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The Poor Don’t Lack “Richness of Spirit,” They Lack Money

August 30, 2011, 12:15 pm | Posted by Nick Sementelli

After Jon Stewart’s well-executed takedown of a Heritage Foundation report highlighting the shocking news that most people living in poverty have household appliances like refrigerators and dishwashers, Fox Business Network host Stuart Varney–who Stewart particularly criticized–struck back.

Clearly demonstrating that he didn’t understand the critique, Varney doubled down on his belief that he was busting the “myth” that the poor are suffering and offered his own explanation for poverty:

VARNEY: The image we have of poor people as starving and living in squalor really is not accurate. Many of them have things–what they lack is the richness of spirit, that’s my opinion.

(Via Media Matters)

Varney’s point, of course, is to reinforce the conservative trope that poverty is exclusively the result of individual moral failure–concurrently valorizing wealth as a sign of virtue and absolving society of its responsibility to address the structural contributors to poverty. As we’ve been tracking, these arguments have made a popular comeback in conservative defenses of cutting vulnerable social safety net programs.

While it may make conservatives like Varney feel better about their extreme ideology to pretend that all the poor lack is some all-encompassing spiritual characteristic, it’s not really a measurable theory. What we do know, however, is that there’s one thing that most certainly differentiates the rich and the poor: money.

That’s not to say that individual decision-making is irrelevant. People of many income levels can find themselves struggling without good budgeting or because of poor decisions. But–as a growing body of research shows–having more money makes being fiscally responsible much easier, when every financial trade-off doesn’t carry significant life consequences. Jamie Holmes explains:

The level at which the poor have to exert financial self-control, [psychologists and economists] have suggested, is far lower than the level at which the well-off have to do so. Purchasing decisions that the wealthy can base entirely on preference, like buying dinner, require rigorous tradeoff calculations for the poor. As Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir formulated the point in a recent talk, for the poor, “almost everything they do requires tradeoff thinking. It’s distracting, it’s depleting … and it leads to error.” The poor have to make financial tradeoff decisions, as Shafir put it, “on anything above a muffin.”

So it’s not that the poor have significantly less self-control than others, it’s that the middle-class and above have a “price floor” below which they can generally be impulsive and inattentive while the poor have little to no margin for error.

Even more than everyday decisions, this same principle applies to more serious life events as well. Rejecting the notion that cutting social assistance would incentivize the poor to change, Matt Yglesias explained:

People don’t become homeless drug addicts because the downside to being a homeless drug addict isn’t severe enough in the contemporary United States. And affluent parents don’t treat their children in this kind of punitive way. If a prosperous teenager develops an addiction problem, he’ll be given help. Any halfway responsible parent with the means to do so would bail out a daughter whose live-in boyfriend is abusing her. Poor people have, typically, made some mistakes in life and it’s often the case that had they lived lives free of error, they wouldn’t be poor. But it’s not like middle class people are living mistake-free lives. The difference is that middle class people have lives that give them a fair margin for error, whereas people who start out in bad circumstances can be crippled by a bit of misfortune, impulsiveness, or bad decision-making.

To be clear, determining how to incorporate this kind of information into policy is still a complicated process. But that, of course, is the point. People like Varney who would rather make sweeping generalizations about the personal characteristics of millions of Americans instead of engaging with the real complexity of the issue shouldn’t expect their opinions to be taken seriously.

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