What Would You Do in the Worst Case? A Freakonomics Quorum

These are the economic times that try men’s souls, and women’s too. In the past few months, a lot of people have seen their net worth fall substantially, and I’m sure more than a few have contemplated what would happen if they lost everything.

So we asked a group of people — Nick Mills, Josh Piven, Adam Shepard, Will Wilkinson, and Ann Wroe — to consider the following scenario:

Imagine you just lost all your possessions and money, and you were suddenly living in the streets.

1. What’s the first move you would make?

2. What’s the first organization you would turn to?

3. What would your extended plan look like?

Here are their answers. I have to admit, I’ve thought about this scenario myself many times in my life and my answers bear scant resemblance to those given below. I will not go into detail because I don’t want to pollute your reading experience; part of the fun of these quorums is to throw a question out there and be surprised by the answers.

I am, however, interested to hear your comments. And please feel free to tell us how you’d respond to this scenario.

Will Wilkinson, a research fellow at the Cato Institute and editor of the online magazine Cato Unbound, a regular commentator on American Public Radio’s Marketplace, and host of a weekly discussion on his Bloggingheads TV show, Free Will.

“I’d politely ask sympathetic-looking strangers for some help, and I’d get it. That’s privilege.”

1. What’s the first move you would make?

I’m going to assume I’ve got amnesia or am doggedly prideful so that this isn’t too easy, or too boring. So “call my friends and family” is out.

But even if my entire social network — my entire fund of “social capital” — is wiped out by some freak virus, it’s still too easy. I can lose a wallet, but I can’t lose the balance of my good fortune. I’m a Midwestern white guy with good manners and an excess of education. That is, I’m rich in human and cultural capital, and that gives me a safety net too few people have. Even if my one set of clothes was funky and filthy, it would be easy enough for a guy like me to approach strangers and get them to trust me. So that’s what I’d do; I’d politely ask sympathetic-looking strangers for some help, and I’d get it. That’s privilege.

2. What’s the first organization you would turn to?

While enjoying the charity of the big-hearted strangers who have come to value my conversation and dog-walking skills, I would turn to the local, state, and federal government agencies with which one must deal in order to gain the identification documents needed to secure legal employment. Then I’d head to an organization such as McDonald’s that might offer a job on the spot.

If my couch-surfing strategy didn’t work out, I think I’d go to the Mormons, who I understand are extremely helpful in getting people back on their feet, as long as you are willing to seriously consider becoming a Mormon, which I would be … until I got an apartment.

3. What would your extended plan look like?

Starting with a minimum-wage gig and a cheap group-living situation, I’d continuously upgrade my employment and housing until I found myself in a job and living quarters that I liked, in a city I enjoyed, and among friends that I love. And I would have a large gold coin implanted under my epidermis should this ever happen again.

Adam Shepard holds degrees in business management and Spanish from Merrimack College and is the author of Scratch Beginnings, a book about his experience moving to Charleston, S.C., with $25.

“They wanted us to get the heck out of there, and they did a good job of making that happen.”

1. What’s the first move you would make?

First of all, it’s important to note that this is not an unrealistic situation, by any means. Inconceivable? Sure. We never suspect this can happen to us. But how many guys in homeless shelters across America thought that one day they would end up laying their heads on a cold tile floor, dependent on someone else to feed them?

My first move was to have a plan and get myself into a positive state of thinking. But that wasn’t going to put food in my mouth, so I located the local homeless shelter for a hot meal and a cot, and maybe some kind of direction.

2. What’s the first organization you would turn to?

When I arrived in Charleston with just $25 and the clothes on my back — and a pretty ambitious dream — I figured it might be easier for me to seek out assistance — a hand up, rather than a handout. So I made my way down to the Crisis Ministries homeless shelter where I not only met some of the most fascinating guys I’ve ever met in my life, but I was also amazed by the level of assistance being offered, from career services to the social workers to the medical personnel. They wanted us to get the heck out of there, and they did a good job of making that happen.

3. What would your extended plan look like?

So often we think in terms of quick fixes and getting it all right now. Forget tomorrow. I want today.

But that mentality doesn’t work when you start over from the bottom. It’s all about building, slowly, over time. I thought: “O.K., I make minimum wage now, but I can get a raise in six months if I can show up to work on time and with my shirt tucked in.” My present situation is either a means to an end or an end altogether.

Using my talents and advantages to the best of my ability is so very important in the long run. I’m a young, healthy male (and I’ll work until you are tired of bossing me around), so I know what I’m capable of in regards to work. But I also know that I have zero talents, so I need something that requires little thinking but lots of muscle. Maybe somebody else is an artist, or good at working on cars, or good at sewing, or good at talking to people. It’s important to take full advantage of those talents in the long run, rather than exploiting them.

So am I saying that here, in the greatest country on the planet, a country free and fertile with opportunity, that my attitude alone can get me out [of poverty]? You’re damn right.

Ann Wroe, obituaries editor for The Economist, co-author of The Economist Book of Obituaries, and author of, most recently, Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself.

“I’d work as long as I could at my menial tasks, and go on writing, until I gathered a reputation as some sort of anchorite and could sell my ramblings to the newspapers.”

Assuming I hadn’t lost my wits (a big assumption), my first move would be to walk away from those streets, towards the sea or towards the woods. It’s easier to be empty there. The leaves or the waves would soothe me, as they always do, and I would try to reconcile myself to being stripped down to the essentials. The death-in-life could become rebirth, if I was strong enough. I could breathe deeply there, feeling my limitations vanish along with my burdens while considering what the dickens to do next.

If I were to seek any institution to help me, it would be a church or some repository of faith. Charity ought to help me without paperwork, which my stripped-down self couldn’t abide. (Besides, how could I fill in any box on any form?) But I would rather live off the land than beg.

I would try to offer work in exchange for food — bread, cheese, apples — and some sort of basic shelter, like a bed of sweet-smelling straw. (I like to think before I sleep of lying in a dell of sea-pinks on a cliff overlooking the sea, and this would now be possible and free.) I’d do picking work from season to season — the repetitive, soothing, outdoor work I’ve always loved, and as I picked and walked I’d accumulate fragments for a grand, mad book — a cross between Walden and Tristram Shandy.

Traditionally, it’s men who are wandering poets, but I’ve long fantasized about such a life: a small pack on my back, a crust in my pocket, paper and pencils scrounged or picked up from the pavement, no possessions except those I need to keep myself kempt and clean. A comb, a toothbrush, and a notebook would be my first purchases, and they might be my last.

The long-term plan would involve an uninhabited shack in a small valley by the sea, with my washed clothes flapping among a few stunted apple trees. I’d improve the shack as I could afford to, or as gifts came: a lick of blue paint, a scrap of carpet, a rickety table on the ramshackle deck. Eventually there might be power and plumbing there, a wood stove, and broadband.

I’d work as long as I could at my menial tasks, and go on writing, until I gathered a reputation as some sort of anchorite and could sell my ramblings to the newspapers.

The hardest part would be remembering my former life and the family I adore. But then again, while with them I’ve always harbored these dreams of stripping down, abandonment, and escape; so at last living these spare, mad dreams, perhaps I’d continue from time to time to dwell in a place of cushioned comfort, laughter, conversation, and maternal love, and the one would be as real as the other.

Nick Mills, a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.

“For the rest of my life, I would be nouveau poor, and sooner or later I would, I believe, accept my reduced expectations.”

What would I do if I lost my job, lost my apartment, and lost my savings? My short-term answer is the middle-class one: I would turn to friends. After that I would begin the long haul of trying to find some sort of college teaching job to replace the one I now have, and after that, waiting tables or doing manual labor would be my options. For the rest of my life, I would be nouveau poor, and sooner or later I would, I believe, accept my reduced expectations.

In this regard, I don’t find my personal situation so interesting. All of us with middle-class backgrounds and a college education have coping skills and rich networks of friends. I could, if push came to shove, follow the path many of my students take and join the Peace Corps or Teach for America.

It is when I think of what it would mean to lose everything if I were a 20-year-old with a high-school education who lives in the inner city that the what-if disaster question gets interesting. What would I do if I had no family or friends who could afford to take me in for an extended period of time?

A life of crime? Maybe. But that option seems melodramatic.

The one institution that I think would be helpful is the Army. Meals, clothes, and training in a skill that could be used in civilian life. A bargain, especially for someone feeling desperate. I think of today’s Army as far more reliable in helping the poor than any welfare agency, and despite our failed war policies in the Middle East, I think the Army gives those serving in it a sense of pride; they don’t have to apologize to anyone for what they are doing.

The catch is that by serving in the Army I would be risking my life. At 20, I would be aware of the bargain I was making and old enough to have no illusions of invulnerability. But when I think of risking my life vs. facing humiliating poverty for the indefinite future, the choice is easy. Humiliating poverty with no visible prospect of relief is far worse than death for someone who has absorbed as much of the American ethos as I have.

It might well be that over the years a liberal, 21st-century, Franklin Roosevelt-like administration would restore the country to financial heath. But at age 20, I would not be holding my breath. I would go for the most immediate solution at hand.

Josh Piven, author of Bad vs. Worse, The Escape Artists, and The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook series.

“Ripping up my clothing so I looked the part might bring in some short-term funds, but as a long-term street-survival strategy it probably wouldn’t pay off. Plus I might need that suit later, for interviews.”

1. What’s the first move you would make?

I’m not so sure I like this line of questioning. Have you been peeking at my retirement account?

I might rob a bank. Wait, never mind.

Or I could try to get a loan. Wait, never mind.

Brother, can you spare a squeegee?

O.K., I get it, this is a serious topic and a serious question, and in fact may not be out of the realm of possibility for some. All those golden parachutes turning to anvils almost makes one feel sorry for them. Almost.

In any line of work — swapping credit defaults on Wall Street or begging for loose change on Market Street (on general principle, I refuse to use the term “Main Street” ever again) — appearances matter. If my clothes were in decent shape, panhandling probably wouldn’t pay off, at least not initially. (Would you fork over your hard-earned cash to a beggar in Brioni, regardless of how sincere his entreaties seemed to be?) Ripping up my clothing so I looked the part might bring in some short-term funds, but as a long-term street-survival strategy it probably wouldn’t pay off. Plus I might need that suit later, for interviews. You know, for an investment banking job.

Assuming I had no family or friends I could rely on, my first order of business would be to locate a) water, b) food, and c) shelter.

I’d ask a police officer to point me to the nearest shelter, and from there I’d gain information that would (hopefully) help me cover these three basic human requirements for a while. Since the question is assuming this is me and not some hypothetical stranger, I think it’s also safe to assume that I may be broke and homeless but not deranged, addicted to crack, stumping for LaRouche, etc. Thus, my next step would be to find a job that would help me cover my basic needs while allowing me to demonstrate my intelligence, hard work, honesty, and good humor.

Perhaps I’d volunteer to work at the shelter (helping others, serving food, cleaning up, etc.) in exchange for a bed and a hot meal. If they didn’t need me, I’d ask them for a reference and I’d find someplace willing to hire me in exchange for meals. I’m a firm believer in the old chestnut that any job worth doing is worth doing well — and the corollary, that hard work tends to be recognized. Plus, hard work never scared me. (Though it sometimes startles me from a distance.)

In six weeks I’d be running that shelter, or at least slinging soup. From there it’s just a short step to a sub-prime loan and then … home equity!

2. What’s the first organization you would turn to?

FEMA. I hear good things.

I don’t really like asking people for money — mostly because I don’t like lending it either. That said, once my immediate survival needs had been met (see above), I’d probably turn to all the very rich, really successful writers I know and ask for a bridge loan. After they turn me down, I’d cast around for some freelance work. This is about eating, not health insurance, right?

3. What would your extended plan look like?

Honestly, I don’t worry too much about the future — or at least I didn’t until Bush arrived in office.

I don’t need a lot. Family, good friends, a nice house, comfortable shoes, a German sedan, two vacations a year, Starbucks Café Verona, 18-year-old Scotch, and maguro.

All kidding aside, I’m basically a simple person, and I like to live simply. To paraphrase Henny Youngman, I’ve got all the money I’ll ever need … as long as I die by noon tomorrow.


JoseAngelCMS

I don't like to think of this scenario as a possible one, but with the times of trouble we are experiencing, everyone has a direct chance of seeing themselves in a situation like the one above.

I would like to say that there is no clear answer to what one would do in a situation like this, until you find yourself in it.

What is the first move I would make? The first thing I would do is go to my family, to tell them my problem and to see if they can help me out, at least by giving me a comfortable place to live in for some time.

What is the first organization I would turn to? I think I would try to get an easy job (by easy I mean, easy to get it), even though it doesn't give lots of money, but some money is better than nothing.

What is my extended plan? The most important thing will be to recover my normal life style, that is, to buy a new house, and be able to, once again, maintain myself. I would work the hardest I can in the work I get, so that I can get good recommendations for future, better job interviews.

Honestly, I would never want to see myself in a situation like this one.

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Alfred C. Ingram

These peopleare all white, aren;t they?

Depending on where in the country you are, you may need twoo to three min-wage jogs to afford a single appartment. People of color often work until others get tired of bossing them around, and fall further and further behind. People have been arrested after asking the police where the nearest shelter is. It depends on who you are and where you are.

Scott

I always have to chuckle when highly educated people say they can easily get a low wage job anywhere they want. I regularly hire minimum wage type employees and I consistently turn away the over qualified and there are several reasons. (1) They are usually depressed about having to do menial work and are unmotivated (2) They consider the job temporary until they can find something better, that just wastes my time in training and re-hiring (3) They are know-it-alls, worse than a teenager

PaulK

The thing that stands out is that the people you are asking, and the people who read this blog, are highly unlikely to fall that far. Whether own social net or enough brains to get comfortable, we do not really have the situation that many of the unskilled working poor have.

I helped out in a shelter for a while a number of years ago. One of the things that struck me is how many great services are often offered, yet many of the people that come in only want to worry about right now (food, sleep, maybe a shower). Getting them interested in more than a new coat was hard.

I remember one of the 1st days patiently explaining the steps to getting a job interview to one woman (like bathing, having clean clothes, working out a plan, resume, etc), and she told me that her limit was 3 steps. I told her we could pace it (a few steps a day, work her up to it). She said that one of the reasons she became homeless and jobless was that the stress of worrying about so many things (rent payments, buying food, showing up to work, etc). I admit that I was at a loss at that. I thought she was unusual, but I got that a lot over the months. Many of those people really could not deal with the process of building up their life, brick by brick. One of the people above stated that people want it all right now, but many of those didn't. The problem was that they were somehow not suited to a modern lifestyle. I have no answers to that, but it does seem to separate them pretty harshly from the average Freakonomics reader.

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misterb

All the OP's imagine that they alone have fallen on hard times, but assume that the country is still wealthy. Think instead of a situation like Zimbabwe, where the country has become impoverished, and class distinctions and friends and family are helpless. That's much more like the Depression was (from my dad's memories, not mine)

These answers are too pat, these people don't really believe it could happen to them. and in particular, they don't think that Zimbabwe could happen here.

Instead of asking baby boomers, try asking some 90 year olds - you might get a completely different perspective on what needs to be done to keep the US out of Zimbabwe territory.

Trent

The question is a little too easy, because as most of the responders mentioned, they still have their social network and reputation.

I think a better representation would be, "What if you lost all your savings, were living on the street, and were a registered sex offender." THAT would knock out a good portion of most people's reputation and social connections.

Joe Smith

The first thing is to look to family and friends to see if they can provide you with some living assistance in the very short term. Government welfare can be a stop gap.

The next step is a job, any job. My father was a classic survivor type and at one point when he was a teenager and needed a job just to be able to eat he took the only one available - digging up rotting human bodies. My first job was cleaning toilets. I could go back to that if I needed to. You either do what you have to do or you lie down and die - those are your choices.

So far as the example of Zimbabwe is concerned, that country is a disaster because its people individually chose the path of least resistance and allowed Mugabe and his cronies to steal their futures and ultimately their lives.

Jason

1. What’s the first move you would make?

Get into a shelter to keep my wife and kids out of the elements while I look for a new job and home.

2. What’s the first organization you would turn to?

I would turn to my church.

3. What would your extended plan look like?

Get a job anywhere as soon as possible. Stay with friends and family while I save enough to get into a new place. Slowly rebuild and then continue life as normal as possible.

kdg

I worried most about Ann Wroe, who seemed more concerned about some kind of kind of asceticism than about her personal safety. The statistics on homeless women are scary and it would seem a good idea to find a safe place to stay first and foremost.

Travis

Take it further -- what would you do in the worst case: when a meteor hits the planet, and civilization is broken into tribes?

AaronS

I, too, have thought of such things. I have taken great comfort in the fact that our grandparents weathered the worst of times in America, and yet simply endured it, coming through to leave later generations a foundation of resolve and hardwork.

So, my FIRST MOVE would be to realize that others in America have been through far, far worse--and yet came through. Further, there are millions in Africa that would, in such cases, give their very souls to have my "problems." Lastly, every person who is in Hell...would love to be me, no matter how bad it was, for it would mean another day to fix matters, to taste of life, etc. So, the first thing I'd do is realize that it's not the end of the world--that psychological/spiritual edge would mean everything at such a time.

2) The ORGANIZATION would be my church/denomination. I am a member in good standing with my local church and denomination. I would reach out the them and would absolutely receive help. For that matter, I could travel the nation to find better opportunities and because of my membership in the denomination--but mainly because these good Christian folks are so kind and nice--I could likely get a ride, get a meal, get a bed, and so forth anywhere I went.

2) As one of your guests has already indicated, many of us are blessed with a good education and strong intelligence. Since I presumably wouldn't have a house payment, I could "afford" (or actually, perhaps I couldn't afford to not) take even a menial job and work my way up. Put my on as a cook in a McDonald's and three months later I'll be the manager (of course, this presumes that the whole staff doesn't consist of intelligent, down-and-outers like me).

BUT...BUT...BUT....

All of this become much more difficult, physcially and emotionally, when you have a wife and child looking to you for guidance and support. I would have to remember, yet again, that my grandmother came through the Depression in the poor ridges of east Tennessee. In fact, my uncle tells it that they were so poor that they didn't even know a Depression had hit--it was just more of the same to them. I would remember that I come from strong stock...and would do my best to live up to that standard.

Fortunately, my wife has that Scarlett O'Hara mentality of "I'll...never...go...hungry...again." So I'd be getting support there, also.

As for my boy, well, what more motivation would I need on earth than to take care of my son. If I couldn't take care of him, I would rob a bank, steal cars, do whatever, to take care of him. I'd even take my philosophy degree and clean toilets. So all would be well, for I would have my life, my familly, and a reason to keep going.

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EllenVan

Thank you, Scott, Alfred , misterb and kdg, for intelligent responses. My jaw dropped when I read the solicited contributions. After years of working with people who are homeless, the absolute ignorance of life on the streets by the writers was appalling.

If you are lucky enough to find someone who will talk to you, they will assume that you are trying to scam them or possibly be kind enough to direct you to a shelter. Unless you have children or are a woman escaping domestic violence, you will likely have trouble finding a shelter that won't kick you out by 7AM. As everyone should know, and those who don't should read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, minimum wage is not enough to live on and progress. That's if you're lucky enough to get hired. If you don't have ID or money, you will not be able to get ID to work legally anyway (never mind not having an address or phone number to put on your application). If it's manual labor, where will you get money to buy the uniform or workboots or lunch to eat midday? Weeks of sleeping on shelter floors and eating donated day-old bread is going to make it very hard to keep a job.

Homelessness is not some romantic journey where you can just pull yourself up by the bootstraps. I could go on, but I'm turning into one of those ranters whose comments I hate to read.

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Bruno Bergher

This is mostly unrelated, but I think the Freakonomics blog would find it interesting.

I live in Rio de Janeiro, and just this morning I was watching a report on TV showing that many people in poorer parts of the city are deciding to leave home and go live on the streets in the nicest parts of town, most notably Ipanema and Leblon.

I believe it's not a couple of isolated incidents: I believe it almost consists of a trend. Would you be interested in more information about this, if I could get it?

Xian

I'd have to agree with Ann Wroe, once released from the shackles of 'normal society', I would take on the life of a transient and enjoy the true American life of honest hard work and beautiful environment, with basic amenities. Granted I sit in a very comfortable place fo 29y/o I have a small house and car clear of debt. I have a mortgage on my residence, that is less than current tax value of the house(which is less than market value). I might just sell my residence and live in the little house after i finish remodelling (approx 2yrs from now; live debt free and take all the income I was spending on my residence and the equity from the sale and live comfortably.

S. Stewart

Only one person so far has somewhat alluded to one of the main factors involved in so many unlikely individuals ending up losing everything and becoming homeless -- mental illness. Whether it is episodic like emotional trauma/depression or chronic like schizophrenia, dealing with mental illness could lead to self-medication, the loss of a support network, and ultimately to the streets or a homeless shelter.

Kimota94

A very interesting article, with equally insightful comments being made about it.

I think that the most interesting part of it all, for me, were the descriptions that PaulK (comment # 4) provided from his time working in a shelter. I've always wondered how so many people end up homeless, or at the very least, adrift, when there are (admittedly, menial) jobs available. I think it must come down to the ability to cope with what our modern world throws at you, including the temptations of alcohol and drugs. In a post-apocalyptic world (and Zimbabwe's probably not far from that), I could imagine starving to death or dying in a gutter. But assuming that civilization is still operating around me, my experience to date (I'm 45) would lead me to believe that I'd start over, at the bottom.

I grew up poor (child of a single parent who never made enough money in a year to get above the poverty line) and yet have more stuff than I know what to do with now. So I think - I might be kidding myself! - that I could do it again. I spent years making do with much less, and could do so again if I had to.

But if I couldn't think straight, or couldn't handle any plan that had more than 3 steps to it, I'd be a lot more concerned. That's a very hard path to walk, and I don't doubt that most people along it are stumbling and falling.

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MikeA

Yup, Ann Wroe would get eaten by the wolves.

Sadly we have a lot of examples of a situation where everyone loses everything at the same time.

@7, I think you will find that Mugabe circa 200X is a bit different, publicly atleast, to the Mugabe that the Zimbabwean people thought they had in the 70's. His opponents did always have a habit of dying. I suppose you would have opposed him. You brave soul.

D

Although I understand the imagined romanticism of surviving on the road, Ann Wroe's depiction of homelessness as a delightful adventure is disconcerting. As stated by a previous commenter, the statistics on homeless women seem to indicate that she has completely overlooked the danger she would face. The other respondents seemed to recognize this and obviously focused much more on practical ways to survive than obtaining a "bed of sweet-smelling straw".

David

@Joe Smith. Judgement, much?

Mugabe was once a fine leader who did a great deal of good for his country and his people. He is also now mad and evil, but it's naive to blame the individuals of Zim for allowing power to congregate in central government.

Many individuals are living this problem as reality in Zim right now. Literacy rates are still once of the highest in Africa (higher than South Africa) but jobs don't exist. Social networks are mostly busy looking after family and there are few aid organisations that can still operate.

Now consider how you get yourself going, develop a long-term plan, and work actively to restore the country to its former self with police and army controlling everything. That's a real challenge. Or we could just blame the individuals (a majority of whom didn't vote for him)

Abram Nichols

First of all, I've often thought to myself that, if everything goes to hell, I would sell all my possessions, pay off my debt, and get the heck out of here. It might be very refreshing to not have the burdens of a mortgage (or family, hah!) weighing me down. Free as a bird baby. Get back to basics.

So maybe this has all happened, and I'm possession (and debt) free...what next? Short-term, try and find a job and shelter. Preferably hundreds of miles from here, so I don't know anyone. Fill out applications and stake out the nearest payphone. If anyone asks, tell them I'm a hurricane survivor but I don't want any handouts. I would just like to work for money. I'm currently a systems analyst, and have computer skills. So that should come in handy. Always remember your skills!

Long-term: actually, this is sounding better and better, so why even have a long-term strategy? Unless you have a wife and kids, why bother with savings, or getting a house, or anything? Become a nomad...content to wander the earth forever looking for a glimpse of truth.

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