Wednesday, January 16, 2008

They're spending it wrong.

Some people won't give charity (money) to beggars on the street, be they old wrecks or young punks, because they are afraid--or certain--the recipient will only spend the money on drugs and/or alcohol. They might buy food vouchers sold by a local charity instead and give those, or genuinely offer to take the beggar to a fast food joint and buy them a meal. Other people get upset, or feel superior, when they notice the woman paying for steaks with her food stamps--she ought to be using the money for beans and rice that will stretch for the whole month. I completely understand not wanting your money to be used in ways you disapprove of, that's one reason I questioned my kids when they asked me for money. But the judgmental attitude some people have about the poor really annoys me.

I've lived poor (almost entirely when I was too young to work, because as soon as I was old enough, I worked so I could buy food for myself and siblings), and I know how important it is to be able to spend a little extra on what counts. The thing is, what counts differs from person to person.

I'm guilty of judging other people's choices, just like most people. And of judging myself by them. But the poor have fewer choices in the first place; having lived it, I cannot condemn splurging on steak even if it means going to the food bank at the end of the month, or paying for gas for a daytrip to the beach even if it means the phone gets turned off. Living in constant dreariness (whether in your diet, clothing, free time, whathaveyou) is depressing; the occasional treat or indulgence makes the regular drudgery tolerable, and encourages the hope of a better future.

Even middle class and up families are subject to judgmental criticism of their choices. The Common Room quotes Lyman Abbott's 1896 House and Home:

Each family differs in the standards of the necessities imperative for the maintenance of family life. Opportunity for education is the uppermost need of one family. Establishing the semblance of social prominence is the one universal want of another family. Clothes that attract the eye of the passer-by is the one desire of another family. What we term a good table satisfies the wants of another family. It is the gratification of the special taste of each family that secures for that family the greatest happiness. We may admire or condemn, but if we are discerning, we shall know that we, in turn, are being criticized for the arrangement of our own lives- that in the judgment of many, we are sacrificing the best things of life, we are not securing the best results for the amount of money at our disposal. Accepting this fact, then, it behooves us to concentrate our attention on our own affairs, being careful to secure the results in our own family life that minister best to the life of that family without regard to outside standards.

and then goes on with more examples:

In addition to personal taste, I would say that each family also has its own unique purpose. We have guests in our home every single week (and usually more than once a week), but we don't do sports. One family doesn't bake bread but does play baseball (Hi, Cindy!); another family has a flair for music and life lived large (Hi, Queen S.!). One family has a knack for putting together bits and pieces and using them creatively and frugally (Hi, Mama Squirrel!), and others have a gift with art.
Some folks have money and the desire for five thousand dollar weddings with a dozen bridesmaids, and some people think 100 dollars and a potluck should just about cover everything. Your family may be dressed in blue jeans 365 days of the year, or perhaps Austen style gowns, or Edwardian dresses, or skirts and blouses. Your special niche may be writing and homeschooling and children with special needs. Your special talent might be elegant food or plain down home fare.

People make different choices because they value different things. And that's not just not bad, it's actually good.


Stef said...

This is a really good point and you explain it very well.

Kai Jones said...

Thank you.

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

I totally understand the need to spend money on flowers and circuses occasionally- we have been so poor we were hungry before, and we have been too poor to get our electricity or phone hooked up. YOu do feel just grubby without the occasional extravagance.

And I agree we need to be careful about assumptions based on limited exposure- one observation of one woman's purchases on one trip to the grocery store is not much data.

But there are people who do make a regular habit of bad choices, who make the flower and circuses the pattern rather than the occasional splurge. And if they were willing to live with the consequences, that would be one thing. If you choose to go to the beach rather than keep your phone, that's fine, unless you then ask somebody else to help you get the phone turned on. That's not fair. And that's where I have a problem- when people splurge like that and then they are not at all interesting in accepting the consequences of choices they made. They want us to live with them, instead.

We have tenants who haven't paid their rent in months, and we've just bit the bullet and tightened our belts, because we know he's out of work, it was the holidays, baby it's cold outside, and the house they rent belonged to my great grand-dad, so it's old, run down, and paid for. We've asked him to do some work that we didn't really need to have done just to help him accept some responsibility (he quit a good job because 'he didn't like it' and he hasn't held down others since).
But it's hard when he's young and able bodied and we're 45 and my husband has bad knees and a steel plate in his arm, and we counted on that income, too, and then we see their kids in 75 dollar shoes (she told me that's what they cost) and she tells me about the great movies they saw at the theater, and they go out to eat, and their kids complain about the food we've shared with them (which was the same stuff we eat, we weren't clearing the shelves of stuff nobody here liked).
Or the single mom we try to help, who is always calling us for rides (which costs us a good twenty bucks in gas each time), and *every* time we take her to the store she's spending money on junk, frivolous, unnecessary trash, all the while complaining that the government is making her pay 3.00 for her prescriptions and she guesses that will just come out of the diaper money. She has satellite t.v. and two televisions in her two bedroom apartment which she shares with a three and a one year old. Her long distance bill every month is more than mine for the year- and I have friends and family out of state, too. She's done this consistently in the 16 months that we have known her. Splurging is her way of life, not the occasional splash to brighten things up.

These examples are not, unfortunately, unusual examples.

Sometimes judgements are mean and hasty. And sometimes they are discernment, recognizing patterns where they exist. And you don't get to recognize patterns without being involved in people's lives, as we have been.

Kai Jones said...

I don't judge you, headmistress: I admire you, that's why I brought this to my blog from yours. I don't see a lot of disagreement between us.

I know full well that some people make bad choices. My mother was one of them, for a very long time--I didn't buy food because she'd done her best and there wasn't enough, but because she spent the money on drugs or alcohol, or whatever guy she brought home that weekend. But I learned to make different choices, and I honor the things she did well when I was younger, like giving us the occasional treat even if it meant doing without later.

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

Kai, I actually meant to be asking a question, and I see I never did get around to the question part.=)

Having been where you were as a child because of the bad choices your mom made, what ideas do you have about what would have been helpful and what would have been counterproductive from anybody on the outside?

I worry that letting the family stay in our house without paying the rent for so long was actually enabling rather than helping. But they have small children and the winters here are bitter, and we just could not, in good conscience, evict them in the winter- but if we'd actually been making payments on that house, we'd have had no other choice.

The single mom, I had really hoped to do more that would actually help her change her patterns of living. I know she didn't get this way as a grown up, but comes from a long line of welfare moms. I really do think she has a vague idea that things could be different, but I don't see her actually picking up and acting on even the smallest idea about changing how she does things.

What would you say to somebody who made the flowers the pattern rather than the treat? Or would you say anything at all?

I'm really just brainstorming here and trying to think of things from different angles.

Kai Jones said...

I've been struggling with that question all my life.

I will always come down on the side of the child. Adults have the power to change their lives through their choices, while children are (for good reasons) subject to the choices other people make for them.

What helped me was having role models for other ways of living, and you are providing that. Also some help getting experiences like other kids--one summer a church sponsored my sister and me to go to YMCA camp for a week. Just going to my friends' homes to visit, where there weren't drug addicts and so forth controlling the choices, where we could eat dinner at the table together and play board games and have a positive sense of community helped me a lot.

I got a lot of my adult role models out of books--fiction was my escape from the chaos around me.

I'm not convinced you can help adults until and unless they want it bad enough to make most of the change without help.

I wouldn't say anything to the flower people, but that's because I'm too angry to be useful. What I think might have helped my mom was somebody consistently pointing out the good decisions she made, and praising her for them, and reminding her of them (especially when she was sad or hopeless). Mostly positive reinforcement with some teaching through analogy.