Commentary

“Respectable Poverty” Is A Damaging Concept

Ferenc Puskás, the famous football player, became a “traitor” and a dissident after he left Hungary in 1958. The state security services, naturally, have never stopped snooping on him and opened all his letters sent home. In one of them, he apologized:

“My dear friend,

I’ll tell you why I didn’t go back home. I’d like to emphasize in advance that it wasn’t to make more money. That couldn’t be further from me.”

Index.hu

In other words, there is something wrong if someone wants to make more money – even if he could. Even if he is a world class athlete. Making more money is something to apologize about. He did earn more money in Spain, yes, but that was just a side effect, almost lamentable.

And even though a world class football player was not poor, not even in communism, the fact that he apologized for making more money is telling. There is a term for this: respectable poverty.

What the term “respectable poverty” implies is genuinely damaging. Both on the individual level – and for society.

Today, we call it working poverty, and look how it’s working out. People who work but still dread poverty flock to vote for populists and strongmen. It is not a coincidence.

Let’s put aside for a moment our instinctive envy of hatred for those who make more than us. Let’s look at the other side. The poor. The respectables.

What is so respectable about aiming to stay at the edge of poverty?***

What is respectable about not having any savings for an emergency or for non-essentials such as education?***

And what is so dishonorable about having savings that keep you financially secure?

So others don’t have to. 

Because at the end of the day, making more than what we need right now is about savings. Whether for an emergency, or for the future of our children – savings are excess earnings.

When you aim at earning just enough (and not more), you are essentially asking for others to bail you out in an emergency. You are a potential burden on your family, community, friends and the state. It is poor, yes. How is it respectable?*** 

When, on the other hand, you aim at more, you are aiming to become financially secure, and less of a liability for everyone around you.

Given that we all look forward to a long retirement in ever-deteriorating health, it is irresponsible not saving for those years. And yet, we would consider having such money saved on top of our monthly necessities as… not respectable? We are essentially counting on our children and the state to cover the shortfall. And that is what we call respectable?

It is one thing when you are not able to earn more. But it is a different matter entirely not to choose to make more when you could. Such as a world class footballer. He should never have to apologize for making more money. (And I do not like, enjoy or want the state to support football.)

When we don’t say it out loud, any stupid thing goes. Shaming those who want to make more money can pass as a breeze and act as a common denominator and bonding topic in everyday conversations. Hating the common enemy is the fuel of empty minds and the glue of empty lives. But once you have actual values, you require more. When we spell out what it means, and what the respectable option entails, it is suddenly a lot less respectable. Morally bankrupt, even.

But how did this unspoken nonsense came to be? And what does it mean for a society?

In Hungary, we can blame communism. The premature welfare state of the 70s has conditioned Hungarians to take free healthcare and free education for granted. In other words, emergencies are state competency. And non-essentials, such as education, self-improvement, investing into a better future. Because what else is there to save for?

The Hungarian term for respectable poverty is “tisztes szegénység“, which is a cunning amalgamation of honest (tisztességes) and respectable (tiszteletre méltó). Doesn’t really mean either and doesn’t say which one we should think of when someone is respectably poor. It’s just there.

Naturally, my father preferred both honest and respectable to describe his own inability to pay for other than food and mortgage. As a respectable and honest public official, he found it hard to save for even a wedding gift on a six months notice – because earning more than was necessary for survival was simply not to be expected.

Having both parents work for the state we never had a single forint left at the end of the month. Sometimes the money ran out earlier. But enterprising people were still frowned upon. Entrepreneur was (and still is) a derogatory term to describe people who tried. They apparently refused to be either honest or respectable – and tried to make money on the side. (What was their main activity for, I wonder?) Some were going as far as buying stuff abroad and selling it at home for a profit! They could pay taxes after those profits, that didn’t matter. Their sin was simply trying. And that is not respectable.

Respectable poverty can also be described as working poverty: a lower-middle class background with a neurotic fear (and solid chance) of poverty. And that neurotic fear is what has severe political consequences. People who fear something, such as economic peril, and feel helpless to do anything about it, will inevitably end up supporting more state power. Even if it’s voting for a strongman, and stripping themselves of human and legal rights – just to enable that strongman to do something. They want to “take back control” – but in reality wouldn’t dare to. They just want to give it to the strongman – just as the strongman wants. The safe option. The approved option.

“It was not merely the lack of money. It was rather that having no money, they still lived in the money-world – the world in which money is virtue and poverty is crime. It was not poverty but the downdragging of respectable poverty that had done for them. They had accepted the money-code and by that code they were failures. They never had the sense to lash out and just live, money or no money as the lower classes do.”

–Gordon Comstock: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

 

Crowding out charity

But I go further. If you have no disposable income and no savings – how could you help others? If you expect every worthy cause supported by the state – why would you even consider donating to charity? How could I help anyone if I am not supposed to have discretionary resources? 

The idea that I can use my savings (that excess money that I am not supposed to aim for) to support causes that I deem worthy is alien from those who suffer from the mental worm of “respectable poverty”.

Charitable contributions suffer when the state crowds out private donations and people resort to lobbying government to support their causes – rather than sending money themselves. If you have to apologize for having enough to help – you won’t help. Having enough to donate to charity is not respectable in these circles. With all its damaging consequences.

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***Disclaimer against simplistic but predictable accusations:

No, this post does not say that poor people are bad.

Bad people are bad and good people are good – and monetary status is an unintelligent proxy to tell them apart. Similarly, respectability is not correlated with wealth. If someone says otherwise, it is to manipulate you (and society) in very undesirable ways.

Don’t apologize for making more than the necessary amount of money. It is called savings. Apologize if you could take better financial care of yourself, but you choose not to.

And apologize not to me, but to your family who will need to pay for your emergencies and to your children who will need a solid excuse why your “respectability” was more important than their education.

Respectable is respectable. Poor is poor. Rich is rich. Bad is bad. Neither is a proxy for the other so get on with your life and stop aiming to be a proud, potential burden. That is the opposite of respectable.

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