Monday, January 21, 2013

Taking responsibility

One of the things that annoys me most is being told by my more right-wing acquaintances that poor people should "take responsibility" for their circumstances. Most galling of all is being told that if they'd only saved something each month instead of "squandering it on luxuries", they wouldn't have any financial problems.

Just save 10% of your income each month, I'd get told. That's a great plan, except that it shows a complete lack of understanding of the reality of the situation when you're on a low income.

For a start, even in the best situation, it doesn't really solve the problem. After a year, you've saved about one month's income, so when you lose your job, you've got one month's buffer. Since it can easily take four to six months to find a new job, that doesn't last anywhere near long enough. If you've got a nice, safe, secure job, then it doesn't occur to you how often low-income workers get fired without warning, or how often they find their hours cut and their weekly pay packet drops unexpectedly. And when everything's that tight, you can expect little emergencies every month or two - vets' bills, car repairs, or basic household maintenance.  You can count on having to dip into that savings pot frequently, and it doesn't build up to a nice healthy reserve.

And then there's the question of how the hell you actually make savings when you're living hand to mouth, week to week, and you're barely making enough to cover the bills, let alone food, transport or clothes. Cut back on luxuries, is the inevitable answer. What damn luxuries? As I said in a previous post, even a $5 treat once a month is no longer an option. Several people suggested cutting out health insurance. One suggested fasting two days a week. So, in other words, they're talking about "luxuries" like medical care and food. (And for the record, health insurance isn't an option when you're poor anyway - you have to pay for medical care as you need it, and hope you don't get sick or have an accident.) One particularly distasteful, but common, response is that poor people shouldn't have kids: so what happens when your income plummets and you already have kids? Are you supposed to get rid of them like unwanted kittens?

When money's tight, you raid every single one of these jars for  essentials. Is that irresponsible?
What puts the final seal on the total unreality is when real numbers get bandied about. You should be putting aside a couple of thousand a month, I'd hear. Not just once, but many times. Seriously? If you're on a low income, you don't even earn a couple of thousand a month. If someone honestly thinks that a couple of thousand a month represents 10% of my (after-tax) income, that would imply that my gross salary would be somewhere in excess of $300,000. How disconnected are these people?

On a similar note, I heard frequently how poor people should take responsibility for bettering themselves and get a proper education, then they could get a better job. Go to college - it only costs twenty or thirty grand for a degree. Where the hell do you get twenty or thirty grand when you can barely afford to eat?

Or else there's the often-made suggestion that you should move to where the jobs are. That's easier said than done when you don't have the spare funds to go somewhere new. Not only do you need to cover the cost of getting there, you probably need a couple of months' rent in cash to get a new place. It's feasible when you're single and have friends who will let you crash on a sofa for a while - not so easy when you have a family.

People on a low wage would love to be saving money every month. They'd love to go out and get a college education. They'd love to be earning enough to make that possible. They'd love to move out of areas with high unemployment. But they can't do it on what they earn: every single dollar is needed to cover the essential basics. They aren't the ones who make the decision to pay them so little they can't afford to save: it's their employers who make that decision. It's the government that sets the minimum wage and the tax rates. It's businesses that decide how much the basics cost. It's financiers who created the recession that caused massive unemployment and forced millions into unemployment or low-paid jobs. Blaming the poor for being poor is the economic equivalent of blaming rape victims.

Taking responsibility for your financial circumstances is all very well as a political mantra, but you can't do it if you don't have any flexibility at all in where your money goes.