Class Is Sticky

This is the sort nightmare that Kafka might dream up: a man was arrested for trying to cash a legitimate cheque that the bank thought was forged – at the bank that issued the cheque no less! The bank was suspicious about the cheque as it was for a large amount and the man was a construction worker (it probably didn’t help that he was black either). He spent the weekend in jail and lost both his car and his job as a result. Says Jonathan Chait about the matter:

“[M]iddle-class people enjoy all sorts of protections against misfortune. For poor people, a single thing going wrong can lead to a life-altering spiral — they lack the social and financial resources to overcome one problem, so a flat tire becomes a late day at work which becomes a lost job, an overcharge fee busts a checking account, which in turn becomes a ruined credit rating.

[…]

In the real world, class is very sticky. You have to be very smart, hard-working, and/or lucky to move from the bottom to the top, and very dumb, lazy, and/or unlucky to fall out of the upper tier if you’ve arrived or even been born there.”

Chait also links to a very funny, very foul-mouthed piece at Cracked that details the sorts of obstacles that one might face in trying to escape poverty. Of course the man in question, being a construction worker was probably earning a decent living, when we talk about poor here, we aren’t even talking about unemployed-and-living-in-the-projects, just someone who’s not quite middle class.

This is very relevant to the discussions that we have had from time to time here about economics. One of the assumptions of contemporary laissez-faire economics is that there is at least something approaching equality of opportunity and that our system sorts people on the basis of merit. If people want more material goods, they should work harder and they will get them. When we accept this, we implicitly accept the corollary, that the poor are lazy and/or stupid and should be thankful the rich bother to employ them at all. This is an extreme example, but there is lots out there that can keep someone in one kind of poverty trap or another.