Poor people

I love this post for a bunch of reasons. I love it so much that I copied the text into here, just in case it ever goes offline. Tressie is a clear communicator and seems to have a sense of humor on these things (which can be hard to have a sense of humor about).

Here’s the original post

We hates us some poor people. First, they insist on being poor when it is so easy to not be poor. They do things like buy expensive designer belts and $2500 luxury handbags.

To be fair, this isn’t about Eroll Louis. His is a belief held by many people, including lots of black people, poor people, formerly poor people, etc. It is, I suspect, an honest expression of incredulity. If you are poor, why do you spend money on useless status symbols like handbags and belts and clothes and shoes and televisions and cars?

One thing I’ve learned is that one person’s illogical belief is another person’s survival skill. And nothing is more logical than trying to survive.

My family is a classic black American migration family. We have rural Southern roots, moved north and almost all have returned. I grew up watching my great-grandmother, and later my grandmother and mother, use our minimal resources to help other people make ends meet. We were those good poors, the kind who live mostly within our means. We had a little luck when a male relative got extra military pay when they came home a paraplegic or used the VA to buy a Jim Walter house (pdf). If you were really blessed when a relative died with a paid up insurance policy you might be gifted a lump sum to buy the land that Jim Walters used as collateral to secure your home lease. That’s how generational wealth happens where I’m from: lose a leg, a part of your spine, die right and maybe you can lease-to-own a modular home.

We had a little of that kind of rural black wealth so we were often in a position to help folks less fortunate. But perhaps the greatest resource we had was a bit more education. We were big readers and we encouraged the girl children, especially, to go to some kind of college. Consequently, my grandmother and mother had a particular set of social resources that helped us navigate mostly white bureaucracies to our benefit. We could, as my grandfather would say, talk like white folks. We loaned that privilege out to folks a lot.

I remember my mother taking a next door neighbor down to the social service agency. The elderly woman had been denied benefits to care for the granddaughter she was raising. The woman had been denied in the genteel bureaucratic way — lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross “Mahogany” outfit: a camel colored cape with matching slacks and knee high boots. I was miffed, as only an only child could be, about sharing my mother’s time with the neighbor girl. I must have said something about why we had to do this. Vivian fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do, must do. It took half a day but something about my mother’s performance of respectable black person — her Queen’s English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings — got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in over a year. I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn‘t work but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. It was unfair but, as Vivian also always said, “life isn’t fair little girl.”

I internalized that lesson and I think it has worked out for me, if unevenly. A woman at Belk’s once refused to show me the Dooney and Burke purse I was interested in buying. Vivian once made a salesgirl cry after she ignored us in an empty store. I have walked away from many of hotly desired purchases, like the impractical off-white winter coat I desperately wanted, after some bigot at the counter insulted me and my mother. But, I have half a PhD and I support myself aping the white male privileged life of the mind. It’s a mixed bag. Of course, the trick is you can never know the counterfactual of your life. There is no evidence of access denied. Who knows what I was not granted for not enacting the right status behaviors or symbols at the right time for an agreeable authority? Respectability rewards are a crap-shoot but we do what we can within the limits of the constraints imposed by a complex set of structural and social interactions designed to limit access to status, wealth, and power.

I do not know how much my mother spent on her camel colored cape or knee-high boots but I know that whatever she paid it returned in hard-to-measure dividends. How do you put a price on the double-take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to your child because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle class parents to advocate for her child? I don’t know the price of these critical engagements with organizations and gatekeepers relative to our poverty when I was growing up. But, I am living proof of its investment yield.

Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And, not just for the psychic rewards, but belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on. Someone mentioned on twitter that poor people can be presentable with affordable options from Kmart. But the issue is not about being presentable. Presentable is the bare minimum of social civility. It means being clean, not smelling, wearing shirts and shoes for service and the like. Presentable as a sufficient condition for gainful, dignified work or successful social interactions is a privilege. It’s the aging white hippie who can cut the ponytail of his youthful rebellion and walk into senior management while aging black panthers can never completely outrun the effects of stigmatization against which they were courting a revolution. Presentable is relative and, like life, it ain’t fair.

In contrast, “acceptable” is about gaining access to a limited set of rewards granted upon group membership. I cannot know exactly how often my presentation of acceptable has helped me but I have enough feedback to know it is not inconsequential. One manager at the apartment complex where I worked while in college told me, repeatedly, that she knew I was “Okay” because my little Nissan was clean. That I had worn a Jones of New York suit to the interview really sealed the deal. She could call the suit by name because she asked me about the label in the interview. Another hiring manager at my first professional job looked me up and down in the waiting room, cataloging my outfit, and later told me that she had decided I was too classy to be on the call center floor. I was hired as a trainer instead. The difference meant no shift work, greater prestige, better pay and a baseline salary for all my future employment.

I have about a half dozen other stories like this. What is remarkable is not that this happened. There is empirical evidence that women and people of color are judged by appearances differently and more harshly than are white men. What is remarkable is that these gatekeepers told me the story. They wanted me to know how I had properly signaled that I was not a typical black or a typical woman, two identities that in combination are almost always conflated with being poor.

I sat in on an interview for a new administrative assistant once. My regional vice president was doing the hiring. A long line of mostly black and brown women applied because we were a cosmetology school. Trade schools at the margins of skilled labor in a gendered field are necessarily classed and raced. I found one candidate particularly charming. She was trying to get out of a salon because 10 hours on her feet cutting hair would average out to an hourly rate below minimum wage. A desk job with 40 set hours and medical benefits represented mobility for her. When she left my VP turned to me and said, “did you see that tank top she had on under her blouse?! OMG, you wear a silk shell, not a tank top!” Both of the women were black.

The VP had constructed her job as senior management. She drove a brand new BMW because she, “should treat herself” and liked to tell us that ours was an image business. A girl wearing a cotton tank top as a shell was incompatible with BMW-driving VPs in the image business. Gatekeeping is a complex job of managing boundaries that do not just define others but that also define ourselves. Status symbols — silk shells, designer shoes, luxury handbags — become keys to unlock these gates. If I need a job that will save my lower back and move my baby from medicaid to an HMO, how much should I spend signaling to people like my former VP that I will not compromise her status by opening the door to me? That candidate maybe could not afford a proper shell. I will never know. But I do know that had she gone hungry for two days to pay for it or missed wages for a trip to the store to buy it, she may have been rewarded a job that could have lifted her above minimum wage. Shells aren’t designer handbags, perhaps. But a cosmetology school in a strip mall isn’t a job at Bank of America, either.

At the heart of these incredulous statements about the poor decisions poor people make is a belief that we would never be like them. We would know better. We would know to save our money, eschew status symbols, cut coupons, practice puritanical sacrifice to amass a million dollars. There is a regular news story of a lunch lady who, unbeknownst to all who knew her, died rich and leaves it all to a cat or a charity or some such. Books about the modest lives of the rich like to tell us how they drive Buicks instead of BMWs. What we forget, if we ever know, is that what we know now about status and wealth creation and sacrifice are predicated on who we are, i.e. not poor. If you change the conditions of your not-poor status, you change everything you know as a result of being a not-poor. You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor. Then, and only then, will you understand the relative value of a ridiculous status symbol to someone who intuits that they cannot afford to not have it.

What I’ve Been Reading

I read a lot of great books. Sometimes good reading comes in PDF form. Here are some that I’ve read lately that other people should too.

Jeff Bezos writes great letters to shareholders. This is a PDF of all of them since the beginning. They’re almost Buffett-level. Worth a trip through time for any aspiring business person.

If you do dig through Bezos’s letters, you’ll find a mention of decision making. If there were one single thing that wish I could do with expert-level perfection, it would be an ability to make better decisions. This is an analysis of how “unstructured” decisions are made. If Bezos felt it was worthy to be one of the few publications he mentions in all of his annual letters, then I think it’s worth considering that he seems to have been very good at making decisions over the years before not clicking the following link: The Structure of “Unstructured” Decision Processes

On Advertising: David Ogilvy recommends that everyone read this book seven times. Of course, Ogilvy would know how to write an endorsement. Here it is: Scientific Advertising

Here are copies I’ve downloaded in case any of the links go dead.

Amazon Shareholder Letters 97-12

Mintzberg – Decision Processes

Scientific Advertising

Vitamin A(rt)

Art is good for you.

Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults. We present five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM (experiments 1 to 5) and cognitive ToM (experiments 4 and 5) compared with reading nonfiction (experiments 1), popular fiction (experiments 2 to 5), or nothing at all (experiments 2 and 5). Specifically, these results show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art.

The NYTimes breakdown and a link to the study are worth being aware of.

 

 

of the people, by the people, for the people

Key to any worthwhile public relations effort, Mr. Werner believes, is getting to facts about what people actually think about an organization, product or cause. “They are ingredients which are far more important to an organization’s standing with the public than all of the tactical stunts of publicity that stick out and create attention as a program.

“The north star of your course should be other people’s opinions. Walk across the street and look at your store as other people see it. Instead of thinking about a broad, hazy public, think rather in terms of the many different publics your organization meets and serves, their differing needs, likes and dislikes.

“Good public relations thinking – two-way thinking – digs up the reasons why the public feels as it does about a business.”

http://badpitch.blogspot.com/2011/08/pr-time-capsule-can-take-you-back-to.html

You make poor decisions

Here’s a talk from Charlie Munger. He’s Warren Buffett’s very close business partner who Warren would never have been as successful without. I’ve read and listened to a lot of what he’s written and said. He is extremely smart in that he’s able to notice things other people might now, and he’s also well-educated so that he has a lot of raw material to work with.

Watch this and take to heart what he says.

And here’s a summary of it thanks to The Motley Fool.

Also, here’s something that strikes me as relevant, probably due to the use of incentives, and the fact that it’s a good example of systems thinking, and Charlie would like it:

In 1986, new federal legislation, the Toxic Release Inventory, required U.S. companies to report all hazardous air pollutants emitted from each of their factories each year. Through the Freedom of Information Act, that information became a matter of public record. In July 1988, the first data on chemical emissions became available. The reported emissions were not illegal, but they didn’t look very good when they were published in local papers by enterprising reporters, who had a tendency to make lists of “the top ten local polluters.” That’s all that happened. There were no lawsuits, no required reductions, no fines, no penalties. But within two years chemical emissions nationwide had decreased by 40 percent. Some companies were launching policies to bring their emissions down by 90 percent, just because of the release of previously withheld information. — Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows

The more software you have, the more software you need.

Jevons Paradox says that as a resource can be used more efficiently, more of it ends up being used overall. That is, the better the deal you’re getting, the more you’re interested in buying.

This example of real-world compounding reminded me of another example: software. There’s an interesting quirk about software — the more you have of it, the more you need.

Let’s trace through one recent path of the software industry. We start with a website.

A website is a great idea. Websites (code) make it easy to distribute information. There’s so much information that people create dynamic websites (more code).

Dynamic websites are useful, but once you’ve got dynamic data, you want the data available via API (even more code) so that outside developers can build applications (lots more code).

To help with this, you build an API management layer (tons more code), which produces information about all these other applications.

You want that data combined in a dashboard (still even more code) alongside data from all of the other software that relates to your business (which is even more code than all of the other code so far).

Whew.

Anything that cannot go on forever must stop. But there doesn’t seem to be any reasonable end in sight. This is one small piece of the software industry that points to a bigger trend, which seems to contradict common sense. People intuitively understand supply and demand. But here, supply creates more demand.

It’s a good time to be a programmer.