Thoughts on the Psychology of Poverty

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A shanty town near Windhoek, Namibia 

A friend recently made a statement that, though he later rephrased it, made me think about a subject that I not only have lived through, but am actively trying to address during my stint in the Peace Corps. 

My friend and I were discussing the possible promotion of a colleague when he stated that others viewed the colleague as lazy. When I asked if he thought the colleague was lazy he replied, “No more or less than the average (Insert ethnic or social group here).“ 

When I asked if he thought the average (ethnic/social group) was lazy he rescinded the term ‘lazy’ in favor of them being unmotivated. 

This line of thinking is not new to me, I’ve heard it said about me and members of my family, the group I ethnically identify with (African American), and people of every color, social, financial, or religious affiliation by people of every color social financial or religious affiliation. Here in Namibia I’ve heard it used by members of one tribe when referring to members of another tribe. I’ve heard it used by White Namibians when referring to Black Namibians. I’ll even admit to following this course of thinking myself from time to time, especially when I get frustrated when trying to help someone, or get tired of people asking for or expecting things from me because they think I’m rich. While I believe that the lack of motivation, even abject laziness can be factors in the status of individuals, I know it is wrong to apply such generalized labels to any group of people. Yet, we do it. I do it. Maybe because it’s an easy way to dismiss people. Which, in itself, is lazy.

I was born and raise in poverty. I have known my share of a lack of inspiration and desire, and regardless of the reasons, I have fallen in lengthy states of slothfulness. There are times, even now, when I just don’t want to bother. I know I’m not alone in this. I would propose that many born to wealth experience the same lack of motivation. I have known people who come from well heeled families whose only apparent desire is siphon as much as they can from the family fortune while doing as little constructively with their lives as possible. To the unfortunate parents and those around him or her, this person could also be seen as lazy and unmotivated. So, it seems that these terms can apply to anyone regardless of who they are or where they fit in the world.

If some of the poor are not just lazy or unmotivated, I would even venture that most of them aren’t given the amount of physical effort they put in to making a meager life for themselves, then what is it that keeps them poor? Why is it that, when given the opportunity to better themselves, some poor people will ignore said opportunity or do something to derail it, putting them back into the poverty hole they began in?

There have been many studies and subsequent articles (* I’ve listed a few at the end of this post, but there are hundreds more available.) written on the psychology of poverty and most seem to have a common thread; that the poverty mindset is complex and that there is no one cause or definitive process for addressing it. Even so, many studies have notice several major themes associated with those who live and continue to live in poverty regardless of the help provided. One theme in particular resonates with me and I can attest to its validity, that is the notion that poverty is self-perpetuating. To be more succinct: Poor people are poor because they don’t know how not to be.

I mentioned earlier that I was born into poverty. This is true. My parents struggled all of their lives and barely made enough to scrape by. I’ve known more days than I care to count that I’ve gone to bed hungry and wondered not only what, but when would I eat again. My mother was neither lazy or unmotivated, but she saw a life outside of the day to day struggle for the most basic of needs as fairy tales best viewed wistfully on our ancient black and white TV (when it worked). When we did have money it was spent on the urgent necessities of the moment.

Still, there were times when we had enough food to eat, rent was not several months behind, and power and water bills were paid in full. Those were happier times, but as I look back on them I realize that my parents did little or nothing to keep from falling into the hole again. According to many of the studies I mentioned, poor people are unduly stressed and because of it they try to find ways to alleviate the stress, which usually winds up being decisions based on immediate emotional needs and not those that might end or help reduce the causes of the stress in the long term. So, any extra money is spent on unnecessary, often expensive things that return immediate pleasure, and actions follow a similar course. When the regular source of income vanishes there was nothing to fall back on, and the poverty cycle starts again.

I believe that people, in general, are creatures of habit. We do things because it is the way it’s always been done. When people who are used to a way of life are given a choice to move out of that life into something unknown, but has the potential of being better than where they are, people will often choose to remain where they are. If we apply the tenant of the aforementioned studies to this situation we might assert that a person, faced with a choice of going into the unknown or staying where he or she is, will choose to stay even if staying perpetuates a miserable condition because the only thing about the unknown that this person may see is that there will be more stress, and in a life already brimming to overloaded with stress, more is to be avoided. This is something I’ve also experienced and have firsthand knowledge of from those close to me who were faced with such choices. I was able to see the possibilities for what they were and took advantage of them, and I was able to coach people close to me to do the same. The results were almost always positive or no better than where we were before the change.

We can argue all day about the semantics and definition of what is a “better life” and what it takes to achieve such. That’s not my focus. All I’m saying is that there are reasons for why people do what they do, and more often than not those reasons are as deep and complex as any life. To dismiss an action or condition to triviality and generalities is to ignore the complexities of life itself. I must also reiterate that my discussion is not a generalization, it is just one facet of why I believe poverty persists regardless of the countless hours and mounds of dollars we throw at it in attempts to fix it.

The question is then: Can poverty be fixed or are we just spinning our altruistic wheels, fooling ourselves into thinking that we are doing some good when in reality, we are not? Can we eliminate the causes of poverty so that everyone can enjoy a full and prosperous life? 

Sadly, I believe the answer is that there will always be poor people, but I also believe that we, who try to help, aren’t just spinning our wheels. I believe that not every person who finds himself or herself in financial straights should suffer in poverty. I believe there are those who can benefit from a helping hand and we should do what we can to offer that hand. I believe we must endeavor to continue to address the causes of poverty so as to give those who need the help, get the help they need to improve their lives and the lives of their families. I think I am proof that a person born in poverty does not have to remain in poverty. My life is better because I had help when I needed it and learned to make and continue to make better choices. In turn, my children’s lives are better, and their children’s lives have the potential to be even better. I believe it can happen to anyone who wants it. 

That’s why I’m here, and I will continue to try to help those trying to escape poverty no matter where I wind up. 

Stay tuned

Vern

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Psychology of Poverty

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on the Psychology of Poverty — – Hasie Fantasties

  2. Wonderfully written. I read the Framework for Understand Poverty years ago and it really changed my thinking. As you mentioned, I think it’s important to understand the causes of poverty in order to make a change. Poor people only know how to be poor, just as rich people only know how to be rich.

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  3. Fantastic write up about a subject I often scratch my head about. So many are born and live in poverty in their formative years and manage to go on and have successful lives, myself included. It’s is very thought provoking. I am very fortunate to have a father who always, despite our meager means, always instilled a mentality of hope and hard work and a way of life isn’t always permanent. I am very very fortunate to have had that. Now my father has a very comfortable retirement. Thank you for all you do to help others have a better life.

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  4. I agree that the causes of poverty are complex and therefore I can’t do justice to the conversation with a short response. I think however, your perspective of continuing to give a supportive hand regardless of the unknown outcome is a good mindset, as we only have control of our own actions. Hope your adventure continues to be filled with growth opportunities.

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