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"The drug war is war on the underclass now. That’s all it is."
April 17, 2011 3:46 PM   Subscribe

Bill Moyers interviews David Simon "Again, we would have to ask ourselves a lot of hard questions. The people most affected by this are black and brown and poor. It’s the abandoned inner cores of our urban areas. As we said before, economically, we don’t need those people; the American economy doesn’t need them. So as long as they stay in their ghettos and they only kill each other, we’re willing to pay for a police presence to keep them out of our America."
posted by bitmage (67 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite

 
We either need to develop a happily-unemployed class, or risk third-world violence in our poorer cities.

I can't imagine a living, fixed income guarantee is going to be an easy sell.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:56 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well to lighten it a bit, I will throw out an alternate Victorian version of the Wire. The drawing of Omar is the best...
posted by jadepearl at 3:56 PM on April 17, 2011 [8 favorites]


I think (it's more of a hope, really) that future generations will look at the U.S. drug war and its affect on the urban poor the same way people nowadays recoil at the horrors of 19th century colonialism.
posted by mcmile at 4:06 PM on April 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


I found it interesting that the Haymarket bombing came up in this interview. I've contended for the better part of a decade that we're in a new Gilded Age period, where the effects of unionization, trust-busting, and other progressive reforms from the first part of the 20th century are being undone, and we're seeing the sorts of class and income stratification that we saw during the Gilded Age as well. Obviously that's an analogy and it's not perfect, but to the extent that Simon is talking about truth through fiction, I'm intrigued by the idea that Simon sees some of the same connections I do and what he might do with that metaphor.
posted by immlass at 4:28 PM on April 17, 2011 [13 favorites]


the thing is that i see it spreading to the poor white rural underclass, too, with the meth epidemic in full swing and the working, or lower middle class having their options and opportunities narrowed on them

eventually the pressure will be too much and things will explode - and i don't think the aftermath of that is going to be good
posted by pyramid termite at 4:35 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


eventually the pressure will be too much and things will explode - and i don't think the aftermath of that is going to be good

This is a meme that you read over and over, "Things are going to get so bad for the poor and working class, that they're just going to explode." But when has the ever happened? Historically, the poor and working class don't riot over economic issues, when they riot at all. America's union riots of the early half of the 20th century were basically fights between hot-headed young guys and the police. They're police fights. Hormone fights. The urban riots of the 1960s, were guys burning their neighborhood liquor stores, and then fighting with the police (for the next 40 years). Mobs of poor and working class people don't come streaming into rich suburbs, looting and burning in the name of class warfare. That's an image straight out of the guilty conscience of white liberals. The whole storming-the-Bastille thing never even happened in the French Revolution. Riots and revolutions DO happen. But they're generally driven by the upper middle class, or renegade members of the elite. Like David Simon. Or Bill Moyers. If they didn't have their own TV shows.
posted by Faze at 4:56 PM on April 17, 2011 [9 favorites]


From Jane Jacobs:
Despite the virtuosity, influence, and public and intellectual awareness of Jane Jacob's first book, she herself believes that her later works are historically more important and earth shaking.

She concludes that the most important sociological mechanism of wealth creation is urban import replacement, supported by urban export generation.
The ultimate solution is simple. Actively replace drugs being imported into inner city neighborhoods with an alternative economy that is capable of exporting goods and services.

David Simon said it himself, "we are simply brutalizing and dehumanizing an urban underclass that we no longer need as a labor supply". The "labor supply" needs to know this, and philanthropic organizations need to support them in creating sustainable economies.

I remember walking through a neighborhood in Buffalo thinking, "Man, if I was stuck in this neighborhood, I'd probably be selling crack too." And I'm not kidding, I would be. How else would you be making money in a neighborhood where every other house is boarded up or empty.

I think one moment that I'll remember for a while is studying the 1970 census maps of Buffalo and then realizing that over 30 years later, very little has changed [PDF map file, 188KB].

The civil rights movement didn't get rid of segregation, it just drove it underground.
posted by lemuring at 4:59 PM on April 17, 2011 [10 favorites]


capitalism is the only engine credible enough to generate mass wealth. I think it’s imperfect, but we’re stuck with it. And thank God we have that in the toolbox. But if you don’t manage it in some way that incorporates all of society, if everybody’s not benefiting on some level and you don’t have a sense of shared purpose, national purpose, then it’s just a pyramid scheme. Who’s standing on top of whose throat?

Well said, sir.
posted by ambrosia at 5:00 PM on April 17, 2011 [12 favorites]


Bill Moyers: Do you really believe, as you said to those students at Loyola, that we’re not going to make it?

David Simon: We’re not going to make it as a first-rate empire. And I’m not sure that that’s a bad thing in the end. Empires end, and that doesn’t mean cultures end completely, and it doesn’t even mean that for nation-states. If you looked at Britain in 1952 and what was being presided over by Anthony Eden and those guys, you’d have said, “Man, what’s going to be left?” But Britain’s still there, and they’ve come to terms with what they can and can’t do. Americans are still sort of in an age of delusion, I think. A lot of our foreign policy represents that.
This could be from the Fareed Zakaria discussion two FPPs below.
posted by gen at 5:01 PM on April 17, 2011


The urban riots of the 1960s, were guys burning their neighborhood liquor stores, and then fighting with the police

O RLY?
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:16 PM on April 17, 2011 [10 favorites]


mutex:
So all new users are automatically trolls? How should one frame an initial post in a way that doesn't offend mutex (though I admit my spelling of the word 'does' was offensive lol)?

As for what straw said:
I completely agree with the 'bundles of joy take'. I have two kids (aged 4 and 9) and I struggle daily balancing the natural 'my child is perfect' impulse with what I know (or usually have to learn) to be best for them. I lean heavily on my own parents and the advise of friends so I can't imagine being on my own. My point was that this is a difficult problem that can't be regulated away (but I agree it might be alleviated by some if your suggestions).

As for legalization (of weed which to my knowledge is all that's seriously on the table) it would certainly help but to what degree? Even if it cuts into the economy that Simon talks about it doesn't make you more marketable to a potential employer. Also unless the US follows the portuguese model might it not be possible that some other illegal drug would jump in to fill that role? IMO only viable jobs opportunities can fix it and that implies education which at least anecdotally implies parents kicking your ass about school. Maybe there is another approach but that's the only one I know of. I certainly don't have the answers.
posted by GeorgeRRMartin_IsMyBytch at 5:19 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


The whole storming-the-Bastille thing never even happened in the French Revolution.

Wha???
If you're gonna troll, at least have the courtesy to act like you stayed awake in history class.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:20 PM on April 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


But when has the ever happened?

russia, france, china ...

not to mention egypt - and if you don't think there's an economic motive in that, then you're not looking at it very deeply

revolutions are not created by upper class elites, they are channeled and manipulated by them - a close reading of the french and russian revolutions reveal that the real pressure came from the poor and the revolutionary leaders of those times had one hell of a task getting control of the process - in fact, all but a few failed and many of the failures were executed by the victors

also the reason that it hasn't happened here is that generally our system has been in the habit of giving in just enough to take the pressure off - if the elite of russia or france had shown similar wisdom, they may well have survived - the english DID show similar wisdom and did survive

unfortunately these days, i'm afraid that "zero tolerance" will be the watchword - and i also don't think an uprising in this country will manage to succeed - instead, it will be a long, bloody and pointless stalemate

Mobs of poor and working class people don't come streaming into rich suburbs, looting and burning in the name of class warfare.

no, they enforce their control of their neighborhoods, effectively keeping the government out, and then plan terrorist acts and guerrilla warfare against their enemies and their supporters - only these days, they're more likely to decide to go for the money and get involved with drugs and kidnappings and let the political stuff be just a smokescreen
posted by pyramid termite at 5:22 PM on April 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Actually decriminalization, which is what he's talking about (legalizing possession but not sales—I'm not sure why he doesn't go all the way) would make people more employable. Why?

Because one of the biggest excuses we have for arresting black people is drug possession. The more people avoid getting a criminal record, the more employable they are. Now, of course, people actually getting employed requires actual jobs to be available...
posted by Maias at 5:24 PM on April 17, 2011


The "War on Drugs" is even more convoluted in areas with less population. Here, the drug task force is rewarded with federal grant money based on the number of drug arrests they make. Not whether those arrests are valid, not whether they lead to prosecution, just the number of arrests.

In order to drum up opportunities for more arrests, and to keep that grant money rolling in (not to mention the need to make themselves appear productive and useful to the local government), the drug task force recruits their previous arrestees as paid informants. In order for a newly-minted informant to get paid, he/she has to produce results (i.e. information that leads to more arrests). As you've probably guessed by now, that kind of system is not sustainable in a small, rural population.

We have a situation now where we've got more informants than non-informants in our community's pool of known drug-users. But the system keeps chugging along, and the informants go on actively buying/selling/trafficking (and committing related -- and sometimes much more serious -- crimes) with immunity from prosecution.

The majority of hardcore drugs here are simply changing hands among fellow informants (with the approval of their DTF overseers), all in the service of maybe netting some new users and chalking up some new arrests (sometimes using questionable tactics to entrap a few curious/naive teenagers now and then) so that the heads of the various agencies can continue their charade and local leaders can boast about protecting the community while most of the public nods approvingly (and blindly) and the War on Drugs' money train keeps rolling through, destroying everything in its path.
posted by amyms at 5:25 PM on April 17, 2011 [16 favorites]


Arguing with Faze is like arguing with the weather, except the weather is actually real and does not exist solely to fuck with you.
posted by feloniousmonk at 5:26 PM on April 17, 2011 [26 favorites]


Video of interview.
posted by halcyon_daze at 5:26 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


GeorgeRRMartin_IsMyBytch: So all new users are automatically trolls?

No, but they are sometimes bad at posting in the right threads.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 5:40 PM on April 17, 2011


@ DAVID SIMON : PREACH IT

@ termite pyramid : QUOTED FOR TRUTH
revolutions are not created by upper class elites,
they are channeled and manipulated by them


there is no such thing as "trickle down" CHANGE;
because elite "oppositions" are still part of the elite.
posted by liza at 5:41 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


pyramid termite, not the other way around, but am sure you got that notwithstanding my dyslexia :D
posted by liza at 5:43 PM on April 17, 2011


Is there anyone here "experienced" enough to contrast the popular sentiment nowadays with, say, that of 1969 or 1973? I am not being glib at all: I would honestly like to hear some perspective of those who went thought that as to whether we are, nowadays, in more or less of a pressure cooker than then.
posted by digitalprimate at 5:43 PM on April 17, 2011


"The majority of hardcore drugs here are simply changing hands among fellow informants (with the approval of their DTF overseers), all in the service of maybe netting some new users and chalking up some new arrests"

This is remarkably similar to what happens to money on Wall Street these days.
posted by carping demon at 5:43 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


elite "oppositions" are still part of the elite.

Once the dust clears after a revolution you'll usually find some kind of an elite, but often not the same elite you started with. e.g. Lenin's communist party did become an elitist "vanguard of the proletariat," but there weren't exactly a lot of nobles and Romanovs in government.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:55 PM on April 17, 2011


I think the similarities between the drug war machine and the real war machine in the US demonstrates that it is the latest instance of capitalism run amok. Once there is an economic incentive to keep doing something (because you're paying people to do it) they are going to find ways to make sure they can keep doing it. This is as true of Boeing as it is the guys that run privatized prisons or the police departments who get to buy paramilitary toys (I saw the Somerville, MA police department deploy an armored personnel carrier in a raid in a residential area when I lived there about 7 years ago) with the proceeds of assert forfeitures which are conveniently essentially exempt from due process.
posted by feloniousmonk at 5:55 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is this just the transcript of the interview on The Journal a few years ago? (...the interview that made me watch The Wire...)
posted by ropeladder at 6:07 PM on April 17, 2011


Unless they are bulldozed, I wonder whether abandoned houses in the worst off neighborhoods of quite a few American cities could reach sufficient density that accidental rather than deliberately set fires will threaten to burn those cities down.
posted by jamjam at 6:15 PM on April 17, 2011


This is indeed a transcript of the interview that aired on The Journal shortly before the series ended. At the end of the interview text it says: "This excerpt is from the forthcoming collection of Moyers interviews, Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues"
posted by palidor at 6:17 PM on April 17, 2011


By the series, I mean Bill Moyers' Journal. I think it aired after the final season of The Wire had already finished up.
posted by palidor at 6:18 PM on April 17, 2011


The whole storming-the-Bastille thing never even happened in the French Revolution.

That is truly a Faze level of wrong. Not only did they storm the Bastille, they marched on Versailles.
posted by nicwolff at 6:33 PM on April 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


So as long as they stay in their ghettos and they only kill each other, we’re willing to pay for a police presence to keep them out of our America."

Fortunately for them they have a person of color in charge who's all about Hope and Change.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:49 PM on April 17, 2011


yeah, I raised an eyebrow on this: "Things are going to get so bad for the poor and working class, that they're just going to explode. -- But when has the ever happened?" from the poor guy too -- I was born in the late 60s but in the late 70s was gifted a set of old World Book encyclopedias from grandma that included the annual yearly summaries, from 1962-1971. The update for 1968 was pretty eye-opening in its exploration of the level of violence and civil unrest that was apparently going on.

eg http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerner_Commission, plus the 1968 riots after the MLK assassination.
posted by mokuba at 6:53 PM on April 17, 2011


Fortunately for them they have a person of color in charge who's all about Hope and Change.

And with an eye on getting 270+ EVs next December. Me, I've come to the realization that O is going to do *the exact opposite* of whatever Jesse Jackson Sr would do, rhetoric-wise at least.
posted by mokuba at 6:54 PM on April 17, 2011


the thing is that i see it spreading to the poor white rural underclass, too, with the meth epidemic in full swing and the working, or lower middle class having their options and opportunities narrowed on them

eventually the pressure will be too much and things will explode - and i don't think the aftermath of that is going to be good
posted by pyramid termite at 4:35 PM


Our elites have seen this as clearly as you do, pyramid termite, and possiblyly a lot sooner.

That's what really bothers me about the War On Terror.

I see very little evidence it's prevented enough terrorism to even begin to justify its enormous expense, much less the enormity of its destruction of our constitutional rights, but it has provided an ideal excuse to change the police, the judicial system, and our military in ways that make them all much better suited to meet and utterly suppress the kind of popular uprising you foresee.

Such an ideal excuse, in fact, that I'm sometimes unable to put aside the thought that it was planned in advance for the purpose.
posted by jamjam at 7:17 PM on April 17, 2011 [34 favorites]


The problem with these kinds of interviews is that you end up being even more hopeless than before. I live in a city in Mexico that is averaging around 40-50 drug related deaths per week. And they happen in indiscriminate parts of town; the nice parts as well as in ghettos. And what is a regular person supposed to do? just wait the 20 years it's going to take till the resources for the war ends? Leave the country? Protest? I've almost sworn off newspapers altogether, to read them in the morning is to be drenched in blood.
posted by Omon Ra at 7:19 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Things are going to get so bad for the poor and working class, that they're just going to explode. -- But when has the ever happened?

Iran.
Egypt.
Lybia.

And that's just in the last few months or so. Do you live in a cave?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:20 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


digitalprimate asks if we are in more or less of a pressure cooker these day, and since I was there...

Conditions are worse now in more ways than I can count.

The urge to fight back against those who have been responsible is diffused, confused, dissipated, and rendered ineffective.

I read this interview a few days ago, but I believe that Simon mentioned the drafting of middle-class boys as one of the precipitate factors in the widespread discontent of 1970, plus and minus three years.

Also, today, there are so many factors contributing to the difficulty of individual achievement/happiness, the unfairness of the system, widespread state-sponsored terrorism, and global ecocide, that it is hard to know where to start. Back then, from @1960 onwards: stop racial prejudice; stop gender discrimination; stop gay-hating; stop poisoning the environment; stop the insane imminent destruction of the planet by means of the Cold War; and stop the war in Vietnam. Sure, a lot of "stops," but they were often tackled one at a time, by and large. Now, it is harder to know what to do even though our situation is worse in so many ways, and the strange distancing and distracting effect of the media does not help matters.

Us older people sometimes wish the US vs. THEM dichotomy were more pronounced. Now, we seem to be up shit creek with a paddle but no canoe.
posted by kozad at 7:23 PM on April 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


Where are the Chomskys of yesteryear?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:37 PM on April 17, 2011


This has made me wonder -- what is the most effective way to get large numbers of people off of crack? Is there an empirically validated protocol?
posted by blargerz at 7:38 PM on April 17, 2011


what is the most effective way to get large numbers of people off of crack? Is there an empirically validated protocol?

Ibogaine?
posted by BillBishop at 8:03 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I live in a city in Mexico that is averaging around 40-50 drug related deaths per week.

Dear God. That's only slightly less than the average total annual murder rate in Toronto.
posted by orange swan at 8:14 PM on April 17, 2011


I could not stop reading this as it so eloquently articulated the these things of which I had only a superficial understanding of.

I've never seen The Wire but now I'm definitely going to watch it now.

Thanks for the post.
posted by hellslinger at 8:38 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I really agree with Simon's comment about the loss of shared or national purpose turning capitalism into a particularly ugly form, but it's almost impossible to imagine what could join people to work for something beyond their own survival or self-interest that wouldn't just become even uglier racisms or nationalisms.
posted by mariokrat at 8:50 PM on April 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here's some entertaining science fiction following the current line into the future. Sure it's SomethingAwful, but you know...Occasionally, they come through!
posted by ill13 at 9:15 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


I see very little evidence it's prevented enough terrorism to even begin to justify its enormous expense, much less the enormity of its destruction of our constitutional rights, but it has provided an ideal excuse to change the police, the judicial system, and our military in ways that make them all much better suited to meet and utterly suppress the kind of popular uprising you foresee.

It's also sopped up a lot of that unemployable class that Simon writes about. It reminds me of a quote in The Wire, my favorite quote, from Omar:
"Even if I miss I can't miss."

And that's basically what I've come to realize about global capitalism. The system is set up so that if you're rich and well connected, even failures don't cost you anything. Even if you drive your company (or your country) into the ground you get a million dollars in bonus compensation and right wing think tanks set you up as a guest speaker for the rest of your life. Right now Donald Trump is considered not only a good businessman, but a potential presidential candidate. Think on that for a second.

In Simon and Burns' book, The Corner, the family that they detail try again and again to raise themselves above their beginnings, but they can't. They work multiple jobs, go to rehab, try to raise families, and they really, really try to break the lock that drugs have on their lives, but they can't, because each minor set-back is fatal. At one point the father of the family is holding down a steady job seasoning crabs at a crab-shack, but because he's allergic to the seasoning, and already in a weakened state, he has to quit, which causes him to spiral back into his addict's life. The Wire mostly ends where it begins, which is another mantra of the show "same as it ever was."

The shooting of the series shows Baltimore as a place that's charming, but ultimately decaying around itself. If you've ever been to Baltimore you know how true that is. It's a gritty place where the good parts of life and the bad clash in such a dynamic way. Beautiful, unique architecture, million dollar condos, terrific food and night-life set amid the rubble of failed and forgotten industry, with a second city inside the city that lives in abject poverty amidst the riches. You drive five minutes in either direction and you're in Fells Point or the Projects.

One way failure doesn't cost you much, because you can dust yourself off, live with your parents for a while as you figure things out, and explore your sense of self without much in the way of consequences. In the other direction you fail and you die.

Anyway, Simon is one of my favorite living artists. I really want to see him do a series about the Haymarket Riots. Maybe even a movie.
posted by codacorolla at 9:17 PM on April 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


As screwed up as things are now, they're going to have to slide a long long long way downhill in order to create the sort of pre-revolutionary situation people appear to be imagining in this thread.

For a system to desynchronize so completely that a revolution (as opposed to an insurrection) becomes possible, you basically need around 80% or more of the population to have lost any hope whatsoever. Insurrections happen all the time, but they don't lead to revolutionary change. The riots in the 60's were insurrections, not revolutions. Revolutions lead to more or less complete overturn of the power structure. They are very rare creatures indeed.

A pre-revolutionary situation is when a system is so totally desynchronized that the only thing maintaining the status quo is the monopoly on the use of force. The revolution occurs when the monopoly on the use of force becomes invalid in some way. George Seldes (and he saw a few revolutions at first hand) said that the turning point in a revolution was when the police or military deserted, went over to the other side, or mutinied. That was what happened in Egypt. And if you've been following, Egypt is not having a revolution. That was an insurrection followed by a soft coup. The upper class is still on top and there has been no sign of any change in the distribution of labor.

If the failure of the monopoly on the use of force ends up with two forces of roughly equal strength (or at least neither is overwhelmingly superior) you get a civil war. That's what's happening in Libya right now.

So don't be wishing for things to get worse to get better. They have to get so worse that most people will give up on the notion of anything ever getting any better. And if you look at the history of revolutions - France, Russia, China, Iran, Romania, Ivory Coast, etc. - they don't get better.

I'd say the best we can hope for is that things get worse slowly.
posted by warbaby at 9:49 PM on April 17, 2011 [8 favorites]


But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason.
posted by warbaby at 10:16 PM on April 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Half of the adult black males in my city are unemployed. That’s not an economic model that actually works.
That sentence encapsulates everything wrong with this thinking. Yes it does. Look around, it works fine. That's the problem. If it truly didn't work, then this "market" everyone keeps divining would exert its "forces" and make changes. As long as I can buy an iPad not three blocks from the above referenced unemployed black males, the system is structurally sound. There might be occasional riots, but they're not going to take over the country.

And they do get paid just enough to not riot which is not enough to live on but is just enough to keep them from trying something else.

But anyone who sees lots and lots of these poor people every day realizes that it's not all the government's or the capitalists' fault. Many of the poor are uneducated, many are uninterested, or ill; to effect a mass uplift would require 1000x resources than we have invested, and we've invested $45B/yr in SSI alone. No amount income redistribution or jobs creation is going to fix that. Nor, let's face it, is there any reason to think it will ever be attempted. Remember this? And where are we going to get all this money from anyway? We gave it to the banks.

Nor is it just drugs. I know drug abuse is supposed to be genetic, but in the 1970s you couldn't make a left turn without someone selling you Seconals or other barbiturates; now I couldn't give them away free. Quaaludes? Anybody? "Well, they're not made legally anymore." That's my point. Making them illegal made them disappear. Meanwhile, some drugs are too good not to keep getting illegally (e.g. heroin) and those should be decriminalized (and to a great extent the use of them has been). But thinking that it's drugs or the drug trade that is keeping people in poverty just isn't true.


The problem isn't the large umbrella of capitalism, but specific failures within it. Failures that could be addressed but because their results won't be visible until the next generation, they aren't vigorously (read: ever) pursued.

Anecdotal though it may be, what I see repeated over and over as the main reasons the poor do not attempt to get out of poverty and, importantly, do not attempt to plan to have their kids come out of poverty are:

1. They don't think it will work. They have accepted that they are poor, will hustle a bit for some extra money here and there, but the idea that they could actually get more than $600/month (i.e. SSI) is, to them, preposterous. This is clearly a failing of the educational system. And unless the U.S. takes a different approach to educating the poor, it won't change. This is where the money Goldman Sachs didn't get should go-- k-12. Even if it takes putting them into pods of <5 students and teaching 7 days a week. Is it possible to know calculus and remain poor?

2. Intra-family DRAMA, with a capital D-R-A-M-A. How can you even conceive of getting a job when whoever's left living in the house are all pulling in different directions, each pursuing an individual agenda? I'm not sure whose failing this is.

If just one or the other of those is absent, I think people can escape from poverty within a generation.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 10:39 PM on April 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Quaaludes? Anybody?

I'll take some, I've tried to sample everything I learned about in 1980's DARE but Quaaludes have never been around.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 10:51 PM on April 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


TheLastPsychiatrist: "Is it possible to know calculus and remain poor?"
Yes. I've been doing just that for quite a few years now. In some ways, I think it can even be regarded as a handicap (Can't hire this guy. He's smart enough to jump ship at the first chance.)

Education is not the universal answer to poverty.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 11:10 PM on April 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Jobs are the universal answer to poverty.
posted by wuwei at 11:30 PM on April 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Is it possible to know calculus and remain poor?
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 1:39 AM

I know calculus (up to differential equations, actually) and am poor. Long story. I think you do not know how poor works and how difficult it is to go from poor to not-poor. Here is a real, ongoing example from my life. Pardon the sob story.

I drive a fucked-up minivan. I live in a not-so-nice area because I can't afford anything better. So there are dead trees around. One night I park my car and a tree branch falls and shatters the back window.

Replacement for the window is not covered because I can't afford good insurance. The window is $300. Put this in perspective: I'm looking for coupons on plastic tarp and duct tape and the only reason I'm able to pay next month's $250/month rent is because of yearly cash-back checks on two of my credit cards. Plastic tarp it is, and I focus on driving carefully and obsessively checking my side mirrors.

This is clearly, obviously illegal. I get pulled over. $120 ticket, with another $120 ticket for a burned-out headlight bulb. I have heard that if I show up at court proving I fixed the problems they'll drop this. It would be nice if getting tickets meant money appear in my bank account, but curiously that is not the case and while I get a headlight bulb I remain financially unable to fix the windshield. Meanwhile I'm still driving the car because I need transportation.

My car is not worth the work--something is wrong with the front axle (it makes clunking noises when you turn the wheel), its fluids are all leaking together, and the rear shocks have completely gone. Mechanics have expressed the strong opinion that the car is literally a danger to myself, if not to others, and should be junked. Not to mention its gas mileage is steadily dropping, likely due to all these factors, and that is not a small thing when it now costs $85 to fill up the tank.

Logically, I should buy a new car. There's no money for that. I could hope against hope that I got $500-$1000 from the dealer for a trade-in but I'm still in the position of having to find a working used car for $500-$1000. And paying for licensing and registration. Oh, and I am not sure how I'm going to find the transportation to actually look for these $1000 used cars when I have sold my car to have the money to pay for the used car.

Unless I get lucky or find another way out of this mess, I will probably end up putting $300 in debt on my credit card to invest in a rear window for a piece of shit deathtrap that will likely develop another horrible problem within a couple of months. This is a terrible financial decision in the long run. But I do not have the means to plan for the long run.

---

That is just the facet of my life that involves my car. Now imagine all other aspects of life: tuition, childcare, home repairs, medical emergencies, getting locked out of your house . . . Once you're at the edge of poverty, it means all of the other little things that give someone better off a bad day utterly fuck you over.

I know about calculus and banks and budgets and resumes, and they're not helping my car. I'm working on a degree now so I can get a decent job, but that's still at least a year-and-a-half away. I'd like to not drop out of school to work full-time to avoid tuition costs . . . But it's like buying a rear window for the crappy car. Being poor means working in the short-term.
posted by schroedinger at 12:11 AM on April 18, 2011 [41 favorites]


TheLastPsychiatrist: But anyone who sees lots and lots of these poor people every day realizes that it's not all the government's or the capitalists' fault. Many of the poor are uneducated, many are uninterested, or ill;

And you think that these three things aren't entirely due to the government and/or capitalists completely failing the citizenry of the U.S.?

And let's not be twee; "uneducated" isn't as simple as "can't do calculus."
posted by tzikeh at 12:46 AM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm interested in your ideas but I think a lot of this is wrong-headed.

1. They don't think it will work. They have accepted that they are poor, will hustle a bit for some extra money here and there, but the idea that they could actually get more than $600/month (i.e. SSI) is, to them, preposterous. This is clearly a failing of the educational system. And unless the U.S. takes a different approach to educating the poor, it won't change. This is where the money Goldman Sachs didn't get should go-- k-12. Even if it takes putting them into pods of

SSI is for people who are disabled or dependent children of the disabled. They're not just some uneducated leeches. The disabled are one of the groups of people that the economy doesn't need, to paraphrase David Simon. There are many who might be able to do some kind of work, but the only work available for the poor would be very detrimental to the health of people who are already sick and/or vulnerable.

In addition, and I think this is really significant, the system is very hostile to disabled people who try to do any work. You can lose all of your benefits. So yes it seems preposterous to many of us that we can have substantially more money, but not necessarily because we lack education.

The link between poverty and disability is one aspect of the underclass that isn't explored in The Wire (or anywhere else, really). Most of the other poor people that I know are sick. Not criminals, but the ones most likely to be preyed upon. Spending what feels like years of your life in Medicaid clinics that resemble cattle calls. It's hard to live on $600 a month in America without feeling at least a little bit desperate every day. Then there are the family members, usually women, who stay in poverty to care for the sick.
posted by Danila at 6:05 AM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, the trap of poverty and disability does show up in The Wire to a certain extent, but I had forgotten. I'm thinking of the elderly woman in season 3 who lives in the middle of the decriminalized drug market. To me, she is the face of poverty and the underclass because I can relate to her situation a lot more than that of the drug dealers. What happened to her in Hamsterdam is an extreme version of what happens to so many vulnerable people in ghettoes and rural areas when the police give up on your neighborhood.
posted by Danila at 6:16 AM on April 18, 2011


Actually, the solution to poverty is wealth redistribution, to help mitigate the deleterious effects of trade on non-traders.

If you can make it unnecessary for poor people to spend their entire lives scrabbling through today, you give them time to plan themselves some better tomorrows.
posted by flabdablet at 8:13 AM on April 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


If you find yourself in schroedinger's situation, you should ask yourself : How do I earn money exploiting my existing talents while also pursuing my education?

There are several relevant jobs categories : on campus work, coop programs, paid summer internships, tutoring, and consulting.

I'll assume that everyone's school has adequately explained on campus work and coop programs, certainly mine did. Coop programs obviously obliterate your financial problems, but you'll take longer to graduate. Independent consulting isn't necessarily realistic unless you've got the family contacts and you program very well, but you can always apply with some consulting jobs outfit. Tutoring otoh requires nothing more than knowledge and a printer. Imho, paid summer internships are pretty much where it's at for people like schroedinger :

Any mid to top tier school should offer paid "Research Experience for Undergrads" (REU) programs in their strongest science and engineering specialities, definitely REUs were very popular in mathematics. In computer science, there are mixed industry & academic programs like Google Summer of Code, Jane Street Summer Project, etc.

If we ignore such explicitly academic internships, there are still plenty of companies who're more than happy hiring a seemingly competent software developer for an expressly limited term : If the guy works out, they've gained cheap labor for a summer plus a prospect on a stellar long term hire. And they've lost fairly little otherwise.

In chemistry, biology, etc., all these categories might be merged into "on campus lab work", which I cannot comment upon, i.e. maybe the summer isn't special.

All these opportunities may've contracted considerably since Bush & Wall St. fucked up the economy of course. Or maybe they've simply changed flavors as bureaucrats move the goal posts. YMMV
posted by jeffburdges at 8:30 AM on April 18, 2011


This whole interview really bugs me.

Look, I live in a crummy neighborhood--used to live on a corner which was written up in the paper as the city's worst, although I felt that was race-baiting and a bit silly.

"Those people" are not isolated in the ghetto. A lot lot lot of them work really shitty jobs in health care, home care, cleaning, the black market. Those jobs are the underpinning of the rest of the economy--when you can't get really, really cheap help at the nursing home or cleaning the grocery store floors every night, you're looking at much bigger costs for everyone else. Nice white middle class people profit every day by the marginalization of the "ghetto", and the myth that it is economically useless is a part of that.

The inner city is rich territory for our economy--you have payday loans, you have rent-to-own, you have prison inmates to keep the prison companies flush, you have overpriced food and clothes, you have traffic tickets and citations and bribes to the cops, you have the various nice middle class white people nonprofit/social work industries...the inner city is basically a farm for capital.

It's cruel. Every time I walk down the street and see some young black guy look at me funny, I think "goddamn right, you should look at me funny. I don't know how you keep from punching me in the face".

I'm rich by neighborhood standards, you see. I have a low-paying state job, a college degree and a partner who makes about ~$1000/month. I have health insurance. I work in the city and I don't have to move from location to location or drive deliveries, so I don't have to keep a car--there's at least $350 in my pocket every month. And I'm white.

I wear good boots and a warm coat when my neighbors don't. I go to the doctor. I have migraine meds so I don't have to work through nausea and pain. I have a little bit of savings for emergencies even though I have a lot of debt.

Middle class people know nothing of what it is to be poor. We live in an incredibly class-segregated society, and poor people are invisible. You don't know them socially, right? I only know a little of what it is to be really poor--badly educated, less literate, bullied as a matter of course by cops, bureaucrats and employers--through a series of coincidences which led to a couple of real friendships and meeting people's families. And even there my friends are atypical--more literate and more plugged in to a larger artistic community than average.

When you see your friends sinking, drowning--when you know that even if you give them a a couple of hundred dollars it's such a drop in the bucket that it barely does any good--god, the uselessness and waste and cruelty of American society makes me sick.
posted by Frowner at 9:08 AM on April 18, 2011 [11 favorites]


One can be educated and still find oneself in schroedinger's situation. Degree != money
posted by rahnefan at 9:33 AM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Schroedinger is so right it hurts. I've more or less "successfully" pulled myself from poverty to a middle-class life -- most of the rest of my family, not so much. And while I like to think I made better choices, when I'm completely honest the advantage I appear to have had over them is 3-4 "clean" years in early adult life that allowed me to build a stable base to work from. Absent that, I'd most likely still be in the same old situation (and city).

The simple difference of not being crippled by "minor" emergencies makes all the difference in the world, because there are a lot more of those. It means I no longer have to live every day as if I am under siege... but I still reflexively wince when the phone rings because so many people I care about are, and I can't possibly help them all enough to end it.

One factor that is rarely mentioned as a factor is how successfully we've convinced people in America that if you're poor it's their fault -- this feeling of guilt actually contributes to the problem, because it causes people to put off dealing with things that would be easier to solve if not left to fester. No matter how many times the small setbacks are ignored long enough to turn into major ones, and no matter how many times I tell family I would rather hear from them sooner so their problems would be easier to solve, their guilty feelings always keep them from calling until it's much worse. The head-in-the-sand approach was a universal behavior in every poor family I knew growing up... and there's always another late fee to pile on them.
posted by Pufferish at 10:21 AM on April 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Schroedinger, I'm sure many things have conspired to bring you to the situation you describe. It sounds awful.

One thing struck me about your anecdote and that is how central your fucked up car is to your story. The story, as told, is as much about the decline of the car as it is about your inability to get out from under.
posted by mistersquid at 6:54 AM on April 19, 2011


Being poor in a rural area makes your car an even more central part of your life. I worked in a very rural area surrounded by a lot of poverty. People lived there because it was cheap, but the other side of that is that it wasn't near anything. You had to drive 20 minutes to get to a grocery store, and the local gas station constantly made their prices 20 cents more expensive just because they could. I remember talking to one of my patrons, who let me know about how his car had broken down and he'd had to walk for an hour and a half to his job at Burger King, and how he didn't feel like working once he got there because he was so tired from the journey.

It would be nice if it was somehow mandatory for every College Graduate to work in a lower-income area as a public servant, just to understand what it means to be really poor. People think they're poor in college, but there's a difference between not having as much money to party and buy clothes, and being on a constant razor's edge between life, death, and prison.
posted by codacorolla at 8:56 AM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


One thing struck me about your anecdote and that is how central your fucked up car is to your story. The story, as told, is as much about the decline of the car as it is about your inability to get out from under.

mistersquid, the emphasis was on the car in this story for the sake of brevity. There are many other anecdotes I could tell along those lines, examples of expenses that would not turn minor emergencies into major crises if the money was there to absorb them. I don't mean to act as if getting myself out of this situation is impossible or completely out of my control, just to illustrate that the poorer one is the harder it becomes to get out of it.

Pufferfish puts it beautifully: poverty really is living every day as if you're under siege. Bad luck happens to everyone, but when you're poor one man's mosquito bite is your wrecking ball.
posted by schroedinger at 10:04 AM on April 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


So many comments above talk about how essential but brutally expensive car ownership is to those in poor communities.

Yet the most cost-effective form of transport ever invented is seen both as a hobby of privileged elitists or a refuge of scofflaws, wretches, and drunks.

For those that know what it's like to live in a really shit neighborhood... would having streets that were safe to ride a bicycle on made a difference?
posted by anthill at 4:26 PM on April 19, 2011


Having streets that are centrally planned and laid out with things close enough to reach on a bicycle in the first place would be helpful to my personal experience as an individual in marginal economic circumstances. I live (because I can afford the rent out here) outside the city limits of a town in East Texas, and while I've thought about getting a bicycle so I could get a job (our household has one car, and the two housemates who aren't me are sharing it to get to and from the three jobs they hold between them; there's just no time on the car schedule for me to also get a job outside the home) or even just run errands, but the road has no shoulder and lots of blind curves between here and the main highway, I'm not sure whether you're legally allowed to ride a bike on the highway in the first place, and I don't fancy riding a bike a couple of miles each way in the summer when it's well above 100 outside and I'd end up needing a shower as soon as I got to my job. Christ the American infrastructure is fucked up
posted by titus n. owl at 1:16 AM on April 20, 2011


Y'all know about the scooter bikes, gas or electric, that clip along at a decent in-town speed, and don't require a license? Way cheaper than a car.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:59 AM on April 20, 2011


Yes, bicycles are wonderful, scooters are wonderful. I've never had a scooter, though I've always had a bicycle. If you can get by with just a bicycle or a scooter, that's great. But, not everyone's circumstances fit into a "bikes vs. cars" debate.

During the most destitute time frame in my family's life, we lived 35 miles from my husband's job, 15 miles from the nearest grocery store, and 20 miles from the nearest doctor, and we had two small children. Our bicycles weren't useful for anything other than exercise and recreation.

We got by with a series of dirt-cheap vehicles, driving them until they got to the point where we couldn't justify fixing them anymore. We were eventually able to move closer to "civilization" but we're still in a rural area where a car is a necessity of life.

As others have pointed out, though, the vehicle examples are just one facet of the sometimes insurmountable problems of being poor. When you're poor, you're always one "oops" away from a crisis. That "oops" can be car trouble, or an overflowing toilet, or a furnace that stops heating, or a refrigerator that stops cooling, or a medical emergency.

The earlier comment about feeling under siege is so true. The difference between being middle class and being poor is the difference between shoveling out from a snowstorm and shoveling out from an avalanche.
posted by amyms at 10:18 AM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that the real difference in vulnerability between the poor and the, shall we say, not-poor is the layers of protection that the not-poor have. I truly don't mean that as "we're so much better than the poor" or "our lives are so awesome" but rather as "In my personal anecdote, this is what I think keeps me from being poor". Although, depending on how you calculate it, I could be considered poor. I'm around $50k in debt, but I have everything I need and I certainly don't _feel_ poor. I guess I could characterize myself as "broke, but not poor".

I did a financial vulnerability analysis recently (due to a drastic change in household income, and just because I wanted to) and I came up with the following layers of protection from poverty:
1. Two incomes, mostly. My wife and I both work, so one ceasing to work doesn't completely eliminate our income.
2. We live downtown*, which is also where we work. We really don't need our car, it's simply a luxury. If it died, that would suck but not really affect getting to work.
3. Two sets of stable, supportive parents in the same city. In a worst-case scenario, we could easily move in with either set - both have room and would be willing. If we really needed help, we could get it. We have no relatives in dire straits, luckily.
4. No children or pets. The lack of dependents means that our absolute minimum fixed expenses are significantly lowered.
5. We live in Canada. Essential medical care is covered. We pay for "non-essentials" such as glasses, dental care, prescription drugs, etc, but most medical problems are within the purview of public health care. We're quite healthy, as well.
6. We live in a Housing Co-Op. This means that our rent is reasonable, we have excellent maintenance of our place by the Co-Op and if our income dropped low enough, we would qualify for a subsidy. Additionally, we can't be kicked out without cause, and cause would have to be significant and sustained. This makes our living conditions good, stable and affordable.

My impression is that these things all come together to make things much, much easier on us. These are just the currently present things I could come up with, so it ignores everything to do with upbringing, education, etc. While I'm certainly not willing to over-generalize about the poor/working poor, there definitely is a disparity in attitudes toward money and lifestyles that is brutal to overcome. I've got a distant relative who has lived their life effectively in poverty (who accidentally saved themselves by getting "stuck" in a job that gave them quite a decent pension to compensate for the life-long lack of financial planning), and the cycle of Deprivation->ExpensiveIndulgence->Deprivation was brutal. (Actually, I think this is the same reason why most diets don't work - people feel deprived, and break the diet. A decent parallel, I think.)

*Technically, we live near what could be considered the worst neighborhood in town. That's fine for us, however, as we have no kids and this city's worst is simply not that bad.
posted by Neuffy at 6:31 PM on April 20, 2011


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