What is the Cost of Poverty for Everyone?

Imagine if we actually knew how much poverty cost us in economic terms. What if we could take everything into account — from the cost of shelters, to the strain on the health care system, to the lost economic productivity due to people not working — and then calculated a number? Gerda Zonruiter suggests that developing a common metric for measuring the economic impact of poverty helps communities make better and more strategic decisions.

Gerda Zonruiter is a researcher and evaluation consultant assisting human and social services organizations make evidence-based decisions. Prior to working independently, she spent 15 years working as a social policy researcher for the City of London.

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Aesop on Privilege

The fable of the tortoise and the hare is famous. Like many, I heard this story in childhood. But I recently discovered that the interpretation I inherited when I was younger might not be intended ‘lesson’ of the story.

The so-called ‘American children’s book version’ of the fable praises the fortitude and dogged resolve of the tortoise. The ‘moral’ of the story is simple: stick to it, no matter what. The tortoise never gave up. The tortoise is the hero.

I recently read a full translation of the entire Aesop’s fables corpus. By the time I made it to the tortoise and hare fable, I had become acutely aware that the fables I heard as a child were significantly filtered through a sanitized, anglicized lens.

I was now reading the story again, for the first time.

When taken at face value, the fable appears to be more of a reprimand of the hare than a celebration of the tortoise. As an ancient commentator appended, “This fable shows that hard work often prevails over natural talents if they are neglected.” (Aesop, Fables 352, in Temple 1998:257, emphasis added)

It was the hare’s race to lose. The only reason the tortoise won was because the hare got lazy. There is little cause to praise the tortoise just because the hare failed to live up to the baseline expectations we have for hares. If the hare performed as hares are capable of performing, there would be zero chance of a tortoise victory.

Think about what this means for the tortoise: it’s only chance for victory is that the hare screws up.

This message is exactly opposite to the notion that sticktoitiveness wins the race. No, tortoises only win races against hares when hares get cocky and overly self-confident. Otherwise, tortoises are creamed every time. No matter how diligent, committed, and tenacious the tortoise may be, it has zero chance of winning — unless the hare chokes. All the tortoise passion in the world isn’t going to beat a hare. This isn’t an ode to David’s victory over Goliath — it’s a stern scolding to Goliath for his abysmal failure.

In the end, this post is not about Aesop’s fable itself, but about how we interpret it. In the American dream, the tortoise wins because of its diligence, not because of its luck. I don’t think this is what Aesop was trying to get at.

A kid who had wandered on to the roof of a house saw a wolf pass by and he began to insult and jeer at it. The wolf replied: ‘Hey, you there! It’s not you who mock me but the place on which you are standing.’ (Fables 106, Temple 1998:82)

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People with lived experience

Many of us use the term ‘people with lived experience of homelessness’ instead of referring to people as ‘the homeless’. I think the rationale for this is good. It does not make sense to define the identity of another human based on their housing status. I do not define or label my so-called ‘housed friends’ by the fact that they can afford rent or pay mortgages. The state of ‘houselessness’ is a chapter in a person’s history of accommodations — like my own current address — and not a definition of their individuality or identity.

The intent for referring to ‘persons who are experiencing homelessness’ is to separate the individuals from the conditions. There has been an analogous movement in medicine for a long time: it is arguably more appropriate to say a person ‘has diabetes’ than to say a person ‘is a diabetic’: in the first case diabetes is a circumstance, in the second case it might be construed for an identity.

I was in a meeting a few weeks ago and someone said that the proposal on the table would have an adverse effect on ‘people with lived experience of homelessness’. Another person grimaced and recoiled before going on to spew forth a litany of generalizations about these ‘people with lived experience’, in much the same way one might foolishly make universal assumptions about all people who have diabetes. I was taken aback: it was strange to hear someone use terminology originally intended to reduce stigma as a vehicle for stigma.

Then it struck me, the term ‘people with lived experience’ only changes semantics, not attitudes and assumptions. Whether you say people experience homelessness or are homeless, the fundamental question is what you presume and presuppose about the concept of homelessness itself. Psychologically speaking, the influence of our syntax is quite limited here: rejigging the subject and predicate of a sentence does not somehow automatically override the feelings and beliefs we have internalized about the nature of homelessness. Even though the new term grammatically reframes homelessness as a condition instead of an identity, it nonetheless continues to carry the assumptions, biases, and stigmas of its speakers and hearers.

Consider the implications here: the phrase ‘people with lived experience’ can easily be used as a cognitive-linguistic short-cut for an extremely complex set of circumstances. It can be as presumptive as the terminology it was created to replace; it can be as equally typecasting and prejudicial as referring to people as ‘the homeless’, ‘those people’. Given time, a phrase originally intended to reduce generalizations and identity-imputing stereotypes can itself become a plug-and-play term for conventionalizing and pigeonholing. Language is impossible to nail down: any description can become a label, and any label can become a self-fulfilling inference. What these labels mean in society, hearts, and minds is more than the sum of their syntax.

We swim in an ocean of these labels. Terms like ‘vulnerable populations’, ‘high-risk groups’, and ‘low income bracket’ begin as attempts to differentiate people’s circumstances from their personal characters, but they can just as easily grow into new labels for the same old biases. Automaticity sneaks up on us. What do we unconsciously assume about other human beings when we call them ‘vulnerable’? Will the people of the future consider our use of the term ‘high-risk’ to be pejorative?

The point is simply that any word (or sequence of words) can become stigma. No terminology is future-proof. No matter how well-intentioned, sensitive, or ‘politically correct’ it might be, no phrase is guaranteed to remain benign forever. We never permanently solve or reframe social inequities or injustices by simply changing our language: we only adapt our words as best as we can in the climate of interpretations and preconceptions we find ourselves. And our language, being human language, will inevitably be readapted again later.

So let us use words carefully — especially our carefully crafted, institutionally approved terminologies and definitions. These deserve the utmost caution. The more easily a phrase slides from our lips into the ears of others, the more we collectively, en masse, presume to know. May we occasionally dare to forego the temptation to bracket ‘certain demographics’ so that we might, instead, tell longer, more complex stories… stories that even our most grammatically sensitive terminologies leave unmentioned.

Even more important than our words is the manner in which they are interpreted.

We should pay as much attention to what people hear as we do to what we say.

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There is no single ‘root cause’ of poverty

I was asked to present an overview of Donella Meadow’s thesis on ‘leverage points’ for the Mayor’s Advisory Panel on Poverty. The given timeframe (15 minutes) was tight, but it was a fun challenge to squeeze as much of a ‘systems introduction’ as possible into this window (as much as I hate trying to talk this fast). It was also an opportunity to brush up on Prezi.

This presentation is an inadequate and (honestly) futile skimming of the surface of its topic. I’m posting it here in case it might serve to spark some curiosity. If you want to explore these ideas further, I highly recommend reading Meadow’s paper in its entirety.

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Using Facebook is a ‘Poverty Habit’?

According to a Business Insider article posted yesterday by Thomas C. Corley, poor people tend to spend more time on social media than rich people:

74% of those defined as poor spent more than an hour every day on the internet engaged in some sort of recreational activity, with 95% admitting to using sites like Facebook for recreational use… Only 37% of the wealthy in my study spent more than an hour a day on the internet engaged in recreational activities, and only 17% used sites like Facebook for recreation purposes.

Corley goes on to conclude that Facebook and “recreational Internet use” in general “has now become a Poverty Habit.”

But I really think Corley should have included a few caveats to this conclusion. He does not provide any explanation of the directional causation. Sure, poor people might very well use Facebook more than rich people, but that is only a correlation — it does not necessarily mean that using Facebook makes you poor.

Rich people spend more time on yachts than poor people, but I doubt that Corley would argue that yachting makes you richer!

Alternatively, there is another argument suggesting that rich people today have less leisure time than poor people. If this is true, we would expect “recreational Internet use” to be higher within lower income population (along with other low-cost leisure activities, such as watching television).

Corley, on the other hand, seems to assume that there is a direct, explicit causation here: “Our daily habits are the reason why we are rich, poor, or middle class.” I am sure Corley can find many people who will agree with this statement on an ideological level, but to superimpose this conclusion on a set of statistical correlations is really quite dubious. (It is probably worth pointing out that Corley’s data and results are not peer-reviewed nor academically published. His data comes from a personal study on the habits of rich people, from which, according to his website, he extrapolates insights to provide his readers with ‘the key to success and a happy future’.)

So, speaking of correlations, please remember this: adding a bunch of factual percentages and empirical graphs to your own presuppositions does not cause your presuppositions to be factual and empirical.

Thus endeth yet another rant on causation versus correlation. Thank you for listening.

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