Tipping Points

Last week, I explored what it would take for a basic, frugal, no-frills working person’s life: a description of what it would take to be one of the “virtuous poor.” How much virtuous poverty costs makes a difference, and what can wreck it means a lot as well. It’s not possible to make life fool-proof: there are many ways an ordinary person can come to grief that are beyond their control, and it’s best to name these hazards. I’d like to call them Tipping Points, things that would knock one of the virtuous poor over the edge into dangerous poverty: a poverty that kills virtue, sanity and even life itself; an animal existence. Some of these will sound funny or outrageous, and they should.

The Boss (employer supervisor, manager)

You need to have a boss who’s basically a good person, as well as your boss’s Boss, and all the way up the management tree. After all, a dishonest or dysfunctional person anywhere on this tree can ruin things for you.

You need to hope your bosses like and value you. If they don’t, there’s usually many ways they can make life miserable for you, including building up documentation to get you fired without hope for another good job. They can give awful working hours, ugly chores to do, hazardous duty and do any number of dirty tricks. They can also try to sabotage your relationships with your co-workers. Or they can just assume out of the blue for reasons beyond your control (and beyond logic) you’re superfluous and let you go, or outsource your responsibilities.

You need to hope your boss doesn’t like you too much, if you know what I mean, and that can go any direction on the male/female spectrum. Falling in love with your boss is a horribly bad idea, and your boss falling for you even worse. Unless your boss becomes your permanent spouse, there’s almost no good way this works out in job security. Same thing goes for dating a co-worker.

You need to hope all of your long term co-workers are good people as well. There are any number of ways they can screw up the shop, and take you with them. Being socially unpopular can be fatal, as the case of Fantine in Les Misérables illustrates.


You should never develop a serious illness. Time is lost getting medical care, and even with co-pays, costs of treatment can be high. As it is now, there are common ailments you can’t afford to treat effectively. You should be the picture of mental health as well, even though you can survive if you’re not: mental health issues aren’t dealt well with in our country and many of the mentally ill inhabit our streets and prisons. If you have a mental illness, it should help you on the job, for example, having OCD helps if you’re job is doing a lot of detail work.

You should never have an accident, and God help you if you have an accident that’s your fault. If you have one, it should be someone who’s insured and it should be their fault. Workmen’s comp is all right, but not perfect, so having an accident on the job is marginally acceptable, but can have long term effects your health care may not cover and keep you from returning to your job.

If you’re working part time jobs with no coverage and no sick days, you’re walking a tightrope in a hurricane over a fiery pit. You also may not be able to afford virtue.


Major catastrophes are usually all right, since everyone’s equally messed up and help is usually forthcoming. Otherwise, you should be in a place where the weather doesn’t keep you from doing what you have to do, because you could be in a job where you’re expected to be there short of a global catastrophe. That means you live in a place that’s easy to get in and out of regardless of the weather.

You shouldn’t be affected by changing weather, either. There’s no sympathy for winter depressions or summer humidity exhaustion. You should also be able to work outside in any weather, and you’ll probably have to.


You shouldn’t be responsible for anyone else in your family: parent, partner, child or otherwise. Otherwise they will burn up what little off time/personal days you have, and their needs will cost you energy you need for work. Using sick days for them means you don’t have them if you need them. If you don’t have those personal/sick days, taking care of them can get you fired. Even with guaranteed time off for having a baby, it’s not a good idea: there’s no room for error and you’ll be probably be back at work before your infant can sleep through the night. Same goes for responsibility for any of your friends, no matter how much you like them or how much they beg.


Unless you’re stopping at the courthouse over your lunch break, weddings aren’t affordable, especially a fairy tale wedding. The best you can do for a honeymoon is probably a weekend at a cheap hotel locally, or staying at home and using some imagination.

You need to hope you and your spouse are on compatible work schedules, otherwise you’ll almost never see each other. Corporate celibacy goes all the way down the ladder: odds are if you work hard enough, you won’t have a lot of energy for your relationship, and I’m not just talking about the part done in the bedroom. If power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, lack of power can be one of the biggest libido killers.

You will be able to share a lot of costs if you’re married, and that’s frugal. Choose your partner wisely (which is good advice for anyone.)

Divorce is also too expensive unless its no-fault, no litigation. If you’re married, it’s best if you work it out amicably, no matter what it is. Let’s not talk about the energy and angst over splitting up, much less what it costs to change habits to avoid the ex.

In many ways, it seems the most reasonable expectation here for the virtuous poor by society is to live like monks and nuns, even if they are married. That way the work always gets done.

Military Service

First, I have every admiration for everyone who steps forward to serve our country in the military, especially since we aren’t drafting anyone against their will. Soldiers deserve every consideration we can give them, as well as more than a living wage, as long as they live. I’d be happy giving them a guaranteed income for life rather than ex-Congressmen and Presidents. People in the Reserves deserve special love as well.

From what I’ve heard, enlisting isn’t a great idea economically, given how poorly active serve personnel and veterans are treated. I’ve heard stories about wives of active duty personnel using food stamps at the PX for food (PX prices are heavily discounted to start with), which I don’t understand; why homeless veterans are a problem amazes me as well, because I think if you’re willing to be shot at for our sake you should have a place to stay the rest of your life, guaranteed. Great if you want to serve our country and thank you, but if you’re virtuous poor it’s not a good idea (which is very, very wrong).


Don’t miss a house or rent payment. Lose your pad for whatever reason and you’re not virtuous poor, you’re over the edge.


If you’re taking out payday loans, you’re over the edge.  Any debt you can’t pay off quickly at need, and creditors that give you no room for error will ruin your life.


The virtuous poor shouldn’t be sinners in the hand of an angry God, walking a tightrope over a fiery pit and considered rightly punished if they’re pushed off. Yes, people lie and manipulate any system: that’s called fraud, it’s a crime and it should be treated like one. We didn’t shut down the Stock Market or punish every investor because it was manipulated fraudulently in 1929, 1978 or 2008; we don’t call off elections in this country because of possible voter fraud. Gutting social services because of welfare queens and entitlement freaks mean innocent people suffer.

All of us have tipping points: events that can push us over the edge. Living the life of a virtuous poor person is always fragile, and although actions should have consequences, any number of these things happening can take away even a strong person’s virtue. Berthold Brecht said in Threepenny Opera: “Food is the first thing, morals follow on.” Not being able to afford virtue means incredible temptation to cheat, lie, play the system, give into every passing vice (because your life is worthless and why not have fun?) and give up on working your way up. There isn’t enough faith to pump into a poor person to motivate them to embrace a life of honesty that means they and their loved ones literally starve and/or die of preventable disease. The place below virtuous poverty is simple survival: lurching from crisis to crisis, paying the most for the least every time, having little sense of community, having no realistic future, and having no ability to prepare or plan for anything. It’s a stressed state of basic confusion that is a special kind of insanity.

We may be expecting people to starve to death in quiet dignity if life has dealt them too bad a hand, if their actions have compromised their lives too much to recover. Given these Tipping Points that can throw almost anyone below virtuous poverty in spite of what they do, how reasonable is this kind of expectation? How can we judge the poor if fate conspires against them, like Fantine in Les Miserables, and society colludes in keeping them where they are? I would raise the question of who profits from another’s poverty (as Pope Francis does), but that’s beyond the scope of this essay. Expecting someone to starve in quiet dignity seems to be inhuman, especially when the core causes of the poverty are ambiguous and not usually personal moral failure (even when it is, this shouldn’t matter).

I’m not a socialist: I don’t say that everyone should be given all resources equally no matter how hard people work. I’m not against initiative (neither is the Pope), and personal initiative tends to carry through even in the most difficult situations, frustrating attempts to suppress it.  Those who work hard get more, have better long term security and can find virtue easier to live. If that’s not enough motivation, then something’s wrong with the system. However there should be an economic floor, not luxurious by any means, where the clearly identified basics of life are taken care of no matter what.

If any system can be exploited and exploited systems should be abolished or unfunded, then there is no system of government, church, market or group living that can survive. Making a system foolproof in diagnosing the frauds from the virtuous poor isn’t possible, either, however the risk of falling short is people dying horribly (which no one deserves.) After the Salem witch trials in 1692, Increase Mather wrote: “It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than one Innocent Person should be Condemned.” Poverty is popularly viewed as a kind of punishment, a condemnation.

To say there should be an economic floor everyone can depend on should liberate initiative, help risk taking, if we know we aren’t going to pay for absolute failure with our lives. Knowing that we can’t gamble away the rent money should make it more possible to be aggressive with that part we receive from our labors beyond basics, and work harder to improve ourselves beyond virtuous poverty in every way. There will always be complacent people in the world, that’s a fact of life, just as there are ambitious people and also those who put their priorities on things that don’t rely on making money (like me). Giving the ambitious scope for action should not mean penalizing those who don’t have the right kind of ambition or good fortune by depriving them of basics of life.

Saying the natural state of affairs should be that markets must be left alone to function without restraint is playing the “science trumps religion” card. We may accept evolution, but we don’t have to say it’s right or moral: we don’t call eating our own young morally right or acceptable, and wouldn’t tolerate it in human society. Being a moral human isn’t caving into every “natural” impulse. Surely, Christ never said: “The poor deserve to starve for their laziness, and we should let them.”

One comment

  1. Good one.

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