Smallholder Confesses

I have a confession to make.

This may lead to the authorities confiscating my vv liberalvvp membership card.

Are you ready?

Ivvm poor.

No, no, thatvvs not the confession. Why would liberals take away my membership card for being poor? The real confession is:

I am poor entirely because of choices that I have made.

I donvvt blame anybody.

Liberals (gasping for air): Smallholder! You ignorant buffoon! Youvvve succumbed to the capitalist brainwashing! The man is keeping you down! If not for evil corporations, Republicans, George Bush, Martha Stewart, and George Will, you would have a decent living wage, wonderful health care, and a chicken in every pot!vvp

Wait. Scratch that chicken in every pot part. That was T.R.

Ivvm not brainwashed. Ivvm poor for three simple reasons. And all of them are choices.

1) Instead of pursuing financial wealth in the private sector, I chose to be a teacher. My father had a really well-paid job when I was a kid. He was miserable. But he did set a fine example - I decided at an early age to find a job I loved no matter what it paid. What sense would it make to be a millionaire who hates what I do eight to twelve hours a day? I may have a miniscule salary, but I love just about every minute of my professional day.

2) We chose to buy land so I could farm. We spent a huge chunk of cash and are bleeding mortgage payments so I could have a hobby farm. Ivvll be lucky to break even on a regular basis. If you count the cost of owning the land, farming is a stupid move. But I love it. I may not be able to go on fancy vacations and may drive my current truck until retirement, but I get to feed calves every morning and collect eggs every evening.

3) My wife chose to stay home to raise our child. My wife was the real wage-earner in our family. She used to make nearly twice my salary. But we thought that it was important to have one of us stay home with our kid. I was willing to do it, but when it came right down to it, I liked my career way more than she liked hers. I was blessed that my parents made the decision that my mother would stay home with me. I think many of the better elements of my personality are attributable to their decision and I am grateful to them. (The bad elements of my personality are attributable to the poor influences of the Maximum Leader and the Minister of Propaganda vv they kept leading me down the primrose pathvѬ ) Our daughter may not ride to school every day in a new SUV, but, even as a child, she is going to some developmental activity or playgroup every single day. Please donvvt think that I am judging folks who decide to be two-income families. Every family should decide this for themselves. But we chose to trade material comfort for face time with the kid. One hopes she wonvvt hold that against us when we go back-to-school clothes shopping at Walmart.

At any point, my wife and I might have made different choices. I like to think I might have been reasonably successful as a lawyer or architect. My wife considered getting an MBA or a JD for a while. But we didnvvt choose to do those things.

We wonvvt be poor forever. We did a lot of retirement investing in the first decade of our marriage (the ante-baby period). Those Roths and 403(b)s will be worth something in 2034. The land will appreciate. Eventually my wife will start puling down the Benjamins and support me like an Eastern Pasha and I will live in the lap of luxury while Jaime Pressly feeds me peeled grapes vv er - I mean - pursue a fulfilling career. But for now, we have chosen (relative) poverty.

Thatvvs the beauty of America. We get to choose. And the choice isnvvt permanent.

The only reason for involuntary poverty in America is ignorance. When I taught in Baltimore, kids often complained that there was no way they could succeed in the traditional economy.


The Roth plans donvvt ask you what your skin color, ethnicity, country of origin, or religion is. But someone has to teach you about it and convince you that deferred gratification is a good thing.

Owning a house is another avenue of wealth acquisition that many poor families just donvvt understand. You might not be able to immediately buy your dream house, but if you start with a small investment, you can eventually leverage your equity into that dream house. Fannie Mae doesnvvt care if you are a White, protestant, heterosexual family or a Black Muslim lesbian couple (though I would like to see reaction in that mosque).

But both routes to wealth require deferred gratification. You donvvt buy the fancy new car right out school. You drive a clunker while you save for the house downpayment. You donvvt get the $40 nail extensions so you can save for retirement. You donvvt spend $6 a day on cigarettes and $3 a day on soda (Smallholdervvs personal vice) so you can save for your kidvvs college tuition. But too many kids grow up with the vv I want it now!vvp attitude.

When I was in graduate school we saw a really neat film. Researchers would bring in five year old kids and sit them at a desk. They would put a cookie on the desk and say, vv this is your cookie. You can eat it whenever you want. Ivvm going to step out of the room for a few minutes. If you still have the cookie when I get back, I will give you a second cookie and you can eat both of them.vvp The researcher would leave the room for a few minutes. The kids would sit at the desk and think about their choices.

Some of the kids would immediately gobble up their cookie. When the researcher returned and did not give them a second one, they complained vv thatvvs not fair!vvp

Some kids simply leaned back in their chairs and calmly waited, deferring their gratification until they could double-up.

Some kids wanted to wait, but, almost as if by their own volition, their hands would creep across the desk toward the cookie. One kid was really hilarious vv he ended up sitting on his hands, bouncing up and down, and practically squealing in agony until the researcher returned.

The study tracked these kids for ten years. The kidvvs response to the cookie dilemma was a pretty accurate prediction of academic success. And I would wager that, if you looked at them today, it would also have been a good predictor at success in life. I imagine that those who have not done so well have come up with lots of people to blame for their lack of success. But blamelaying will not get people out of poverty. (Are Al Sharpton and Ralph Nader listening?)

The real solution to poverty is to transfer the middle-class idea of deferred gratification to the lower class. But Ivvll be damned if I know how. It is too late by the time we get kids in school. Parental modeling influences behavior a lot more than teachers. Unlike many Republicans who throw up their hands and say nothing can be done (and more obnoxiously, nothing SHOULD be done), I would like to see us as a society do something. Helping the less fortunate is a Christianvvs moral responsibility vv heck it is any decent personvvs responsibility even if they are not motivated by divine fiat. Helping the less fortunate is also in our self-interest. If we can break the cycle of instant gratification and blame-laying, society as a whole will be better off.

But neither party is talking about this. The Democrats want to blame (fill in the blank here) and slap monetary band-aids over the problem of instant gratification. Republicans are short-sightedly selfish.

So letvvs end the blame game now.

Ivvm poor.

It is MY fault.

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