Poverty and Prison

One of the most insidious falsehoods out there is that the wealthy have earned their wealth and the poor deserve their poverty. The poor, it is commonly said (by the rich), are lazy and unmotivated: if they really wanted to they could apply themselves and be off the dole. This sort of reasoning is known as “rationalization” and is frequently used to attempt to justify the reduction in social programs that help those most in need — as though “need” is something people bring on themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth as a brief passage in Anton Chekhov’s brilliant short story “Ward No.6” tells us. In that story the young Ivan Dmitrich has just seen a couple of prisoners pass on the streets in irons accompanied by soldiers taking them back to their prison cells. He reflects as follows:

“Not for nothing has age-old popular experience taught us that against poverty and prison there is no guarantee. And a judicial error, given present-day court procedures, was very possible, and it would be no wonder if it happened. Those who take an official business-like attitude toward other people’s suffering, like judges, policemen, doctors, from force of habit, as time goes by, become callous to such a degree that they would be unable to treat their clients otherwise than formally even if they wanted to; in this respect they are no different from the peasant who slaughters sheep and calves in his backyard without noticing the blood. With this formal, heartless attitude toward the person, a judge needs only one thing to deprive an innocent man of all his property rights and sentence him to hard labor: time. Only the time to observe certain formalities, for which the judge is paid a salary, and after that — it is all over. Then go looking for justice and protection . . .  And is it not ridiculous to think of justice when society greets all violence as a reasonable and expedient necessity, and any act of mercy — an acquittal, for instance — provokes a great outburst of dissatisfied, vengeful feeling?”

These truths are coming home to growing numbers of people in this country in this economy as a recent study has shown — focusing on the plight of a great many young people who will doubtless soon either be in prison or regarded as ne’er-do-wells by those who are comfortably off:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Almost 6 million young people are neither in school nor working, according to a study released Monday.

That’s almost 15 percent of those aged 16 to 24 who have neither desk nor job, according to The Opportunity Nation coalition, which wrote the report.

Other studies have shown that idle young adults are missing out on a window to build skills they will need later in life or use the knowledge they acquired in college. Without those experiences, they are less likely to command higher salaries and more likely to be an economic drain on their communities.

“This is not a group that we can write off. They just need a chance,” said Mark Edwards, executive director of the coalition of businesses, advocacy groups, policy experts and nonprofit organizations dedicated to increasing economic mobility. “The tendency is to see them as lost souls and see them as unsavable. They are not.”

But changing the dynamic is not going to be easy.

The coalition also finds that 49 states have seen an increase in the number of families living in poverty and 45 states have seen household median incomes fall in the last year. The dour report underscores the challenges young adults face now and foretell challenges they are likely to face as they get older.

There is nothing quite so ugly as righteous indignation. When we think of those who are down and out it might be well if we were a bit less smug about their condition and recall that there but for the grace of God might go any one of us. As the middle class disappears into the impoverished class the notion that those people deserve their fate because of a failure on their part is absurd; we might think along with Ivan here that so much of what happens to each one of us is a matter of pure chance and the question of whether we deserve our wealth or our poverty is moot at best. Sometimes shit just happens, as growing numbers of people are learning every day.