* Chaos overwhelms the poor

Some weeks ago, I stood in line awaiting check-in at the shelter. This place charges $3 a night. I was holding my money in my hand, and someone playfully tugged at it. I snapped. I said, “You don’t value your life much, do you?”

Minutes later, I explained this to someone else. I said, “Don’t take a man’s last dollar.” “Why not?” he asked. I said, ” ‘Cause that’s the one he’ll die for. That’s the one he’ll kill for.”

Don’t take my last dollar. That’s the one I’ll kill for.

I’ve been on hard times since 2004. If I lose, or am robbed or cheated, of $20 or $50, that’s a pretty significant amount. But it doesn’t hurt all that much if I have more, and know more is coming. However, if I lose, or someone robs or cheats me of my last $1 — that’s the one that really hurts. That’s the one I’ll kill for.

These memories came to me as I reflected on Maggie Fox’s 08/29/2013 article, “Poor people aren’t stupid; bad decisions are from being overwhelmed, study finds.”

Fox says researchers Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, and Jiaying Zhao gave a hundred shoppers at a New Jersey mall “a series of problem-solving tests – for example, asking how they would handle a 5 percent salary cut [or] a 15 percent salary cut; or an emergency car repair costing either $150 or $1,500. With that in their heads, they were also given basic IQ and computer-based tests of focus and concentration.

“The shoppers made on average $70,000 a year, but some made as little as $20,000. The poorer and richer shoppers did equally well when they had a minor financial issue at the back of their minds. But when the car repair was more expensive, or when the salary cut was higher, the lower-earners did significantly worse … than the higher-earners.”

The researchers concluded that financial stress itself overwhelms poor people’s ability to make prudent financial decisions.

Confirming this, Fox says, “[T]he researchers went to rural India, where sugarcane farmers are paid just once a year for their harvests. They are flush with cash right after the harvest, and pretty broke the last month before the harvest. The farmers made more poor decisions in real life when faced with a financial crunch — they pawned more items … and were twice as likely to borrow money.”

What alternatives did they have at the time? Their decisions when they were “flush with cash” can’t have been all that prudent, or they wouldn’t be in dire straits now.

An unexpected car repair of $1,500 will stress someone who makes $20,000/year far more than someone who makes $70,000/year. A 15 percent pay cut will also stress the former more; that’s the whole point of the graduated income tax.

It only makes sense that a given financial stress impacts poor people more severely than those who aren’t poor. The study fails to ask whether poor folk are overwhelmed specifically by financial stress; it doesn’t ask about their overall stress or anxiety level, or what their stressors are.

It literally doesn’t ask what they think about, what are their preoccupations.

Finances aren’t their pre-eminent concern.

In general, these folks aren’t doing well in any part of life.

Fox says, “There’s no question that many poor people make poor decisions, the researchers add. ‘The poor use less preventive health care, fail to adhere to drug regimens, are tardier and less likely to keep appointments, are less productive workers, less attentive parents, and worse managers of their finances,’ they write, citing studies that support all their statements. ‘These behaviors are troubling in their own right, but they are particularly troubling because they can further deepen poverty.'”

Fox quotes Zhao: “Previous views of poverty have blamed poverty on personal failings, or an environment that is not conducive to success. We’re arguing that the lack of financial resources itself can lead to impaired cognitive function. The very condition of not having enough can actually be a cause of poverty.”

“Personal failings” and “an environment that is not conducive to success” so interact, feeding into each other, that many poor folk come into a state of self-created, self-perpetuating crisis. Personal failings can be outgrown, however, and untoward circumstances can be transcended.

The defect is not in cognition (thinking), but in affect (emotions or “spirit”); a matter not of “head,” but “heart.” And the affective resources of the poor are not being consumed by a single concern. If they were, they might be able to focus on it and make some headway. Rather, their affective resources are being dissipated and drained by the sheer chaos of their context.

The researchers make an analogy to a personal computer: they say that just as a computer slows down if its resources are preoccupied with, say, downloading a huge file; so also poverty so preoccupies poor folks’ attention as to impair their thinking. The correct analogy would be instead that one has a thousand tiny malware processes running, generating pop-ups faster than one can click them off. One can ALT+TAB until exhaustion, and be left not knowing where to turn.

To paraphrase Neil Sedaka,


In 2006, under duress, I moved into Barclay, a severely depressed neighborhood in Baltimore where I never would have gone voluntarily. I stayed there until 2011. When I became homeless and left, my quality of life improved.

The problem isn’t what the people have, but how they act. They’re not so much poor — a material state — as instead exceptionally “needy” — an emotional state.

It pertains to unmet emotional needs.

The first need is to learn to care for oneself.

This is the first step to growth out of infantilism.

And they live in a context that militates against it.

In “The marshmallow study revisited,” University of Rochester scientists reported on a test of how contextual factors may affect one’s ability to delay gratification. A number of children were each given a marshmallow, with the direction that one could eat the marshmallow at once, and have only that one; but if he or she could let that one marshmallow be for fifteen minutes, the child would be given a second one, and thus have two. The issue was how long the child could wait before eating the first marshmallow.

To test the possible effect of context on these factors, the researchers randomized the children into two groups. To each child in one group, the researcher first made and broke three promises — new crayons, new markers, new watercolors. To each child in the other group, the researcher first made and kept the same three promises.

Children in the first group waited an average of three minutes before eating the marshmallow, but those in the second group waited an average of twelve minutes.

This speaks to me powerfully of how hard it must be to outgrow infantilism, when one grows up in a world of broken promises.

And the ‘hood is full of them.


The elements of a harmonious situation tend to reinforce or strengthen one another, while those of a disharmonious situation tend to weaken each other. For exactly this reason do human beings normally feel drawn to beauty and repulsed by ugliness. Harmony tends to lift one’s spirits; disharmony disheartens.

A walk through the ‘hood is disheartening for anyone. There are the boarded-up houses. Alleys are not just strewn with trash, but also reek of garbage and of human excrement in both forms. Groups of young men stand idle on the corners. And you can’t walk fifty feet in any direction without a stranger asking you for a cigarette or money.

Personal safety is a constant concern. Actual and threatened violence further drain one’s emotional re-sources. “I know where you live at” is a threat. In the summer of 2009, there were seven homicides in ten weeks within a half mile of my house. Note: not one was a robbery.

Then there is the continuous stream of filth that comes out of some people’s mouths.

These are emotional toxins.

Such conditions can not only completely drain, but actually invert, one’s joy.

Inverted joy manifests in activities like battering a feeble person, tearing up the neighbor’s garden, or fouling public restrooms. They do their own homes the same way: if there’s a broken window at the house, someone in that house broke it.

This is a state of intoxication. Some individuals become addicted. Many others wander in stupor.

In such circumstances, it’s a wonder anyone can function (that is, “work”). In the event, the overwhelming majority can’t.

Their quarrels are infantile:

  • At the shelter, I witnessed a very ugly dispute over a stray cigarette on the pavement. Peacekeepers had to come outside three times to calm them down. Need had nothing to do with it; no way could a cigarette have justified this incident.
  • At another shelter nearby, a few months ago a man was stabbed to death. The dispute was over a seat in the lobby.
  • Who goes first in the chow line. It’s a Big Deal.
  • At supper, they ran out of apple pie, so some folks got cupcakes instead.

The children of this population often reach kindergarten unable to tie one’s shoes or use the bathroom without supervision. At least once a week I encounter an adult sucking his or her thumb.

There is a biochemical connection.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, like a hormone. In any social pyramid, the population of the lowest stratum have the lowest serotonin levels. This is true across species – as true of chickens and baboons as of humans. Low serotonin is associated with irritability, lack of focus, and depression. This correctly gives new meaning to the term “depressed neighborhood.” These individuals are also the most prone to attack one another. Someone once quipped that we could solve all social ills just by putting everyone on Prozac. We shall shortly discuss behavior patterns that boost one’s serotonin level.

The need isn’t justice, but evangelism.

I’m NOT talking about business as usual.


At the shelter, chapel is mandatory every night. The shelter’s website doesn’t call it “chapel,” but rather “a message of hope that real and permanent change is possible.” In fact, the “real and permanent change” in question is accepting Jesus as your personal savior, so that you will go to heaven, and not hell, when you die. That’s it. We get the same message every night.

Now, I was born again in 1968, thank you very much, and accordingly have no concern about where I will go when I die. I want to hear about practical things I can do to improve my quality of life right now. On that topic, the chapel presenters are silent.

In Barclay, there’s a storefront church on every block. Everyone believes in Jesus and in the inerrancy of the King James Bible. But none of it affects their behavior.

  • I stood on the bus stop and this insolent junkie whom I’d seen many times walked toward us. To no one in particular, she called out, “Gimme five dollars.” Then she decided to say it with more authority, more oomph. “God said gimme five dollars.”
  • A woman sitting behind me on the bus was talking to someone very openly. She’d been broke and unable to get a fix, and was entering withdrawal, and went out to sell her body. At once, a trick appeared. “I said, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’ God is always on time.”
  • The perpetrator in the cigarette incident had a King James Bible strapped to his backpack.

The folk religion of the ‘hood is a vast collection of excuses for infantilism.

This is diametric from what Jesus taught.


“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

In response, Jesus and others have taught an approach to life that enables one to learn to care for oneself and begin to establish harmony in one’s immediate situation.

One begins the only place one can begin: in the present, here and now.

“Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” When chaos rages all around me, I can obtain complete calm by fixing my attention on the material, concrete facts of my immediate circumstances and on the one thing I can order completely: my own conduct.

This effects profound empowerment, by the conservation of my emotional energies. No longer am I being drained by concerns about possibilities as to which I am powerless: apprehension of what disaster may come tomorrow, expectations that this person or that person must rescue me from the present; anxiety over what someone coulda shoulda woulda done yesterday to avert my present problems.

None of those things can change the facts that face me now.

My mind is clear, and I can plan a course of action relying only on the actual resources at hand to me right now. No matter how meager they may be, I can almost always find a way.

I may have to do without (smokes or coffee, for example). I may have to endure some discomfort (staying a few days at a less desirable shelter, for example). But I can make it. I need not live in crisis today. This outcome is tremendously heartening.

I can do it again tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow. I can obtain courage to plan, to set goals, even to make promises and keep them. But presence is first, foremost and paramount.

All Jesus’ teachings have the end of enabling one to attain and maintain presence; in the words of the like-minded teacher Ram Dass, to “be here now.” Examples:

Autonomy. Cheek-turning is not about choosing to be a victim, but about self-determination. Cheek-turning tells my enemy, “I will pursue my goals, and nothing you can do can stop me.” How much does it take to deter you from your chosen path? Mere events can come as a slap in the face. The more intent I am on my goals, the less likely I am even to notice if someone’s sitting in “my” seat, or if the apple pie runs out at supper.

Responsibility. I’ve heard this exchange many times. Q: “Where’s So-and-so?” A: “He got locked up.” Note the passive voice. There is an assumption that one’s own conduct does not matter. In contrast, Jesus taught the prayer, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Whatever “sin” means, from time to time everyone does mess up. Dealing with one’s current circumstances entails taking responsibility for the present results of one’s own past actions; which results aren’t always pleasant. The time is past for blaming others, making excuses, and expecting others to clean up one’s messes, wipe one’s behind, or change one’s diapers. The time is past to say one thing and do another, to promise crayons and not bring them. Paul concurs: “When I became a man, I put away childish things.” Whoever made the mess needs to clean it up, if at all possible.

Note that blame and responsibility are two different things: blame does not enable anyone to do anything, and results only in bad feelings. Responsibility opens opportunities for constructive action. Whoever broke the window normally has the wherewithal to fix it.

Sacrifice. “How hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” The Needle’s Eye is thought to be a certain gate in Jerusalem that is so narrow a camel can barely pass through. To enter the desired state, one must relieve the camel of all needless baggage.

Many of the poor ARE NOT “poor in spirit.” On the contrary, they are rich in resentments and regrets, and in self-loathing that they project as insolence. To attend to one’s own conduct in the present, one must divest oneself of all those things. The burnt offerings of Leviticus were a ritual metaphor for the spent emotions one must give up — shattered dreams, ambitions broken beyond repair — in order to attend, with peace of mind, to the here and now.

Capital formation. The academic consensus is that the Parable of the Talents does not come from Jesus himself. Nonetheless, it provides one of the New Testament’s foremost teachings about prosperity; namely, that to obtain more, one must first make right use of what one already has. And this begins with right use of one’s attention and emotions.

WHEN I LIVED in Barclay, for logistical reasons, I could not attend my own congregation. Not to worry: Priscilla had a storefront church 50 yards from my door. She put loudspeakers outside the church door and blasted the audio of the service through them. I could sit on my front steps and hear the service as clearly as if I were inside.

One day Priscilla gave her “testimony” (life story). It epitomized “an environment not conducive to success.”

Her life began in a dumpster.

Strangers heard the baby crying, afterbirth still attached.

Decades later, when she located the woman, she told her, “Maybe you’re my daughter; maybe not. I trashed so many babies I can’t tell if you’re one of them or not.”


George Benson’s 1977 hit song concludes:

The greatest love of all is easy to achieve.
Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.

I listened carefully to Priscilla’s testimony. Coming to “believe in Jesus” was not what finally changed her life. Rather, her life changed when she came to feel that God loves her personally, that as an individual she is precious in God’s sight. This opened the door for her to care for herself and seek to complete her education, find a job and contribute to society. Whether or not there is such a God, a person who believes this way is far more likely to prosper than one who believes, as her mother did, that she and her babies are trash.

I have an intense prayer life, and am privy to some powerful techniques. But the most powerful of all does not involve bowing your head and closing your eyes. Instead, you stand up on your own two feet, and put one foot in front of the other. Repeat. And repeat again, and again, until you reach your goal.

Jesus’ teachings equip you to do this.

Having said all this, I still don’t advise anyone to take my last dollar. I might do something stupid.

(Originally published 2013-10-18 at Yahoo! Voices.  Reblogged 2016-09-29, 2019-08-01.)

7 thoughts on “* Chaos overwhelms the poor

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