This week Tim Taylor blogged a thoughtful piece about empathizing with low-income Americans. I write ‘thoughtful’ because unlike many Taylor outright admits that he struggles with the easy mindset of blaming poor folks for being poor:
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.
With an extensive riff on a 77 year-old book by George Orwell, Taylor elucidates how downward-punching contemporary class prejudice is entirely unoriginal. My favorite sentences from the first block-quote of The Road to Wigan Pier:
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.
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. […]
Taylor goes on to bring up Sendhil Mullainathan’s work, who I’ve also linked to in reference to paying the scarcity tax in poverty. But the idea that the consumption patterns of the poor is the most relevant facet of class structure, and therefore richly deserving of whatever mockery you wish to throw at them, is quite alive and well.