What it's like to be poor (hint: most of us will never know)

fastfood.jpgThe celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is getting slammed this week for suggesting that poor people eat unhealthy foods because they're unwilling to go beyond high-caloric fast-food fare. "I meet people who say, 'You don't understand what it's like.' I just want to hug them and teleport them to the Sicilian street cleaner who has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence, and knocks out the most amazing pasta," Oliver said in an interview. The ignorance (some would say condescension) is breathtaking - or as the Guardian's Alex Andreou writes:

What I had not understood before I found myself in true poverty, and what Oliver probably does not, is that it means living in a world of "no." Ninety-nine per cent of what you need is answered "no." Ninety-nine per cent of what your kids ask for is answered "no." Ninety-nine per cent of life is answered "no." Cinema? No. Night out? No. New shoes? No. Birthday? No. So, if the only indulgence that is viable, that is within budget, that will not mean you have to walk to work, is a Styrofoam container of cheesy chips, the answer is a thunderous "YES."

More profoundly, living in poverty consumes so much mental energy that according to a new study people's cognitive skills can be compromised. That leads them to make bad decisions. From the Washington Post:

"Past research has often blamed [poverty] on the personal failings of the poor. They don't work hard enough; they're not focused enough," said University of British Columbia professor Jiaying Zhao, who co-authored the study as a Princeton University graduate student. "What we're arguing is it's not about the individual. It's about the situation."


"Poverty is the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter," said Harvard economist Sandhil Mullainathan, another of the study's authors. "Picture yourself after an all-nighter. Being poor is like that every day." Mullainathan said previous research often has assumed that poor people are poor because they are somehow less capable than others, whether inherently or because of past trauma or other environmental factors in their lives. But, he said, what the latest study suggests is that the strain of poverty can tax the cognitive abilities of anyone experiencing it -- and that those abilities return when the burden of poverty disappears.

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What it's like to be poor (hint: most of us will never know)
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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
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