Much of what I imagined about "the poor" was wrong.
Walking into the county jail at two in the morning, because I want to post bail for one of the inmates, there are several things that I notice right away. First, the blinding brightness of the lights. It may be night outside but it is apparently always daytime in the county jail. The second thing I notice is the noise - metal clanging doors and the shouts and moans of the drunken, the addicted, and the mentally ill.
And the smells. The unmistakable stench of urine mingled with the smell of bleach pervades the air.
I'm there on a mission of mercy – to bail a young man out of jail so that he doesn't miss work in a few hours. His fragile grip on his job won't survive an absence for having been arrested. There is $2000 in hundred dollar bills in my pocket. County jails are notorious for wanting cash on the barrelhead if they're going to let someone go free. No checks or credit cards accepted here.
The young man who needs my help is in jail because he was arrested by the police after accumulating traffic tickets he could not afford to pay. Since he couldn't afford them, he didn't pay them. Of course, he also didn't show up in court to arrange a payment plan. He just let the tickets slide and a warrant for his arrest was duly issued. Stopped by the police for a minor traffic violation, he was arrested because of the outstanding warrants.
For reasons I won't go into here, I knew this young man and thought he might have some potential. For entirely unexpected personal reasons, I had been thrown into close association with numerous young people among the urban poor. I felt compassion for this young man and arrived at the jail in the wee hours after I received a call from one of his friends.
On another occasion, my wife and I loaded up the trunk of our car with groceries and took them to the house of a young mother in a poor urban part of town. Her children were going hungry. She resided, along with a couple of other women and their children, with a man known in the neighborhood for dealing drugs. When we arrived to drop off the food, we found the drug dealer was home at the time. He presented a noteworthy appearance, having adorned himself with thousands of dollars worth of gold teeth, gold chains, and tattoos. But the women and children were left to fend for themselves. Priorities.
Over time, I began to notice a change in my own perceptions of the people I was connected to within that community. My actual experience was beginning to unravel my previous sentimental assumptions about the poor and the "unfortunate". I began to have unorthodox thoughts about the social pathologies I was having my nose rubbed in. Ultimately, I began to suspect (though I didn't at first feel free to voice my suspicions), that in a free society and economy, sustained poverty may be mostly self-inflicted.
Admittedly, I came to this impression not due to quantitative surveys that measured the prevalence of personal irresponsibility among the urban poor. My conclusions are drawn only from my own close observation of numerous people who all shared common demographic characteristics and similar cultural assumptions. They didn't all know each other. But what they shared in common was a worldview.
Ultimately, the narrative in my head about the poor was completely rewritten by the experience of dealing with them directly rather than from a distance, where my prior fantasies had been much easier to sustain. I was eventually forced to conclude that my perception of the poor was more an artifact of my own imaginings than of the reality. The entire narrative that had been running around in my head, prior to engaging personally with the poor, was a figment and projection of compassionate fantasies. In my imagination, I conceived of the poor as being involuntarily in difficult straits due to circumstances beyond their control. What I found in actuality was that in almost every case, the difficult circumstances were the result of very bad decisions and misplaced priorities. More than this, it was also the case (this shocked me at the time) that most of the people I dealt with preferred their difficult circumstances to altering their priorities in such a way that would have yielded different outcomes.
I eventually began to realize that my own compassion was largely animated by the way I myself would feel if I was in their circumstances. But, to my surprise, it turned out that my feelings about their circumstances were a product of my own priorities, not theirs. When I intervened to "help", by propping them up (e.g. paying the outstanding tickets of my friend in county jail) they almost always eventually ended up back in the very same circumstances again.
Now, someone from the professional helper class might weigh in at this point to suggest that there is a need for the urban poor to be coached by professional helpers in the niceties of making better decisions for their lives. But decision making is ultimately downstream from values. Better decisions can never be had in the absence of truer beliefs. Decisions are not simply an artifact of decision-making technique but, rather, they are visible manifestations of specific underlying commitments. The issue with the urban poor in my acquaintance was not that they were stupid or incapable, nor even unskilled in decision making. The problem was that they believed things about the world that were manifestly untrue.
Most of my urban poor acquaintances believed that a life worth living was characterized by pleasure-seeking and profligacy. (You will learn far more about the real motivations of the urban poor by reading the lyrics to their music than by listening to the popular romanticization of poverty that dominates the popular imagination.) The hedonistic worldview of my acquaintances took various forms, but the results were always the same: dissipation and disaster. The thing that was surprisingly difficult for me to accept was that for the majority of my acquaintances, the ensuing disaster was, for them, actually preferable to the discipline and self-denial which would have forestalled their unhappy circumstance. They found the impositions of responsibility (e.g. renewing their drivers license, maintaining a job) to be far more nettlesome than spending a few nights in jail or living in squalor. This was mind-boggling to me, but I finally came to grips with the fact that it was only mind-boggling when perceived through my own very different worldview.
The gap between myself and most of the poor who inhabited my circle was not actually money. It was priorities.
I found myself surprisingly resistant to accepting, as real, the obvious preference many of these people had for calamity over safety, a preference that showed itself whenever safety required self-discipline. Such recklessness ran so counter to how I had imagined the urban poor - as unwitting victims of forces beyond their control - that it was hard for me to believe that such people existed.
Another facet of my internal resistance was, I now suspect, grounded in my own unspoken realization that the impressions I had formed by close association with the poor were far outside the socially acceptable bounds of modern paternalistic compassion. Modern pieties are such that social niceties allow for nothing other than sickly sweet empathy toward the poor, combined with a never-ending presumption of their innocence.
Coming to grips with the extent to which one's prior assumptions have been totally out of step with reality is a sobering experience, not least because you may now find your own beliefs out of step with almost everyone around you. Having wandered the halls of jails, and also spent time actually talking with the poor, I found myself impressed but shocked by their very intentional and philosophical worldview, one which they could articulately express, and which perfectly accounts for their difficult circumstances. Their human agency is real. The urban poor are fully formed human beings with a conscious point of view. They are not stupid. They are not children. They are not sub-human. Understanding the tradeoffs, they simply choose to minimize the benefits of delayed gratification.
The light eventually dawned on me that the popular mythology surrounding poverty in America has almost no correspondence with reality.
Coming to grips with the truth about the mindset of the poor is harder than it might seem. We are social creatures after all. Harboring views that are out of step with the sympathies of almost everyone around you can be traumatic at first. I expect there may even be people reading this who think I overstate the situation or who suspect that I am a callous, unfeeling monster.
Eventually, I found in the writings of Theodore Dalrymple a kindred spirit whose entire life had been spent working among the urban poor, and whose own experience led him to similar conclusions. It was comforting to read his books as I grappled with the challenge of having come to conclusions that were so socially out of step. Even he found himself feeling the burden of coming to conclusions that were so at odds with the dominant cultural mythology.
"As every political propagandist knows, there is nothing more destructive of the human psyche than to be forced to doubt the veracity of what one's own elementary observations demonstrate, simply because they conflict with a prevailing and unassailable orthodoxy. In such circumstances, one is forced to choose between considering oneself deluded, or the world as mad: one is either sane in an insane world, or insane in a sane world. Neither alternative is entirely satisfactory." - Theodore Dalrymple, Romancing Opiates
One of the great benefits of the recent pandemic, from my perspective, was that it awakened so many people to the pervasive disconnect between the official narrative coming at us from all directions, and the observed reality of our lived experience. Not everyone has had my own cause to regularly rub shoulders with the urban poor, but during the pandemic, everyone was able to compare their actual experience and intuition with the propagandistic drumbeat they were subjected to. It is comforting, in some perverse way, to know that millions of people have discovered the extent to which official narratives can diverge from reality. Alas, the propaganda and gaslighting are apparently never ending, and they aren't limited to our understanding of poverty.
One of the disconcerting things about my engagement with the urban poor has been the discovery that my sympathetic sensibilities were wholly out of step with my rational understanding of what was true. I found that, though I had a conscious point-of-view regarding subjects like the causes of poverty, those conscious ideas were wholly in conflict with my initial subjective reaction to the poor themselves. I wouldn't have said, in so many words, that I believed the urban poor were always victims. But I nevertheless instinctively presupposed the victimhood of the urban poor in my early interactions with them. In short, I found that I had drunk from the narrative I was immersed in, and that narrative had a foothold in my own moral imagination.
In the end, I have come to believe that, in economically free societies, most of the persistent poor are not innocent victims of circumstance. There are exceptions, to be sure. But I believe that those exceptions are a tiny fraction of the broader community. The fraction of real victims is small enough that helping them is impossible using the kind of blunt instrument that the industrial-scale poverty industry represents. Not least is this true because a lack of material resources is only a symptom, not the actual cause. For the vast majority of the urban poor, what traps them in poverty is not material circumstance but rather what they believe about themselves, and about the world around them.
Thomas Sowell has written movingly about his own life in Harlem as a child, and how the poverty of his neighborhood did not manifest itself in criminality and predation. His lived experience belies the popular mythology that social disorder is inevitably caused by poverty. Russell Kirk put similar ideas eloquently in his posthumous memoir, The Sword of Imagination:
A sentimental utilitarianism [has] argued that prosperity would abolish sin. It was a shallow argument, ignorant of history; for had it been true, all rich men's sons, these many centuries past, would have been perfectly virtuous...At bottom, the remedies for slums are not bigger wages, or bricks and mortar, or huge new schools, but instead those habits of decency and responsibility beyond the grasp of welfare-state measures.
I have learned through hard experience that there is a vast chasm between real help for the poor and simply giving them things. This is largely so because there is a marked difference between the truly unfortunate (e.g. the Bible speaks often of widows and orphans as examples of true neediness) and those whose foolish priorities have been the cause of their own difficulties (e.g. the book of Proverbs speaks unsentimentally about "fools" whose moral choices lead them into disaster.)
Anyone interested in truly helping the poor must first be willing to make socially awkward distinctions between actual misfortune and mere foolishness. Especially is this true if your motivation for helping is genuinely born out of compassion rather than vanity. There is a lot of concern for "the poor", especially popular among the "woke" (and woke Christians in particular) that is mostly just a desire to publicly celebrate themselves for holding socially approved opinions.
Helping the truly poor is far more expensive in time and treasure than posting bail at two in the morning for a young man whose difficulties are self-inflicted. Helping the poor is also far less glamorous than collecting "Likes" on social media for posting profile pictures that signal your support for the most recent, socially approved, victim group.
Helping the poor is actually something Christians are called on to do, and to do personally. Woke Christians, advocating for the government to confiscate the property of others and redistribute it to the so-called poor, have found a clever but perverse way to bask in their own virtuous feels while avoiding the personal proximity to the poor which might otherwise inform and interfere with their fantasy-fueled compassion. Such virtue fakery avoids the very real personal sacrifices and involvement that Christians in particular have been called to make. Outsourcing concern for the poor to government bureaucrats amounts to a kind of socially distant compassion which avoids the learning that might otherwise make it more knowing, but also more demanding.
Of course, maybe that is entirely the point.
I will finish this post (which has gotten very much longer than I intended) with a snippet from a letter I wrote to a young Christian friend who was flirting, in his online posting, with wokeness and all of its temptations. At the time, I was financially contributing to his support in Christian ministry, so I had an abiding interest in his ministry philosophy, and even an obligation to understand it. This snippet was part of some advice I gave to him and his wife for consideration as a possible substitute for merely virtue signaling trendy opinions. This letter was written long after I had shed my own illusions about the cultural pathologies that are ravaging the urban poor:
Spend more time in jails and in the 'hood. It will be more than a little risky, but it will transform your perspective and make you less inclined toward paternalistic responses to the actual problems. Bring a fatherless child into your home, and then you and [REDACTED] set aside your other plans and take responsibility for him or her. Also, don't ask other people to provide for the child. You will learn more if you and [REDACTED] do this from your own sweat, and the fruit of your own labor. Reorder your lives as necessary to love that child. Put yourself in the position of having a real stake in the outworkings of your ideas about race in the life of someone you're responsible to teach and to provide for.
Reality can be very different than our sympathetic imaginings.