The Mechanic's Son: Growing up Below the Poverty Line
I grew up in a household that was below the poverty line for the better part of my childhood and adolescence. From the age of about six, my family lived in small apartments or rented houses in mild to moderate states of disrepair. We only ever had one (usually) working car at a time, and it was always old and in a slow death spiral with one mechanical problem rearing its head as another had been fixed. For many years I slept on a mattress on the floor without a proper bed frame. And if my mother sent me to buy food at the grocery store, I often paid in actual paper food stamps.
I was not aware of my family’s poverty because I went to school with kids who were living in similar circumstances, and my family was not in deep poverty. We didn’t miss meals. We went to the doctor if we were sick. And I didn’t wear second-hand clothes or shoes. My father worked long hard hours in an auto body shop, and my homemaker mother kept whatever humble abode we happened to be living in clean and tidy. I offer this glimpse into my life, not to elicit pity but to provide context. And I am well aware that there are others who had and have it much worse than I did.
I only became aware that I was in the minority of Americans living below the poverty line when I entered high school. The high school I attended was situated in a wealthy part of town. Up until then, I always walked to school. But I had to take the bus to high school because my poorer neighborhood was quite a distance from the hills where mansions were perched, amongst which my high school was situated. My school had a distribution of students across the income spectrum, from the children of Donny Osmond, Stephen Covey, and stepchildren of Larry King, to students whose parents could not afford shoes to fit their rapidly growing feet. It was against this backdrop that I started to become aware of my family’s poverty. I was probably in the tenth percentile when it came to household income among my high school peers. And while I tried to hide it, I felt ashamed to be on the poorer end of the spectrum.
I think the most shame-inducing experience I had in high school was when I befriended a young man in tenth grade. His family was wealthy. He invited me to go with his family to a college basketball game. Before asking me my address so his family could pick me up, he wanted to make sure I didn’t live on the south side of town because his mother didn’t want him to be hanging out with “those kids.” I did live on the south side, so I lied about my address. I intended to walk to a nicer neighborhood where I would wait for them to pick me up outside of a house that was not mine. But my timing was off. They went to the door of the address that I gave them, but no one answered (I gave them the address of a nice house where the occupants were rarely home because they were traveling the world). They waited for me outside the house. When I didn’t show, they started to drive around the area to see if they could find me thinking maybe they got the wrong address. They happened upon me just as I was walking up the street where my actual house was. They pulled over when they spotted me, and I got in their luxury car. My perplexed friend asked whether I lived on the street where they found walking me and I said “no,” but it was obvious I had been caught in a lie. To my great relief, no one in the car brought it up, but he and I didn’t spend any time together after that.
Poverty & Crime
Even if I grew up in a poor household, my neighborhood was at least relatively safe. An occasional stolen bike was the worst that I can recall. For most people in poverty, especially deep poverty, their financial plight is coupled with domestic violence and other violent crime.
Poverty and crime are like comorbid diseases that pass from one generation to the next. Federal and local governments in the U.S. have always been fighting crime, even if there are plenty of debates to be had about how effective, legal or fair these crime-fighting tactics have been. Where poverty is concerned, the federal government started to put sweeping policy prescriptions into place with President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and, more specifically, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Since then, the U.S. Census Bureau has provided annual updates on the national poverty rate every September for the year prior. Between 1975 and 2015, the number of those living below the poverty line in the U.S. has been stable at between eleven and fifteen percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s almost half a century of a relatively steady poverty rate in the U.S. after a very sharp decline from twenty-three percent in 1960 to eleven percent in 1975.
Where crime is concerned, according to the Pew Research Center, which follows the two official reporting streams on national crime rates—annual reports from the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics—the rate in the U.S. has been in rapid decline for the past twenty-five years. But these statistics on crime are muddied by the fact that if a crime is not reported it’s not recorded. There are some localities where crime is certainly higher than the official statistics indicate because lack of trust in law enforcement or norms of “no snitching” prevent crimes from being reported, thus skewing the data. So while crime has likely been in decline for about the past quarter century, rates of crime in the U.S. are probably higher than the official statistics indicate.
Where the murder rate in the U.S. is concerned, according to a 2013 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, it has been steady since 1955 at rates between five and ten murders annually per 100,000 inhabitants. As of 2013, the United States was the 94th deadliest country in the world out of 219, with a rate of 4.88 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants annually, right next to Somalia and Kazakhstan. So while crime overall appears to be declining in the U.S., even if the statistics are dubious, the murder rate seems to be fairly steady between five and ten homicides per 100,000 inhabitants for the past 58 years.
Two Worldviews on Dealing with Poverty and Crime
Taken together, the rates of homicide and poverty in the United States have been steady since 1975. Despite the murder and poverty rates remaining mostly constant for the past many decades, I still, fortunately, see signs that people have not become apathetic or indifferent to murder and poverty in the U.S.
My observation is that there are two dominant worldviews on these maladies. First, the “government-helping-hand” philosophy, which advocates for increasing wages for low-skilled laborers (i.e. the working poor—those who are likeliest to experience poverty but still be employed), improving the social safety net by prolonging and increasing unemployment benefits and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps) for those who find themselves under or unemployed, and providing additional services such as universal daycare, paid maternity leave, and subsidized or socialized healthcare. One rationale behind these policy measures is that the more support the state can provide people, the likelier they are to climb out of poverty, stay out of poverty, and abstain from crime.
The other worldview is the “bootstraps” philosophy, which suggests people need to take personal accountability and be responsible for their lives by making choices that will prevent or overcome states of poverty and crime. This philosophy implies that almost everyone (except for perhaps the mentally or physically disabled) is capable of making choices commensurate with these desired outcomes. I believe that people who subscribe to the bootstraps philosophy have a higher tolerance for the existence of poverty and believe that there will always be some poor people regardless of what society or government do. After all, according to the Book of Matthew in the New Testament, Jesus is supposed to have said: “For ye have the poor always with you….” While I am agnostic, I tend to agree with Jesus that there will always be poor people. But Jesus didn’t say how many poor there would be, so we don’t have to rest on our laurels.
I think that the government-helping-hand and bootstraps philosophies both have merits and limits. But with a steady rate of poverty for almost fifty years in the U.S. and accompanying rates of homicide, I believe it is time to examine the limits of both these two worldviews and take a leap forward in how we understand and seek to solve these issues. I would argue that both approaches fail to adequately address the paradigms of thought and subsequent behavior that accompany and perpetuate poverty and crime. Yes, you can offer government assistance, but that assistance is likely only going to help some people out of poverty and crime while creating dependents out of others. And yes there will be some individuals who manage to pull themselves out of poverty and crime, but many lack the ability to do so because of how poverty and crime into which they were born have mentally and behaviorally conditioned them.
The Role of Agency
Some people use the term “agency” as if we are all equally endowed with the same aptitude to exercise it—agency being the ability to make choices. While I have no quibble with the notion that the vast majority of individuals have agency (excluding some with certain mental disabilities), we have to reckon with the fact that we do not all have the same aptitude to make choices that lead to our long-term welfare.
In my opinion, the primary barriers to making choices leading to long-term welfare are low levels of emotional intelligence and self-awareness. Neither sermons from the pulpit about taking personal responsibility nor speeches from the podium about government charity address these crucial constructs of emotional intelligence and self-awareness. And I submit that it is the cultivation of emotional intelligence and self-awareness—which open the aperture of agency for individuals to develop self-determination of behavior—that is the intellectual leap forward that we need to take as a society to further reduce both poverty and crime.
Our Behavioral & Intellectual Evolution
There is no disputing that as a species, we evolve behaviorally. This fact was seared into my consciousness when I took a tour in 2012 of the Tower of London’s exhibition on torture that was carried out in the prison fortress centuries ago. I was in utter shock as the guide described the various torture devices to me, the cruelest of which was a large metal clamp that forced a person into a folded position similar to kneeling. The guide said that this rather innocuous looking device was the one that caused the most distress, as pain grew over time while the clamp was left on for hours or even days. This technique was only one of grotesque dozens used in medieval Europe. While torture of this type has not been eradicated from the earth entirely, it’s certainly no longer considered an acceptable or appropriate form of punishment in most societies.
The point is that the behavior of medieval torture practices is no longer acceptable, which suggests that we have evolved behaviorally. And I would argue that behavioral evolution is a byproduct of intellectual evolution. I believe we are at or nearing a place of intellectual evolution that accepts the notion that we are not all equally equipped with the same aptitude to exercise our agency, and that this aptitude is mostly a byproduct of environmental conditioning and perhaps some genetic predisposition. This level of understanding can open up the public discourse to paradigms of thought that transcend the government-helping-hand and bootstraps philosophies.
The Intellectual Leap: Leveraging Our Intellectual Evolution for a New Approach
If a person is born into an environment where behaviors such as immediate gratification are displayed and reinforced, he/she is likely to mimic these behaviors, thus reducing his/her ability to disrupt the behavioral manifestations of base desires that do not serve long-term welfare. To say it another way, a person’s level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness is largely a byproduct of their environment and is correlated to their aptitude to exercise agency. Therefore, unless an environment that predisposes people to poverty and crime is disrupted before it can imprint on them, they are likely to display levels of aptitude for exercising agency consistent with their environmental conditioning. And while government assistance programs and people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps have helped many to overcome poverty and crime, the steady rates of poverty and crime for the past 40 plus years in the U.S. strongly suggest that there are still those who languish in those states despite government or personal efforts to pull out of it, indicating that benefit of those approaches has plateaued.
Enter the intellectual leap. This leap in understanding reframes how we view additional approaches to dealing with poverty and crime—namely the advancement of emotional intelligence and self-awareness to increase individuals’ aptitude to exercise agency and disrupt behaviors that predispose people to and perpetuate poverty and crime by replacing them with behaviors that lead to their long-term welfare.
The Bile of Cynicism: People Can Change
The notion that increasing people’s aptitude to exercise their agency for their long-term welfare hinges on the premise that people can change. As the child of an alcoholic father (who is the child of an alcoholic mother), I have had a very cynical view regarding people’s ability to change. This cynicism was further exacerbated by two years that I spent in post-Soviet Russia from 1999 to 2001. Russia is no stranger to alcoholism. The World Health Organization identified Russia as the fourth country in the world by consumption of alcohol per capita in 2015.
In the late nineties, Russia was a sad and economically depressed place. During my years in Russia, I spent a lot of time working with individuals to help them overcome their addictions to alcohol, with no success. The blight of alcoholism on the country was omnipresent when I lived there, and I often helped drunk people who had passed out on streets or sidewalks to safer places.
On one sweltering summer day in 2000 (yes, it does get hot in Russia) in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, a companion of mine and I happened upon a man passed out near the street. The slender but tall man (probably 6’5”) was so drunk that we had to bear almost all his weight on our shoulders as we tried to get him to an apartment complex toward which he was gesturing. We assumed the complex must be where he lived. As we were dragging him through a park with his arms draped around our necks, he suddenly convulsed and threw up on me and my companion, not once but twice. Now covered in toxic vodka vomit and bile, we decided that we had sunk enough cost into our endeavor that we were going to see it through. As we made the corner out of the park and up the street toward the apartment complex, I sprung a bloody nose (I commonly got bloody noses in my late teens and early twenties). As blood ran down my face, we put the drunk man down and leaned him against a tree. My companion rushed into a nearby shop to buy some face tissue while I held my nose and watched over the man. Just then a paddy wagon pulled up as the driver spotted the drunk man collapsed near the tree. As two police officers exited the vehicle and approached me, they asked what had happened. I tried to explain that my companion (who was still in the shop) and I were trying to get the drunk man home. They saw the blood on my face and asked whether he had hit me. I said no, but they didn’t appear to believe me. As my companion exited the shop with tissue for my nose, the police officers were hurling the drunk man into the back of their paddy wagon, but not before they had confiscated his wallet.
There I stood covered in vodka vomit, bile, and blood with nothing to show for it. It was at that moment that I began to question why even bother trying to help the drunks. I was so overwrought with disgust that I completely gave up on the notion of trying to help people and was sure that no one could change. My father didn’t change, even when keeping his family depended on it, and I never saw one person in Russia in two years go from alcoholism to sobriety.
Almost two decades have passed since then and my cynicism about people’s ability to change slowly waned during that time and then eventually turned to optimism. The most important event that happened to me in my life that convinced me people are capable of change is how I was able to change myself. Having suffered agonizing bouts of anxiety and depression from age eighteen, I finally turned a corner with my mental health when I read a book called Hope and Help for Your Nerves by a now-deceased Australian physician, Dr. Claire Weekes. In her 1969 book, Dr. Weekes teaches the concept of acceptance. I practiced her explanation of acceptance for years, and it brought about significant positive change in my life. When I learned about the practice of mindfulness many years later, I realized that’s what I had been doing the entire time.
Hope for Our Future: Mindfulness
It is against this backdrop of hope that I submit the single most important thing we can do for indigent children and parents, addicts, suffers from disease, criminals and all the like is to teach them the practice of mindfulness. Teach mindfulness in homes. Teach mindfulness in schools. Teach mindfulness in churches. Teach mindfulness at work. Teach mindfulness in prisons. Mindfulness—the ability to be in the present moment, developing an ear for what is going on internally emotionally and mentally, and accepting it without necessarily responding to it—is the surest path to the development of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. It is the practice of mindfulness that develops the aptitude to exercise agency that enables people to make choices in the service of their long-term welfare.
A path out of poverty and crime is a win-win for society. Think of all the latent human capacities that are frozen as individuals are unable to develop their unique skills and gifts for their personal benefit and the benefit of society as they languish in poverty. Think of the over 1.5 million people in prison in the U.S. whose skills and gifts have been squandered as they serve their time and the victims of their crimes. And how many of them will return to crime when they leave prison? Think of the people who aren’t in poverty or prison but suffer from stress-related illnesses that prevent them from working, compromise their ability to bring their full selves to work, and sometimes even lead to suicide. The development of emotional intelligence and self-awareness through the practice of mindfulness can unlock capacities for people to live more productive, healthier, more stable, and happier lives.
Mindfulness is not a panacea. There will still be poverty, crime, illness, and suicide. But mindfulness is a bridge to a higher plane of understanding and existence. It is the leap to the next level of our intellectual evolution as a society. And it is already within each of us; it’s simply a matter of activating it.
American society places a high premium on smarts and the intellectual quotient. The ability to think logically, reason, memorize knowledge, and connect disparate data points is of great value. But this type of intelligence does not have to displace or compete with the ability to develop an awareness of our emotions and thoughts, and acceptance-based response mechanisms that enable us to make wise choices so as not to be slaves to our egos, impulses, and unproductive learned behaviors that do not serve our long-term welfare or the long-term welfare of society. These unproductive behaviors can be disrupted by increasing our aptitude to use agency developed through increased emotional intelligence and self-awareness by practicing mindfulness.
Even though the language around mindfulness is just starting to enter the American lexicon, it is not a fad any more than healthy eating or exercise were fads when notions around those practices began to enter the American cultural psyche. If anything, just like healthy eating and exercise, mindfulness will grow in relevance and scale.
If you are a citizen, petition your government representatives to advocate for mindfulness programs in schools, prisons, and for the indigent so we can further alleviate poverty and crime. If you’re a parent, learn about mindfulness, practice it, and teach it to your children. And if you’re an employer, I submit that there is no better thing that you can do for your employees than to establish workplace mindfulness programs, even if you can’t readily or easily quantify a return on investment in advance. As a society, let us take collective action to advocate for mindfulness in public and private venues so that we may be healthy, wise, and well as a nation.