I’ve remarked that the ethnic media is out of touch with the working poor, but I’ve never exactly explained how the working poor actually live. Today I hope to do that. It’s especially relevant in our discussion on affirmative action and how poor minorities can overcome the odds.
Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m only a couple of generations away from poverty. My family history with poverty took place right here in America, and it’s probably different from most people in the ethnic media–I’m the grandchild of a sweatshop seamstress. But that’s not where I get all of my firsthand knowledge. During the “no money down” subprime bubble before 2008, I pre-qualified lots of poor people for mortgages. Some of them got mortgages, while others didn’t qualify, but I saw enough people’s financial profiles to say that I know a bit about this subject. During those times, I spoke with maids, restaurant workers, people living off disability, people working part-time jobs, etc.
Now before I go on, I would like to say that there was often (not always, but often) a big difference between the Asian poor I met and the non-Asian poor. The Asian poor didn’t see themselves as poor; they saw themselves as temporarily in-transition. I could meet Chinese maids or cleaning ladies or restaurant workers, and they’d often have credit scores in the 800’s. They either had money saved up or a plan to save money. Even most lowest paid Asian poor had some sort of budget or financial plan that allowed them to save money. As a result, they came to the bargaining table from a position of power: “Look at my credit score. I’m worthy.” They saw poverty as temporary, and I’m sure they were right. God knows some of them negotiated like I should be happy to even be in their presence. Even from my own experience, I can tell you that from her ability to save and spend wisely, my seamstress grandmother today is not poor.
But it’s really the non-Asian poor that we need to discuss. Liberals often think that the non-Asian working poor in this country struggle to save even $10, thinking that they would have to skip a meal or two to raise that kind of money. They think of the poor as passive victims who live in constant fear. This just isn’t true. Americans who make $15-$30k a year are not living in grass huts on dirt floors with no running water. Typically they have TV’s. Many, if not most, have some kind of internet presence, even if they don’t check their e-mail. Almost all of them have vibrant lives, lives that are often more colorful than anything the ethnic media would conceive.
I know all of this because subprime loans often required extensive documentation. If you didn’t have a credit score, you needed to show a cellphone bill or electric bill that the credit agency could verify was paid on time. Some loans asked about collateral like cars, computers (which they didn’t always have but sometimes did), or TV’s.
Certainly poor people by definition don’t have a lot of money. Quite a few don’t have bank accounts (which made it a real pain in the ass to verify down payments). They don’t trust banks or the banks don’t trust them, and often they don’t have money to put into a bank account anyway. Some have had…umm, bad experiences with the banks, and so banks collectively refuse to open an account in their name. Some of them get paid under the table (also a pain in the ass to document back in the day…and no longer allowed to be documented today), and others don’t file taxes. Money is a very, very funny thing with poor people. The ones who have credit cards often get screwed by high interest rates. Some are indebted to payday loan sharks. Some who have bank accounts sign up for “overdraft protection,” which is yet another way for banks to screw poor people.
But it’s not as if poor people live in complete isolation from money. I would say “John, I need you to get me $20 for a credit report,” or “Mary, we need $350 for an appraisal, paid upfront.” If it’s what they needed, they’d always get it. Often it meant hassling someone who owed them money, or refusing to pay up someone to whom they owed money, or it meant shouting and cursing at their brother-in-law, or begging their mother, or shouting at the father of their third child for not being as supportive as the father of their fourth child. Sometimes they wouldn’t want to tell me how they got it, only assuring me that it was theirs, and not a loan. In every case though, they could get it. I never had a deal go south because of the inability of a borrower to find a thousand dollars or less. They wanted their house, and they’d do what they had to do.
Dr. Ben Carson, the famous neurosurgeon who is African American and was born into poverty, says it well on page 75 of America the Beautiful:
…if you met someone living on the streets who had no house, no car, and very little if any money, and you were able to convince him that if he met you in Bismarck, North Dakota, in seventy-two hours that you would give him $1 million, I can virtually assure you that he would find a way to get there. People can generally find a way to do what they want to do, and they can find a hundred excuses for what they don’t want to do. When you have an entire society of people with a great work ethic and a sense of personal responsibility, that society will take off like a rocket and quickly achieve a position of power and leadership.
In the discussion about how to save ten bucks, I remarked that anyone living in America should be able to save ten bucks over fourteen years. But that’s a gross exaggeration. The reality is that if I pulled someone off the street and asked him to produce ten bucks in 24 hours or less, almost anyone who wanted to could do it. It wouldn’t take fourteen years.
Liberal and conservative journalists and bloggers on both extreme sides of the political spectrum often believe that the poor live in this country as passive and helpless victims and that they see themselves as passive victims. They often think the poor are stupid. Nothing could be further from the truth. The poor have dreams just like everyone else, and they’re capable of saving, budgeting, negotiating, and making decisions, just like everyone else. Like the rest of us, poor people routinely make decisions that have consequences, both good and bad. The key difference is culture, and many poor people themselves realize this. Some cultures stress saving and education more than others. A culture that stresses saving and education will have fewer poor people within a capitalist system.
So let’s break this cycle. Give people the humanity they deserve by telling how it actually is. Let’s not rehash the same liberal fictions of how poor people live. Let’s ground the discussion in reality. Only by knowing reality can you really help people deal with reality.