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Most people, including social scientists, think about poverty in one of two ways. Either they view the behaviors of the poor as rational, "calculated adaptations to prevailing circumstances", or as the result of deviant values and character flaws stemming from, and perpetuating, a "culture of poverty". A third view is emerging in which "the poor may exhibit the same basic weaknesses and biases as do people from other walks of life, except that in poverty, with its narrow margins for error, the same behaviors often manifest themselves in more pronounced ways and can lead to worse outcomes." "It's not that foolish choices make you poor; it's that poverty's effects on the mind lead to bad choices." (original research, pdf)

Previously.
posted by AceRock (50 comments total) 80 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes, when you have no spare money, unexpected expenses can cause you to lose a job, housing, or whatever even if you've done nothing that can be characterized as "wrong." People not in poverty tend not to be at as high a risk. Also, people with (some) money make poor choices all the time and don't get talked down to about it since they have the financial resources to avoid the worst consequences of doing something stupid.

Basically, we expect perfection from those least likely to be able to achieve it.
posted by wierdo at 1:03 PM on August 30, 2013 [58 favorites]


There is an hour-long video lecture by Eldar Shafir (co-author of the book under review) called Decisions Under Scarcity, in which he offers an approachable intro to the same ideas.
posted by Western Infidels at 1:07 PM on August 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


even if you've done nothing that can be characterized as "wrong."

Ah, but you see, many people will characterize that lack of savings as a thing you've done wrong.
posted by rtha at 1:16 PM on August 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


There's a difference between how social scientists think about poverty and how social scientists think about the effects of poverty on cognition. The formulation in the pull quote above confuses the two.
posted by clockzero at 1:18 PM on August 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


many people will characterize that lack of savings as a thing you've done wrong.

It's almost as unforgivable as being born into a low economic stratum.
posted by Rykey at 1:20 PM on August 30, 2013 [20 favorites]


I was just thinking about this.

I've been dirt poor before. Like, "Jesus, I hope that charge doesn't go through today or my rent check will bounce!" kind of poor. No safety net, no family help, just out there on my own. It's terrifying.

Recently I had a cable bill I had simply forgotten to pay for a few months. The bills were going into my Gmail as junk and I was on paperless statements. It was something like $180 for a few months of service. I thought back to a few years ago and how that would've totally fucked my life. I then quickly paid it without even checking my bank balance.

The kind of relief that gives cannot be overstated. I am a completely different person, and no amount of "financial literacy" would've changed that. I just didn't have enough money to live.
posted by lattiboy at 1:24 PM on August 30, 2013 [111 favorites]


Yeah, it's like, you add high stress to high risks and then blame people for fucking up? That's sure to work!

It's all only just world fallacy bullshit through and through. (But what do I know — I've only not been consistently poor for about a year now, after a previous 33 years where I was above the poverty line, like, twice.)
posted by klangklangston at 1:38 PM on August 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


We must all become Philosopher-Kings to reach our true potential.
posted by fraxil at 1:45 PM on August 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


rtha: "Ah, but you see, many people will characterize that lack of savings as a thing you've done wrong."

Never mind that the complainers likely also have a negative net worth and can only take the financial shocks because they have available credit, of course.

It's really weird. I work for a bunch of different people who mostly fall into the to half percent or better of the income distribution, and as part of my job I end up interacting with people at every level of their organizations. Being the middle of the country, we all keep it pretty damn casual and are willing to shoot the shit about almost anything, so I get to hear people's prejudices all day.

Only rarely am I confronted by multimillionaires who are worried about the poor people fleecing them and the system, yet I am constantly confronted by low to mid level managers who can't seem to think about anything else. Exactly the opposite of what I'd expect. Although to be fair, these mid level managers are looking at the boss and asking themselves why they don't have their own jet while they're complaining. Apparently it's the taxes sucked up by social welfare that keeps them from being a member of that particular club.
posted by wierdo at 1:46 PM on August 30, 2013 [51 favorites]


Crabs in a bucket, weirdo.
posted by rtha at 1:47 PM on August 30, 2013 [12 favorites]


It's been fifteen years since I last had to dig through dumpsters for food. I don't think about it as often now as I used to, but the striking differences in my life do still occasionally hit home.

And yeah, there I things I can simply write off now that would have been devastating then. Random stuff that today is an inconvenience or even just an annoyance, that back then would have meant my life sinking another fathom down.

Hell, I'd venture to say I was a lot MORE careful and responsible about money then than I am now.

I had to be.
posted by kyrademon at 1:54 PM on August 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


And even worse, when everyone you know and everyone in your extended family live on that raggedy edge between making it or not, you never learn how to deal with an emergency without freaking the fuck out.

It's always amazed me that bad shit would happen to my parents, like a car breaking down, a forgotten bill, or a busted water heater, and while there was grumbling and frustration, it was essentially no big deal. I mentioned it in my teens to my parents, that it seemed like nothing majorly bad ever happened to them, compared to my friends' parents, that we were lucky somehow.

My folks looked at me like I was high and started rattling off the busted car, the wreck I had, the grandmothers in nursing homes, the leak in the roof, etc. I finally got tired of the litany of sorrows and said, "Well, you guys don't freak out like other parents." My dad said, "It's not luck that allows us to stay calm, it's savings. Always have savings, it's a direct line to sanity."

Thing is, as I've grown older I realized that it is luck to have savings. Just as much as it is luck to have parents that teach you savings are sanity.
posted by teleri025 at 2:00 PM on August 30, 2013 [52 favorites]


This was summed up neatly in my favorite political cartoon ever:

One panel, split down the middle.

On the left a young(ish) George W. Bush behind a podium; on the right, a young black male behind bars.

The caption on the left: "was young and stupid, hopes to be president one day."

The caption on the right: "was young and stupid, hopes to be paroled one day."
posted by googly at 2:03 PM on August 30, 2013 [37 favorites]


many people will characterize that lack of savings as a thing you've done wrong.

It's almost as unforgivable as being born into a low economic stratum.


Just remember, if you're working at McDonald's, you deserve to work there because it's plainly obvious you didn't try hard enough. So say your betters, who are your betters by virtue of making more than you and never had any advantages, nosiree not here in bootstrap country. Minimum wage is deserved, and even what is given is too good, so stop itching for them to raise it! Etc., etc.
posted by zombieflanders at 2:18 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Risk is defined as probability of something negative happening multiplied by its impact. (R = P x I)

It seems pretty clear that poverty can increase both the probability of something negative happening and its impact. This means that people in poverty would be generally more at risk, sometimes exponentially more so, than people not living in poverty.

Said in reverse: people in poverty would more frequently be impacted by the risks in their lives, than those not living in poverty. People living in poverty would also be more frequently faced with decisions to attempt to mitigate risk; either by decreasing the probability or the impact.

However this would generally have no effect on the overall risk they would experience unless they were able to mitigate themselves out of poverty.

Indeed the risk would seem to go up as the greater probability and impact would have multiplicative effects on overall risk a person experiences approaches a limit, either abject poverty or a limit set by the social safety net.

It makes sense that this would have an effect on the mind... In a place with a minimal or non existent social safety net I imagine the world would start to seem a very unfair place.
posted by dobie at 2:18 PM on August 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


From The Gruaniad: "What I had not understood before I found myself in true poverty, and what Oliver probably does not, is that it means living in a world of "no". Ninety-nine per cent of what you need is answered "no". Ninety-nine per cent of what your kids ask for is answered "no". Ninety-nine per cent of life is answered "no". Cinema? No. Night out? No. New shoes? No. Birthday? No. So, if the only indulgence that is viable, that is within budget, that will not mean you have to walk to work, is a Styrofoam container of cheesy chips, the answer is a thunderous "YES".

When their daily entertainment consists of sitting in a 4ft by 6ft semi-basement living room watching TV, you can rest assured people will make any sacrifice they must to at least get "a massive fucking TV". In a world of "no", you are grateful for every "yes", no matter how illogical or how unhealthy."
posted by zoo at 2:21 PM on August 30, 2013 [68 favorites]


The argument that being in the situation of poverty actually encourages cognitive errors such that you exacerbate your own situation is an interesting one. I'm interested that they generalize it to all kinds of scarcity situations, too. I've certainly seen the thing of feeling so pressed for time that you start going about things inefficiently and becoming even more pressed for time. It's another argument, of course, for the crucial importance of social safety nets: give people the "freedom to fail" without plunging them into a never-ending cycle of desperation.

I think the most interesting thing, though, proposed in the research is the suggestions about engineering ways in which scarcity-produced inattention is actually beneficial (like "opt-out" savings plans rather than "opt-in" plans and so forth). I wonder how many other such programs could be implemented to help make the "default" choices for impoverished people beneficial ones. I would guess that heavy regulation of debit-card payment plans and payday loan services would be one fruitful area.
posted by yoink at 2:26 PM on August 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


an example:
For an example, imagine giving both rich and poor an intelligence test with this question: "Imagine that your car has some trouble, which requires a $300 service. Your auto insurance will cover half the cost. You need to decide whether to go ahead and get the car fixed, or take a chance and hope that it lasts for a while longer. How would you go about making such a decision? Financially, would it be an easy or a difficult decision for you to make?"

In their answers to that question, we are told, rich and poor look equally smart. Now run the same question with different groups, but change the first sentence to this: "Imagine that your car has some trouble, which requires an expensive $3000 service."
Limits to agency - "Agency, in any fullish sense of the word, requires particular conditions which are only rarely met. What robs the poor of dignity - to use Peter's phrase - is not my pointing out the degree to which they lack free will, but rather the existence of those social conditions that limit it."

also btw...
-Poverty and economics
-What Happened to Jobs and Justice?
-How Dr. King Shaped Joseph Stiglitz' Work in Economics
-Martin Luther King's Case for a Guaranteed Basic Income
-Is It Nuts to Give to the Poor Without Strings Attached?
-Chris Blattman on cash transfers to the poor
-Public Policies, Made to Fit People
-Can we have an evidence-based government?
-Is there a way to find out if laws actually work?
posted by kliuless at 2:35 PM on August 30, 2013 [20 favorites]


Only rarely am I confronted by multimillionaires who are worried about the poor people fleecing them and the system, yet I am constantly confronted by low to mid level managers who can't seem to think about anything else. Exactly the opposite of what I'd expect.

Haven't you realized yet that it's the wealthy, through their media outlets, who have been beating it into the heads of those low/mid-level managers that the poor are nothing but lazy leeches out to steal their pie. It's setting everyone at each-other's throats, so they don't notice the rich getting richer.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:39 PM on August 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


Metafilter: Crabs in a bucket, weirdo.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:46 PM on August 30, 2013 [22 favorites]


When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let's have threepennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we'll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don't nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the Englishman's opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.
- George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
posted by downing street memo at 3:21 PM on August 30, 2013 [24 favorites]


oops, Chris Blattman on cash transfers to the poor - "GiveDirectly and randomized trials are helping drive a big, big change: those who help other people for a living are, for the first time, being forced to think about their top and their bottom lines. How much does what we do work? And is it worth the cost? Believe it or not, these questions don't really get asked... I think this will remake the charity map in my lifetime. If I play but a tiny role in this change, it will be more impactful on poverty and misery than anything else I do in my petty little academic life. So expect me to keep writing long, blathering posts on cash transfers and field experiments..."

oh and...
-The evidence that unconditional cash transfers might do as well as conditional ones is tantalizing
-Government handouts > equal opportunity
-How poverty hurts cognition
posted by kliuless at 3:46 PM on August 30, 2013 [11 favorites]


Besides the mental effects, being poor is expensive! I know of people who buy similar goods and services I do, but have to pay far more for them because they have less money than me.

Examples: credit is more expensive, you can't afford high-quality goods so you need to replace them more often, you don't get cash-back deals from your bank or credit card, you can't deduct your mortgage if you don't have one, you can't afford to pay up-front for things so you get locked into terrible financing plans.

How about we at least level the playing field?
posted by Triplanetary at 4:23 PM on August 30, 2013 [16 favorites]


In a place with a minimal or non existent social safety net I imagine the world would start to seem a very unfair place.

It doesn't seem to be unfair. It is unfair. And people will scream and kick about making it even marginally less unfair, because a) they're afraid it would cut into their ridiculous slice of the pie and b) lots of people enjoy knowing others are worse off than they are.

There's no seems about it. Unfairness is baked into the process.
posted by winna at 4:31 PM on August 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


Most people, including social scientists, think about poverty in one of two ways.

This is kinda begging the question and unnecessary. Social scientists that specialise in poverty have been thinking about it with much complexity for decades.

It's interesting, I'm reading New Grub Street at the moment. It's about freelance writers living on the knife-edge of poverty - and as a former freelance writer who lived on the knife-edge of poverty (albeit it not in Victorian England), it's been an uncomfortable read at times; some of the memories it summons are not especially happy ones.

Anyway, the whole book is basically premised around the corrosive effects of poverty - especially as they relate to the character's abilities to write (and think).
posted by smoke at 4:39 PM on August 30, 2013


I don't think it's realistic to think you could ever completely level the playing field. But you could definitely raise the bar.
posted by dobie at 4:41 PM on August 30, 2013


I don't think it's realistic to think you could ever completely level the playing field. But you could definitely raise the bar.

Now you're just moving the goalposts.
posted by yoink at 4:45 PM on August 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


Triplanetary: Besides the mental effects, being poor is expensive! I know of people who buy similar goods and services I do, but have to pay far more for them because they have less money than me.

This sounds a lot what what Terry Pratchett described in his novel Men At Arms as "the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness":

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

posted by baf at 5:02 PM on August 30, 2013 [25 favorites]


One of the most interesting aspects of the Mullainathan/Shafir book is the way they argue that these same cognitive effects apply in other conditions of scarcity – most obviously time-scarcity, from which many, many more well-off people suffer desperately too.

I'm struck by the (probably unrealistic) thought that just maybe, in a society increasingly stratified and isolated along class lines, there might be potential for a real sense of solidarity and common purpose to emerge in that shared feeling of "not having enough [money and/or time]".
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:03 PM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was looking for this previous post about decision fatigue, which I thought of while reading the link. I should have known it would turn up in Related Posts.
posted by immlass at 6:57 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I find myself thinking a lot these days that there are things that we should simply not study, that ignorance allows and even encourages political realities that align with my own politics.

It's probably this line of thinking that is behind why it worries me that articles like the Guardian article in this post, when filtered through a right wing mindset, will give rise to an idea that "research shows the poor are not competent to run their lives because they are poor" - essentially a common argument reborn but now! with! scientific! evidence! And the reason that's concerning is that the what-to-do-about-it answer that will be argued as most practical will be more restrictions on the freedom of the poor.
posted by rr at 7:15 PM on August 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


rr: the committed will make up what they want to believe either way — we're better off having something real around for anyone who isn't a hopeless cause. Today could be the day where they notice the ideology not matching reality.
posted by adamsc at 8:05 PM on August 30, 2013


It's hardly unique to the right.
posted by rr at 8:05 PM on August 30, 2013


It's hardly unique to the right.

But the right have embraced it with the fervor of true believers.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:31 PM on August 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


A third view is emerging in which "the poor may exhibit the same basic weaknesses and biases as do people from other walks of life, except that in poverty, with its narrow margins for error, the same behaviors often manifest themselves in more pronounced ways and can lead to worse outcomes."

This is new?! This seems so utterly obvious that I find it boggling it's considered cutting edge. Have social scientists only recently begun to actually speak with poor people?
posted by schroedinger at 10:15 PM on August 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


Just remember, if you're working at McDonald's, you deserve to work there because it's plainly obvious you didn't try hard enough. So say your betters, who are your betters by virtue of making more than you and never had any advantages, nosiree not here in bootstrap country.

You know, it's framing like this that makes it feel like there's no honest appraisal or solution sought.

Because it's not as simple as you put it. Sometimes, the people who work the McDonalds and the people who are making more did come from the same upbringing. Sometimes that means they come from poverty. Sometimes it doesn't. Social mobility doesn't mean a constantly upward spiral - in fact, for strong upward social mobility to exist, there needs to be strong downward social mobility. So some of the people working at McDonalds will have had advantages that didn't work out, and some of the people working at better jobs will have had to claw their way up with no advantages other than their natural skills.

The lead actually buries some of their more interesting findings - people of all walks of life make poor decisions when they are under stress or pressure, and being poor means you are faced with constant stresses and constant pressure.
Their most arresting claim is that the same effects kick in – albeit not always with such grave implications – in any conditions of scarcity, not just lack of money. Chronically busy people, suffering from a scarcity of time, also demonstrate impaired abilities and make self-defeating choices, such as unproductive multi-tasking or neglecting family for work. Lonely people, suffering from a scarcity of social contact, become hyper-focused on their loneliness, prompting behaviours that render it worse
posted by corb at 11:27 PM on August 30, 2013 [9 favorites]


Because it's not as simple as you put it. Sometimes, the people who work the McDonalds and the people who are making more did come from the same upbringing. Sometimes that means they come from poverty. Sometimes it doesn't. Social mobility doesn't mean a constantly upward spiral - in fact, for strong upward social mobility to exist, there needs to be strong downward social mobility. So some of the people working at McDonalds will have had advantages that didn't work out, and some of the people working at better jobs will have had to claw their way up with no advantages other than their natural skills.

I love how you say "it's not as simple as that" and then simplify an argument in order to misrepresent it. Do people with disparate incomes sometimes come from the same background? Yes. But the fact of the matter is that's an extremely rare exception to the rule. If you come from more money, you have a ton of built-in advantages that make the likelihood of making more money much higher with much less effort put in. The advantages run the gamut from racial to educational to social bonds, most of which are intertwined with each other.

To try and present an argument that equal income comes from equal effort (or even worse, some sort of randomness) or to try to claim that there's a lack of a solid and widely-applied trend of income vis-a-vis opportunity is just flat-out bullshit.
posted by zombieflanders at 4:43 AM on August 31, 2013 [6 favorites]


It's probably this line of thinking that is behind why it worries me that articles like the Guardian article in this post, when filtered through a right wing mindset, will give rise to an idea that "research shows the poor are not competent to run their lives because they are poor" - essentially a common argument reborn but now! with! scientific! evidence! And the reason that's concerning is that the what-to-do-about-it answer that will be argued as most practical will be more restrictions on the freedom of the poor.

With the caveat that I wrote the Guardian article, I disagree strongly with this argument! Sure, there are some people who'll always be willing to argue that up is down in order to justify doing nothing about poverty. But for everyone else, the Mullainathan and Shafir work is a very powerful argument for liberal policies, not conservative ones. It's evidence against the idea that poverty is the just reward of a character failing or lack of effort; it demonstrates how any of us might end up entrenched in poverty given an initial bit of bad luck; and it shows that more generous welfare policies, far from encouraging a culture of dependency, free up people's bandwidth to become good financial citizens. Any policymaker who responds to this evidence by restricting the freedoms of the poor, when it's all about the urgent need to increase that freedom on a psychological level, would have to be so ideologically motivated to begin with that they'd claim any study helped prove their point.
posted by oliverburkeman at 5:55 AM on August 31, 2013 [15 favorites]


I think this screencap from a CashCall ad tells a lot of the story here.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:56 AM on August 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


To try and present an argument that equal income comes from equal effort (or even worse, some sort of randomness) or to try to claim that there's a lack of a solid and widely-applied trend of income vis-a-vis opportunity is just flat-out bullshit.

That would be an inaccurate effort, if I were making it. I'm not arguing either - or at least, not completely.

A lot of financial factors do, in fact, come from randomness - though certainly not all of them, of course. The randomness of finding an opportunity or offending the person who could have given you one. The randomness of being placed in one school over another, of having one teacher over another, one classmate over another.

Others come from effort - but of course, not all of them. Those opportunities, teachers, and classmates will mean nothing if you don't put in the effort to make use of them. And if you refuse to put in any effort, you will find yourself falling backwards.

Some come from natural ability, which is actually a really important factor. Rich or poor, some people are naturally smarter than others, or better at spatial relationships than others, or stronger than others, or faster than others. These things also impact the choices they can make and the careers and professions they can enter.

And other factors do, in fact as you say, come from those advantages or lack thereof. I would argue that we have a loose sort of social fixing, which strengthens as you go up the ladder. Thus, without any significant factors, we are likely to remain in our financial and social strata. If we perform whatever "average" is, it is mildly difficult to shake out of that. But to perform either extraordinarily well or extraordinarily badly will move us to a different social strata. This applies for all classes - though as I said, as you advance the ladder, it is harder to fall further, because those advantages do give you a likelihood of remaining where you are or close to where you are.

So to take it back to your original example - what does working in a menial, low-income job mean if you came from poverty? Probably that you didn't have any significant and unusual positive factors - you weren't unusually tenacious, you weren't unusually bright, or unusually strong, or unusually fast, and you didn't have any unusual positive random factors.

People are different in their beliefs about how much social mobility is a good thing - it often correlate with where they stand in the social ladder, but not always. If you're on the bottom, high social mobility is a universal good, because it will always place you in a better position. If you're in the middle, high social mobility is a risk vs security calculus - do you find a stronger possibility of being rich compelling enough to outweigh the stronger possibility of becoming poor? And if you're on the top, high social mobility is often a strong bad, because you're already roughly on the top - there's not far for you to go upwards, but a long way for you to fall. (There's some more complicated stuff around how people identify their social class, which is not always on their basic wealth)

Thus, people who believe that weak or no social mobility is a good thing, will look at that situation - average people by default remaining in the social strata they were born - and find it good, because it reinforces everyone remaining in the social strata that they are born, bar exceptional circumstances. But that's a little more complex, again, than you were suggesting.
posted by corb at 8:56 AM on August 31, 2013


A lot of financial factors do, in fact, come from randomness - though certainly not all of them, of course. The randomness of finding an opportunity or offending the person who could have given you one. The randomness of being placed in one school over another, of having one teacher over another, one classmate over another.

Except that this randomness doesn't exist nearly as much as you're portraying it. Finding an opportunity can often depend on social connections, which are often limited by both race and income, among other factors. Same goes for offending someone, where "offense" could be as simple as having the wrong skin color, or not having enough money to go to the right college (or any college at all) despite stellar effort, or coming from the wrong part of the country or world. And then there's schooling, where unofficial segregation (such as by school district) and distrobution of resources and skilled administration/teachers can often be wildly uneven, especially once private and charter schools are thrown into the mix. You may claim it's random, but spend 15 minutes with any teacher, especially one who teaches in a school or district that regularly gets screwed over, and you'll see that it's not random by a long shot, and that's even before we get into magnet programs and the like.

Others come from effort - but of course, not all of them. Those opportunities, teachers, and classmates will mean nothing if you don't put in the effort to make use of them. And if you refuse to put in any effort, you will find yourself falling backwards.

This almost completely fails to take into account the multitude of other factors, most of which are socioeconomic, that may make that difficult. What about the children with little to no parental assistance because they have to work long or multiple jobs just to keep up? Or the lack of resources available at school and at home because it's ill-served by both public and private assistance? To disregard this and just hand-wave "effortonium" is ridiculous.

Some come from natural ability, which is actually a really important factor. Rich or poor, some people are naturally smarter than others, or better at spatial relationships than others, or stronger than others, or faster than others. These things also impact the choices they can make and the careers and professions they can enter.

And what about environments that are the limiters themselves? Lead, for example, which is more likely to be found in areas with poor regulatory control, limited resources to eliminate it, and separated from cleaner areas. Not coincidentally, these are often concentrated in areas of lower economic status, both residential and commercial. Those have a far wider and harder-felt impact than inherited "natural" ability (which is a messed up theory for a number of other reasons).

And other factors do, in fact as you say, come from those advantages or lack thereof. I would argue that we have a loose sort of social fixing, which strengthens as you go up the ladder. Thus, without any significant factors, we are likely to remain in our financial and social strata. If we perform whatever "average" is, it is mildly difficult to shake out of that. But to perform either extraordinarily well or extraordinarily badly will move us to a different social strata. This applies for all classes - though as I said, as you advance the ladder, it is harder to fall further, because those advantages do give you a likelihood of remaining where you are or close to where you are.

This reads as a gross minimizing of the abilitiy to take advantage of social mobility. At the higher social strata as you describe, it's nearly impossible to fall downwards through extraordinary lack of effort, with a extremely sharp drop-off once you exit the upper end (or conversely, an extremely steep rise if you attempt to enter it from below).

So to take it back to your original example - what does working in a menial, low-income job mean if you came from poverty? Probably that you didn't have any significant and unusual positive factors - you weren't unusually tenacious, you weren't unusually bright, or unusually strong, or unusually fast, and you didn't have any unusual positive random factors.

This is just...ugh.

Thus, people who believe that weak or no social mobility is a good thing, will look at that situation - average people by default remaining in the social strata they were born - and find it good, because it reinforces everyone remaining in the social strata that they are born, bar exceptional circumstances. But that's a little more complex, again, than you were suggesting.

How is that more complex, other than the fact that you just used a lot of words? Honestly, you did a better job of reinforcing my point than you did of bolstering yours.
posted by zombieflanders at 10:52 AM on August 31, 2013 [8 favorites]


The determination some people have to believe in either randomness/just world fallacy type shit or that pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is some huge element here is amazing.

Is it that hard to admit that you're middle class status, tech job, and MacBook Pro you're reading this on were majorly influenced by the fact that you're probably white, probably grew up in a decent area with parents who likely made close to six figures if not more combined, got to go to a good school, etc?

Replying and saying you don't fit that mold is pointless, because the ten other people who didn't likely do. This site, reddit, and a lot of the rest of the Internet are full of people who completely deny how this works because they want to think they got where they are entirely on their own gumption even if they well deny straight to your face that they believe poor people are "lazy".

You can't have both here, and if you're denying one you're really believing the other in some sort of convoluted closeted way. Christing fuck.
posted by emptythought at 2:14 PM on August 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


How is that more complex, other than the fact that you just used a lot of words?

If you were trying to make a serious point without snark, I didn't see it. I would love to listen to what you have to say - it's possible we do, in fact, agree. What I disagreed with was what seemed like a reduction of the amount of complex factors into one single axis, along with the snide dismissal of the opinions of anyone else.

I'm not honestly sure we do disagree strongly, at least on the pieces. I completely agree, for example, that at the higher social strata, it is nearly impossible to fall (currently, in the US) to the lower social strata. I would define the US structure as one with "weak mobility" - ie it is possible to rise or fall, but not easy. What I am saying is that for some people, it is a feature rather than a bug, and that this doesn't necessarily mean they're terrible, awful human beings - just that they don't want to be downwardly mobile. These advantages and protections that you are talking about are not coincidental - they were deliberately built in.

I didn't specifically mention environments, but I'm happy to add them to the list of complicated factors that affect how people exist and struggle - though I'd argue this also fits an urban/rural divide.

This almost completely fails to take into account the multitude of other factors, most of which are socioeconomic, that may make that difficult.

Not at all. Completely, not at all. If you read that into my words, I apologize - when I broke down some of the various pieces I happened to choose for explaining, I was attempting to show how all of these pieces do, in fact, impact things. I think that if you are poor you do, in fact, have to be extraordinary in some and perhaps multiple vectors in order to succeed - particularly to jump to the next socioeconomic class. This doesn't mean that no one can do it and it does mean that a higher proportion of the poor will stay in poverty.

I'm..not really sure what you think I'm arguing, honestly.
posted by corb at 2:23 PM on August 31, 2013


I would define the US structure as one with "weak mobility" - ie it is possible to rise or fall, but not easy. What I am saying is that for some people, it is a feature rather than a bug, and that this doesn't necessarily mean they're terrible, awful human beings - just that they don't want to be downwardly mobile.

But far too many people act like the best way to keep from moving lower on the socioeconomic ladder is to kick and spit at the people lower than they are. They could look up and go hey, how come billionaire dude actually has to pay less in taxes than his executive assistant? They could look up and go hey, how come I *have* to go tens of thousands of dollars in debt just to get a shot at a job that didn't "need" a college degree even 15 years ago?

It also doesn't help that this large block of voters also acts like bootstrapping is somehow a workable form of public policy. It's an ideology, not actually policy. Like (I just learned this yesterday), if you've been convicted of a felony drug crime in California, you are ineligible for food stamps. Not all felony crimes - just drugs. A law like that certainly makes a statement, but what positive effects on the crime rate does it actually have? I would be beyond surprised if anyone has ever been deterred from committing a felony drug crime in this state because they might be ineligible for food stamps when they're done doing their time.
posted by rtha at 2:57 PM on August 31, 2013 [10 favorites]


I would argue that we have a loose sort of social fixing, which strengthens as you go up the ladder. Thus, without any significant factors, we are likely to remain in our financial and social strata.

It strengthens as you go up the ladder, which is to say that the people at the top rarely, if ever, fall. But the people at the bottom even more rarely rise. The people in the middle, more and more, don't rise, either, but may only try to manage how far they descend.

I would define the US structure as one with "weak mobility" - ie it is possible to rise or fall, but not easy. What I am saying is that for some people, it is a feature rather than a bug, and that this doesn't necessarily mean they're terrible, awful human beings - just that they don't want to be downwardly mobile. These advantages and protections that you are talking about are not coincidental - they were deliberately built in.

Maybe the American structure has weak mobility, but it seems to me that the farther down you are, the more difficult it gets to rise and the easier it gets to sink. It's natural not to want to fall, but it's monstrous to watch more and more of your fellow citizens join the ranks of the poor and think it well and good that downward social mobility is for people with less money than you.

I think that if you are poor you do, in fact, have to be extraordinary in some and perhaps multiple vectors in order to succeed - particularly to jump to the next socioeconomic class. This doesn't mean that no one can do it and it does mean that a higher proportion of the poor will stay in poverty.

What's your opinion of this state of affairs?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:07 PM on August 31, 2013


"Social mobility doesn't mean a constantly upward spiral - in fact, for strong upward social mobility to exist, there needs to be strong downward social mobility."

This is a conceptual mistake. The only way this would be true is if you make several unjustified assumptions: That money/wealth itself is zero sum; that the distribution of people in any given bracket remains constant; that the wealth distribution between brackets remains constant. As all three of those are not supported by evidence, conceiving of upward mobility requiring an equal downward mobility is not supportable as such. (For example: A decreased amount of wealth for those in the upper quintile can bring more people into the middle quintiles from the bottom quintile without removing people from the upper quintile.)

People are different in their beliefs about how much social mobility is a good thing - it often correlate with where they stand in the social ladder, but not always. If you're on the bottom, high social mobility is a universal good, because it will always place you in a better position. If you're in the middle, high social mobility is a risk vs security calculus - do you find a stronger possibility of being rich compelling enough to outweigh the stronger possibility of becoming poor? And if you're on the top, high social mobility is often a strong bad, because you're already roughly on the top - there's not far for you to go upwards, but a long way for you to fall. (There's some more complicated stuff around how people identify their social class, which is not always on their basic wealth)"

People differ, but you're making a mistake in treating those differences of opinion as equally valid, and again relying on the fallacy of a zero sum economic game. It also over-emphasizes an individualistic framing when, especially since this is a public policy, i.e. population, question. An easy example is that Warren Buffet supports policies that would increase social mobility without putting himself at any sort of real risk of moving inter-bracker (possibly intra-bracket, but that's neither here nor there).

"hat I am saying is that for some people, it is a feature rather than a bug, and that this doesn't necessarily mean they're terrible, awful human beings - just that they don't want to be downwardly mobile. These advantages and protections that you are talking about are not coincidental - they were deliberately built in. "

It doesn't necessarily make them terrible people, but it certainly would make them bad at macro economics to hold those beliefs, and the cohort that is both wealthy and bad at macro economics has a higher proportion of terrible people than the general populace.

And that those protections were deliberately built in does not make them just nor wise.
posted by klangklangston at 7:31 PM on August 31, 2013 [9 favorites]


That money/wealth itself is zero sum; that the distribution of people in any given bracket remains constant; that the wealth distribution between brackets remains constant. As all three of those are not supported by evidence, conceiving of upward mobility requiring an equal downward mobility is not supportable as such.

I don't think upward mobility necessarily requires an equal downward mobility, nor do I think the distribution of people in any given bracket remains constant, but I would really appreciate more elucidation on your points here. From what I've seen, people appear (and please correct me if I'm wrong) to be arguing that the problem with mobility in the US at least is that people at the top have too high a percentage of the money. Isn't that what the whole 99% thing was about? And suggestions for increasing improvements to the lower strata seem to often be built on specific higher taxes for the upper strata - like Bill DeBlasio's proposal to build universal pre-K on a millionaires' tax. We also have significant estate taxes for the wealthy, which I have seen argued is a part of increasing egalitarianism in society and lowering the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few.

What's your opinion of this state of affairs?

Doing this tentatively and briefly because I know how mods feel about giant "Things Corb Thinks" conversations - I think that weak mobility - where people have a smaller chance of rising, but also a smaller chance of falling - is probably the lesser of three evils. (The other evils being zero mobility, where no one can ever rise or fall out of the class they were born into, and high mobility, where people can rise very high and also fall very far frequently, with little stability.)
posted by corb at 12:03 PM on September 1, 2013


"I don't think upward mobility necessarily requires an equal downward mobility,"

Then your concerns about people at the top wanting less mobility are unfounded.

"nor do I think the distribution of people in any given bracket remains constant,"

I think I may have been unclear — the assumption was that the percentage of people in any given bracket remains constant, which is also necessary to be seriously concerned about downward mobility.

"From what I've seen, people appear (and please correct me if I'm wrong) to be arguing that the problem with mobility in the US at least is that people at the top have too high a percentage of the money"

That's a significant factor in the decrease of social mobility, but less because the people at the top have too much money in absolute terms, but rather that because of their antipathy toward reducing the rate of their growth means favoring policies that have a disproportionately detrimental effect on the ability of lower quintiles to move into middle class.

"And suggestions for increasing improvements to the lower strata seem to often be built on specific higher taxes for the upper strata - like Bill DeBlasio's proposal to build universal pre-K on a millionaires' tax."

Again, looking at the math of the situation, this would not result in what you term "downward mobility," not least because taxes aren't absolute fees, but rather percentages, and even then they're graduated. In order to pay a millionaire's tax, one would have to be a millionaire, and thereby be in the upper quintile — and even then, all the other millionaires are also paying the tax, so relative to others in the quintile, they would not move. Extreme income disparity is bad for many reasons; one of them is that it decreases social mobility, but that is not the only reason.

"We also have significant estate taxes for the wealthy, which I have seen argued is a part of increasing egalitarianism in society and lowering the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few."

Our estate taxes are not high enough, but you're right that they come from an egalitarian impulse. They do not, however, necessarily require an increase in downward mobility.

The only arguable approach by which increased social mobility would also necessitate a relative downward mobility for the wealthy would be by increasing the wealth of, say, the middle quintile so much that people who were formerly in the second-highest quintile would find their income then within the median quintile. But as that would not necessarily decrease their absolute wealth, it's churlish to demand policy simply to maintain that relative position.

(Really, I think that you'd be well served by learning more about distribution curves and the math behind them, as there are many things that you've simplified down to mistaken conclusions about how the curves function. It doesn't even have to be about income — way back in pre-calc, we did this with assigning arbitrary point values to Skittles colors and graphing them. The Lorenz curve is a good place to start, and you can look at it in terms of species size in ecologies if you want something that's not about money.)
posted by klangklangston at 1:18 PM on September 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Then your concerns about people at the top wanting less mobility are unfounded.

I suppose I should be clearer as well - I think part of it is that this is really hard to break down and some of it may be that I'm not entirely explaining my assumptions.

So, let's suppose you break the economic/class strata into 5 brackets, as I think you were suggesting - there's downward mobility that would, say, move someone completely from that bracket to another bracket, and then there's downward mobility that would move someone a tiny fraction downwards - while remaining inside that bracket, they are trending (even if infinitesimally) downwards, rather than remaining at a pure constant or trending infinitesmally upwards. I think you might have been referring to this when you mentioned Warren Buffet possibly moving in an intra-bracket sense.

As I have it - which again, feel free to correct if you've got data/another perspective - because of the numbers we're talking about, it is possible to give, say, someone in the lower fifth a huge boost - possibly even into the second fifth - while lowering someone in the highest fifth only partially. So to put it in human terms, Joe Billionaire can improve the life of Joe Menial Labor Guy signficantly, while lowering his own quality of life only fractionally. So the rise in Joe Menial Labor Guy's life is not actually equal to the same proportion of loss in Joe Billionaire's life, but there is still a loss all the same. (Ethics may dictate different values on whether this is a good thing or not, but we should ideally be able to figure out what actually happens)

Our estate taxes are not high enough, but you're right that they come from an egalitarian impulse. They do not, however, necessarily require an increase in downward mobility.

Don't they? I mean, I know we'd probably disagree about whether this stuff is good or not, but it seems relatively simple - if your parents live and can provide you with Standard of Living X, then upon your parents death, you are left with X/2 (for a simplification, I understand estate taxes vary). Wouldn't that necessitate the possibility of slight downward mobility, as estates are constantly shrinking over time? I understand lack of downward mobility to suggest that even if your children are, say, lazy shiftless bastards, they will continue at the standard of living that you possessed yourself and were able to provide them.
posted by corb at 2:07 PM on September 1, 2013


"During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly released Census Bureau data.

[...]

Affluent households typically have their assets concentrated in stocks and other financial holdings, while less affluent households typically have their wealth more heavily concentrated in the value of their home."

Them's some shitty apples if you ask me. I don't like them at all.
posted by rtha at 3:09 PM on September 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


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