Poverty isn’t just about money

If I was a poor black kid, I’d work hard in school and use technology to succeed, writes Gene Marks, a middle-class white man, in a Forbes column that’s angered and annoyed  many people.
Being poor is a lot harder than middle-class people think, responds Megan McArdle in The Atlantic. She lists the many reasons why poor black kids don’t just work, study, log in to Google Scholar and get ahead.
Number 14 is that not everyone likes school. She quotes Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier:

The time was when I used to lament over quite imaginary pictures of lads of fourteen dragged protesting from their lessons and set to work at dismal jobs. It seemed to me dreadful that the doom of a ‘job’ should descend upon anyone at fourteen. Of course I know now that there is not one working-class boy in a thousand who does not pine for the day when he will leave school. He wants to be doing real work, not wasting his time on ridiculous rubbish like history and geography. To the working class, the notion of staying at school till you are nearly grown-up seems merely contemptible and unmanly.

People for whom school us fun have made “education a virtual pre-requisite for a stable and well paying job,”  McArdle writes. People who don’t like school and aren’t good at it can choose between a career as a fry cook or dealing drugs.

In another post, McArdle takes on the idea that more and better jobs would create “education parents” in low-income communities.

Poverty isn’t just about not having “the same stuff” as the middle class (education, a marriage license, a home), McArdle writes. It’s about the choices people make. And those choices are affected by generational poverty and by bad decisions made at a young age, such as unprotected sex with an unreliable male or dropping out of school. But they’re choices.

 A middle class parent after a long and crappy day at work struggles to deal with the kid’s school because other parents expect it, because they were raised to treasure education, and because people will work harder to avoid loss (a kid who drops out of the middle class) than to achieve gains (a kid who makes it into the middle class).  Also, that middle class job probably isn’t as miserable as changing diapers on Alzheimer’s patients, or cleaning houses, so you have more psychic energy to spare.

Or you can blame a “sick culture” or personal laziness, as some conservatives do–at some level, it doesn’t matter.  Poor people are actually choosing not to hassle with their kid’s school.  It’s a real choice that they have made.  There is no reason to assume that you will be able to override it if you just get the policy levers in the right position.

Higher-wage jobs enable people to earn more money, which solves some problems, she writes. But it’s not so easy to change people. And it would be “pretty creepy” if we could tweak a policy here and there to “remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers.”


About Joanne


  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    What do you mean not everyone likes school? What sort of nonsense is this?

    I was personally assured by a commenter on this very site that, if they were only “properly taught”, then every student may come to enjoy school.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Exactly. And how are we going to prepare a child who wastes all his spare time mucking around with engines for the REAL WORLD unless he takes a full range of APs? He must be trained to prefer days spent curled up with a stack of novels to all those nasty afternoons full of grease and tools.

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Maybe we need a national conversation on the purpose of public education. It no longer seems to be about citizenship or career prep. If it’s really just about babysitting, we should be able to accomplish the core goals with reduced funding.

  3. Edgar Dellio says:

    “Not everyone likes school,” but moreover, tests discriminate against such folk:


  4. Stacy in NJ says:

    This is what happens when you let the best and brightest run things. They reshape the culture in their own image and then demand that everyone else acquiesce to their standards. We’ve made an idol out of education (i.e. academic degrees and certificates) and now we have a bunch of super-smart, unproductive, rent-seeking idiots running things.

    • But enough about the financial industry.

      Let’s be honest, though: this country made a conscious decision, at least at the political level, to offshore manual labor, including labor-intensive manufacturing, and then to put domestic labor into a price war against the cost of production in the developing world. The best jobs in domestic manufacturing, for the most part, require more than manual skills, and unskilled labor has become commoditized. The era of the solidly middle class blue collar worker is ending, and people are emphasizing education because the choices are largely between white collar jobs requiring college degrees, the service industries, or physically arduous manufacturing jobs that no longer pay well.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        But enough about illegal immigration.

        • … Which is irrelevant to the discussion, but thanks for trying.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            Actually, it’s not irrelevant but thanks for trying.

          • You like to argue from your feelings. I get it.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            Aaron, I reject your supposition. You need to provide data to support your points. Further, make sure your arguments are science based otherwise they lack legitimacy.

            Because the comments section of a blog is no place for anecdotal evidence or personal opinions please refrain stating yours. Also, you need to provide links to scientifically reviewed studies to support any comments you leave.

            Don’t forget that snotty, self-satisfied comments are only acceptable if you’re absolutely sure of your own superior judgment regardless of the poorly formed talking-points like nature of them.

        • You reject facts, stipulations, science. As I said, I get it.

  5. Gene Marks’column didn’t anger or annoy me, but it certainly revealed how out of touch with reality Mr. Marks is.

    — if he were a poor black kid in many of our urban districts, he would likely not learn to read well enough to pursue all the independent studies he proposes. He would have a good chance of growing up functionally illiterate. The work of Dr. Maryanne Wolf at Tufts (and others besides) dermonstrated that black students benefited proportionally more than other groups from systematic, phonologically-based instruction in early reading skills and were at high risk for reading failure without such teaching. The schools poor black kids attend are much less likely than middle class schools to have staff and resources to address this issue effectively and to ensure most or all students develop basic reading competency.

    –if he were a poor black student there is a good chance he would not have access to all these high-tech tools at home, and limited access at school. In several low-income schools I’ve worked in, the families who had internet access at home numbered fewer than 10%. Libraries are an option, but there are often limits on availability and you have to sign up ahead of time (and be able to get there and home again safely — still another issue).

    — if he were a poor black student he might well lack opportunities to develop basic math and written language (in addition to reading) skills, for multiple reasons, including frequent moves, high teacher turnover, less qualified teachers, inadequate resource materials, absenteeism due to medical, dental or health problems — the list goes on.

    Individual determination to succeed can go a long way but it is not a panacea. Students who beat the odds in a big way usually have a number of support systems in place, including extended family, mentors, teachers who advocate for them, and more.

    • Megan McArdle’s takeaway is about right. it’s easy for a middle or upper class white guy to argue that “all you need to do” to get out of poverty is to work ten times as hard as he ever did, and feign amazement that more poor children don’t do so. Or to ignore the exceptional effort it can take to escape poverty by dismissing it as nothing more than “adopting middle class values.”

      I can disagree with McArdle on some details – but we have different life experiences to reflect upon.

  6. Deirdre Mundy says:

    When I tutored inner city kids in Chicago, there was a huge difference between the girls who succeeded and those who failed.

    It wasn’t overall income (programs had upper income limits). The girls who thrived had married parents, were active in their churches, and had large, supportive families who valued education and who would all come down hard on anyone who got involved with drugs, alcohol, or crime.

  7. I agree that poverty isn’t just about money – it’s about a mindset, an attitude. Of course, the flip side of this is that poverty can’t be solved by throwing increasingly larger amounts of money at it (a la the “war on poverty”). The only efficient solution to eliminating poverty (or at least reducing its frequency and/or severity) is to attack its root cause by addressing the mindsets/attitudes that lead to poverty. Until and unless this approach is taken, we’ll be forever dealing with so-called generational poverty.

    “The poor you will always have with you…”

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Well, it’s probably true that poverty really is just about money.

      “Systemic failure at life”, however, usually isn’t just about poverty.

  8. Poverty has no meaning. Less well off is a much more accurate descriptor. Our poor have a standard of living that would put them in the upper middle class or better in any other nation on Earth. The very definition of poverty is constantly being rewritten, and always upward. This is one of the reasons the poor will always be with us.

    The problem isn’t a poverty of resources…but a poverty of culture.

    • Spoken like somebody who has never been poor.

      • Oh, I’ve been poor.

        But If you have read the news today, you’d know that the U.S. government has manipulated the definition of poverty to the point that 48% of the U.S. population is classified as either poor, or nearly poor. Does anyone really think that anywhere close to 48% of the American people are poor?



      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        Spoken like someone who doesn’t have any sort of substantive rebuttal to an assertion he doesn’t like.

        • No, it’s spoken like somebody who reads a platitudinous bromide about poverty and recognizes the speaker for who he is. But thanks for trying.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            Spoken life someone whose ego is larger than his intellect.

          • Another snark from Stacy.

            Not even a tiny surprise there.

          • I have a comment in moderation that expresses the thoughts:

            1) I have been poor. Like many once poor people, I am no longer poor. The rejection of instant gratification, and out of control consumerism (cell phone, bling and $200 tennis shoes anyone?) and hard work, allowed me to escape poverty.

            2) Most of “the poor” really aren’t poor anymore…at least in relation to historical norms and global standards of living.

            3) The very definition of poverty is constantly ratched upwards. Under the Obama administration’s definition, 48% of the American people are “poor” or “nearly poor”. How much sense does that make?

          • What do you mean, you ‘have been poor”? Since you have insisted that poverty has nothing to do with money, and since you have also insisted that by historical standards today’s poor are rich, when you say you were “poor” are you applying a definition you, yourself, have rejected? Or are you stating that you had tons of money and were rich by historical standards, but had internalized a bad set of values. You can’t have it both ways.

            If we start with your premise that the concept of poverty “has no meaning”, how do we even frame a discussion of poverty? Although the very concept of poverty is an economic construct, you are proposing that we apply a new definition that has nothing to do with money (and, thus, nothing to do with poverty)? Pray tell, what definition would you have us apply or, if we are to erase the word “poverty” from discussions of the poor, what concept would you have us use instead?

            I would love to hear you describe how, when, where and why you were supposedly “poor”. A friend of mine, from a well-off family, was once describing the one room apartment of his early childhood. I expressed surprise that his parents had immigrated and started their business from next to nothing. “Yeah,” he scoffed, “If you define having Ph.D.’s in the hard sciences from top German universities as ‘nothing’, they started with ‘nothing.'” Is that the type of “poor” we’re talking about?

          • I have to reply here, no reply links below.

            My father was an enlisted man in the Airforce from 1964 to 1990. We were definitely poor by today’s definition, and probably were by the definitions then. (I haven’t checked the numbers) Many of my friends missed meals the last week of the month because their parents weren’t as good at budgeting, or responsible, as my parents.

            When I left home and went to college…I was definitely poor. When I left college and worked as a substitute teacher and paid off my loans, I was definitely poor.

            It wasn’t until my third year as a full time teacher that I finally had an income that allowed me to indulge myself with some luxuries.

            The term “poverty” will have real meaning once agin when its definition returns to covering only those who have a truly substandard level of living. I repeat, the US government today considers 48% of the American people to be poor. How does that definition make sense or serve any use?

            As to my believe that the true poverty is one of culture not money…..how else do you explain the fact that we have more “poor” today than we did before the War on Poverty started? Can we at least agree that throwing money and resources at the poor hasn’t solved the problem, but instead made it worse?

          • So by “poor” you mean that as a child your family was a military family? And that all enlisted military families are poor, because they receive considerable non-cash benefits instead of more generous incomes? And you had to take out student loans to go to college? Oh, come on.

            You are again trying to have it both ways in relation to the definition of poverty. If you take a definition of poverty that looks at the poverty level as a percentage of average household income, you need to accept that definition for what it is. If you want to reject the definition as being relevant to poverty you need to suggest some other measure – and we’re still waiting for you to do that. Probably forever.

  9. In my opinion, this has far more to do with “smart” than we like to think.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Though there’s also the problem of “smart, but lazy” and “smart, until he fried his brain on drugs” and “smart, but fell in with a bad crowd” — Kids from single parent, high-poverty homes are more susceptible to all these things because there’s no one keeping an eye on them or doling out consequences BEFORE an action reaches the ‘destroyed my whole life’ stage.

      Also ‘smart, but never had a teacher who knew her stuff and so never learned anything’ is a tough one–sure, the kid may be able to overcome that later in life, but then he’s running to catch up to ‘average’ where the same kid in a different setting might have learned to read and do math at a younger age, and so had a shot at ‘engineer’ instead of other fields that take less training.

      • Not really. Believe it or not, most smart kids who are poor find their way out. People fondly imagine that bad teachers and peer pressure is out there to lead smart kids astray unless their favorite fix or political program is there to rescue them, but that’s just their talking points in action.

        I’ve worked with low income kids in a variety of different settings–two Title I schools and two different organizations dedicated to helping low income kids prepare for college, or trying to. I’ve seen smart kids who barely speak English and live 8 to a 1 bedroom apartment go to a UC with a full ride. They know what’s available, or they know how to ask for what’s available–and if they don’t, someone who spots their intelligence will send them to the right place. Happens all the time. I rarely run into a smart kid who hasn’t been identified as such–and even when I do, the kid isn’t in trouble and I’ve been able to send them to someone to help.

        It’s low intellect kids who are in holes so deep they can’t dig out. And since, sadly, poverty and race have strong correlations to intellect, low intellect is overrepresented in high poverty areas.

        I also agree with Megan’s analysis. She’s right. All I’m saying is that the smart kids have far more options, and happily, the smart kids are being found.

        It’s not unheard of to see a smart kid go astray. But it doesn’t happen often. Maybe more than at higher income levels, but not by much–and low income kids who go astray have far more organizations dedicated to helping them out if they want to. The problem is whether or not they have the brains to take advantage of education.

        • You’re speaking from your personal experience, or do you have a study or analysis to back that up? If the latter, please share a citation.

          • Which part? That the poor are more likely to have low IQ people, and that blacks and Hispanics have a mean IQ than whites? That’s well documented.

            The fact that we are getting the smart kids? It’s well documented by the fact that IQ predicts success better than SES does. A smart poor kid will do better than a dull rich kid. Also supported by research and uncontroversial.

            I’m just saying that, in addition to knowing that reality, I see it play out in my work.

  10. Aaron…”The best jobs in domestic manufacturing, for the most part, require more than manual skills”

    This has always been true. A toolmaker or machine repairman in a 1950s factory made substantially more than a semi-skilled assembly worker. What has happened is that automation has changed the ratio of highly-skilled to semi-skilled jobs: many of the latter are now done by machines of various types. This would have occurred even in the absence of any offshoring of production.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      According to some manufacturing empoyers there’s a shortage of capable/trainable highly skilled workers. We do a poor job of preparing students for this type of job.

    • David, of course higher skilled workers, as a rule, earn more than lower skilled workers. But back in the 50’s those “semi-skilled assembly workers” were doing pretty well, no?

      The manner of offshoring in the U.S. was markedly different than, for example, that of Germany, with a resultant loss of what could be middle class jobs. But for those falling into the lower end of the spectrum, automation is a legitimate issue and even in China manufacturers are looking to replace warehouses full of low- to moderately-skilled assembly workers with robots.

      Stacy, the problem is that companies can’t have it both ways. If you push manufacturing jobs to other nations you diminish both the economies of scale in educating “highly skilled workers” and you cause people to shift into other areas of employment where jobs are more plentiful. I believe it was the Washington Post that ran an article about a year ago with one of those manufacturers complaining that he wasn’t getting highly skilled workers for jobs he was advertising – all he wanted was skilled, experienced workers, no training required, willing to work for @$10-12/hour, and nobody was applying. Well, go figure.

      • Those “semi-skilled assembly workers” were doing pretty well not because of the value of their skills but because of a de facto monopoly enjoyed by American car makers and the legally-protected monopoly enjoyed by the UAW. Looking at the American car industry it’s pretty hard to miss what that sort of “doing pretty well” results in.

        And if anyone were pushing manufacturing jobs overseas it was the unions. By forcing labor rates up above the value of the labor the unions made American products uncompetitive.

        Jobs, contrary to the closely-held belief of those who’ve never had to make a payroll, aren’t worth what someone wants in order to live a certain life-style but only what the market will bear. That value can be finessed by the proper application of coercion but it’s a situation that won’t last. Of course if coercion is the means by which you get what you want you’re never in it for the long haul.

        • Let’s not forget that US cars in the 80’s lost out to Japanese cars by virtue of the latter’s reliability and fuel efficiency. This was at a time when gas prices drove car purchasing decisions. The pendulum swung the other way when US ingenuity invented the gas guzzling SUV’s and people lined up to buy them. So it wasn’t just the unions pushing the manufacturing jobs overseas. But point taken about unions driving up prices. Same deal with shirts. You can buy cheap shirts that are made by Indonesian laborers paid a pittance.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Megan McCardle had a piece on the marginal tax rates for the poor. As means-tested benefits are phased out as income increases, there’s a level where getting a better job means less income combined with benefits. Hard to beat that for a high tax rate.
    In addition,to spitball a couple of numbers, if you are making $15k on unemployment and get a $30k job, you’re working $30k worth for $15k. You need to be thinking far, far ahead and with confidence in the future to take that jump. Many of the folks on unemployment have not had the experience that would make them confident about the future.

  12. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I’d just like to remind people what was being said by Marks. Let’s look first at what was said:

    “If I were a poor black kid.”

    Then let’s look at what wasn’t said:

    “If some poor black kid were a poor black kid.”

    Now I’m not saying that it’s not easy for him to speak up there from the cheap seats, but the point of those silly conversations when you say “If I were President Obama…” or “If I were Hillary Clinton” isn’t to make some factually correct assertion about what it is President Obama himself or Hillary Clinton herself is actually going to do. It’s to plumb the possibilities of what you would do if you found yourself in a situation comparable to his or hers.

    Now, I fully admit that Marks did have an air of “if only those poor people would just…” to his writing. And to that extent what he’s probably really up to between the lines is offering some mostly futile advice about what he thinks actual poor black kids should do. And it’s mostly futile for all the reasons people have said so clearly.

    But it’s not going to be futile for everybody. If his advice is any good at all — and it isn’t obviously bad — it might just be followed by someone who could actually use it. Preachers don’t speak to huge crowds of people to get everyone to convert. They know it’s not going to happen. But maybe they’ll get some — maybe not tonight, even, but eventually. So they keep at it.

    I think that’s what a sophisticated, charitable reader should probably take away from Marks’ article. At least it’s what I’d do if I were reading it.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said that if you have to make an assertion, it sounds less dominating, and it’s easier to climb down from if necessary, if you start it with something like, “It seems to me….” or “I might be wrong about this….”.
      I think Marks has taken a less pompous–not sufficiently less–way of saying, “A smart black kid would….” or “It would be smart for….”. Both of which would be true, presuming a smart black kid actually knew what was smart to do, which is different from simply being smart.
      However, what the kid is supposed to do reflects a break with his surroundings and surrounding culture, which is pretty tough. It’s also a lot tougher to promote to the cultural relativists, who would think you’re being judgmental. Easier just to be generous with other people’s money.

  13. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Bring back comprehensive vocational training for those who aren’t academically inclined, who can use their talents and skills in productive ways. The elitist notion that college or university is superior to vocational ed. results in a waste of human and economic capital. Being a doctor, lawyer or sociologist isn’t inherently better than being a plumber, electrician or mechanic. I certainly can’t fix my own plumbing or electrical systems, and am willing to pay a professional to do that–and admire them for those skills. Society certainly needs more plumbers than sociologists. This “college for all” nonsense must stop.
    Furthermore,The so-called “achievement gap” is clearly a values gap. All disciplines, whether science, math, law or auto mechanics, etc. takes a work ethic, self-discipline, goal-setting and delayed gratification…and the absence of those things produce poverty through the generations. Asian students (pick any Asian country) outperform all peers, including “white”, yet they are a statistical minority (as % of the total U.S. population), and have home languages that are linguistically further from English than Spanish or “Ebonics. The difference is the values of the family towards work and education. The truth hurts, but is no less the truth. No amount of social engineering or unlimited public spending will change that.

    • That’s not so much an incorrect analysis as it is an incomplete anaylsis.

      A work ethic, self-discipline, goal-setting and delayed gratification are all products of internal resources as well as external moderators among which is certainly family. But that’s not the only external factor that effects the qualities you listed. If, for instance, someone who exhibits self-discipline, hard work, etc can be arbitrarily deprived of the rewards of those qualities then that will certainly have a future effect on the degree to which those qualities are exhibited.

      Similarly, if some possible goal among the many that present themselves to a child to pursue is widely disparaged or treated as if it’s unimportant how likely is that child to work hard, practice self-discipline, set goals and ignore distractions in pursuit of that goal?

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    Nails. Oh, boy. You sure stepped in it this time. AKA telling the truth.

  15. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Hi Richard,

    LOL and crying at the same time. We have to step into the muck in order to clean it up. The bleeding heart and morally confused Left and the No Child Left Behind Bullshit Right prefer to sidestep the muck to socially engineer and politically pander….there are literally lost generations of students who have been the lab rats for the education establishment of both political parties. Part of the Hippocratic Oath also applies to education, “First, do no harm”.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    Nails. I’m married to a retired HS teacher, DIL is a teacher as are her two sisters and mother. Lots of teach input around the house.
    However NCLB worked out, the original intent was to prevent schools from hiding their failures with some kids, some in various minority groups, in averaging with the better students.
    Seemed reasonable to me.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      In theory it’s a great idea, I agree. Who doesn’t want to stop the shuffling off of discrete and insular minority groups? Why shouldn’t the schools pay attention to everyone?

      But there’s a reason that I christened it the “No Child Left Behind So Let’s All Stay In Place Act” back when he-who-shall-not-be-named first put it forward as a piece of legislation. It had to do with the execution, not the theory.

  17. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

    Most of what governments do start off as “reasonable,” otherwise, there would be some sort of revolt. Heck, and I know I am waaay exaggerating, even Hitler sounded ‘reasonable’ to many people.

    That was the genius of our Founding Fathers. They knew that, despite the best intentions of government officials, laws and regulations over time would become corrupted. Just about every pro-NCLB advocate thought that states would have to make drastic changes to improve the education of various subgroups… none of the advocates realized that it would be much easier for states to lower their definitions of proficiency.

    As such, they envisioned a very limited federal government that was only able to interfere with issues that directly affected the government’s abilities to defend its citizenry and moderate interstate issues. Issues like education would be dealt with by smaller, more responsive government that was closer to the people and less likely to be corrupted.

    Unfortunately our recent elected officials have turned their backs on the Constitution they promised to defend and have twisted its principles in the name of public good.