How to make poor people more responsible


Categories: Personal

I see a lot of complaints about how poor people are irresponsible. There’s plenty of existing work being done on the question of why this might be the case, and the obvious answer (“being irresponsible makes you poor”) appears to be only a very small part of the story. Most noticably, being poor deprives you of cognitive resources, while vastly increasing the cognitive cost of many things.

Meanwhile, the standard answer is to try to crush people’s souls harder in case maybe they just aren’t despairing quite enough. So people running, say, housing projects for poor people? They are gonna typically be really hostile to pets because why should you ever have anything nice? You don’t deserve it.

However, there’s plenty of research on ways to help people develop greater mental resilience, motivate them to try harder, and so on. And there’s one thing that really stands out in this: Taking care of others makes people stronger, and gives them reserves. Also, pets are cheap.

And there’s some pretty fascinating examples of just how effective this is; for instance, consider A Street Cat Named Bob, the story of how a guy finally kicked drug addiction because he had to take care of his cat. This is not a unique occurrence; I know several people who are a lot more functional now that they have pets. When you’re depressed, you might not feel like you deserve basic care, but you’re not going to think your dog doesn’t deserve care. And the dog will make it clear that you deserve care.

So here’s my idea: What if we inverted this? Instead of trying to discourage poor people from having pets, what if we actively, aggressively, promoted pet ownership for poor folks? For instance, any and all subsidized housing or similar things aimed at people who can’t afford apartments would be required to accept pets, period. Support programs could include pet care. That might sound expensive, but it’s not super-expensive, and most places already have animal shelters, which would be able to reduce costs a lot if more people were taking in pets.

The payoff? People who had nothing to drag them out of bed in the morning suddenly having something other than themselves to take care of. Affection and company for lonely people. Things that we know make people more effective, more successful, happier, and more motivated to succeed.

This is part of my general theory that social services should be structured around spending the least possible money to get the job done, rather than being an endless battle over how much money to spend without any thought given to whether the job gets done.

Comments [archived]

From: Dave Leppik
Date: 2014-02-28 10:57:38 -0600

Causality is rather hard to nail down, but it appears that many social ills that people attribute to poverty are in fact caused by poverty. For example, people often claim poor parenting skills, substance abuse, or psychiatric problems lead to poverty. But to a fair degree, it seems they are caused by poverty. The proof? A study of a group of Cherokee families, some of whom got a windfall of annual casino profits. Just giving the poorest of them more money often made many problems, including poor parenting, disappear. The effect was much stronger than any typical intervention. When you don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from, you have more energy to worry about your kids’ grades.