Friday, March 31, 2017
Poor-Shaming in the Self-Help Industry
Earlier this week, New York-based MSW Melody Wilding published a column declaring people prone to poor decision-making could improve their choices, and their lives, using the HALT method. This approach requires people making any particular choice to first take care that they aren’t choosing while Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. I reached the end and wondered: does this author realize she just described the experience of being poor?
I don’t mean the experience of being destitute. Of course people living in illegal squats or sleeping on sidewalks make poor choices. Living day by day, hour by hour, they lack freedom and security enough to even make long-term decisions; they’re more focused on ensuring the few possessions they still have don’t get pilfered while they’re chasing the next meal. We expect the truly indigent to make bad decisions.
Rather, I mean ordinary working poor. People like me, living paycheck to paycheck, spend much of our time Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. I’ve sometimes punted meals onto the next pay cycle, banking on the reality well-known to survivalists, that the sensation of hunger dissipates after two to three days. I’ve postponed sleep to dedicate time and energy looking for other jobs, hoping to improve my material situation to rise above a constant HALT state.
And the job conditions absolutely require a tolerance for both loneliness and fatigue. I know, writing this, that by the time you read it, I’ll probably be at my job, working under solitary or near-solitary conditions. The equipment I use is too loud to permit me plugging earbuds into my phone, much less conversing with whatever co-workers might wander past. Even in a crowd, work conditions are intensely isolating.
Just last week, my boss assigned me a side task, “when you need a break.” So I assumed the task was low-priority, and continued my main assignment. The next morning, I found the parts I’d been assigned to locate and collect, when I needed a break, jammed atop my regular tools so precariously that, if I moved one piece, the others would collapse, possibly breaking my tools. My boss admitted pulling this passive-aggressive move out of pure petty spite.
So yeah, I’m Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired most of the time. Nor is this unique to any particular job. My blue-collar career has consisted of both construction and assembly line work, jobs that pay poorly because they’re considered low-skill and unimportant, and leave workers constantly surrounded by people but unable to talk. Before that, I was a university adjunct, a job that left me socially stimulated, but chronically broke and overextended.
These conditions are complicated by issues that seem incidental, but prove very important. For instance, the poorer you are in America, the further you live from work, statistically speaking. And probably, the further you live from access to public transportation, too. So you’re economically dependent upon your car, in which you probably spend a significant portion of your non-work hours. That’s time not spent with family, friends, or doing anything constructive or ennobling.
Also, a growing body of evidence indicates that most addictive behaviors, including substance abuse and certain other addictions, like gambling or risky sex, originate from some form of pain. This may include physical pain, or the psychological pain induced by loneliness. As the 1990s song indicates, Common People “dance and drink and screw, because there’s nothing else to do.” Put concisely, despite the common wisdom addictions don’t cause poverty; poverty causes addictions.
America’s elected officials prefer to invest resources in expanding what’s already Earth’s biggest military, offsetting costs by cutting half-invisible programs like Meals on Wheels. Why, these officials ask, can’t the elderly get their children to provide food and other protections against economic freefall? But these same officials do nothing to prevent the concentration of wealth in a few major cities, forcing young adults to move to New York, Chicago, and San Francisco in pursuit of work.
So yeah, America’s poor are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired most of the time. This forces us into cycles of lousy decision-making that prevent us improving our own lot. We recognize our own situation; we don’t need Gothamite experts reminding us. Yet self-help writers, from Jack Canfield to Suze Orton, constantly invent new ways to imply the poor are poor only because they lack Wall Street’s well-worn methods of saving, investing, and other good decisions.
I believe Melody Wilding means well. I certainly attempt to improve myself and my decision-making constantly. But when my job sometimes requires me to work thirteen days on, one day off, telling me that I’m making bad decisions because I’m tired isn’t just insulting. It’s a sign of deep-rooted ignorance in today’s economic atmosphere.