Answer by Tariq West:
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To Glyn Williams’ excellent answer, I’d add that in many places (e.g. in American inner-cities) poverty is not just a condition of limited access to resources and opportunity. Poverty, of the entrenched, cyclical sort, is also a condition of culture, of the soul of a community. It is a chronic failure of hope, a sort of mass-scale depression, which has roots in material conditions, but becomes something more insidious, even, than the material conditions that engender it.
Thinking back to my own childhood in the American ghetto, my family was often broke, sometimes to the point of relying on various forms of public and private assistance. That said, unlike many of the people around us, we were never poor in the most profound and crushing sense. I did often feel like I didn’t have enough, especially with the comparisons invited by being a scholarship kid at an elite private school. But as a precocious 12 year old, I began to understand what unlikely parents and lucky schooling and all of the trappings of a veritable “conspiracy of love” had given me, and what true poverty was by comparison.
I’d just finished ‘Autobiography of Malcom X’ and it left me feeling powerful, like I stood on the shoulders of giants and could do anything I put my mind to. Sitting on my front porch with my friend Wuda, I tried to convey to him this sense of empowerment, of what mighty lives we could make for ourselves. He shrugged, and nonchalantly submitted to me the truth of his world:
“I was born a broke-ass nigger in the ghetto, and that’s how I’ll die.”
I was angry first, then heart-broken, weeping into my pillow that night. I choke back tears thinking about it even today. What happened to my friend that by the age of 12 his world, his estimation of possibilities for himself, was so soul-crushingly small?
It has to do with the difference between the possible and the plausible. People routinely confuse the two, much to our collective detriment. It’s possible that a talented, hard-working, lucky individual will overcome poverty - we’ve seen examples of this. But in the societal, statistical sense of consistent observed outcomes and in the personal sense of acted-on beliefs, it’s often not plausible to overcome poverty.
Plausibility, in terms of personal belief, is informed powerfully by context. Poor people make quite rational choices within highly bounded contexts. Our contexts are not just shaped by objective material conditions (e.g. that there is a local library with internet access, or that there is pervasive discrimination in hiring decisions against a particular group), but also by a thousand signals that inform our beliefs not just about what possibilities exist in the world in the abstract, but which of them are available to us. These signals come from friends, family, strangers on the street, media, even the man-made environments we inhabit.
Returning to my friend Wuda’s heartbreaking statement, it could be said that his characterization of his life possibilities was quite accurate given the available information. Nearly everyone Wuda had ever known - his brothers and uncles, sisters and aunts, neighbors and friends, and most people he who looked like them on TV - failed to achieve social mobility, or any other piece of the “promise” of America. Pile upon those observations, the material conditions of his world - little access to healthy food, failing schools, dangerous streets, sub-par shelter, the likelihood of discrimination, structural and explicit, in everything from employment to the justice system to banking.
Wuda was subject to no less than a conspiracy of misfortunes, an optimism-defying trend line, untempered by the transcendental spiritual condition of hope, as the Czech poet Havel put it. By what miracle of insight would we expect him to form the belief that his life would be different than everyone he’d known or could relate to?
Plausibility in terms of observed societal outcomes is a separate, but related beast. A User Experience designer observing a focus group doesn’t look to the one user in ten who successfully achieved what the interface was supposed to help them achieve, and think, “Man, what a winner!” In celebrating outliers overmuch, we belie the truth of most people’s experience, and further, the causal linkages in a system that beg one outcome over another. We ignore the frailty and fallibility that is all of ours, and the bad luck that is some of ours, tacitly giving ourselves over to the ugly thought that, “certainly the mediocre rich, but only the extraordinary poor, should have a chance.”
A couple years ago, I spent some time in a favella, a sprawling urban slum, in Rio. The material conditions were far worse than anything I’d witnessed growing up in the US. But what was familiar, was the alienation from and distrust of authority, the hopelessness, the mass depression, the implausibility of a better life. In a 2006 column, Brazilian journalist Arnaldo Jabor, gave a name, ‘posmiseria’, to this dynamic of poverty.
‘Posmiseria’, post-misery, is a state in human consciousness produced by the sustained disenfranchisement and dispossession of a population, building to the point of perfect tragedy. At this point, a mere amilioration of the material conditions (e.g. building out water and electricity infrastructure to slums), is not quite enough to get people to believe again, or perhaps for the first time, that things will be better, and that they are worthy of better things. Jabor paints a picture of a young man, a narco foot-soldier, in the grips of this post-misery. He doesn’t dream, he just reflects back in his actions the callousness of the world that convinced him that he is disposable, worthless.
In the manifestations of poverty that I have a grasp on, people remain poor by some combination of material, systemic factors, and hopelessness, which becomes in itself, perhaps the most material factor.