Marketplace Scratch Pad

Happy Poor People

Scott Jagow Mar 31, 2009

I’m continuing my series of posts prompted by the question, What’s on your mind? One subject that came up was rich vs poor. Robin said she wanted to hear more stories about happy poor people. Kari asks, what is poverty really in our country?

What is poor? The Department of Health and Human Services has issued poverty guidelines for 2009 — $10,830 for one person, $14,570 for a couple. A family of four that makes under $22,050 is considered poor.

But beyond the numbers, the real question is what does being poor mean? My best answer would be — struggling to provide basic needs with few prospects for improving the situation. I was barely above poverty level my first couple years out of college, but I knew I would move up eventually. And that makes all the difference. Although, if I was in the same situation in this economy, I don’t know how optimistic I would be.

People say, “you just have to work hard and the results will come.” But that’s becoming more difficult to prove in the new economic reality. We have millions of people who’ve worked hard and lost and millions more who’ve worked hard, never had that much to lose, but they feel like even that is being taken away. The class warfare rhetoric is hotter than ever.

Many people see the Wall Street bailouts as an unconscionable transfer of wealth from the lower classes to the wealthy. In a column last week, the Philadelphia Progressive Examiner took the Democratic Party to task on this:

The fundamental problem as Main Street economics 101 could teach Bernanke and Geithner, is that our leaders have downsized Middle Class America’s wages to the point that we are not able to buy anything and we have so much debt we can’t afford to borrow. Too much wealth has been transferred already yet we just gave away 1 trillion more from Middle Class America to the rich. This economic bailout is robbing us blind and it is no more palatable being people who mouth that they support Middle Class Americans and are from the political party we continue to support.

Others see the rich as the target — the populist anger theme. I saw this comment in the Asheville Citizen-Times:

Along with the help of the media, the powers in government have promoted financial success as the result of greed and corruption, and not as hard work and dedication. Class envy is easy to promote when so many are economically living on the edge. Government’s true motives can be disguised when attention is averted to an object of easy scorn.

And as always, somewhere in the middle of all this, is the Middle Class. From the now-bankrupt Chicago Sun-Times this morning:

“The middle class is in trouble because of ‘affluenza,’ ” said Thomas Naylor, a professor emeritus of economics at Duke and co-author of a book of the same name. Affluenza is “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more,” the book says.

But author Amelia Warren Tyagi disputes the middle class’ woes were self-inflicted, noting that spending on clothing and food has actually decreased.

I found another column in the Huffington Post that declares poor people are happier than rich people for the first time in history. Author David Henry Sterry points out that many wealthy people have lost their fortunes, either through their own greed or because they’ve been swindled by people like Madoff. He quotes a doctor who invested with Madoff:

“It’s very depressing,” said Gerald, “I worked so hard for so long to build my practice. So I could provide for my family, so I could retire and travel. And now it’s all gone. Decades of hard work flushed down the toilet. I’m tired. I can’t sleep. And I’m angry.

On the other hand, the lifestyles of the poor and downtrodden have barely changed. Strerry tells the story of Carla, a recovering drug addict. She’s a writer, and she’s about to get published and get married. She’s disabled and lives on fixed income in one of the country’s worst neighborhoods. I don’t know if she’s happy, but she doesn’t seem angry:

But it’s so hard to live in the ghetto, drugs shoved down your throat, screaming lunatics and junkies, you just know at any minute someone can stick a knife right between your ribs. It just wears you down. If Obama would only give me, like, maybe ten grand, I could get out of the ghetto, get a computer, get on the Internet. Doesn’t seem like that much out of $800 billion, does it? But I have noticed you can get pants cheaper on the streets recently, so that’s good.”

It’s the old question of can money make you happy? It’s an unanswerable question because it’s different for everyone. Of course, life is better when you don’t have to stress about living in a ghetto. But plenty of people have committed suicide in mansions.

I think the whole thing is summed up nicely in the last scene of the movie “Arthur,” when Arthur thinks he’s losing a $750 million fortune:

Arthur: Money has screwed me up my whole life. I’ve always been rich, and I’ve never been happy.

Linda: I’ve always been poor and I’ve usually been happy.

Martha: Rubbish. I’ve always been rich and I’ve always been happy.

John Kennedy once said: “The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.”

Instead of class warfare, maybe that’s what we should be discussing.

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