Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Empathy for the Poor: A Meditation

The U.S. Census Bureau has just published its annual report with estimates of the U.S. poverty rate, which was 14.5% in 2013, down a touch from 15.0% in 2012. It's easy to have sympathy for those with low incomes. But for many of us, myself included, true empathy with the one-seventh or so of Americans who are below the  poverty line is more difficult. It can be difficult to avoid falling into easy and ill-informed moralizing that if those with low incomes just managed their food budget a little better, or saved a little bit of money, worked a few more hours, or avoided taking out that high-interest loan, then their economic lives could be more stable and their longer-term prospects improved.

When I find myself sucked into a discussion of how the poor live their lives, I think of the comments of George Orwell in his underappreciated 1937 book, The Road to Wigan Pier, which details the lives of the poor and working poor in northern industrial areas of Britain like Lancashire and Yorkshire during the Depression. Orwell, of course, was writing from a leftist and socialist perspective, deeply sympathetic to the poor. Bur Orwell is also painfully honest about his reactions and views. At one point Orwell laments that the poor make such rotten choices about food--but then he also points out how unsatisfactory it feels to patronizingly tell those with low incomes how to spend what little they have. Here's Orwell: 
English working people everywhere, so far as I know, refuse brown bread; it is usually impossible to buy whole-meal bread in a working-class district. They sometimes give the reason that brown bread is 'dirty'. I suspect the real reason is that in the past brown bread has been confused with black bread, which is traditionally associated with Popery and wooden shoes. (They have plenty of Popery and wooden shoes in Lancashire. A pity they haven't the black bread as well!) But the English palate, especially the working-class palate, now rejects good food almost automatically. The number of people who prefer tinned peas and tinned fish to real peas and real fish must be increasing every year, and plenty of people who could afford real milk in their tea would much sooner have tinned milk--even that dreadful tinned milk which is made of sugar and corn-flour and has UNFIT FOR BABIES on the tin in huge letters. In some districts efforts are now being made to teach the unemployed more about food-values and more about the intelligent spending of money. When you hear of a thing like this you feel yourself torn both ways. I have heard a Communist speaker on the platform grow very angry about it. In London, he said, parties of Society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping-lessons to the wives of the unemployed. He gave this as an instance of the mentality of the English governing class. First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money. He was quite right--I agree heartily. Yet all the same it is a pity that, merely for the lack of a proper tradition, people should pour muck like tinned milk down their throats and not even know that it is inferior to the product of the cow. 
In another passage, Orwell discusses how the poor are living by a "fish and chip standard" where cheap luxuries, gambling on lotteries and sports, and electronic pleasures are making life bearable even for those who lack jobs or a realistic chance of economic progress.

Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can't get much meat for threepence, but you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even 'mild' beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of starvation can buy a few days' hope ('Something to live for', as they call it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. Organized gambling has now risen almost to the status of a major industry. Consider, for instance, a phenomenon like the Football Pools, with a turnover of about six million pounds a year, almost all of it from the pockets of working-class people. I happened to be in Yorkshire when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland. Hitler, Locarno, Fascism, and the threat of war aroused hardly a flicker of interest locally, but the decision of the Football Association to stop publishing their fixtures in advance (this was an attempt to quell the Football Pools) flung all Yorkshire into a storm of fury.
And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.
Do you consider all this desirable? No, I don't. But it may be that the psychological adjustment which the working class are visibly making is the best they could make in the circumstances. They have neither turned revolutionary nor lost their self-respect; merely they have kept their tempers and settled down to make the best of things on a fish-and-chip standard. . . . Of course the post-war development of cheap luxuries has been a very fortunate thing for our rulers. It is quite likely that fish-and-chips, art-silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate (five two-ounce bars for sixpence), the movies, the radio, strong tea, and the Football Pools have between them averted revolution. Therefore we are sometimes told that the whole thing is an astute manoeuvre by the governing class--a sort of 'bread and circuses' business--to hold the unemployed down. What I have seen of our governing class does not convince me that they have that much intelligence. The thing has happened, but by an unconscious process--the quite natural interaction between the manufacturer's need for a market and the need of half-starved people for cheap palliatives.
In modern times, we have Americanized the "fish and chips standard" into "burger and fries," but the notion of the poor living through sports and pop culture, mediated through electronic devices, still has an uncomfortably contemporary ring.

In some ways, the issue of empathizing with the poor comes down to this: Is some of the seemingly dysfunctional behavior associated with poverty (say, low savings, poor diet, or certain kinds of risk-taking behavior) a result of poverty, or is it a reason why people ended up in poverty. An accumulating body of evidence suggests that being confronted with poverty leads to characteristic psychological reactions that can make it hard to escape from poverty.

For example, Johannes Haushofer and Ernst Fehr review the evidence "On the psychology of poverty" in the Science magazine issue of May 23, 2014 (pp. 862-867). After considering a range of evidence about the effects of poverty from both developed and developing countries, they write: "The evidence indicates that poverty causes stress and negative affective states which in turn may lead to
short-sighted and risk-averse decision-making, possibly by limiting attention and favoring habitual behaviors at the expense of goal-directed ones. Together, these relationships may constitute a feedback loop that contributes to the perpetuation of poverty."

Sendhil Mullainathan, along with various co-authors, has been pursing a research agenda which holds that the poor, who by definition are confronted by financial scarcity, are led by their poverty to act in ways just like the rest of us when we are confronted by a scarcity. In a 2013 interview, Mullainathan said:
You can get some people to sympathize with the poor, but to empathize is actually very hard, because most people are not poor. I realized that scarcity gives you a thread. You can understand some behaviors of your own that you experience under scarcity, and you can almost follow that thread and say, "I can at least imagine what that scarcity must be like if it were really unrelenting." This allows you to almost project yourself more into people’s shoes, and therefore to gain a richer understanding of a world which many of us don't otherwise have access to.
Mullainathan has carried out some interesting structured games in which some players turn out to be comparatively rich while others are comparative poor. The games are hypothetical settings, of course. But intriguingly, those who turn out to be poor in the game become much more willing to borrow at unfavorable conditions--even though it makes them worse off in the long run.

For my own part, my life often feels as if I am perpetually experiencing a shortage of time. Somehow, the tasks of life get done. But why can't I do a better job of working especially  hard for a few months or a year, and then getting well ahead of my work? Surely, it would be a more relaxed and  pleasant life if I didn't live from one deadline to the next?!? But I usually fail at saving up time and getting ahead in this way--just as those who are confronted with a shortage of income often fail to try extra-hard to save for a time, to ease what is otherwise an ongoing financial crunch. If you compare my own behavior in living deadline to deadline under a shortage of time, and the behavior of a low-income person in living check to check with a shortage of income, some of the patterns look much the same.

Sure, there are plenty of counterexamples of low-income people who manage their resources extremely well, under the pressure of limited income. And there are plenty  of counterexamples of busy people who manage to work ahead of their deadlines on a consistent basis. But perhaps the central theme of economics is the necessity of making choices as best we can under conditions of scarcity. For many of the modern poor, Orwell's summary of their position in life still rings true. One could look across swathes of modern America and still write: "Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life." It is a failure of basic human empathy to blame the poor for behaviors that offer a way of mitigating the surface of difficult life circumstances.