Readers (both of you) will have noticed that I’ve been stuck on a particular theme lately, which is the problem of long-term unemployment and the larger problem of poverty, which touches many–far too many–people who have jobs. A couple of years ago before we moved out of the Bay Area we lived about half a mile from “The Jungle,” a stretch along Coyote Creek in San Jose where one can find the largest homeless encampment in North America. Most of the people who work there have jobs. Last time I heard, the City, in its questionable wisdom, comes through and bulldozes everything and routs everyone out, as if that will somehow magically make all the homeless people go away. Last year they finally shut down the encampment, which has only made things more complicated. Other Bay Area counties are more enlightened, but the sheer stupidity of San Jose on this issue is simply mind-numbing.
Incidentally, a number of tent cities have managed to evolve from illegal encampments to sanctioned villages, but this is only possible if the local government is willing to work with the homeless people. An excellent study of this is Andrew Heben’s Tent City Urbanism. But that’s another discussion.
Meanwhile, some interesting articles have appeared in the last few months about what poverty does to people, mentally and physically. Others have already noted the die-off of white males living in economically depressed areas, many of those deaths coming from alcohol or drug abuse as hope for them fades away.
The Atlantic has been an outstanding resource on the effects of penury on people and communities, with a number of excellent articles over the last few years:
Escaping Poverty Requires Almost 20 Years With Nearly Nothing Going Wrong
The Long-Term Unemployment Trap
How the Recession Changed Long-Term Unemployment
Poverty Is Literally Making People Sick Because They Can’t Afford Food
But a must-read by, of all people, a successful hedge fund manager, does more to highlight the long-term, caustic effects of poverty even on those lucky enough to escape it. “Why Poverty is Like a Disease” by Christian Cooper is a painful memoir, a scientific treatise, and a searing indictment of our current approach to poverty (“It’s their own damn fault!”). The biological insights which Cooper summarizes are particularly important to the current debate. Speaking of his own prior assessment of a childhood spent in deep poverty, Cooper says:
As an adult I thought I’d figured that out. I’d always thought my upbringing had made me wary and cautious, in a “lessons learned” kind of way. Over the past decades, though, that narrative has evolved. We’ve learned that the stresses associated with poverty have the potential to change our biology in ways we hadn’t imagined. It can reduce the surface area of your brain, shorten your telomeres and lifespan, increase your chances of obesity, and make you more likely to take outsized risks.
Now, new evidence is emerging suggesting the changes can go even deeper—to how our bodies assemble themselves, shifting the types of cells that they are made from, and maybe even how our genetic code is expressed, playing with it like a Rubik’s cube thrown into a running washing machine. If this science holds up, it means that poverty is more than just a socioeconomic condition. It is a collection of related symptoms that are preventable, treatable—and even inheritable. In other words, the effects of poverty begin to look very much like the symptoms of a disease.
Cooper goes on to explain how stresses such as those associated with long-term poverty can evoke epigenetic expressions–reactions to negative stress–that appear in offspring for several successive generations. Think about that for a moment.
After going through the medical and biological implications of these new discoveries, which Cooper helpfully includes in his footnotes, he gets to the meat of the issue, which is that we have to drastically re-assess how we approach dealing with poverty. And the first comfortable myth that needs to go is the bootstrap, that magical device by which anyone can work their way out of poverty if they just work hard enough. There has already been a growing body of research showing that this just doesn’t happen, and for very good reasons. I’ll go into those another time. What is more important is to understand that victim-blaming and moral tut-tuttery about bootstraping is basically bullshit, and always has been. Cooper continues:
What kind of a bootstrap or merit-based game can we be left with if poverty cripples the contestants? Especially if it has intergenerational effects? The uglier converse of the bootstrap hypothesis—that those who fail to transcend their circumstances deserve them—makes even less sense in the face of the grim biology of poverty. When the firing gun goes off, the poor are well behind the start line. Despite my success, I certainly was.
So how did Cooper escape to become wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice? His own answer: “By chance.” He got lucky. That is essentially what it comes to in the final analysis. Cooper finally comes to an inescapable conclusion, which is that poverty cannot be beaten, hectored, moralized, or shamed out of existence. Treating it, as one might treat a disease, with the lack of moral judgement that goes with other medical procedures, represents a better way, at least until we figure out a more just and compassionate economic doctrine.