Monday, January 17, 2005

Those People

A post by kStyle and another, plus comments, by someone called Jane Galt (which I assume is related to John Galt of Atlas Shrugged/Ayn Rand/Objectivist fame), plus an article in the January 2 NYTimes magazine about childhood obesity ("Heavy Questions," by Elizabeth Weil), made me think, in different ways, about people and environments. To recap briefly:

The NYT article (which I won't link, because you'd have to pay, but you can find it if you want it) discusses a county in Texas, on the border between Texas and Mexico, where there's an epidemic of childhood obesity. There's also tremendous poverty, in the very same families. There are some researchers there, attempting to study the situation and find a way to intervene--helping families and kids make healthier food choices, and helping kids get exercise, for example--but there's also a discussion of the environment in which these kids and families are trying to cope. Parents and grandparents want to indulge their kids, and the cheapest way to do it is with junk food. It's hot down there, so exercise outside is difficult, and the environment isn't always safe for kids, either. And, of course, not all parents are as disciplined and disciplining as perhaps would be useful for the kids. One intervention that helped was getting the school dietitian to make healthier meals--no more cookies AND sugar cereals for breakfast--but a few parents sidestepped this by filling their kids' bags with chips and cookies to replace the ones the school no longer provided. Other parents are doing a little better, though.

The Jane Galt commenters are pretty much disdainful of the notion of people being both "food-insecure" and obese, or poor and obese--many of the comments take the form of "If only These People would do as I've done, they could eat well AND thriftily AND healthily. Because they refuse to do so, they deserve what they get and we should disdain them and their claims of poverty and/or ignorance." I have to say that it was extremely difficult for me to read the comments--many commenters were self-satisfied, in the way that Objectivists often are. They were confident that they could dismiss Those People, and similarly confident that their own experiences with "poverty"--generally while a student or as a kid--and their ability to rise out of it was sufficient proof that Those People deserved what they got.

It brought to mind another article I read, a few months ago, again in the NYT magazine (I'll find the citation, if anyone wants/needs it). The author was providing a first-person account. She had spent significant time with a poor woman, and when she went to the grocery store, she was appalled that the woman didn't try to scrimp and save, the way the author's family had done. The poor woman bought what she felt like buying, even if a cheaper or more cost-effective alternative were available (e.g., a carton of juice that was cheaper than individual servings, or generic rather than name brands). The author finally realized that, for someone who doesn't see a way out of his or her current conditions--who doesn't see how saving 30 cents here and $1.75 there is going to make any material contribution to her ability to get out of poverty--there is no point to being thrifty. Indeed, it's a waste of her time and energy, if her calculations about the likelihood of getting out of poverty are accurate, and, especially in this economy, and especially with the public schools being abandoned at an even faster rate, she's probably right.

My mother scrimped quite a bit when we were kids. We were never poor, in part because of her ability to stretch a dollar, in part because she was and is a good cook and could make the best of whatever was available, in part because she made some of our clothes and was an inveterate bargain-hunter, in part because my father made a reasonable and reliable income, in part because she saved every cent she could, in part because they were able, through such savings, to buy a house and thereby build real equity, and in part because her parents would have been able to help in a real emergency. (That never happened, so far as I know, but I'm guessing that knowing there's someone who can help in an emergency makes a huge difference.) I remember a conversation with one of my brother's friends--he was talking about how his girlfriend had sucked it up and gone back to live with her mom at one point, when the marriage fell apart and the kids had to be fed. M was pointing out the sacrifices involved, etc., and wondering why Those People didn't do that, too--and I said, suppose your girlfriend didn't have anyone she could move in with? He had the honesty to say, "Then she's fucked."

The most important thing, though, about my parents' attitudes, was that they taught us, and we believed, that we could, in fact, Succeed. The definition of success was (and in some ways is) a little hazy, but, at minimum, it means being able to afford housing, food, clothing, and transportation, as well as some entertainment; no or little debt; a house, if possible; and being able to save money--in short, all those things that were in short supply during the Depression, and that have been in short supply for all but the richest people for most of world history. What seems to be unclear to the Jane-Galt-commenters of the world, however, is that getting even that little amount of success is no easy task. Hard work does make success more likely, but it's no guarantee. As kStyle reminds us, the environment in which one lives isn't just the weather or the house or the school or the parents or the neighbors or the other relatives or the economy or one's own abilities--it's all of those things, and probably a few others I've forgotten.

I'm not really willing to throw up my hands and write off Those People, or to claim that one simple solution would solve all the problems--and, in truth, even a multi-pronged, well-thought-out approach would still not save everyone. Everyone doesn't need the same intervention, and, frankly, everyone has his or her own idea of salvation. But I sure wish we could do something other than point fingers and blame Those People for the situations in which they find themselves or helped put themselves.

15 Comments:

Blogger kStyle said...

Oh my, those Objectivists. A little compassion could go a long way.

10:51 AM  
Blogger kStyle said...

PS and thanks for the shout-out.

11:05 AM  
Blogger MM said...

I'm not an objectivist, and neither are the vast majority of my commenters.

Is it legitimate to ask the poor to scrimp and cook thrifty, nutritious meals? I can see why that makes many people uncomfortable, but on the other hand, in the rural community where my mother grew up, it makes people damned indignant to be told that those on public assistance are too good to live on the diet that they were raised on.

My food budget probably isn't that far off of your average welfare mother's; I'm a journalist with some rather major student debt. I don't think it's a ridiculous burden. I'm aware that the fact that I choose my food budget, so that I can have other things I value, is different from having no choice because I only make $500 a month. But there are very few people who make $500 a month in this country, and talking about the poor as if they are all in that class leads to a lot of irrelevant handwaving about how hard it is to live on a welfare check, when as Jason DeParle's outstanding book "American Dream" makes clear, even welfare mothers never lived on their welfare checks unless they had problems so huge as to dwarf the question of money (severe mental illness, domestic violence, or drug addiction being the big three).

Do we have to buy the poor filet mignon and baby arugula because they'd rather not make lentils and beef stew? Do the poor have no responsibilities to themselves to make healthy choices, or can they only be expected to do so on lavish food budgets? Could we possibly afford the kind of redistribution you're talking about without major deadweight loss? Would it make a difference if we did? (numerous behaviours such as poor impulse control are correlated with both obesity and poverty) These are all interesting questions, that I'm afriad most of the commenters have skipped over in favour of, on the one hand, getting morally superior about how thrifty they are, and on the other hand, getting morally superior about how compassionate they are. Neither sort of response really advances the debate.

12:39 PM  
Blogger Emma Goldman said...

Thank you for that thoughtful comment, Jane, and thank you for the clarification regarding the non-objectivism of you & your commenters.

I think it's perfectly reasonable and legitimate to expect people to take responsibility for their actions and to make healthy choices. (It's also the case the people won't always do that--either from lack of discipline, or lack of ability, or bad luck, or some combination.) The issue facing at least some people is that, no matter how good the choices they make, no matter how much they scrimp and save, it won't be sufficient to get them out of poverty. Or, similarly, they do not see the path out, and they have no reason to believe that it's going to work for them. It's not necessarily a mistaken or unrealistic assessment of their own situation, and I can understand why someone would conclude "Why bother?" in that case. They do not see how buying generic juice will lead to a job and a house and car in the suburbs. I'm not saying this is a laudable attitude, but it's understandable, and rational.

I didn't recommend any redistribution, so I'm not sure what you think I'm suggesting there. I do think, and suggested at the end, that (a) to really attack these problems, you'd need a multi-pronged approach, and (b) you're still going to get people who don't (want to) respond. I don't think just food stamps, or just better schools, or just tutoring, or just anything else is likely to make much difference--the problems vary widely, and won't all be solved in the same way. I'm interested in what's happening, for example, in NYC--it was another profile in the NYT, and the person being profiled was trying exactly that kind of multi-pronged approach in a neighborhood there. As for why we should do any of this, I think there are social justice arguments (i.e., I think the better-off and luckier among us should help the worse-off and less lucky among us) and cost arguments (as with substance abuse treatment, trying to solve, rather than merely punish, problems is cheaper in the long run).

2:30 PM  
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