Sunday, November 16, 2008

Are the Poor Petrified?

Tibor R. Machan

When I came to America I was seventeen and a half and once I turned eighteen I ran away from my family. My father was a brute and in America I didn't have to accept him as my lord and master past age eighteen.

But, of course, I had nothing at all to my name. I did manage to sneak into the house late one night and take some of my clothes but they were very few. I was really poor but I was finally free, not only of the political system of the country where I grew up, Hungary, but also of my tyrannical father. Nothing else but free! But that was a lot!

First I went to the Salvation Army but it wasn't what I was hoping for so I approached a friend and borrowed $75.00 for a couple of weeks' room rent. The place was not much more than a closet but had a bed and sink and I was glad of it all. I went out an got a job, too, although I was also attending high school and as a new arrival had problems with English. Still, I got a job as a short order cook, preparing salads in what now would be considered a fast food restaurant. A few weeks later I got a better job, in a swankier restaurant, as a bus boy, but it didn't last long since they served liquor and I was too young. I got fired. So then I found another job--as a draftsman at Carrier Air Conditioning. I had some talent drawing and it came in handy here. This was an actual half time job and allowed me to continue with school.

Slowly but surely I saved a few bucks, even established credit with some stores which later served me well with my credit rating. On and on I went, two steps ahead, one behind, more or less. There was also a serious recession in the country after a while and I became unemployed since Carrier couldn't afford me. I went on unemployment for two or three weeks but it got so annoying, to wait in line and then have very little to spend while doing nothing much that I quit. I left the town in which all this went down and found work in another state, not without a little help from friends whom I sought out. I kept getting odd jobs--I recall one was repacking hundreds of boxes of motor oil, which lasted about two months--and I also rented some better places than I did initially, after I bolted from home.

Now I could continue with this but there are millions of such stories, involving folks who are poor and then got less poor and in time joined what is dismissively called the middle class--as if people permanently belonged in those artificial classes conceived of by political theorists of one kind or another. Suffice it to say that by way of some effort, persistence, prudence, and luck I eventually stopped being poor, got some savings together, started a family, bought a home and another and then another, each a bit better than the one before. And my jobs, too, improved because I persisted in going to school and in time earned several degrees.

None of this was awful although at the time some of it seemed so and even scared me some until I learned how to deal with the difficulties. (I insisted on learning to speak nearly fluent English, even though I was a late arrival in America, partly because I was told back in Europe that no Hungarian will ever lose his accent, partly because I wanted to make a living speaking and writing!)

My purpose in telling this story is to point out that poor people aren't crippled. They lack resources other than their resolve and tenacity but those are not negligible by a long shot. If you are alert to opportunities, if you are diligent, if you don't get all dejected by being surrounded with wealth which you lack, etc. and so forth, you can pull yourself out of your poverty and in some cases even become immensely wealthy; it often depends on you, although a bit of luck helps.

Now all this is fairly plain, so why does it need retelling? Because so very many social theorists and commentators have a view of human beings whereby they are all stuck, petrified, frozen in their economic situations and unable to extricate themselves. So they become "the poor," a category of humanity like "the bald" or "the tall." This conception of human beings leads to the widespread belief that unless some great force, such as the all powerful and wise government, comes around to shake things up, the poor will remain poor forever. In fact, however, as the economist Thomas Sowell has reported, most American poor remain poor for about 4 to 5 years and then stop being poor. And if there is a free market for them to navigate economically, matters are even more favorable--the poverty of the poor lasts for an even shorter period.

I suppose it is a bit like talking of the sick as if they were permanently so, not just for a while, now and then, after which they could well recover. For some reason, though, social theorists are very inclined to see people as if they had no way of changing their economic circumstances. Moreover, they refuse to even consider that in certain cases people knowingly choose to be poor, economically unambitious, because they pursue different ways of self-development.

As I noted before, some of this is obvious enough but now and then it is worth reflecting on it anew. It can help us to think more sensibly, even more optimistically, about some of the dire circumstances we face in our lives.

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