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Ed Driscoll

Life at the Bottom

August 23rd, 2013 - 4:25 pm

“I live in a different America now,” Christopher Orlet writes at the American Spectator, in a piece titled, “In Another Country.”

But prior to that, Orlet adds, “For the past two years I lived in the inner-city of America’s most dangerous city. I saw the culture of poverty up close and personal. Some insist there is no such thing as a culture of poverty; they would think differently if they spent the last two years in my shoes. But of course they won’t:”

The culture of poverty is many things. Actually it is an accumulation of things. Having one of those things doesn’t necessarily mean you are part of that culture. One characteristic of the culture of poverty is the single-parent household. But there are many middle class and even upper class (though fewer) single-parent households that are doing just fine. That is because they have resources unavailable to the poor. Like savings. Lawyers. Reliable transportation.

But if you are a single parent with multiple children by multiple fathers, and a high school dropout, with a record, then chances are you are part of that culture. If you move to a new rental every six months, yanking your kids out of school after school, and if you do drugs in front of your children, and sell your food stamps for cash, then chances are you are part of that culture. If you are 20 years old, living with your grandmother, with no interest in ever getting a job, or getting married, or doing much of anything, chances are you are part of that culture. If you do not have a kitchen table, but you do have a big flat screen TV, and when the social worker comes to visit someone yells, “The social worker is here, go get the light bulb,” then chances are you are part of that culture.

When I moved into the inner-city, I hoped to gain some insight and understanding of the poor and their situation. Two years later I left feeling the situation is intractable. Everything the professional uplifters do for the poor is but pruning the branches, instead of hacking at the roots of the problem. For the underclass to escape the culture of poverty they would have to cease doing most if not all of the above, and I don’t see that happening.

Read the whole thing, as Kathy Shaidle writes, “Congratulations to Christopher Orlet for writing this and to the American Spectator for printing it.”

Speaking of “In Another Country,” Orlet’s piece, particularly given its title, reminded me very much of Theodore Dalrymple’s earliest articles to be published in the States beginning in the mid-to-late 1990s, which were collected in his first anthologies, Life At The Bottom and Our Culture, What’s Left Of It. In addition to Dalrymple’s brilliant prose, what gives them their power is that writing as a British prison psychiatrist, Dalrymple was observing many of the same pathologies that undermine America’s poor, but from a largely homogeneously white (and British needless to say) population, removing race from the equation. But then, there’s a reason why Life At The Bottom was subtitled, “The Worldview That Makes the Underclass.”

Orlet concludes, “Here’s what I know. We know what it takes to be successful in America. What we can never know is how to make people want to be successful.”

We could start by not demonizing those who are successful. But what would be the political gain in that?

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
I don't think it's necessarily true that people living in poverty are there because of poor intelligence. My family served a combined 118 years on the NYPD and they ran across plenty of drug dealers that had a firm grasp of math and business theory. They saw improvised weapons in prison that could only be made by people who had engineering skills combined with imagination. And on a daily basis they dealt with people who had a practical understanding of the law far surpassing most laymen.

It wasn't intelligence they were lacking, it was a willingness to work within society. If they were willing to develop their intelligence in school and then apply it in an actual profession a lot of them could do very well in life. But that requires (here it comes again) a lot of hard, boring, unsexy work coupled with patience and self-control. And that's where they fall short.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
This calls to mind something I read once by (I believe) Bill Whittle, the difference between being broke and being poor. Being broke is a temporary condition that almost everyone will experience at some point in their lives, probably more than once. But it passes, very much like bad weather. Being poor, on the other hand, is a chronic condition that can only be changed by making some fundamental life changes. This is hard to do, and the sad fact is that not everyone is going to be able to do it.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (20)
All Comments   (20)
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We don't have to change the poor. Just stop giving them free money. maybe they'll figure it out. If they don't. Too bad. Tough love. Even if it ain't actually love. In my opinion nothing else will work.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
"We could start by not demonizing those who are successful. But what would be the political gain in that?"
True, but not complete. The other half would involve positive steps, like telling people that most of their problems come from their own moral failings, and not things like white racism, and the evils of capitalism.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Lots of self-righteous chest beating going on, here. (I would've used another word, there, but this is a kind of PG website)

Not much on offer for real world solutions, though. Like actually shrinking the size of government (No, if you voted for a conservative or a Republican who didn't shrink the size of government, you're a part of the problem.) Nothing much about slashing red tape to make it easier to start a business from scratch. Then, there's the question of how many of you will put up with a UPS truck showing up at the neighbor's house twice a day... building zones and codes and such - see: 'shrinking the size of government.'

Real world solutions, not just fantasist's dreams and self-righteous chest beating..
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think you're missing the point. You talk as though there are millions of would-be entrepreneurs living in poverty who would start thriving businesses tomorrow if not for government red tape. That's just not the case. The work ethic isn't there.

If you're preaching the virtues of smaller government I suspect you'll find a very sympathetic audience here but that's completely beside the point. The real world solution can't come from us, it's not something that can be imposed from the outside. Poverty is first and foremost a result of one's lifestyle and the habits one practices. The only person who can change that for an individual is that individual.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
And sadly the disfunction that grips urban America is coming to the rest of us. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his famous paper in 1965 the rate of illegitimate births in the African American community was 42% (It's now above 70%) Excluding the AA community the current rate for the US is ...... 42%. Urban Black America just got there first. And once the chain of responsible adult passing on his/her work ethic the way my parents did for me there is no putting it back in place.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Instead of "Life at the Bottom" the title might well have been "Life on the Left Side of the IQ Curve.

The very nature of human biodiversity leaves some disadvantaged, mentally. DNA is a huge part of the equation -- so poverty does tend to stay in the family -- such as may be.

Government attempts to lift IQs by enhanced pre-natal nutrition have paid off. Lost in all of the hand wringing: far fewer morons are being born. Because of emotions, and the impulse for quick results, this success is drowned out by the plight of the dummies we still have with us.

As robotics expands out of the factory -- onto the farm -- and then the construction trades -- the economic utility/ capability for those on the left of the IQ curve is going to permanently evaporate.

This is coming soon: Foxconn (iPhone, iPad...) is swapping out 'rice slaves' for robots as I type. Even low ball wages were too high when compared to robots!

Robots are behind the collapse in manufacturing employment, everywhere. They are behind the hyper-integration of today's wafer circuits. Take a look at how empty the modern PC is versus that of twenty-years ago.

Which brings us to an epic threshold: a major slice of humanity will no longer be able to earn their way in a free market.

The Bottom is about to get a whole lot fatter.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't think it's necessarily true that people living in poverty are there because of poor intelligence. My family served a combined 118 years on the NYPD and they ran across plenty of drug dealers that had a firm grasp of math and business theory. They saw improvised weapons in prison that could only be made by people who had engineering skills combined with imagination. And on a daily basis they dealt with people who had a practical understanding of the law far surpassing most laymen.

It wasn't intelligence they were lacking, it was a willingness to work within society. If they were willing to develop their intelligence in school and then apply it in an actual profession a lot of them could do very well in life. But that requires (here it comes again) a lot of hard, boring, unsexy work coupled with patience and self-control. And that's where they fall short.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
That brings to mind the chapter in, IIRC, the first Freakonomics book where it was noted that the lower strata of the drug trade earn remarkably little for the level of risk they endure. But intelligence is a many faceted gem. One may be capable of basic math but lacking in the ability to calculate the value of one choice over another, because one looks easier, yet may result in one's death or imprisonment, and delivers scarcely better reward even if the negative outcomes are avoided.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think its both, depending on the individual. There are penty of really stupid criminals, you can see this when you read all these articles of how criminals often get caught, and some of the incredibly stupid criminal jobs many of them pull. But you are right that the leaders of criminal gangs can often be smart, just anti social.

Another factor that is just as important as intelligence is ability to defer gratification. One study gave toddlers a choice to get one piece of candy and eat it now, or get 3 more pieces if they could hold off eating it for a time. The kids that hel out the longest, especially the ones that hel out until they got the extra candy, ended up being much more successful later in life. Most criminals want it now, and with no sacrifices involved.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
You're jumping to the exceptional.

The average IQ in prison is depressingly low... 80 ish.

When you consider that true morons are not put through the justice system...

The result is a chopped distribution at the low end... then an astounding ramp that fades as IQs normalize around 95...

The genius convict is great in fiction... but scarcely found in real life. Bernie Madoff comes to mind.

As for taking the direct (criminal) route to 'success' -- that's hard-wired into our DNA. 12,000 ybp everyman operated that way.

Afghanistan/ Pashtunistan is a half-way house to that dawn of the Neolithic ethos.

BTW, drug dealers are NOT normally deemed to be mired in poverty -- just mired in the rackets.

Such criminal enterprises trigger the same emotional rush as compulsive gambling for those players. Hence, for them, crime -- and the thrills rush -- is addictive.

33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Three of the noblest people I've known came out of stark poverty, but it was material poverty only without impoverishment of the spirit. That latter component is the real culprit.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
This calls to mind something I read once by (I believe) Bill Whittle, the difference between being broke and being poor. Being broke is a temporary condition that almost everyone will experience at some point in their lives, probably more than once. But it passes, very much like bad weather. Being poor, on the other hand, is a chronic condition that can only be changed by making some fundamental life changes. This is hard to do, and the sad fact is that not everyone is going to be able to do it.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
PS. That is called a culture of individualism.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
“Here’s what I know. We know what it takes to be successful in America. What we can never know is how to make people want to be successful.”

You make people want to be successful by giving them control over their lives (through freedom); the more successful they become (financially), the more control they gain _above and beyond that_.

Today, the opposite is true.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm looking at the list of things to do to guarantee you stay poor, and all of them are either encouraged by, or financed by, Leftist policies. All of them are discouraged by conservatives, especially religious conservatives. Knowing that poor people stay dependent upon the government, and therefore a permanent Democrat Party base, it's no wonder the Democrats have consistently designed their policies to make and expand the underclass.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
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