Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the job market, poverty, and the assumptions we make when we talk about people’s choices, partly because recently I’ve seen two excellent and provocative posts about this. The first is from Tressie McMillan Cottom on “The logic of stupid poor people”, a post that discusses how expensive status symbols (like a $2,500 handbag) act as powerful signifiers, and how in general there is a complex performance that must be mastered in order for class “mobility” to happen. The second post, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts” is by Linda Walther Tirado who writes about the (non-) choices faced by poor people, and how they are criticized for what they choose.
I think a theme in these posts is how the scope of (perceived and actual) possibility diminishes radically as your finances worsen – and this affects not only the decisions you make but also your whole view of the world and what it has to offer.
For example, think about the search for adequate employment and how this is experienced by people with low and/or unstable incomes. One thing it highlights is how space changes when you’re poor: no money for a driver’s license, insurance, or a car? Then you can’t take jobs that are far from public transit or that demand the applicant has their own vehicle. Can’t afford to pay for the bus anymore? Then your options diminish further. Time also changes when you’re broke; you get less done because you spend a lot of time just waiting, or having to get things done the hard way because the easy way costs more. Waiting for the bus and hoping you can get to an interview on time. Waiting in line-ups. Waiting for people to get back to you about money or jobs. Waiting for a cheque to arrive so you can pay the bills. Waiting.
What about other resources you need in order to find work? No money to buy a nice suit, appropriate shoes, or makeup and a good haircut? Then you’ll have a hard time applying for office jobs or even much of the service work available, since appropriate self-presentation is crucial (see Tressie’s post for a great description of how this works). These days you need the Internet for a good job search, but what if you can’t get access? What if you can’t afford a phone, making it difficult for potential employers to contact you? What if you’re not exactly sure what will be the next thing you can eat for dinner, and that’s a more pressing concern than drafting the perfect resumé? Priorities change when money runs out, and choices change as well.
Most importantly, you need resources to gain resources. This is either a virtuous circle or a vicious one, depending on where you are on the income spectrum. As Linda Walther Tirado writes in her post: “We know that the very act of being poor guarantees that we will never not be poor.” That’s knowledge that comes from life experience, not from the classroom.
Add to this the weighty sediment of shame that builds up, because in this Western, capitalist society, we tend to assess people’s intelligence and their moral capacity by their financial circumstances. It’s assumed that people are “stupid”, “irresponsible”, and “frivolous” when they lack money. At best they are “unfortunate”. But the assumption is that there’s something wrong with them, not with their context, not with the entire system in which they’re forced to participate. There’s always something “they” could have done to correct their own course; there’s always a different decision they could have made, some cost they could have cut. Never mind that others get to make mistakes and fall back repeatedly, unscathed, on the soft cushion of privilege. To open up about being poor (or about trouble with finances in general) is to expose oneself to scrutiny and judgement of one’s decisions and one’s character.
And so “charity” comes to feel like a dirty word to those who may be on the receiving end of it. Charity means you couldn’t make it on your own – never mind that most people who “make it” do not do so without often-invisible forms of help and support. Charity means relying on the goodwill of strangers, in a society where independence and self-sufficiency are both over-valued and mostly illusory.
You may wonder why I’m writing about work and money and opportunities, instead of education. I think the debate about being poor is intimately linked to the arguments we make about higher education and who has access to it, and the differing “outcomes” of that education. All the things I just described are things that some students may be experiencing or may have experienced in the past. They’re all factors that affect people’s perceptions of the value of things, including education – and the risks we’re told we have to take to access that value. When we talk about student financial assistance, “debt aversion”, the job market, “entrepreneurialism”, and most of all “risk”, we are making assumptions not just about income and privilege but also about mindset.
Not only that, but of course there’s an intimate link between money and mental health issues, and it’s a link that goes both ways. Issues like clinical depression can lead to poverty, but poverty can cause these issues, too. Long-term financial instability wears you down; it reduces the sense that you can gain any control over your own life. Those students who’ve arrived at university from that kind of background are already dealing with a specific kind of long-term exhaustion. They are more vulnerable to being overwhelmed, and possibly less likely to feel safe asking for help. It’s not just the stress of education they’re dealing with – it’s the cumulative stress of living with worry about the lack of things, and the potential lack of things, including lack of possibilities. If they have low expectations about the “returns” on their education “investment”, then this is big part of it; if they fear for the future, then who can blame them?
There’s so much hue and cry about the diminishing opportunities for those who were previously part of the middle class – as if a problem only matters when it happens to folks who had better things in mind. But for some people this has always been their mode of living, their understanding of the world. When we hold out the promise of a better life as the result of higher education, not everyone can believe in that promise. When pundits bemoan the “high expectations” of an entire generation, they’re forgetting that not everyone had the expectation of magical prosperity either from education or anything else. If we took loans, it wasn’t because we truly believed we could repay them; it was because we saw no other option, because we were told our chances of survival were even lower without the coveted Bachelor’s degree. It was because not having a degree was presented a threat to our future employability, and the fear of debt was overshadowed by the fear of other forms of uncertainty. That doesn’t feel like a “choice” – it feels like coercion, and it’s something we need to start thinking about when we engage in debates about policy and accessibility.