The Math of Poverty

Getting some pushback on yesterday’s blog, I see. Apparently poor people haven’t earned the right to be judgmental, or to be angry. Sometimes I think there are only two ways to be an acceptable poor person in the US. The first is the “Bob Cratchit” model: Show up to work every day at your perennially underpaid clerical job, wearing the threadbare yet neat suit you (or your partner) have painstakingly hand-tailored by the light of your single candle, live on your bowl of bean broth a day and never ask for more, and generally show stoicism about your lot. The second is the “dirty beggar” model: wear sackcloth and ashes and hang out on street corners (preferably with your entire family and a small dog), shaking empty coffee cans and hitting up passersby for spare change. This second, while not respectable, is certainly acceptable in that it gives your “betters” someone to look down on and complain about in various forms of media. Falling outside either of those models confuses and alarms people. And when people are confused and alarmed, they react in unpleasant ways.

Which brings me to today’s post. I found something educational in the veiled vitriol of one comment (interesting use of the quotation marks around the word “husband,” by the way; did you mean to question the existence of such a person? or do you simply doubt that we’re married? I decline to upload a copy of our certificate for your inspection.). It went like this:

“With the $10 you spend on Netflix, you could have had THREE pairs of glasses and not waited three years!”

Honestly, at first I had no idea what this meant. $10 is obviously not $101, which was the cost of my glasses. And it definitely would not have covered three pairs of glasses. So I had to rewrite this portion of the comment in my head. It came out like this:

“If you had saved that $10 a month instead of spending it on Netflix, you could have bought three pairs of glasses in three years.”

Ah-ha! That makes better sense–to a point. And this is where the educational part comes in. You see, poverty math is not like money math. Money math is straightforward: X amount x Y months over Z years = AMOUNT. Poverty math is more existential, and there are far more variables. So what looks like a simple equation ($10 saved on Netflix X 12 Months/year X 3 years = $360 = Enough for three pairs of glasses) becomes a complex equation including time and circumstances and all kinds of other things a poor person has no control over. I’ll spell it out:

Let’s say I decide that I’m going to do without Netflix and put that money in a jar every month, so at the end of three years I have enough for my three pairs of glasses. Let’s also say that at this point in time this is the only “extraneous” expense I have so this is the only savings I can make, and let’s grant that I am making enough to cover my monthly housing, food, and utilities.

After six months I have $60 in my “glasses fund” jar. And then something happens. It doesn’t matter what happens. Stuff always happens. Maybe I blow a tire on my car and it has to be replaced. That’s minor; a new tire costs about $60, less if you get one that’s patched. Do I dip into my glasses fund? Of course I do, because I have to have the car to get to work. It puts me back at zero on my glasses fund. This shows how savings are a function of circumstance. So now our equation can be expressed as:

[12(Savings) / (Circumstance)] X 3 = Glasses

You can make up the loss in a relatively short time. But that was a small problem. Let’s say there’s a big one. Let’s say your car blows an alternator. That’s around $300–it’s been a while since we had to have an alternator replaced. It wipes out your monthly food budget. Now you have $60 and no food, and your kids are hungry. Do you hold onto that $60? It’ll buy a lot of macaroni and cheese. Of course your future glasses will take back seat to that. Your savings have actually gone into a negative amount here, because it’s going to take you a while to make up your deficit. Remember, you have no credit cards, only cash in hand.

Poverty Math is an exercise in relativity, and the rule is always Current Circumstance > Future Circumstance.

People come up with all kinds of arguments against this reality of hand-to-mouth living. There’s always the person who will say, “But do you really need the car? Can’t you take public transportation or get a ride to work?” And I’m not going to answer that question, in the first place because there will always be something more important than the future that comes up, and in the second because nothing will ever satisfy these people. No matter what lengths of austerity poor people go to, those who think they know better will always claim they should do more and sacrifice more.

I don’t know if Poverty Math qualifies as a science. Perhaps it’s more of a philosophy. The time and relativity aspects insist that one exist in a kind of perpetual NOW, where worries about both the past and the future become irrelevant. Perhaps this is why so many spiritual systems recommend giving up material goods and living a life of poverty. I don’t see the bright side, myself. The problem of an eternal now is that you lose the ability to believe in the future at all.

If that’s part of enlightenment, I’d rather have the money.

[With regards to Occupy Math, who I hope will find this post humorous.]