On Syria, and the complexity of causality.

On Syria, and the complexity of causality.

Approximately one thousand years ago, the Syrian poet Abu Al-Ala Al-Ma’arri wrote:

 

God help us, we have sold our souls, all that was best,

To an enterprise in the hands of the Receiver.

We’ve no dividends, or rights, for the price we paid.

Yet should our wills choose between this corrupt business

And a paradise to come, rest assured they’d want

 

The world we have now.

 

birds(This was translated by Abdullah Al-Udhari and George Wightman for Birds through a Ceiling of Alabaster, a collection of ancient poetry from the Middle East.)

Many of our choices, moment to moment, are saddling us with a rotten deal.  We can often see how to make the world better.  “A paradise to come” might be heaven, but it could also be a more perfect world here on Earth.

If we were starting from scratch, it would be easy.

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While wrapping packages at Pages to Prisoners recently, I told another volunteer about my essay on the link between misogyny and the plow.  Sexual dimorphism in Homo sapiens is minor enough that, if we were like other primate species, we shouldn’t have much gender inequality.  Many hunter-gatherer societies that survived until modern times were relatively egalitarian.  And women have been miserably oppressed in cultures that adopted the plow, a farming tool that magnifies the differences between human physiques.

But I had to admit, afterward, that, like all explanations that purport a single cause for something so complicated, my claim was wrong.  There seems to be a correlation between the introduction of the plow and myth-making that led to worlds like our own – but there were surely many other factors.

SphcowThe world is complex.  In physics and economics, the goal is often to propose a simplified model that captures something of the world – the difference between otherwise equivalent cultures that either adopted plowing or did not, the difference between otherwise equivalent societies where GDP growth is larger than the rate of return of investments, or smaller – and hope that most of the omitted detail really was expendable.

Which brings us to Syria.

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syria_tmo_2011210Like many environmentalists, I’ve commented on the link between the horrors in Syria and climate change.  Human activities – primarily in nations that experienced a huge leap in living standards during the industrial revolution – have released long-trapped carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  This has caused a small increase in global temperatures, but can cause a large change in the climate of any particular region of the planet.  Areas that once supported many people become suddenly less habitable.

Like Syria.  The country plunged into drought, which led to widespread food insecurity, which made the violence worse.

That much seems true, but it’s certainly not the whole truth.  The violence was already there.

Al_Assad_familyWhile Syria was ruled by the Assads, there were constant human rights abuses.  Their punishment for a 19-year-old student who joined the Syrian Communist Party and expressed dissatisfaction with his country’s political regime?  The student was imprisoned for sixteen years.

After his release, the now middle-aged Yassin al-Haj Saleh still disliked his government.  Somehow those sixteen years did not convince him of the errors in his youthful ways.  He married a fellow political activist and continued to advocate for change.

Unfortunately, activism like theirs contributed to Syria’s descent into nightmare.  You should read Lindsey Hilsum’s “War of All Against All,” in which she reviews Saleh’s recent essay collection alongside three other books about the tragedy.

Saleh wrote that:

International_Mine_Action_Center_in_Syria_(Aleppo)_12It never occurred to us that there could be a more dangerous threat to their lives than the regime’s bombs.  What bestows a particularly tragic status on this abduction is that it was an outcome of our own struggle, and that we ourselves had made this horrible incident possible.

This sentiment is painfully elaborated by Hilsum:

The sentence bears rereading: so terrible is the situation in Syria that one of the region’s most long-standing and fervent critics, a man who has dedicated his whole life to fighting the Assads, father and son, is forced to wonder if it would have been better not to rebel at all.  The author’s head may have remained clear while his heart was breaking, but the carefully modulated prose of these essays does not provide the whole story.  How can we understand the Syrian revolution unless … we consider in … depth how it feels to blame yourself for your wife’s disappearance and probable death?

The writer’s personal tragedy reveals him as an authentic voice trying to understand how the genuine, progressive revolt he supported went so horribly wrong.

The regime was awful, imprisoning and torturing children for years at a time.  Student-led protests eventually led to a retreat by the regime, but then quasi-religious fanatics claimed vast swaths of the country.  They kept the old regime’s torture and arbitrary imprisonment, and added public execution.  U.S. intervention arrived late and couldn’t root out the deeply-infiltrated jihadists.

Hilsum writes that “An older woman we met might have been forgiven for cursing both sides: ISIS had expropriated her house, she said, and then the Americans had bombed it.

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While reading Hilsum’s piece, I felt a twinge of guilt.  Yes, climate change exacerbated the tragedy, but the chaos in Syria was already a tragedy.  It’s heartlessly trivializing to imply that there could be a simple explanation for such a complex, horrible thing.  I was wrong to blithely write what I did.

Plows don’t oppress women, people did.  (Which sounds unfortunately reminiscent of “guns don’t kill people,” because guns do, they potentiate far more killing than would be possible without them.)

Climate change didn’t murder millions of Syrians.  But it made an awful situation worse.

On naked mole-rats.

On naked mole-rats.

When Radiohead first toured, their audiences just wanted to hear “Creep.”  They were invited to play a show in Israel – everyone just wanted to hear “Creep.”  They were invited to tour America – everyone just wanted to hear “Creep.”  At festivals, people walked away after they played it.  By then the song was several years old.  The dudes in Radiohead were sick of it.

To be fair, Pablo Honey was a pretty weak album.  “You” is a fine song, but the proffered singles – “Anyone Can Play Guitar” (more ironic in retrospect than it was at the time) and “Stop Whispering” – aren’t very compelling.  At the time, nobody knew their new material.

Now, of course, Radiohead is many people’s favorite band – mine too (tied with The Marshall Cloud and anything else my brother makes).

The essayist Eliot Weinberger has also toured on the strength of a hit single.  From Christopher Byrd’s 2016 profile in The New Yorker:

EliotWeinbergerBW350In person, Weinberger is genial and self-contained; he smiles frequently and is prone to wisecracks.  When I asked him about the essay [“Naked Mole-Rats,” from his 2001 collection, Karmic Traces], he said “In Germany, I’m sort of like one of those bands that had one hit record, and so I give readings and people ask me to read ‘Nacktmull,’ which is the naked mole-rat.  It’s their favorite one.  This pretty girl said, ‘Last night, I was in bed reading it to my boyfriend.’  And I said, ‘Don’t you have anything better to read?’”

Yet, like Radiohead, Weinberger has released new work every few years – he seems to have been writing constantly ever since he dropped out of college circa 1970 and began translating the poetry of Octavio Paz – and much of it is better than the hit everybody knows.  Over the past two months, I’ve had the pleasure of reading all his books – many are stunning.  The Ghosts of Birds discuses Adam & Eve, the dreams of ancient Chinese poets, and the authorial voice of George W. Bush’s “autobiography.”  I’ve written previously about What Happened Here, a collection of Weinberger’s essays about the Bush years.  And Weinberger has written extensively about the political value of poetry.  From “The T’ang” (in Oranges and Peanuts for Sale):

…[I]n the last years of the dynasty, warlords ravished the country.  One of them, Huang Ch’ao, a salt merchant who had failed the civil service exams, captured Ch’ang-an in 881.  A satiric poem was posted on the wall of a government building, criticizing the new regime.  (As, eleven hundred years later, the Democracy Movement would begin with the poems that Bei Dao and other young poets glued to the walls in their capital, Beijing.)  Huang Ch’ao issued orders that everyone capable of writing such a poem be put to death.  Three thousand were killed.

When dudes ask what we’re doing teaching a poetry class in jail, it’s great to have stories like this to relate … or to toss out a quote from Norman Dubie, my co-teacher’s advisor, who says, “If Stalin feared poetry, so should you.

And yet, I have to admit: Weinberger’s “Naked Mole-Rats” really is a lovely essay.

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During the 1970s, evolutionary biologist Richard Alexander gave a series of lectures describing conditions that might spawn eusocial vertebrates.  Alexander was a bug guy – the term “eusocial” refers to bees, ants, and termites, where individuals are extremely self-sacrificing for the good of the colony, including an abundance of non-breeding members helping with childcare.

Alexander proposed that a eusocial species of mammal could evolve if they lived in relatively safe underground burrows that could be expanded easily and defended by a small percentage of the colony.  The animals would need to be small compared to their food sources, so that a stroke of good luck by one worker could feed many.

thebioofnakedAn audience member at one of Alexander’s lectures mentioned that this “hypothetical eusocial mammal” sounded a lot like the naked mole-rat and connected Alexander with Jennifer Jarvis, who’d studied the biology of these critters but hadn’t yet investigated their their social structure.  The collaboration between Alexander and Jarvis led to the textbook The Biology of the Naked Mole-Rat.

Eliot Weinberger combed through this 500-plus page textbook to produce his 3-page essay.  In Weinberger’s words:

As many as three hundred inhabit a colony, moving a ton of dirt every month.  They have a caste system

The medium sized are the warriors, who try to fend off the rufous-beaked snaked, the file snakes, the white-lipped snakes, and the sand boas that sometimes find their way in.When, by chance, two colonies of naked mole-rats tunnel into each other, their warriors fight to the death.

Interbred for so long, they are virtually clones.  One dead-end branch of the tunnel is their toilet: they wallow there in the soaked earth so that all will smell alike.  They are nearly always touching each other, rubbing noses, pawing, nuzzling.

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Like us, naked mole-rats are both good and bad.  They are cooperative.  They are affectionate.  They are always touching.  Encountering outsiders, they fight to the death.  When a breeding female dies, many other females regain fertility and the colony erupts into civil war.

Naked mole-rats care for others.  Naked mole-rats are callous toward others.

[The breeding female, of which each colony has only one] has four or five litters a year of a dozen pups.  The babies have transparent skin through which their internal organs are clearly visible.  Only a few survive, and they live long lives, twenty years or more.  The dead babies are eaten, except for their heads.  At times the live ones are eaten too.

These details are drawn from innumerable experimental observations.  We humans have spent decades investigating the naked mole-rats.  But Weinberger ends his essay with the reverse.  Naked mole-rats observe us, too:

Sometimes a naked mole-rat will suddenly stop, stand on its hind-legs, and remain motionless, its head pressed against the roof of the tunnel.  Above its head is the civil war in Somalia.  Their hearing is acute.

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Naked mole-rats “are continually cruel in small ways.”  But they are outdone by naked apes.  After all, the cruelty of naked mole-rats is invariably directed to others of their own kind.  Our cruelty embraces ourselves as well as them.

For a research paper published in 2008, Park et al. discovered that being pinched by tweezers causes naked mole-rats pain, but the injection of caustic acid does not:

We tested naked mole-rats in standard behavioral models of acute pain including tests for mechanical (pinch), thermal, and chemical pain.  We found that for noxious pinch and heat, the mole-rats responded similarly to mice.

In contrast to the results using mechanical and thermal stimuli, there was a striking difference in responses to strong chemical irritants known to excite nociceptors [these are sensory receptors that detect noxious inputs, like pain].  Indeed, the two chemicals used – capsaicin and low-pH saline solution – normally evoke very intense pain in humans and other animals.  Injection of either irritant into the skin rapidly evoked intense licking and guarding behaviors in mice.

(In case you’re worried that acid-resistant naked mole-rats might conquer the world: a form of kryptonite exists.  Injection of an 11-amino-acid signaling peptide allows acid to hurt naked mole-rats just as much as it hurts mice.  Half a dozen animals were subjected to each treatment.)

So, naked mole-rats are selectively resistant to pain.  This has inspired some envy in human researchers – after all, chronic pain is miserable, and most of our strategies to dampen pain have a few unwanted side-effects.

But what really gets us humans jealous is that naked mole-rats seem not to age.

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Naked mole-rats almost never develop cancer.  They should get cancer.  After all, their cells, like ours, copy themselves.  Over time, each copy is a copy of a copy of a copy… any errors are compounded.  And some errors are particularly deadly.  Our cells are supposed to stop growing when they touch each other, and they are supposed to commit suicide when their usefulness has run its course.  But the instructions telling our cells when and how to kill themselves can be lost, just like any other information.  Too many rounds of cell division is like making photocopies of photocopies… eventually the letters melt into static and become unreadable.

So I don’t quite understand why naked mole-rats don’t get cancer … but, in my defense, no one else does either.  Tian et al. found that naked mole-rats fill the space between their cells with a particular sugar that acts as an anti-clumping agent.  This contributes to their cancer resistance, because cells that can’t clump can’t form tumors… but, although many types of deadly human cancers form tumors, others, like leukemia, do not.

Lung_cancer_cell_during_cell_division-NIH.jpgOf course, “cancer” cells – mutant versions of ourselves that would kill us if they could – appear all the time.  Usually, our immune system destroys them.  Most chemotherapy agents do not kill cancer.  Chemotherapy involves pumping the body full of general poisons that stop all cells from reproducing, with the hope being that, if the spread of cancer can be slowed, a patient’s immune system will sop up the bad cells already there.

In addition to anti-clumping sugars, naked mole-rats must have other (currently unknown) virtues that enable their remarkable tenacity.

And, although the little critters seem not to age – they have “no age-related increase in mortality” and remain fertile until death – they do die.  The oldest naked mole-rat lived for 27 years in captivity, and seems to have been at least a year old when first captured, based on his size.

He was rutting and eating normally until April, 2002… but then, seemingly without cause, he died.  Writing for Scientific American shortly after this duder’s death, David Stipp described him (and naked mole-rats in general) as “a little buck-toothed burrower [who] ages like a demigod.”

But it’s worth noting that he had aged.  He had accumulated extensive oxidative damage in his lipids, proteins, and, presumably, his DNA… which is to say, his cells were noticeably rusted and falling apart.  He just didn’t let it slow him down.  Not until he keeled over.

They live with gusto, the naked mole-rats.

For as long as they energy, that is.  Several researchers have proposed that naked mole-rats have all these powers because they starve often in the wild.

Caloric restriction – which means, roughly, intentional starvation – is known to extend lifespan in a wide variety of species.  It’s been tested in monkeys, mice, flies, and worms.  Between two- and ten-fold increases in lifespan have been observed.  There are some unpleasant side effects.  Hunger, for instance.  Caloric-restricted mice spend a lot of time staring at their empty food bowls.

Many humans who attempt caloric restriction on their own find it difficult.  Hunger hurts, especially when there’s food nearby.  Plus, it’s a rare diet that provides adequate nutrition while still limiting calories.  Malnutrition makes people die younger, which defeats the point… unless your goal is simply to make God uncomfortable.  Maybe you’ll get a wish!

But naked mole-rats have no choice.  Workers tunnel outward, searching for tuberous roots.  When they find one, they’ll gnaw it carefully, attempting to keep the plant alive as long as possible, but the colony invariably consumes roots faster than a plant can grow.  Although naked mole-rats try to be good stewards of their environment – they are compulsive recyclers, eating their own excrement to make sure no nutrients are lost – their colonies plunge repeatedly into famine.

And they sleep in mounds, hundreds of bodies respiring underground.  Anyone sleeping near the center probably runs out of oxygen.

But they survive.

We would not.  Most mammals, deprived of oxygen, can no longer fuel their brains.  Our brains are expensive.  Even at rest our brains demand a constant influx of energy or else the neurons “depolarize” – we fall apart.  This is apparently an unpleasant experience.  It’s brief, though.  At Stanford, my desk was adjacent to a well-trafficked gas chamber.  A mouse, or a Chinese-food takeout container with several mice, was dropped in; a valve for carbon dioxide was opened; within seconds, the mice inside lost consciousness; they shat; they died.

A naked mole-rat would live.  Unless a very determined researcher left the carbon dioxide flowing for half an hour.  Or so found Park et al. – a graph from their recent Science paper is shown below.  Somewhere between three and twelve animals were used for every time point; all the mice would’ve been dead within a minute, but perhaps as few as three naked mole-rats died in this experiment.

survival curves

Human brains are like hummingbirds – our brains drink up sugar and give us nothing but a fleeting bit of beauty in return.  And our brains are very persnickety in their taste for sugar.  We are fueled exclusively by glucose.

Naked mole-rats are less fussy than we are – their minds will slurp fructose to keep from dying.

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Naked mole-rats: the most cooperative of all mammals.  Resistant to cancer.  Unperturbed by acid.  Aging with the libidinous gracelessness of Hugh Hefner.  Able to withstand the horrors of a gas chamber.

And yet, for all those superpowers, quite easily tormented by human researchers.

On Edin & Shaefer’s ‘$2.00 a Day.’

On Edin & Shaefer’s ‘$2.00 a Day.’

K & I live pretty cheaply.

We try not to spend too much on food, but we always buy fresh fruits and vegetables.  We stock up on pasta when it’s on sale — on a recent shopping trip we bought 40 pounds at $0.50 per pound — and we eat a lot of rice, homemade bread, lentils, beans we rehydrate ourselves.  Still, I give us a budget of $30 per day for food, almost double what SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program, or “food stamps”) would let somebody spend.

Then there’s our mortgage, which costs another $30 per day.  We have two phones between us, which together cost $1.80 per day.  Internet, $1.50 per day.  Heat, water, and electricity?  Another $5.00 (which might sound like a lot — our little city prices water such that you pay more per unit the more you use, and N wears cloth diapers).  Our car needs gas and maintenance; even though we had enough in savings to buy it outright, it still costs us close to $2 per day.  Our sundry insurance policies (car, health, life, homeowner’s), roughly $20 daily.

We’re not profligate spenders.  Graduate school stipends aren’t huge amounts of money, and California’s Bay Area is an expensive place to live, but we were able to put away a lot of savings during our time there.  Starting salaries for public school teachers aren’t so high, either — because K had eight years’ worth of continuing education credits from her Ph.D., she started at $37k here — but we were supporting four adults on her salary for a while.  During those first few years we made do without a car, and the rent we were paying was cheaper than our mortgage is now, and I had to cut our food budget back from grad school’s fancy-pants $15 per person per day to about $6.  We had fewer treats like cauliflower, eggplant, and chocolate than we do now.

We’ve been lucky enough to rarely visit doctors or hospitals (except when I’d go retrieve K’s father after his government-funded surgeries).  The cost of what little care we receive is typically bundled up with our insurance.  But we maxed out our co-pay when N was born, and we’ll max it out again when we have another kid.  So — most years, zero, some years, $10 per day.  I’ll budget the higher number.

We pay $1.90 per day for childcare.  People who look after children ought to be compensated much better than they are now; it’s absurd how little this is valued in our country.  At the same time, I’m grateful that we can afford such high-quality childcare.

We wear clothes till threadbare.  I’d estimate that our whole family spends no more than $0.50 per day on clothes.  Most of my best shirts have come from the dumpsters after the university students moved out.

Still, our current version of austerity has us spending over $100 per day.

Reading Kathryn Edin & H. Luke Shaefer’s $2.00 a Day was brutal.

unnamed.jpgEdin & Shaefer spent time with impoverished families to learn what life is like at the bottom of our nation’s income distribution.  Their work focuses on anecdote and portraiture.  Despite the fact that, as a math brain, I love numbers and statistics, I was completely convinced that their method was best for this project.  In their words:

In big, nationally representative surveys (like the one that provides the hard numbers for this book), families may not always tell researchers (usually government employees) about income from all of the survival strategies described in this chapter.  A mom with one child who tells a researcher that she had $120 in income during a particular month might actually have had $180 because she donated plasma twice or sold $100 in SNAP benefits in exchange for $60 in cash.  When queried by researchers, a mother may fear prosecution if she reports that she got money from a “friend” in exchange for sex.  Some may simply forget to report the cash they get from collecting aluminum cans — perhaps because it is so irregular or the profit is so small.  Others — particularly those who are homeless or otherwise on the move, shifting from the home of one relative to another — may not even appear in big government surveys because they have no stable address.  The only way to get a true accounting of the resources of the $2-a-day poor is to spend large amounts of time with them, build trust, and meticulously document their circumstances.  But this kind of research is time-consuming.  Without millions of research dollars, it is impossible to identify and follow a large random sample of the $2-a-day poor, which would be the only way to paint a reliable national portrait of what they must do to survive.

Because it takes a lot of ingenuity to survive extreme poverty, everyone’s solutions are unique.  Aggregate statistics would cause you to overlook the idiosyncratic blend of trash picking, plasma selling, sexual favor trading, and apartment sharing that allows people to scrape by.  But Edin & Shaefer, by taking time to get to know people, were able to see these strategies.

Edin & Shaefer argue — correctly, I’m convinced — that you can’t learn what it takes to survive poverty when you think about people as numbers.  You have to get to know people as individual human beings.  Then you can understand.

Here’s a quick summary of what they found: 1.) People are hungry.  2.) When you’re depending on others for shelter, sexual assault is rampant.  3.) These assaults, and negative encounters with the police, and pervasive fear — that the car will break, that Walmart won’t assign enough hours, that there won’t be food tonight — has led to innumerable cases of PTSD.  Which makes it even harder to think, to plan, to do anything but worry.

The statistical problems Edin & Shaefer described in the quote above mean we don’t know how many people are living this way.  But a reasonable guess is: many.  In their words again:

unnamed (1)Where do we see hard evidence of the rise in extreme poverty among families with children?  It is evident in the SIPP, the nationally representative survey that does the best job of capturing the incomes of the poor.  It is seen in SNAP administrative records, which show a sharp uptick in the number of families reporting no other form of income save SNAP.  In fact, the SNAP estimates match those from the SIPP survey remarkably closely.  Reports in some major cities suggest increased demand for family shelter beds starting in the early 2000s, as well as an increase in the number of families seeking emergency food services that predates the Great Recession.  But the best proof of all that the $2-a-day poor exist is that finding people who fit this profile … is not that hard.  It can be done in a relatively short amount of time in a number of locales across the country.  This virtually cashless form of poverty is out there, even though we wish it weren’t.  And it has grown.

Perhaps I should mention, now, that the comparison between my family’s spending and the daily cash allotment of many people in extreme poverty is somewhat flawed.  For instance, I included our mortgage.  Many people in extreme poverty spend a portion of each year paying no rent — they might be renting an apartment but using their money on other expenses, knowing that they’re about to be evicted, or they might be in a shelter, or sleeping in a car, or sharing housing with a relative or romantic partner or complete stranger.

But, during those times when people at the bottom of the income distribution do pay for their own housing, they often pay more than my family does.  For unsafe, unsound properties.  This phenomenon is described in Matthew Desmond’s Evicted:

unnamed (3)… rent in some of the worst neighborhoods was not drastically cheaper than rent in much better areas.  For example, in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where at least 40 percent of families lived below the poverty line, median rent for a two-bedroom apartment was only $50 less than the citywide median.

This has long been the case.  When tenements began appearing in New York City in the mid-1800s, rent in the worst slums was 30 percent higher than in uptown.  In the 1920s and ‘30s, rent for dilapidated housing in the black ghettos of Milwaukee and Philadelphia and other northern cities exceeded that for better housing in white neighborhoods.  As late as 1960, rent in major cities was higher for blacks than for whites in similar accommodations.  The poor did not crowd into slums because of cheap housing.  They were there — and this was especially true of the black poor — simply because they were allowed to be.

There are so few options at the bottom that poor people get squeezed much harder than those who could actually afford it.

Similarly, my family’s $100+ daily expenses includes everything we spend on food.  At the bottom of the income distribution, most people have access to SNAP — other than my wife, everyone in her family received these.

K’s father actually had enough to eat when he was on SNAP.  We helped him buy a bus pass, so he was able to ride out to a real grocery store.  But many people who receive SNAP don’t have access to transportation, which forces them to shop at the one small store nearby, which means they often pay more than wealthier shoppers for equivalent items.  When you’re getting gouged, food stamps don’t go far.  Worse, you might need to buy gas so that you can get to work.  Food stamps don’t buy gas.  You’d be stuck trading your stamps for cash at something like 50 or 30 cents to the dollar.  At the end of the month, you & your kids won’t eat.

Childhood food insecurity causes lifelong mental and physical changes.  My dear friend who made it gets laughed at all the time because food makes her behave so strangely — she still hears that voice in her head urging her to stake out her own portion when she sits down to a family-style dinner with people.

The people laughing have never been hungry.

The people laughing have bones that break less easily.

And I included the amount K & I spend on insurance.  So many types of insurance!  People living in extreme poverty often pay nothing for insurance.  There’s no money for it.

But this means, obviously, that poor people have to spend more eventually.  In Hand to Mouth, Linda Tirado writes that she did not grow up impoverished.  But she was poor enough as a young adult that she couldn’t afford insurance, which meant she was a single flood away from losing everything she owned.

There are countless stories of U.S. citizens who were getting by — not doing well, but not struggling to survive — until a medical disaster left them unable to work & swamped with unpaid bills.

Which means yet another challenge that poor people in this country have to face that us lucky wealthy ones can remain blissfully ignorant of.  Honestly, the fact that I could list my family’s expenses at all reveals how well off we are.  We can budget our spending, because spending, for wealthy people, is relatively stable.  We have enough money that we can set some aside for eventual car repairs, which means we won’t have to borrow when our car breaks, or lose a job, or…

Could people living in extreme poverty set aside money for those eventual expenses?  Honestly, no.  If you’re hungry — worse, if you’re watching your kid be hungry — you spend money on food.  Or so I’ve heard.  I’m lucky.  I get to learn about poverty from books instead of by living it.

Of course, this also means I have to deal with the attendant shame of reading books like Edin & Shaefer’s.  The message is clear: we, as a people, are failing.  We should not have made a world where people have to live like this.

It’s not as though the solution is so difficult to come up with, either.  I disagree with some of Paul Theroux’s economic ideas here, but you should take a moment to read his lovely editorial, “The Hypocrisy of ‘Helping’ the Poor.”

Yes, food stamps help.  No, they don’t help enough.  But the real solution isn’t to boost social welfare spending (although that would be a step in the right direction).  Many people living in extreme poverty want to work.  But there aren’t jobs.  (In the future, there’ll be even fewer).

And yet much of our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling.  We would all be better off if the federal government started pouring money into laying fiber-optic cable; fixing roads; manufacturing, installing, & maintaining solar panels; providing low-cost, well-compensated, high-quality childcare…

There’s plenty that could be done, and there are people who would be thrilled at the chance to do it.  Instead, we’re leaving them stranded: hungry, assaulted, cold, traumatized.