Tag Archives: Poverty

A Humanities Major’s Reflections on Work and Wealth

Since graduating college a couple years ago I’ve had to consider how the choices I made about what to do with my time as a student, a worker, and simply, a person in the past make me valuable and competitive within the practical needs of the labor market right now.

Those first few months out of school I was shocked I couldn’t simply do “anything” I wanted with a liberal arts BA in Anthropology.  It’s the promise of college, isn’t it? That if you work hard and earn your degree, you’ll have more options when you enter the labor market. But cleaning houses with other humanities majors was one of the first jobs I landed just to pay the bills after school ended.  Someone forgot to tell me that gaining perceivably practical skills in the eyes of employers was also a pre-requisite for choice in the job market.

Meanwhile, during the four years I’d spent writing social science papers in the library, a good friend from high school had dropped out of college and worked her way up to being manager of a restaurant.  Earning a middle class income, she could afford to buy a house and take trips to Mexico each summer, while, technically speaking, I was making a yearly income below poverty line and taking advantage of food stamps.  After I graduated college it hit me that my resume was composed on one end of academic skills like researching and writing and on another summer jobs involving menial labor. I didn’t know if I’d want to be in academia for the rest of my life, but I at least wanted to have the option not to be stuck there, so I decided I needed more real-world experience that would be a middle ground in my employment and experience spectrum.  I joined AmeriCorps and moved to Texas to counsel low-income students to stay in college.  Slightly ironic, I know.

A year and a half later, I’m 25 and still feeling anxious about answering that question everyone’s been asking since I was 12, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”   Though I still don’t know what I want to “be” exactly, I have managed to cobble together a decent job description for the time being that utilizes the practical skills I gained as an AmeriCorps member last year and also allows me to explore my love of yoga and academic interests in communication between cultures.  I’m just now starting to make bank on the promise of a college degree: by focusing on real-world skills in addition to academics, I now have the opportunity to explore my interests through the means I use to support myself materially.

Because of the wide scope of opportunities I can imagine on my horizon, even though I’m close to making enough money to qualify for food stamps, I’m not poor.  When I was in AmeriCorps we all joked about being “impoverished” while we tried to fight poverty, but the truth is there’s a difference between a bunch of people with college degrees making $12,000 a year and someone working at Wal-Mart who makes the same amount because they didn’t graduate high school.

That difference is more ineffable than a tax return, as it exists in the realm of possibility, in the ability to change and choose jobs and develop one’s “humanity” as a worker. David Bornstein outlines this new focus on psychology and attitude in the way even economists think about poverty in his blog post  “In the Fight Against Poverty, It’s Time for a Revolution:”

Amartya Sen, who won a Nobel Prize in economics, has argued that economists should think of poverty as that which deprives people of the opportunity to develop and use their capabilities. Others argue that the goal in anti-poverty efforts should be to help poor people increase their “capacity to aspire” and navigate toward self-defined goals. Researchers in the United Kingdom have developed tools to measure “well-being,” looking at such things as material goods, relationships and self-beliefs.

Discussions of the alleviation of poverty are more likely to be tinged with politics and blame when they involve more than simply providing the most basic of human necessities (food stamps, health care, housing and any kind of employment).  Here, though, economists aren’t using psychology to blame people for not working hard enough to pursue the “American dream”.  Rather, they’re pointing out that those born into the lowest income brackets face psychological fetters, such as beliefs about what they are and aren’t able to do, directly related to their material disadvantages.  This shouldn’t be a surprise, considering how access to quality education and other tools used to develop and foster our human potential are typically more and less available to us depending on the economic circumstances we’re born into.

Rather than layering “human” needs over the basic materials we need to simply stay alive, the economists Bornstein refers to understand that upward mobilization, the self-determining feature of the American dream, can only be actualized when not only material, but relational and educational resources are equalized.

Of course, like all good ideas, this one isn’t necessarily new.  Redefining poverty in terms of the inability to pursue and cultivate our interests sounds a lot to me like the antithesis of Marx’s concept of the wealthy man. In the essay “Marx’s Atheism and the Ideal of Self-Realization” William O’Meara summarizes Karl Marx’s definition of wealth, which redefines necessity as not simply material:

Real wealth is found not in the sense of having money or things, but in the sense of being and of needing to be a person whose capacities of rationality and freedom are being developed through one’s own practical relationships with nature and social others.

Ideally, the way we spend our time working, or developing our “practical relationships with nature and social others,” helps us to become “self-realized,” or knowledgeable about the workings of our world and empowered to feel we can make an impact on it (of course there’s a cosmological significance  to self-realization, that we come to know through scientific knowledge we aren’t created by a God, but I won’t go into that right now).

Unfortunately, the emphasis on profit subsumes segments of a capitalist society to an assembly line of the production of goods. Workers are evaluated in terms of the value of their labor, making them replaceable parts that can be interchanged, rather than holding any inherent value themselves.  This has the psychological affect of what Bornstein describes as a crowd of defeated and pessimistic people standing in the unemployment line.

Whether or not you think communism or socialism is a good idea, in a free and democratic society it’s not fair to suggest that only a particular portion of our society has the right to develop their inherent ability to reason and create, or to develop their unique talents, which is why I think economists are brining attention to the relational and psychological needs of those born into poverty. McMara writes of Marx’s view:

To treat things, money, or capital as the real wealth that human beings should seek is to make a fetish of these commodities; it is to endow these things with a quality of being worthwhile for their own sake whereas they are or should be only means useful for the development of human rationality and freedom.

 Of course, I probably like Marx’s redefinition of wealth because it legitimates my humanities degree in a way my literal income can’t (yet!).  Pursuing knowledge and creativity for their own sake, and not because they’re lucrative income options with which to purchase commodities, is the mantra of the liberal arts major backed by parents they can call should a real financial emergency arise.
Marx offers the logical proof that to value your own self-realization inevitably involves valuing the self-realization of others.  It make sense, as the recession is teaching us, that if we assume only certain members of our society have the right to develop themselves through their work, then there’s no reason for those people not to be devalued themselves:
 So the only way in which human selves can have dignity, a value which is beyond price, a value of being worthwhile for their own sake, is through the universal or moral valuation of every human person as worthwhile for that person’s own sake. So if the deepest human need in an individual is for self-realization, that is, for the development of the value of the self-consciousness and self-choice as worthwhile for their own sake, then this deepest need is also the need for other persons as valuable for their own sake in their own self-consciousness and self-choice. For an individual cannot logically value oneself as beyond price unless one also values all other human selves in the same manner.
At work today I glanced at a kid’s essay who was writing about why he wants to go to college.  He didn’t mention he wants to go to college to make a ton of money, the way some kids talk about when they say they want to be doctors or lawyers.  Rather, he said he wanted to go to college so that he could use his work to pursue his hobbies, so that he could make money doing something he’s actually interested in.
I’ve thought often that the recession has made us all particularly cynical about the value of a college degree; the increased need to provide for ourselves materially has changed the focus of college from the development of ourselves and interests to the practicality of the way our investment of time and money will increase our projected income or make us more valuable in the labor market (which it certainly does).  But maybe the recession is actually forcing us to look at a college diploma more realistically. It won’t necessarily lead to a bigger income than being manager of a restaurant, especially depending on your major.  What college offers is an opportunity to develop the kind of wealth Marx is concerned with, the development of choice about what we do with our energies as workers, and the ability, as economists are now concerned about, to fulfill self-defined goals.
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