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Programming the poor

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Thursday, Apr 1, 2010

At Time.com, Barbara Kiviat has a rundown of a New York City pilot program (modeled after Mexico’s Oportunidades) in which poor people are given cash rewards for things like going to the dentist and having a job and, at one point, signing up for a library card. It’s not that the cost of the dentist visit was covered (though that may have been the case); it’s that the program paid people a reward for doing it. This New York Times article has details on how well this has worked. Apparently, results were mixed.


It seems peculiar and patronizing to have to incentivize these sort of behaviors; you would think it is incentive enough to reap the benefits of clean teeth and steady employment and so on. The theory behind the program seems to be that the poor, by virtue of their poverty, are incapable of responding to incentives like those above them in the class hierarchy; they are unable to grasp such subtleties as the benefits of hygiene. Instead, like computers programmable only in a single language of ones and zeros, the poor understand only one sort of incentive: cash. Their condition—their “complicated, resource-constrained lives” as Kiviat puts it—has presumably made them morally one-dimensional. Then, though initially motivated by cash, the poor learn by doing what it feels like to experience the non-cash benefits of virtuous behavior. And this apparently will make them change their ways and break the intergenerational poverty trap.


Kiviat praises the empiricism associated with the implementation of this program, so I feel churlish throwing in my two-bit speculations. But I’m not really even getting two bits for them, so I will toss them out there anyway. Cash payments seem a bizarre way to try to change the habitus of the poor. Aside from being sort of self-contradictory (giving cash incentives to try to get people to see the virtue of doing certain things for their own intrinsic value) it basically ignores the importance of social capital. To be able to have your shit together, so to speak, requires having a stable footing in an entire communal system. It means having better transportation, better connections, better access to amenities, friends who can share better solutions to life’s problems, etc. Despite its limitations, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed offers some insight into this—how poverty breaks down the middle-class approach to life and brings forth what can appear to middle-class people to be a bizarre and incoherent lifestyle, but is in fact life lived in perpetual triage mode. The poverty habitus derives from that, and I guess I am skeptical that crisis mode can be easily unlearned.


I always think of the same incident when I think of habitus-related questions. About 15 years ago, I was on campus at a university where I was an instructor, and a frazzled woman approached in a panic. People were discreetly avoiding eye contact with her and shifting their direction so as to not engage with her, sort of what happens when a homeless person passes through a subway car. I wasn’t fast enough and abruptly she blurted a question out at me about how she could find a particular room number. I asked which building and she didn’t know. I shrugged and began walking away but she continued to yell at me, demanding to know where this room was. And she explained that she had to show up at this room to make sure she didn’t violate the terms of her parole or probation or something, and she was supposed to be their 15 minutes ago, and on and on. It was all on a paper she got in the mail, but she forgot to bring it. Maybe if I was a different sort of person, I would have taken her somewhere on campus where they would have that sort of information on hand (not that I knew of such a place). But instead I just started walking away faster.


At the time, I kept thinking, if I were in her predicament, I would have tried to show up for this highly critical appointment at least an hour ahead of time, so I could avoid going back to jail. And I wouldn’t be counting on total strangers to know what the hell I was talking about if I showed up late. And so on. But it dawned me eventually I had no idea what sort of circumstances the woman was in the midst of and I probably shouldn’t apply my frame of reference to her problems. It’s more useful to think instead about what the prerequisites are for being prepared and consider how the social coping behavior I take for granted is actually a status marker, and then when I walked away quickly, I was basically trying to preserve my advantage.

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