Posts tagged with: Consumption smoothing

caremergencyYesterday I began a series of posts which attempts to explain why the working poor tend to make terrible financial decisions and how they think about money differently than other economic classes. In my initial post I wrote,

Imagine that instead of having to deal with consumption smoothing decisions, at most, several times a year, you had to deal with them several times a month, or even several times a week. Now also imagine there is no workable solution that will actually smooth the short-term consumption problem and the best that you can hoped for is a temporary fix that delays having to deal with the issue.
That is what it’s like to be the working poor.

Several people have asked me to explain more what I meant, so before moving on I wanted to provide a more in depth example.

Let’s again begin by looking at the decision-making process of the middle-class. Imagine that you want to buy a home. Your household income is $51,404 a year (the median household income in the U.S.) and the house you’re interested in is on the market for $152,000 (the avg. home price in the U.S.). At what point do you buy the house?

There are several ways the average American may answer, but the one response you will almost never hear is, “You should buy the house only after you’ve saved the $152,000 needed to pay for it.”

While most people would agree that it would be prudent to apply a down payment, the idea that you’d pay the entire amount at once – even if you had $152,000 in cash – would strike most people as peculiar if not absurd. Instead, we borrow money for a mortgage that will allow us to pay a set amount each month for 15 to 30 years. Because we are willing to spread our payments out into the future we will pay a lot more than the $152,000 (at 5% for 30 years, the total would be $293,748.79). But we consider that a reasonable accommodation for getting what we want right now.

That is an example of how most of us take the concept of consumption smoothing for granted.
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workingpoorAfter reading a comment thread in which her online friends were complaining about poor people’s self-defeating behavior, Linda Walther Tirado wrote an articled titled “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, Poverty Thoughts,” which chronicled her struggles with near abject poverty.

I think that we look at the academic problems of poverty and have no idea of the why. We know the what and the how, and we can see systemic problems, but it’s rare to have a poor person actually explain it on their own behalf. So this is me doing that, sort of.

Tirado’s article went viral. A literary agent contacted her, and after a few readers emailed offers to contribute to a book project, Tirado started a GoFundMe page. Her initial goal was $10,500; she raised more than $60,000.

But there was a problem with her story: it wasn’t true.

As Angelica Leicht of the Houston Press discovered, Tirado doesn’t fit the mold of the working poor: She went to a fancy boarding school, speaks both German and Dutch, works as a political consultant, and is married to a Marine. Tirado eventually clarified that her piece was “taken out of context, that I never meant to say that all of these things were happening to me right now, or that I was still quite so abject. I am not.”

While the article seemed to confirm what many people already believed, for those who are actually poor – or at least once were — the article likely didn’t resonate. It doesn’t even live up to the title’s claim of an explanation for why those in poverty “make terrible decisions.”

The fact is that the working poor do tend to make terrible financial decisions — and not just because they lack resources. The working poor think about money differently than other economic classes. I’d like to take a crack at explaining why that’s the case.
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