Three Things to Remember When You Think of the “SEPTA Baby”

The real scandal may not be what you think it is.

Rather than get a righteous outrage worked up over the 15-year-old mom who accidentally left her baby at a SEPTA station Monday because she and her mother were apparently trying to cheat the transit fare, let’s cool our heels and remember three things:

Philly leads the nation in deep poverty. Nah, I don’t know anything in particular about the family involved, but the combination of teen mother, attempt at transit fraud, and starting point in deep West Philly tells me we’re not exactly dealing with the Kennedys here.

The truth is that leaving a kid in the wrong place is the sort of boneheaded thing that happens to rich and middle-class parents all the time; how often have parents miscommunicated with each other about who was going to pick up Tommy from school, only to discover later he’d waited a very, very long time for his ride? It’s not the sort of thing that ends up getting you called “ghetto trash” in the comments.

So the scandal isn’t that a teen mom and her mom made a mistake and immediately became frantic. Because, as I said, Philly leads the nation in deep poverty. The real scandal is that we live with this, day to day, with barely a peep, but reserve our most passionate scorn for an incident that, in any other income bracket, would probably be some family’s mildly amusing anecdote.

Poverty makes it hard to make good decisions. The poor are usually depicted as making bad decisions and having little self-discipline, a way of blaming them for their own plight, but studies show that the bad decisions are often actually the result of poverty—not just its cause.

Princeton University researcher Dean Spears figured this out a couple of years ago through a series of studies. His conclusion: Being poor forces you to make a series of trade-off decisions every day—I can have this if I don’t have that—that you avoid if you have money. Over time, he shows, you use up your reserves of self-control and smart decision-making.

When a family tries to game SEPTA’s fare system, then, we’re tempted to treat them with scorn. But the truth may be that they’re making the best decision from a list of bad options. A life of that can be exhausting, and lead to mistakes that land you in the paper.

Despite the challenges, the 15-year-old teen mother is still in school. This much we can glean from a later update to the story that described the young woman’s usual SEPTA routine. And what can I say: Despite the obstacles in her life, the fact that she’s continued to pursue her education suggests to me there is some hope for her and her daughter. I hope they can claim it.

Luckily, there was one group of people who showed grace in this situation: The SEPTA Police, folks who managed to reunite a family, and then declined to bring any charges in the case. The woman and her mother “ “probably learned a better lesson than us citing them,” said the transit police chief. The decision was an act of mercy. In Philly, it seems, those are precious hard to come by.