20 March 2011

The Ownership Society

"The peculiar psychopathology, or 'culture,' of the poor was (and still is) thought to be defined by two related traits: 'present time orientation' and an insufficiently developed 'deferred gratification pattern' (or 'DGP,' as some sociologists put it handily). In simpler words, the poor person lived for the moment, unable to think ahead, to save or to plan for the future. These were the very opposite of the traits the middle class liked to ascribe to itself -- self-discipline, a strong super-ego, an ability to plan ahead to meet self-imposed goals, and so forth. [...]

Leaving aside the psychiatric jargon, a person who lives entirely in the present, unable to wait for the next anticipated pleasure, is, of course, a child. The conceit of the poor as children has an ancient, aristocratic heritage. In mid-[twentieth]century America, it was bolstered by the perception of poverty as a vestigial condition, something 'left over' that did not really belong in an affluent, modern world. Mass poverty seemed to belong in the historical past; along with the Depression, sweatshops, dirt farms, labor struggles. And what belongs in the historical past is easy to confuse with the personal past -- which is, for all of us, childhood. The invented poor, the inhabitants of the culture of poverty, were not so much 'present-oriented' as trapped in the past, unable or unwilling to 'grow up,' as the middle class had, into the ever-available, up-to-date affluence."

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