(Not) Facing the Consequences of Your Actions
If you haven't already, read my last post before reading this. In it, I used some personal anecdotes of the bad decisions I've made and the relatively light consequences I faced. I brought them up to illustrate an important point about assuming poor people made poor decisions to get where they are. In this post, I want to expand on the idea of "making poor decisions".
Part of judging the poor is getting to feel superior: they fucked up to get where they are; I made good decisions, so I'm not poor.
But if you have two people, one on welfare and one with a steady job, it doesn't hold that the one on welfare made more bad decisions. Maybe the first person did make some bad decisions, but most likely so did the second one. It's just that the "consequences" of poor decisions are arbitrary and unevenly applied.
In the area I grew up in, I'd say approximately 100% of people I knew drove drunk at least once a month from the ages of 16 to 25 (and plenty still do it at 30, 40, or 50). A few kids got a DUI/DWI. Occasionally there'd be an accident. A few kids I knew died, or were killed by others who were drinking. But most avoided trouble.
Looking at the consequences, it's easy to say the kids with the DUIs, permanent injuries, and poor background checks "made poor decisions" and deserved what they got, but almost everybody else did what they did, and most suffered no consequences at all. Everybody took the same gamble, but only a few lost. It's dishonest to heap scorn on those who lost, and give a free pass to those who, through no special skill or talent of their own, made the same bad decision and avoided trouble. That includes you.
And if you were driving drunk and were to have an accident and some baby in another car died (it doesn't matter who's fault it was once they test BAC), you might have a manslaughter conviction on your record.
And if you never drove drunk? Well, ever smoke pot? If you had gotten busted at the wrong time, you might have a prison sentence in your past.
Or maybe you chose some bad "friends" who almost got you put in prison, one way or another.
Or maybe you were 18 and he/she was 17, and the parents didn't like you, and now you're on a sex offenders list.
Or many other things that didn't happen, but could have.
You avoided those consequences, but not because you made good decisions: You made the exact same bad decisions as the "losers" who now have a hard time getting a decent job because of their record. While it's possible to work your way back up from a prison term and all that entails, you're going to have to spend years in crappy apartments and bad jobs because you can't pass a background check. Again, these are things you, through no special decision-making prowess on your part, don't have to face.
It doesn't even have to have been a prison sentence that got them in their current situation (and you, by chance, did not).
Remember those times you drove like an idiot to impress your buddies? You could have caused an accident and spent your next 50 or 1000 McD's paychecks paying someone's repair or medical bill.
Or that time when you were speeding, and the cop decided not to pull you over and give you a ticket that would take half your rent money because you didn't notice it was a school zone.
Or ever have unprotected sex? You could have gotten pregnant or gotten someone pregnant at 17. Or gotten a life-threatening or expensive STD.
Or maybe you were just a few "party nights" away from being an alcoholic or drug addict and didn't know it.
Or you smoked and almost got cancer.
Or plenty of other things that never happened.
If any of those bad things would have happened to you, you'd probably not have the job you have now, or the place you live. Maybe you'd have somewhat crappier versions of them, or maybe those consequences would have piled up, and worse things would happen. Once you're broke, you're one unexpected expense or momentary bad decision away from disaster. When you're already living paycheck-to-paycheck, one single bad decision means a lot of extra trouble. These are decisions you don't have to make and trouble you don't have to face because you lucked-out and didn't face the consequences of your previous bad decisions.
(Ok, maybe you were a complete angel from 13 to 25. How much of that was you and how much was your parents, your community, and your peers? What if your parents didn't give you your religion or morals? If infant-you was transplanted to Detroit or the trailer park, teenage-you would have made no different decisions? If the police had shot your dad when you were 10, you'd be no different today? And never forget that sometimes bad stuff happens randomly. You get in a car accident, or get cancer, or even just get the flu but you can't call in sick because they'll replace you and so then you get pneumonia and get fired anyway. You were poor to start with, and now you've got no job and mounting medical bills.)
I can hear the solutions pouring forth:
- Join the Army and get the GI bill!
No, they can't join the military. Their record disqualifies them for the next 3 years at a minimum, or permanently depending on the details. Maybe they got busted for "sale or distribution" when they gave their buddy a joint. Or their mental illness disqualifies them. Or their disability. Or their STD. Or even those dumb tattoos they got at 16. Or they can't go off and join the Army because they have a child or two. All things you avoided, but probably only by blind luck.
- Go back to school and learn a trade!
Maybe they can, and maybe they already are, but that takes years of night school and a shit-ton of money, and their 2 minimum-wage jobs take up all their time and energy and still barely cover rent and utilities. Don't forget: they have a record which makes school admissions harder and job interviews tricky. And they are perpetually one marginally bad decision (which you will never have to make) away from losing it all again (ie consequences you don't face).
- Work more and work harder, save up!
Maybe they are, or maybe they're trying, but minimum wage doesn't go far, especially if they're trying to pay off a medical bill or pay for school. Or maybe they have to head to the methadone clinic everyday before it closes, or check in with their parole officer at the right time, or a bunch of stuff you didn't have to do.
And through all this, they have to live in the crime-ridden part of town because the nicer apartments won't let them in because of the background check. Which means their car gets vandalized, and their stuff gets stolen. Their life is stressful, they're surrounded by bad examples, and there's a drug dealer and liquor store right out front to help on the extra bad days.
I'm not saying people aren't responsible for their actions, or that they can never recover through hard work, just that you never had to face those same consequences even though you made many of the same bad decisions, so maybe don't congratulate yourself so loudly or judge them so harshly.
Some gambled and lost, while some of us made the same gamble and, through sheer luck, won. So, if you want to judge people for making poor decisions, do it I guess, but don't forget to include yourself, and remember that being "in need" is not a good way to figure out who made bad decisions.
(See also: Part III)