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Just let the poor eat cake

Published on -10/7/2013, 9:39 AM

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In a recent column, reactionary ideologue Walter Williams informs poor people that they "don't have to stay that way."

His basic prescription: Quit spending so much of your money on non-essentials. Save all those extra dollars to support your venture into business. He laments the failure of the impoverished to accept the need for "saving and investing." Of course, you have to possess dollars to save dollars.

Blacks, he says, are among the worst offenders when it comes to living beyond their means. For example, "blacks who purchase Jaguars have an income one-third less than whites who purchase the same vehicles." But then, we're really not worrying about upward mobility for anyone who can come up with enough money to buy a Jaguar at all.

Fast forward to the real world.

Our son provides direct psychiatric and family medicine care to the homeless community, for such it may be considered, in the Denver area. Some of his patients became homeless because of poor financial decision-making, but many are mentally ill, some lost jobs and homes for reasons beyond their control, some were bankrupted by medical bills and lost everything. Most have no family.

One man needed some diagnostic testing on an urgent basis. As Doc began to make the phone calls needed to locate transportation and orchestrate the medical mobilization at the ER, his patient adamantly declined to get the tests, if they'd have to be done right then.

His problem was a pragmatic one. If he went for the tests at the time arranged, he would not be able to secure a place in line for the Shelter. Those who were lucky enough, or prompt enough, to obtain a place near the front of the line would have a place to stay that night. Miss out, you sleep on the street. It gets cold in Denver.

This man's priorities are very different from those Williams proposes. Scraps of dumpster food. Newspapers to stuff into his clothes as insulation against the cold. A flap of cardboard to serve as a mattress when the Shelter is full.

Somehow, losing a foot in the indefinite future isn't as real as the prospect of spending tonight under the stars.

While literal homelessness might seem an extreme example, there are in fact tens of thousands of homeless persons surviving on a subsistence level.

Only somewhat better off are those who do have some sort of building to shelter them, but enjoy few resources to make the house a home. The prospect of pursuing an education or opening a business is not considered and rejected, it doesn't even occur to them.

And why should it? Many are merely part of the latest generation to live in ignorance and squalor. No good role models. "Family values" focus on staying alive, day to day.

If one does decide to lift himself by his bootstraps, where does he start? Where does he obtain the necessary information, never mind the necessary skills? How will he feed himself if he spends his time hunting for jobs or attending classes? What if he has no transportation of his own, no nearby public transport, and no money for bus fare?

What if he doesn't have boots?

Many poor people are trapped in an endless cycle; impoverished thinking and behavioral skills are transmitted linearly, virtually inherited, from ancestors who never knew anything different themselves. Dysfunction is a way of life. It's not just a matter of figuring out how to escape into the middle-class demographic, it's the inability to even conceive of such a lifestyle, apart from the grotesque fictional sit-com portrayals on the tube.

If one is functionally illiterate, lacks the right "connections," finds life dominated by short-term subsistence-oriented goals, and encounters rejection and humiliation at every attempt to step across social and economic boundaries, the deck is stacked.

There are many forces in play in our society that constitute just such a stacked deck for individuals and groups. This doesn't relieve anyone of personal responsibility for their actions, but it does severely limit the practical options from which one may choose.

You can't fire a 16-inch shell from a rowboat.

In principle, you might be able to attempt whatever you wish, but you won't decide to go to college if you don't even know why college is worthwhile to start with, or if the people you love and respect ridicule education as "selling out to the man." Helplessness can be learned, though it is rarely taught as such.

Though Karl Marx got a lot of things wrong, he was right occasionally. He predicted today's dramatic and progressive economic disparity between the rich and the poor. People with money control the means of making money; those without money can find it very hard to obtain some, at least consistently enough to make "saving" possible.

When Marie Antoinette heard that the poor could not afford bread, she quipped "then let them eat cake."

The queen enjoyed her own cake, and Williams takes comfort in his savings.

No wonder neither of them understood what was going on.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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