down into its two component parts.
I mean each and every wealthy person. I do not mean just the self-selecting social workers who are paid – and not paid much, by the way – to know poor people for you.
I mean actually, personally, deeply know a poor person and let them know you, for multiple continuous years. Not encounter them during charity work. Not listen to their talks and read their books. Not say hi to them in the halls at work. Not attend their political rallies. Not donate to them.
I mean yes, obviously, do those things, they add value to the world. But even if we all get together and decide to all of us do those things way, way harder, it won’t make a visible dent in poverty. It just won’t.
…a poor person
I don’t mean “someone who makes way less money than you do,” nor “someone going through a rough patch right now.” I mean someone with so many fewer resources than you have, that you’re almost sure that if left to their own devices, they will never, ever get out and have what they need.
I’m mean you have to know someone who is so bad off, that their poverty physically upsets you. To solve poverty, you must not only know that person, but you must invest in them and become a part of their lives.
Am I blowing your mind, here?
If so… think about that.
You remember my three case studies above (A, B and C)? We talked about how they’d each respond if you flew over them in a helicopter and air-dropped money. It usually doesn’t work. The secret is to land the helicopter.
You remember my metaphor of the wealthy and poor on either side of a door, peering at each other through a keyhole made of numbers? I’m saying stop rolling up dollar bills and pushing them through the keyhole. I’m saying open the door.
Stop trying to act in bulk. We are not smart enough. In geek language: The poverty conversation has reached a point of entropy. The anti-entropic force will not be a lightning bolt, but a million simultaneous sparks. Stop trying to zoom out further. Zoom in.
Not policy. Not charity. Actual human contact. It’s free. It’s 100% achievable. It is, literally, a custom solution for every single poor person. This should be nothing, right?
Well, for some reason, it isn’t “nothing.” If it were nothing, we’d be doing it by now. But we aren’t.
There are very few bridges in the social network diagram mapping Poverty World to the World of Wealth. There are very few synapses connecting these lobes of the global brain. The ones that are there, are massively overtaxed and screaming under the load. The Peace Studies majors living full time in slums. The teachers who go into the public school system and emerge 5 years later, 20 years older. The notorious free clinic doctors who work 16 hours a day and make nothing. These are the social bridges: the desperately-strained saints and martyrs to our failure to know how to speak to one another. This is the tiny handful of heroic folks who make a kamikaze dash through the door and wind up embedded on the other side, entrenched in Poverty World, slowly letting it take over their entire lives and thoughts, and getting fewer and fewer invites to World of Wealth parties.
Point #6: The solution to first world poverty is to know a poor person.
I know this from experience. It took a personal investment of 5 World of Wealth citizens to bring me, personally, all the way out of poverty. They’re people who I met along the way, who I hit it off with, who happened to have a socio-economic status at least five levels above mine. I’ve met a lot of people in that tier, but these folks were different. Specifically, they weren’t scared off by the fact that I was in a desperate situation, and would be in one for a long time. We saw something in one another, and we decided mutually to invest in each other.
I think of them as friend-mentors – “friend-tors,” how about. They didn’t let me move into their houses or shower me with money. They simply talked to me. They hung out. Sure, they’d buy me dinner once in a while, or help out now and then with a random medical bill. But mostly, they spent many hours helping me troubleshoot my broken rudder (meaning, to help me find better options). In return, if I may say so myself, I spiced up their lives a hell of a lot. I hate to say it, but poor people are way funnier than wealthy people, and we throw better parties. When we are happy, we are so very alive. Ever been to one of our churches? It’s a whooole different scene.
We help you wealthy folks remember that life matters & the stakes are real. We take so much pleasure from the things you’ve gotten so used to. Poor people are holding a live wire, and when you get close to us, we wake you up.
And, yes. It makes a huge difference for the poor person, too. Without my five friend-tors, I would not now be speaking at conferences, or spending my (entire) winter vacation blogging about poverty. What I’d be doing instead, is being dead. I’d actually be dead three times by now, if I count them, in three different ways. I’m not exaggerating. You know who you are, guys.
So, to put it mildly: I, the Moderator of Will Someone Please Address, recommend this method.
To move the needle on poverty, and just generally to be complete and well-rounded human beings, poor people and wealthy people must physically know one another. The problem is not that the poor are poor. The problem is that the poor are outsiders. The only way to help an outsider, is to let them inside. Touch the untouchables. Make them a part of your lives.
Just that easy. And just that hard.
Point #7: Human beings don’t just think with our brains; we also think with our guts.
Poverty is old. And some of the reactions we have to it are old, like, animal old. The parts of you that want to kill, possess, eat, and mate. They’re raw and real and they are in no way pretty. So, it’d be much more polite of me if I didn’t bring them up. And yet I’m totally going to. FYI, if you like that kind of thing, then you’re going to love this blog. : D
I shall now endeavor to take you on a brief journey through the spooky-yet-whimsical M. Night. Shyamalan movie that is the deep human unconscious. Let’s hold hands and make it quick. In this segment, we will cover:
– Four awkward things about communicating with poor people
– Five pointers for communicating with wealthy people
– Five ways to maintain a good friend-torship relationship across lines
To the WoW: Four awkward things about talking to poor people
1. Poor people give the wealthy a case of the screaming heebie-jeebies.
The emotional brain, the animal brain, operates on instincts that are by definition preverbal. They are “scents” – nuance we collect through our many, many subtle social senses like empathy, micro-expressions, body language perception, and even physical scent. People can literally smell each other’s emotions, and they’re contagious (Huffington Post write-up). Both literally and figuratively, we can smell poverty on people. Every blood-level instinct we have says to move away from it.
You remember my metaphor of wealth as being in a boat with a rudder (options) and a motor (motion). Well, there are shades of grey to wealth, too. The wealthier you are, the more your boat is like a yacht, and the bigger it is, the more status you have with other wealthy people. If it gets big enough, you join a metaphorical yacht club and everyone stands around in their Members Only jackets admiring how your yacht has a bigger motor (motion) and better turning radius (options). This means that the wealthy pride themselves on, and gain social standing from, their ability to access options and avoid hardship.
That’s what wealth culture is all about: skipping merrily away from the great sea monsters of this mortal coil, e.g.: pain, death, fear, violence, loss, shame, chaos, loneliness, etc. The flip side of that is that you never get used to those things. They are huge, mysterious phantoms, slithering ominously through the abyss. For us, they’re not “mysterious phantoms.” For us, they are “weekday mornings.”
So if you want to know a poor person, you’ve got to do the thing you never intentionally do. You’ve got to steer towards the smell of pain & misfortunate. You must disengage the ship’s autopilot. Crazy? No. Pain does not literally mean “stay away.” Pain is neither good nor bad, it simply is. Humans feel pain. It’s a symptom us not getting what we need. Pain is normal. For everyone. And it is way, way more normal for people with no resources.
“Avoid pain and failure” is in our programming. Which is fine. Until it means “avoid an entire class of people.”
You cannot both friend-tor a poor person and shield your eyes from the dark side of life. Even if you could, frankly, you shouldn’t. In appropriate doses, frankly, seeing real hardship is good for you. Being too sheltered makes people soft and irrelevant. If you don’t remember what poverty tastes like, get out your teaspoon now and then and have a little taste of the abyss. There’s nothing impossible or dangerous about doing it. It’s just extremely counterintuitive.
When you reach out and make contact with a poor person’s life, you will get your hands dirty. Don’t resist that. Go towards it. Ask poor people about what it’s like to be poor. When you find out, don’t ostracize them because of it. Quit with the “Outcast, Unclean” subtext. Remember that impoverished people don’t have control over their environments, and that means they’re one step closer to the primordial soup. Be ready to repeatedly face sexuality, passion, sickness and cruelty. Don’t change the subject. Don’t make up and, like, crazily insist upon some easy solution in order to make yourself feel better. Learn to become ok with things not being ok. You must be strong about this. If you can’t be ok with things not being ok, you will never genuinely know a poor person. That’s what poverty is.
2. Poor people want money from you, and if you don’t give it to them, you kinda get the feeling they hate you.
WoW, I put it to you that you are not that excited about giving poor people money, and there’s a perfectly valid reason for that. You don’t want to give it, because it doesn’t work. You see that. There is no point in giving $500 to that poor bastard on the street corner. It won’t get him out. You know it. You already know in your bones that money can’t fix poverty.
How do I know you know this? I know it because if it worked, you would do it. Giving money is the only thing anyone really suggests you do, so it’s all you can think of, and then you feel like a jerk for not wanting to do it. You care about that guy. I’ve seen the look on your face. You’re horrified by your own powerlessness. If you could genuinely help him by giving him $500, you would.
Poor people are also duped by this “poverty is money” social fiction, so they really, really want you to give them some. They want help a lot, so they ask for money. A lot. It’s awkward and it won’t fix anything, so in the end you move back from them so they’ll stop.
3. Poor people want to scream at you about how shitty it is to be poor.
Poor people are always like “DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND HOW MUCH POVERTY SUCKS, LET ME TELL YOU AGAIN” and then you’re like: Holy crap your intensity is…. Intense, but I still have no idea how to help you. And then poor people are like all “IF YOU CARED AT ALL YOU WOULD DO SOMETHING, YOU RAGING ASSHOLES,” and then you’re all Aaaa.
It’s a lot of raw emotion to deal with, especially when you’re not sure you can actually help, no matter what you do.
The thing is, you can help, just by sticking around. Even when you get uncomfortable. If you want your friend-tor to simmer down before talking to you about something, you know what? Just say so. It’s good practice for us anyway.
4. Poor people seem to make a lot of bad decisions, so it’s hard to know who to champion.
Yes, that’s true. When you have no options (rudder), you choose from what’s in front of you. The choice isn’t usually ideal. If it were, you’d be someone with options, and then you wouldn’t be poor. Watching that from a distance, it might look like the person is crazy. Furthermore, it might look like they’re not even trying very hard. As one of our WSPA members reminded me, boats also leak. The whole time you’re trying to pilot that hoopdie boat, you’re also bailing water out. From a distance, it might look like they’re just sitting here.
So, close the distance. That’s all there is to it.
To the PoW: Five pointers for communicating with wealthy people
Ok, World of Poverty: I’m going to say some things to you that will sound totally insane. They are insane. They are in fact almost impossible for you. But if you can do them, you’ll have 10x more success communicating with the wealthy. This is one of those impossible things that’s worth doing. If you communicate successfully, there is a much higher chance they’ll invest in you.
1. Stop screaming at them.
You know how it seems like nobody wants to hear what you’re saying? Well, I’ve been there. I’ve tried the literary device of screaming at people quite a bit myself, and as much as I hate to say it, it’s not working for us. It does nothing but freak them out, break their hearts, and turn their heads away.
This is because the wealthy don’t live all day long with screaming people and emotions, like you do. As I said earlier, poor people are used to a lot of tough shit that the wealthy never really deal with. They’ve had lots of societal training you haven’t had, it’s true. But if you work it right, you can get some of that. You, however. You have something they will never have. I’ve heard military basic training referred to as “stress innoculation.” It trains you to be ready to handle chaos, emotion, & the desperate situations of a battle. As a poor person, you are getting that basic training. So, if and when you get out, you have some powerful tools in your belt. You’ve been taught to hold yourself strong, to fight for what you want, to constantly create solutions out of nothing. Imagine having that ability in a world where life usually works for you, instead of against you. As silly as it sounds: it’s a superpower in their world. I really mean it. And it doesn’t go away when you get here, either. On this side, for you, it’s aaaaall moon gravity.
WoW lives don’t usually feature screaming. So don’t scream at them. When you scream, they panic. We need them not to panic. We need them to think. We need them period, man. I’m here to tell you: yes, they’re softer creatures than we are. Being a softer creature is something we resent and long for. But they’re good people. They truly do want to help us. They just don’t know what to do.
So simmer down, a lot, before talking about what you and your community need. Scream, if you must, but do it in a different room. It isn’t easy, but, I’ve gotta tell ya. It’s been working really well for me.
2. Never ask for money.
I realize this sounds insane.
They have money. You need money. You have a wealthy friend, therefore it is insane to not ask for money. But you need so much more than money. So. So much more. Don’t be fooled by that keyhole view. This is not about money. This is about human contact. You need a real, living, breathing human being to stay in your life, learn your situation, and commit to you. They will teach you so much – about how to open doors, gain credibility & gracefully navigate the weird culture of wealth. They’ll show you what you’re good at and help you get better at it. They’ll show your skills off to other people. They’ll open your eyes to options you didn’t realize were available to you. You can’t buy that shit.
For whatever reason, asking your wealthy friend for money breaks the relationship. It isn’t because they don’t want to help you. You need that connection alive. Don’t reduce the relationship to money. It is so much more.
3. Forgive yourself and hold yourself accountable at the same time.
The secret shame of the impoverished is that most of us hate what poverty has made of us. When you don’t have options, you choose from what’s in front of you. Sometimes, all the options are bad. And once in a while, you have to live with sacrificing your pride or your standards, or sinking below your moral threshold. You do things you would not do.
Being poor doesn’t make you a good person and it doesn’t make you a bad person. What it does do, is cause you temporary brain damage. I am not exaggerating. Here is a forty-minute podcast by This American Life that presents a lot of easily-intelligible research about what poverty does to your ability to think and behave the way you want to. Everyone should know this information. If you are really poor, you, specifically, need to know about this. Consider listening to it even though it’s really long. When I first heard it, I shed tears.
Poor people: keep your head up. You might say to yourself: I’m better than this. And you’re right. You are. You’re smarter, you’re more together, you are kinder than life allows you to be. You will come out of poverty with physical debt, and probably moral debt. You do what you do. But you are not that bad choice. You are a human being. Hold your head up. You are not broken. Show ‘em all.
People will believe what you think about yourself, if you think it with conviction. I don’t know why. But it’s scary powerful. So if you don’t want them to give up on you, don’t you give up on you, either.
4. Be patient.
One of the things that sucks about severe poverty is that it hampers your ability to track time. The acute stress response (fight or flight mode) is about dealing with whatever bullshit is being served up right now. There is no past or future for you. There is just this endless oily wrestle with the now; sometimes it goes down, but it never stays down. Time is one of the great, awesome languages of the wealthy. They literally perceive it differently. They can imagine how long it takes to get out of poverty, but you can’t. You can’t hold it in your brain. So have faith, and have patience.
Patience? Patience is insane. You are not ok today, and you have no control over anything, so how will you be ok tomorrow? It’s absurd. But still: do it. It’s impossible. But do it. Your job is to eat impossible for breakfast.
5. Get back up.
If you’re cutting your psychological losses and you can only save one thing, the rudder or the motor: save the motor.
When your friend-tor sees you for who you are, and chooses to invest in you, look them in the eye. You might fuck up in front of them. That happens. Hold your head up and try again. They don’t need you to be perfect. They just need you to throw yourself in and try, over and over again. Nobody can do this for you. They can only help you do it.
The only thing you have to do to get out, is try again. And again. No matter how bad it gets, and no matter how many times you fail. Try again. I know life is totally overwhelmingly complicated. But when it comes all the way down to the dirty old ground, you only have to remember one thing:
When you try something new,
you always fall down.
When you fall down, get back up
and learn something.
If you’re not falling down, you’re not moving. Fall down, get back up, and learn.
There are no guarantees. It takes a very long time. And I’m not going to lie to you. It sucks. If you want out, there is no easy. But it is a whole hell of a lot easier if you’ve got some friends.
So when the WoW come to your door, try to meet them halfway. They’re weird. And possibly insane. I do get that. But let them be who they are. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even return the favor.
Five ways to maintain a good friend-torship relationship across lines
So you’re sold, and now you want to do this. How?
For the WoW:
- Initiate. This relationship starts with you. We both know we can’t approach you for this. You must come to us.
- When choosing someone to friend-tor, pick someone who still has a motor. The stronger the better. They won’t have a rudder; they have no resources. They may look like they’re spinning in circles. But damn it, they’re doing it hard.
- Pace yourself. This isn’t something you can do in an hour or a month. It takes many years. So take it slow. Don’t just jump out of your fabulous boat into the water with a knife in your teeth and start wrestling sea monsters. Do the work, then go home, so you can come back again later. Have boundaries.
For the PoW:
- Don’t just take just any friend-tor. This is important. Choose a friend-tor who is happy and who doesn’t want anything from you but your friendship. They should be surrounded by friends and family who trust them. They should introduce you to more people like them, and help you get oriented when they do so. Not least of all, you should like them. Pick someone who makes your life easier instead of harder. If they cause you drama or try to exploit you, cut ‘em loose.
- Actually have fun together. Friend-torship works because you like each other. Go see a movie. Meet each other’s friends. Hang out at the PoW person’s house once in a while, even if the WoW’s is way better. Go to PoW parties (no, seriously, do). And, WoW – take ‘em to dinner once in a while. Someplace nice.
All of which actually sounds kind of nice, doesn’t it? It is nice. It’s not easy, it’s often quite challenging for both sides. Challenge is good for people. Difference is good for people.
Communication will people who have different lives and opinions, will change us and make us learn. Change and learning are work. We people with motors: we like work. We should do this. We should calm ourselves, square our shoulders, look one another in the eye and start asking questions. It is quite literally the only way this shit will ever change. This is how we get a vaguely egalitarian society. There is no other choice. We live in catastrophic economic disparity, or we talk to each other. We each choose. You choose.
So, which is it? Go big? Or go home?
My money’s on “go big.”
Therefore: I declare an official end to the Four New Yorkshiremen Ritual. It is done. Poof! It’s over.
Point #8: I officially, here in front of the entire world, give you permission to talk about poverty.
You may recall from our first entry, that I, the Moderator of Will Someone Please Address, actually do not give a fuck about Linda Tirado’s past. Well you know what? I don’t give a fuck about yours, either. If somebody tells you you aren’t qualified to speak about poverty, you tell them yes huh. I bloody well say so.
I know this because I, myself, am qualified to speak about poverty. Let’s face it: in the Oppression Olympics, I took a silver. I’ve lived all over the world and I’ve talked deeply with many hundreds of people about their lives. My story’s not the worst I’ve ever heard, and it’s not the best. I’m a person. I’ve got my blinders just like everybody else. Hell, now I’ve got both poverty blinders and wealth blinders! I judge, I dismiss, I’m incredibly stubborn! I write lengthy polemics on the internet about things nobody wants to talk about! I am frequently stupid and wrong.
Nonetheless, I am here on this blog to speak about poverty and many other important and scary things. We need flawed human beings with limited visibility to talk about important things, because that’s the only kind of human beings there are. So, despite my many copious flaws and shortcomings, yes, I am qualified to speak about poverty. But vastly more important than that, is that I’m qualified to ask about poverty. I’m qualified to listen to the answers. Just like everybody else.
So let’s do this, people. Let us set the global mind alight with thoughts, by doing nothing more or less than speaking across the lines. It’s hard. It’s huge. But you can to this. You have not given up.
You haven’t given up.
I know you haven’t.
I know it because I believe in you.
All of us must choose someone who is badly stuck and trying like hell to get out, and help them become whatever fantastic, useful thing it is that they’re trying so hard to be. That’s the big secret. Each of us must choose someone to believe in.
Human race: I choose you.
This entire article in three sentences and one picture.
I, personally, don’t think we can solve poverty by bucketing poor people into two groups and summarizing them with a number. I do think we can solve poverty by literally, personally knowing one another and learning to communicate.
“All of which is great, but what can I actually, physically do right now about poverty?”
How about this. How about the following totally mellow, free, achievable thing.
So, look, I’m a geek. I watch my blog referrals. Looks like the vast majority of WSPA’s traffic is coming from Facebook. Not twitter, not other blogs: Facebook. I like that. It tells me the folks who post this thing, do it where they can talk about it with people they know. I think that’s fantastic. The Facebook conversations I can see, teach me a lot. But, I can’t see most of them.
If you find your own Facebook thread cooking up something interesting… why not turn your Facebook conversation into a Branch, like the ones on this blog (scroll down). It’s a tool that lets specific groups of people have conversations in public. Branch is easy to use, and free. You can use a twitter account or an email address. You can limit a Branch to just the people you invite (which I recommend). You can share a link to your conversation with other people who are having it too, and let your ideas collide. If you want extra bonus points, you can include one or two real, actual poor people, who still poor, and ask them what they need.
You can even send those conversations to me. If you’re following the basic codes of conduct of this blog, I’ll even link to them here. Hell, if you like where they’re going, or you want some feedback – you can invite me to them. My time is real limited, but honestly, if there were too many productive conversations about poverty going on for me to help with, frankly, I think that’d be amazing.
Shrug. Consider it a challenge. Some prompts to play with:
- What other ideas do the wealthy/poor have about each other that are wrong, harmful, and pointless?
- What are some successful ways that the wealthy find a poor person, specifically one with some fight left in them, and meet them? Also, how can that kind of person become more findable?
- Once you’re connected: how do you keep it from blowing up in your face? Have you ever friend-tored someone who was really bad off? What did you learn?
All right, party people, let’s get out of here. I thank you for your time. I’m taking a break. Talk amongst yourselves.
Not vent. Not react. Talk.
We have covered:
Section 1: Introductions: who I am and why I care about poverty.
Section 2: What we are talking about:
- A handy flowchart diagram of the current poverty dialogue
- Point #1: “Poor people aren’t motivated” is the start, not the end, of the conversation.
- Point #2: Poverty is not about money.
- Point #3: Wealth is about resources, momentum and options.
- Point #4: Poverty is not one thing.
- Point #4.1: There is more than one kind of poverty.
- Point #4.2: There is more than one kind of poor person.
- The Four New-Yorkshiremen Ritual
- Point #5: Despite how it looks sometimes, most people care about poverty.
Section 3: What we should be talking about
- Point #6: The solution to first world poverty is to know a poor person.
- Point #7: Human beings don’t just think with our brains; we also think with our guts.
- Four awkward things about talking to poor people
- Poor people give the wealthy a screaming case of the heebie-jeebies.
- Poor people want money from you, and if you don’t give it to them, you kinda get the feeling they hate you.
- Poor people want to scream at you about how shitty it is to be poor.
- Poor people seem to make a lot of bad decisions, so it’s hard to know who to champion
- Five hints for communicating with the wealthy
- Stop screaming at them.
- Never ask for money.
- Forgive yourself and hold yourself accountable at the same time.
- Be patient.
- Get back up
- Five best practices of friend-toring
- WoW: initiate
- WoW: When choosing someone to friend-tor, pick someone who still has a motor
- WoW: Pace yourself.
- PoW: Don’t just take just any friend-tor.
- For everybody: Actually have fun together.