If I Were a Poor Black Kid

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Gene Marks has been taking some entirely justified twitting for outlining what he'd do if he were a poor black kid. Like most of the people making fun of him, I assume that if I had been a poor black kid, I would have made the same choices that poor black kids make in those circumstances.  I was as easily led as any other sixteen year old--I wanted to be liked, and I preferred hanging out with my friends to doing schoolwork.  The main differences, as I see them, are that I grew up knowing a lot of people who had achieved enjoyable and remunerative careers via college degrees; and the peer group available to me at the Riverdale Country School all thought that it was really, really important to graduate high school and get into a good college.  I was willing to work much harder to impress my friends than for a nebulous shot at a future job that was, from my perspective, a half a lifetime away.


After yesterday's post, someone asked me: why am I cutting more slack to fat people than I am to poor kids?  After all, when I write about obese people, I write about the biological systems making it hard to eat less than your body wants.  When I write about poor kids, he said, I emphasize choice.

Not exactly.  Yesterday, I was writing about an argument for an environmental intervention (more jobs) that was supposed to be a "silver bullet" for the problems of educating poor kids.  And when people have proposed such silver bullets for obesity (menu labeling, sugar/calorie taxes, restrictions on fast food restaurants), I've made approximately the same argument as I did yesterday: heavy people are choosing to eat because they want to, not because there aren't enough carrots available at McDonalds.

But when people blithely say "They're fat because they're lazy/greedy/insert bad character trait here", I point out that the people making the accusation have a much easier time making "good choices".  Their bodies are not insistently demanding food in the same way that obese bodies are, so of course it's easier to pass up that big helping of pasta.

I'd say the same thing about people who are poor.  They could be middle class if they made a series of hard choices.   But those choices are really hard--much harder than they are for the people who are already there.  Chances are, you would also have a hard time making those choices.

Obviously, I am not going to adequately characterize all the difficulties of being poor.  And since I have not actually been poor, I can only write about what I understand from a combination of imagination, interaction, and academic research.  With that caveat, here are some of the constraints that strike me as powerful: 

1.  Not knowing anything different  Middle class people have a very strong image of everything they'd lose if they'd end up in a housing project.  Kids from poor neighborhoods, who do not see, say, successful people who have gotten out, have a much less clear idea of what leaving would look like.  It's hard to work towards something you can't really imagine.

2.  Leaving means living among strangers.  Most of the middle class readers of this blog would--quite apart from the crime rate--find it very difficult to start a new life as a welfare mother in a housing project in the South Bronx.  The kids from the housing project find college just as alien.  That's not to say that poor people somehow prefer the irritations of crappy housing projects, high crime, and hassling with various government bureaucracies--they do not.   But that doesn't therefore mean they actually want to abandon their friends and loved ones and the world they know.

3.  Economically sound long term decisions have uncertain payoffs.  Middle class kids can assume that if they work hard enough, they'll make it through college and get some sort of a decent job.  Most poor kids can't assume that--a lot of those who try, flunk out--and those who try and fail won't have much help to get a second chance. 

4.  Their payoff matrix is different.  Middle class kids can make $75,000 out of school if they get a solid degree in engineering, or a job at an investment bank.  But most poor kids who study hard and go to college are not going to get one of those jobs.  Realistically, dealing drugs probably offers many of them a more certain chance of making good money in their twenties than staying in high school.

Is it crazy that poor black kids focus on being entertainers and sports stars?  Numerically, yes.  But the odds must seem longer still of becoming an investment banker.  People from their backgrounds become rap stars and football players.  Few of them end up as the president of Merrill Lynch.

5.  If your peer group accepts bad short-term decisions, you will often make bad short term decisions.  I like to think that I work hard simply because I'm such a stellar human being, but the fact is, I would be utterly humiliated if I had to tell people that I got fired.  Ditto if I'd had a baby at 21.

You can spin this into "bad culture" or "bad values" but this seems irrelevant to me, because there is no way to replace someone's values; there is no context in which the necessary discussion could take place.  I don't see much likelihood that we can influence a bunch of 15 year olds to suddenly remake their value matrix to something more pleasing to a bunch of contemptuous affluent white people.  If I recall high school correctly, the contemptuous affluent white people weren't very good at doing this even with their own kids.

6.  Criminal records make it very, very hard to get a good job.  A middle class kid who joy rides in a car or gets a DUI gets the benefit of the doubt when he claims that this was just youthful hijinks.  Poor black kids with recognizeably "black" names--or poor white kids with recognizeably "poor" names--mostly don't.  Once you're in that place, what's the point of trying?

7.  Little economic social capital.  If you're a poor kid who screws up, Mom doesn't have three relatives and a college roommate who can help you find a job to get you back on your feet.

8.  Too much other social capital.   Poor people have very little financial capital.  But they have very strong help networks that help them survive.  These networks are vital to keeping them off the bottom, but also make it harder to rise--there's a much greater expectation that if you get your hands on some money, you share it; that you will take in needy friends and relatives even if that makes your life much harder, and so forth.  (There's some really interesting work on how microfinance actually functions as savings for people who cannot save because their savings will be tapped before they can be used by needy relatives and friends.  The EITC seems to work the same way here).  The more you have, the more you have to share.  This erodes the incentive to get more.

9.  Short time horizons There are all sorts of arguments about whether this is cultural, genetic, driven by the harassments of poverty, or whatever.  All I can say is, if I was contemplating the possibility of the rest of my life in a housing project, I would do my best not to think about the future.

10.  Lack of capital is really expensive.  If you have to keep buying a $1,000 car every six months because your last $1,000 car broke down, you end up spending a lot more than if you could have bought a $5,000 car.   If you don't have the money for an apartment deposit, you end up living in a much more expensive motel.  Buying in bulk from Costco is cheaper than buying in small lots from a corner store.  Etc.

The upshot is that the poor have to defer a lot more consumption to get their hands on a given amount of capital.  That makes it hard to decide to amass the capital.

11.  The jobs the poor do are really unpleasant.  Yes, yes--we all did them in high school and college!  But that was temporary.   It's very different to work your way through college as an orderly at a school for the retarded (as my mother did) and to have that be your actual whole life.  Particularly since that sort of thing wears on your body.  I'm 38, and I can no longer raise my left arm all the way over my head.  Thank God my job doesn't actually require that sort of thing.  

When I've had a particularly crappy, tiring day, I throw money at the problem: I get nice takeout instead of cooking, pay Peapod to deliver my groceries instead of trekking to the store, treat myself to a manicure or a massage, whatever.  I have fewer crappy tiring days than people who do unpleasant manual labor for years on end--and I have more money to make the associated stress go away.

I'm thinking it's a lot harder to get out of bed on Monday in year 13 of your stint as a janitor than it was on day 300--and that it's harder to get out of bed on Day 300 if you know there's probably going to be a Year 13. 

12.  Super high marginal tax rates  Because of benefit losses and tax-credit phase outs, it is very possible for working poor people to be made actually worse off by getting a raise or a better job.  They face higher marginal tax rates than all but the most affluent people in our society, which makes it less than surprising that they find it hard to move that far above the poverty line.

13.  Discipline is a finite resource.  Having a low-wage, low status job is usually not very enjoyable.  Nor does it leave you much money for enjoyments outside of work.  This makes it harder to get up the mental energy to do even more joyless tasks, like studying or harassing your kids about their homework.

14.  Not everyone likes school.  I've always been struck by this passage of Orwell's in The Road to Wigan Pier:

The time was when I used to lament over quite imaginary pictures of lads of fourteen dragged protesting from their lessons and set to work at dismal jobs. It seemed to me dreadful that the doom of a 'job' should descend upon anyone at fourteen. Of course I know now that there is not one working-class boy in a thousand who does not pine for the day when he will leave school. He wants to be doing real work, not wasting his time on ridiculous rubbish like history and geography. To the working class, the notion of staying at school till you are nearly grown-up seems merely contemptible and unmanly. The idea of a great big boy of eighteen, who ought to be bringing a pound a week home to his parents, going to school in a ridiculous uniform and even being caned for not doing his lessons! Just fancy a working-class boy of eighteen allowing himself to be caned! He is a man when the other is still a baby. Ernest Pontifex, in Samuel Butler's Way of All Flesh, after he had had a few glimpses of real life, looked back on his public school and university education and found it a 'sickly, debilitating debauch'. There is much in middle-class life that looks sickly and debilitating when you see it from a working-class angle.
It's still true: the mania to get more and more people into college is the brain child of people who think that school is fun, and that anyone who doesn't go is being deprived of something like a trip to Disneyland packaged with a job guarantee.  

Lots of people think school is rather miserable, and they wish to leave as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the "school is fun" crowd has made an education a virtual pre-requisite for a stable and well paying job in this century.  If you don't like school, and aren't good at it, what do you do?  Spend the rest of your life popping chicken tenders into the deep fry at Popeye's?  Or deal drugs?

15.  Loss aversion is more powerful than potential gain.  Over a period of years, you will work harder to keep from falling out of the middle class, than you will for a 15% chance at $100 million.

16.  Racism in hiring still exists.  It's harder to get your resume picked out of a pile if your name is LaShonda (or Elvis).  Maybe your mother shouldn't have named you something so strongly identified with low-income mothers, but the fact remains, you may find it harder to get a job.  And changing your name to please employers who are prejudiced against your ethnic group is just as fraught for LaShonda Washington as it was for Moishe Rabinowitz and Mairead Murphy--especially if you suspect that passing the initial screen just means you'll get dinged in the next round when you walk in looking identifiably Jewish, Irish, or Black.

The knowledge that employers do not trust members of your ethnic group changes the payoff of investments in human capital.  We can argue about whether such statistical discrimination is rational for employers, or whether it's less powerful than poor black kids may think.  But it still changes the calculation.

I think of poverty as a bad equilibrium--a pretty stable bad equilibrium, unfortunately.  The coping skills that make it easier to live in poverty make it harder to get out.  Bourgeois employers are actually completely correct that it is not safe to trust someone with a prison record around their cash drawer--and also, it is actually going to create more crime if criminals have no hope of rehabilitation.  Poor people would actually be economically better off if they separated themselves from their friends and relatives, and used their money to attend college rather than help out struggling relatives--and also, if they fail, they'll actually be worse off than they were before.  People will lead more economically successful lives if they are ashamed to skip work, go on benefits, or lose a job--and a community where most of the available jobs are unstable, pay low wages, and require pretty sound health, cannot possibly enforce such norms.

Sum it all up and the answer is: if you grew up as a poor black kid, you'd be making decisions under the same constraints, which probably means you'd make the same decisions.  The fact that different decisions could produce different outcomes is important--but to state this is not to state an obvious solution.


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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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