The plight of the poor: Thoughts on systemic poverty, fault, and responsibility

I write a lot at Get Rich Slowly about habits that foster wealth and success.

Like it or not, there are very real differences between the behaviors and attitudes of those who have money and those who don't. This isn't me being classist or racist. It's a fact. And I think that if we want ourselves and others to be able to enjoy economic mobility, to escape poverty and dire circumstances, we have to have an understanding of the necessary mental shifts.

The problem, of course, is that it's one thing to understand intellectually that wealthy people and poor people have different mindsets, but it's another thing entirely to be able to adopt more productive attitudes in your own life.

In fact, sometimes it's downright impossible. If you're poor, you're often too busy struggling to survive.

The Plight of the Poor

There's a seductive myth that poor people deserve what they get. If poor people are poor, it's their own fault. If they wanted to be middle class (or wealthy), if they wanted to be successful, then they'd do the things that lead to wealth and success.

Look, let's get real. Nobody wants to be poor. Nobody wants to struggle from day to day wondering where they're going to get money for food, for clothing, for medicine. And studies show that if you give poor people cash, they really do tend to use the money to improve their lives instead of squandering it on alcohol and cigarettes.

Yes, there are absolutely people who do dumb things that keep them mired in debt and despair. No question. Some people are poor because they've made poor choices.

But far more people live in poverty due to systemic issues and/or historical legacy than due to a pattern of financial misbehavior. Most poor people were born into poverty and don't have the knowledge or resources to escape it.

What's more, poverty actually alters the way people think and behave. It's great for us to have discussions about the mindsets of millionaires, but the truth is it can be difficult (if not impossible) for poor people to make sense of some of the things we talk about. Here's a quote from a 2015 article about the psychological effects of poverty (from the magazine for the Association for Psychological Science):

Decades of research have already documented that people who deal with stressors such as low family income, discrimination, limited access to health care, exposure to crime, and other conditions of low [socio-economic status] are highly susceptible to physical and mental disorders, low educational attainment, and low IQ scores…

[…]

Studies also show that poverty in the earliest years of childhood may be more harmful than poverty later in childhood.

Poverty breeds poverty. Economic mobility does exist and people do manage to make it to the middle class, but it's not easy. On an individual level, people become trapped by a “poverty mindset”. On a societal level, there are systemic and historical issues that exacerbate poverty and make it difficult to escape.

This morning, Kris (my ex-wife) sent me a long Twitter rant from Linda Tirado about how poverty changes your brain. It's fascinating. (For the past few years, Tirado has been a polarizing figure in poverty debates.) Kris also helped me edit this article, which she thinks is totally misguided. (She's a crusader for societal change!)

Systemic Poverty in Action

As an exercise, let's look at the single largest example of systemic poverty in the United States.

For hundreds of years, white Americans enslaved black Americans. Around 150 years ago, slavery was abolished in this country.

In 1860, slaves made up 13% of the U.S. population. After Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation on 01 January 1863 (and after the Civil War), these slaves were made free. But that freedom did not mean they were given an equal playing field with other Americans. Economically, for most black people, things got worse.

During the late 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (or WPA) conducted the Federal Writers' Project, an attempt to create a sort of oral history of the United States. As part of this, the WPA compiled a 10,000-page collection covering 2000 interviews with former slaves. If you've never read it, the Slave Narratives are equal parts frustrating and fascinating. They offer a first-hand view of what life was like for black Americans both during and after slavery.

For purposes of our current discussion, the Slave Narratives clearly demonstrate the origins of black poverty in the United States. Take this volume of stories, for instance, which is peppered with anecdotes about how difficult it was for former slaves to make ends meet after the Civil War. (If you're offended by a certain racial epithet, even when it's used in context by members of that race, you should skip the following quotes.)

Here's Ella Kelley from Winnsboro, South Carolina:

Money? Help me Jesus, no. How could I ever see it? In de kitchen I see none, and how I see money any where else, your honor? Nigger never had none. I ain't got any money now, long time since I see any money.

And here's James Johnson (“The Cotton Man”) from Columbia, South Carolina describing his experience:

It ain't what a nigger knows dat keeps him down. No, sir. It is what he don't know, dat keeps de black man in de background. […] I sho' am glad I didn't come ‘long then. I feels and knows dat de years after de war was worser than befo'. Befo' de war, niggers did have a place to lie down at night and somewhere to eat, when they got hungry in slavery time. Since them times, a many a nigger has had it tough to make a livin'. I knows dat is so, too, 'cause I has been all ‘long dere.

If you read interviews with former slaves, you see this pattern again and again. During slavery, their basic needs — food, shelter, clothing — were provided (at the cost of their freedom, of course). After slavery, meeting these basic needs became a struggle. The former slaves talk about this period as “the hard times”, and that seems apt.

Obviously, the abolition of slavery was a good thing. But the process failed to provide a means for newly-free Americans to become self-sufficient.

Houston Hartsfield Holloway, a former slave who taught himself to read and write, became a traveling preacher after emancipation. He once wrote, “We colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.” Colored people didn't know the rules of the game, and they were playing at a severe disadvantage.

Please note that I am in no way defending slavery. Far from it. I'm merely pointing out that upon emancipation, black Americans did not magically become equal with white Americans. Aside from receiving their freedom, things got worse economically for the majority of former slaves.

Think of it this way: A group of friends is playing Monopoly. Everyone has been around the board a few times. Most of the players have acquired a few properties and some cash. One player has managed to build hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk. In walks another friend, Jenny. The group invites Jenny to play the game, but she has to start at square one. Not even square one, actually. She doesn't get the same $1500 everyone else got at the start of the game. She gets nothing except the wheelbarrow token. Jenny spends the rest of the game trying to gather enough money to pay the rents when she lands on properties the other players own. She never gets an opportunity to begin stockpiling money so that she can buy property of her own.

In this situation, is it Jenny's fault that she's unable to compete with the other players? Of course not! She was handicapped from the start. Yet for some reason, there are people who cannot comprehend that there are large populations in the U.S. that suffer similar handicaps in real life. Yes, it's true: The economic effects of slavery are still being felt today, more than 150 years after the institution was abolished in this country.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate for white Americans in 2010 was 11.6%. The poverty rate for black Americans was 25.8%.

A Widespread Problem

That's just one example. It's not just black Americans who have been handicapped in the game of wealth.

For most of its history, the United States has been the proverbial melting pot, a place where people from other countries came to escape their pasts and to pursue more promising futures.

Many, many of the people who immigrated to the United States were poor. They fled poverty in Russia or Ireland or Italy or Poland or Germany or Mexico or China only to find a different sort of poverty here. Sure, we celebrate success stories of people who achieve the American Dream — as we should! — but there are just as many stories of families who came to the U.S., worked hard, and…struggled to get by. (Don't get me started on Native Americans. They've been screwed over repeatedly, essentially been forced into poverty. The afore-mentioned Census data revealed that Native Americans had the highest poverty rate at 27.0%.)

By this point, I'm sure some of you are bemoaning the fact that I'm a bleeding-heart liberal. I'm not. And, generally speaking, Get Rich Slowly does not do politics. (I'm doing my best to keep this piece apolitical too.)

I did, however, grow up in poverty. Not ex-slavery poverty, but poverty nonetheless. Post-poverty, I spent nearly twenty years digging out of debt. While my life is comfortable now (and I have plenty of money), that hasn't always been the case. I have lots of financial empathy for people who are poor because I have first-hand experience with some of the problems they face.

I'm not willing to dismiss the poor as stupid or ignorant or lazy or unmotivated because I don't believe it's true. Besides, my aim at Get Rich Slowly is to help everybody get better with money, no matter where they're starting from.

Solving Poverty One Person at a Time

But here's where I part ways with my more progressive friends: While I agree that there are very real problems with systemic poverty in this country (and, more so, in the world at large), I think it's pointless to try to fix these problems on a grand scale. It's never going to happen. You're not going to eliminate poverty through government policy. You're not going to eliminate poverty through redistribution of wealth. You're not going to eliminate poverty by trying to make wealthy people feel guilty or by inciting class warfare.

Sure, we as a society should foster economic policies that make it possible for everyone to have the opportunity to succeed. No question. But I believe that poverty must be solved one person at a time.

I believe strongly that the best way to help individual people escape poverty — to escape it permanently — is to teach them the skills and give them the tools needed to improve their circumstances, to show them that the quickest and easiest way for them to defeat poverty is to do it themselves.

Your situation may not be your fault but it is your responsibility. It's up to you to change things for the better. It's up to you to learn how money works, then use that knowledge to build the life you want. It's up to you to dig out of debt, shake the shackles of poverty, and work your way toward financial freedom.

Here's something actor Will Smith posted to Instagram a couple of weeks ago about the difference between fault and responsibility:

If you're poor, it's probably not your fault that you're poor. But like it or not, it's your responsibility to escape that poverty.

Meanwhile, I believe the rest of us have a responsibility to:

  1. Acknowledge that not everyone enjoys the same start in life,
  2. Create a “level playing field”, removing barriers to class mobility, and
  3. Do what we can to help those who are less fortunate work to improve their situation.

What does that mean for you? I don't know. Only you can make that call.

For me, it means meeting with anyone who wants to pick my brain. It means publishing material at Get Rich Slowly that can help people of all circumstances better manage the money they have. It means teaching migrant workers how to budget. It means investing in businesses that help people to help themselves.

I do believe that wealthy people and poor people think differently. And I do believe economic mobility is possible in the United States. But I also believe that it's callous to dismiss poor people as lazy, stupid, and unmotivated. Poverty is a weight. It's a handicap. It's a trap. We should be doing what we can to help others escape this trap.

Again, I recognize that this topic is loaded with political ramifications. While we generally steer clear of politics at GRS, I understand that this discussion is going to go there. That's fine. What's not fine are name-calling, facile arguments, and gross generalizations. Please keep the conversation civil!

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Dick
Dick

So, we have 45 million Americans living below the poverty line and you think individual actions will fix that problem? That problem is way too large for individual actions to fix it. Also, unless we give people hope that when they claw their way out of poverty, they can stay there, how do you expect them to even try? One false move or one spell of bad luck and you are right back where you started. You are only going to eliminate poverty through government policy. The problem is just too big to tackle on an individual basis. We can… Read more »

S.G.
S.G.

I would say that with a problem that big the only way TO solve it is on an individual level. Where government gets IN THE WAY of people getting out of poverty we need to work to remove those barriers. For example there is some good work being done at state levels to remove licensing requirements on a lot of jobs like hair washing or hair braiding. These are skills that a lot of people use as a first step out of poverty. But the government can’t lift people out of poverty, especially if there are cultural reasons for it,… Read more »

Sam
Sam

Ditto. I grew up poor, we had enough but I also had 9 other bothers and sisters that my parents were trying to feed a clothe. I wore hand me downs, took a brown bag lunch to school. When I was in 5th grade I got a pair of shoes from the thrift store that my mom had to dye black every couple of weeks, so I wouldn’t get picked on at school. When I was in high school if I wanted a nice pair of Nike’s I had to get a job and buy them myself. My parents were… Read more »

GJ
GJ

I appreciate your distinction that it is government’s responsibility to create opportunity, not provide a hand out. While I recognize the systemic issue, I think this is a good way to also tie in personal responsibility and dignity.

Jefe
Jefe

ON being poor (from a person who grew up poor):

https://whatever.scalzi.com/2005/09/03/being-poor/

It’s almost entirely NOT laziness, but an inability to optimize some habits because those changes jeopardize every-day necessities. Saying “Save x% of each pay-cheque, and never touch it.” sounds good, and probably works for people with some discretionary income, but for people living on the edge, pay-cheque-to-pay-cheque, that x% is mighty hard to find. Sure there may be some bad habits found, and occasional splurges, but a lot of the time, poor peoples’ responsibilities are dictated to them by economic needs.

Cheryl
Cheryl

Although I agree that government policy can’t FIX this problem, I do think it can help. I grew up in Canada and, though not a perfect society by any stretch, it does have much less disparity between rich and poor. There are still many people there who make poor financial decisions and struggle with poverty, but Canada as a society has decided that it’s better to have everyone have SOME than for a few to have a lot. Health care, though not the only example of this, is evidence of this: everyone can accesss basic health care – for free… Read more »

Tired Scientist
Tired Scientist

Exactly. So many people can’t get savings started because they keep getting crushed by medical debt over and over. It’s demoralizing to save up a little bit, feel good about it, and then have your husband’s ER visit wipe it out ($2k gone). And then start over again, to be wiped out by a bunch of tests to manage your worsening asthma ($2k gone again). And then before you can even get started again, husband’s unexpected kidney stone surgery ($3k) which forces you into credit card debt. It really hurts when all of this happens in a span of 2… Read more »

Tainted Tiara
Tainted Tiara

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, trying to understand the whole “white privilege” discussion (by the way, I find that term offensive and racist in itself, but despite that I’m trying to grasp the concept). It becomes more clear to me when I think about all of the issues that residents and teachers in poverty-stricken areas have to deal with that many of us can’t relate to such as violence and attitude and kids starting school without knowing the basics, etc. While it’s true that everyone has the power to improve their own lives, doing so can seem… Read more »

S.G.
S.G.

My understanding of the breakdown of “white privilege” is it tends to split into “majority privilege” or “class privilege”, but both of those have a statistical likelihood in the United States to align with having “white” skin. But there isn’t much you can do about being in a majority, and class is something completely different.

WantNotToWantNot
WantNotToWantNot

Privilege is invisible. Until you start to lose it. Then you understand what you have had all along.

Lisa
Lisa

What WantNotToWant says. There’s an absolutely amazing piece of writing that unpacks why we white people get so upset when someone even points out our whiteness, and why many of us go ballistic when we are told it conveys privilege. Highly recommend this reading: https://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/viewFile/249/116 I’d add that in this cultural moment, with the porous constant churn of news and social media, white people now feel less intellectually protected…and that’s having predictable, often toxic, consequences for people of color. That said, some of us are embracing this exposure, educating ourselves, and vowing to be smarter and better. I bet a… Read more »

Cheryl
Cheryl

Also, I highly recommend the book “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond. It shows just how fragile life can be for the poor.

Cory
Cory

That was an excellent book. It illustrates the plight of the poor, but you also can’t help but be extremely frustrated with the “land lords” in that book. They don’t help at all.

Quitting Teaching
Quitting Teaching

So back during slavery, the slave owners would have to purchase a slave, house them, feed them, and look after their investment by maintaining their health. They also had to stop them running away. All this carried great cost to the landowner/slave owner. When the thought was proposed that you pay these people a poor wage, they then go and feed themselves, house themselves and if they run away or die then you can just get some other unfortunate person to replace them. It’s a no brainer from a business point of view. Cheap labour at unlimited supply. As long… Read more »

firecrackerrev
firecrackerrev

“If you’re poor, it’s probably not your fault that you’re poor. But like it or not, it’s your responsibility to escape that poverty.” Having been born poor, I know exactly what you’re talking about. Growing up poor in another country gave me a different perspective. My Dad, having been through famine and 10 years of hard forced labour, had zero patience for any complains–no matter how many stomach worms I had, no matter how little heating we had in the winter, or how many bullies teased me for being poor in school. I didn’t choose to be poor. But it… Read more »

S.G.
S.G.

I think the problem in breaking it down is that both are true: There are many behaviors that contribute to being poor, and there are many challenges to stop being poor even if you don’t have those behaviors. Obviously this is a complex issue and it breaks down in many ways. One issue is commonly referred to as the Matthew Effect, though it’s named for a Bible verse (“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”—?Matthew 25:29) it’s the… Read more »

Katherine
Katherine

The intent of the War on Poverty was good and I do believe many people were helped by it. However, it seems hand outs in the form of welfare (cash payments) do not in the long run help those in poverty. My personal opinion is that if we, as a country, do not start caring about and taking care of children from newborn through their elementary years we will continue to grow adults who do not know how to cope. ALL children should have health care, dental care, free breakfast and free lunch at school every day!! It is hard… Read more »

S.G.
S.G.

I disagree, but I understand where you’re coming from. When it comes to government programs I agree that the intent is often good and many people are helped. But government by nature isnt a good vehicle for good works, at least not the federal government. Local governments can sometimes do good things because they can take local population, climate, and geography i to account.

Jan
Jan

My husband was poor. My son in law was poor. Both have tremendous IQs (that bologna that poor have lower IQs stems from how IQ tests were developed and normed). Both started to work for “family money” by the age of 10. Both hunted for birds for dinners. I was brought up upper middle class and most of what I read here are from that class. I have worked with rural poor and Native poor. Here are the things I see make a difference: 1) Access to health care (including WIC). Health care access should, at the very least, be… Read more »

Katherine
Katherine

Jan, You said everything I wanted to… As a child of poverty myself I appreciate your opinion so much.

Sequentialkady
Sequentialkady

Jan, I couldn’t agree with you more, and I’ll just add I want to underine everything you just said about how poor people are locked out of accessing banks and are severely hobbled by not having those services, and that is something that is often overlooked by those who study the issue. I think a way to solve the problem would be to let people use the post office as a simple savings bank, the way they do in Europe. No or loans or anything like that, but it would give millions of people a safe place to keep money… Read more »

Smile If You Dare
Smile If You Dare

You write:
>>… poverty actually alters the way people think and behave.<>Look, let’s get real. Nobody wants to be poor. <<

Yes, that's true. But the hardest thing to do is change one's thinking. (I think you are agreeing with me, but I may be wrong…)

And it is often government regulations that keep people in poverty. Not just at the local level. If you haven't, read this article on Federal housing policy that mandated racial boundaries:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/24/upshot/how-redlinings-racist-effects-lasted-for-decades.html

and how it has basically mandated poverty.

Sequentialkady
Sequentialkady

There is a documentary about the Pruitt Igoe public housing project (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pruitt-Igoe_Myth) that goes into detail about how deeply flawed public housing and welfare policies lead to broken families and an even greater cycle of poverty.

herman schwartz
herman schwartz

This was NOT a good article written by you.
I’m very disappointed that you have even taken this route.

Jesus said “we will ALWAYS have the poor and the infirmed”
If Jesus, the son of God, couldn’t cure the poverty syndrome, what makes you think anyone or anything else can?

There will ALWAYS be people who will NOT work, will ALWAYS be sick or ill.
Get over it. And accept the fact that poverty, just like the sun rising and setting, will ALWAYS be with us.

Again, this was a very silly article and a total waste of my time reading (partially)

Cheryl
Cheryl

If you think that Jesus wouldn’t want us to try to help those who have less, I don’t know what Bible you’re reading. The fact that modern American Christianity is tied up with “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” thinking is appalling to me, and doesn’t align with the Jesus I know who sought out the orphans, widows, and other poor/marginalized of society.

Katherine
Katherine

Herman, I am not sure what kind of Christianity you follow but I don’t subscribe to it. Just because there will “always” be poor and helpless people does not mean a person should ignore those in need.

Anin
Anin

I follow your blogs for years, but I don’t comment because English is not my native language, but this time I NEED to Thank you for this GREAT piece of writing! It is very deep and insightful. I reread it many times. Very few bloggers have that courage, to point the truth and give hope at the same time. Most of the personal finance bloggers are (un)intentionally putting the blame on the poor. The majority of articles are about how everyone can become rich and prosperous, if he wants. Even people who were once poor, play the blame game, suffering… Read more »

Fred
Fred

This is an era of mob phycology, and extremist political correctness. An era when educational institutions that used to encourage open mindedness now teach strict intolerance of differing points of view. I commend you for daring to publish an article that’s full of facts that will only appeal to open minded, reasonable people. I was poor growing up. I knew others who had it worse, and more that had it better. We all had access to the same societal safety net, and dealt with the same obstacles. Now, decades later, some of us (from the old neighborhood) have made it… Read more »

Sue
Sue

Thank you for this post, J.D., it’s obviously been thought-provoking, and I’m glad you brought up the systemic and historical factors that have contributed to multi-generational poverty. When I look at my own experience, I’d say both individual actions (my own and various mentors) and government policies made it possible for me to move up the socio-economic ladder. To be honest, I didn’t grow up ‘poor’, but my father was very irresponsible about money, and there were times when I was in high school that our family was in a lot of debt and pretty tight financial circumstances. We lived… Read more »

JoeHx
JoeHx

“Yes, there are absolutely people who do dumb things that keep them mired in debt and despair. No question. Some people are poor because they’ve made poor choices.”

What’s frustrating is it is so easy to find these people and believe they represent all poor people.

Liora
Liora

Fantastic article. I think you said a lot of things that people won’t dare say for fear of backlash. I agree with your statements. I do not believe government policies will totally eliminate poverty. I think people should educate themselves too and take on the responsibility to get themselves out, but then we start to encounter other topics that prohibit this education (i.e. how the education system is also systemically against Blacks and those in poverty). It’s unfortunate to say it, but the system and all its aspects and umbrellas is designed for them to fail, to be trapped, and… Read more »

Patti
Patti

In early January, a 20-unit building in a falling-down, slumlord-run apartment complex near my house burned down. It was a miracle no one was killed. Video footage of parent tossing their children over the third-floor balcony into the arms of firefighters made national news. In my neighborhood, we have tried various ways to help residents rebuild. First, cash. We raised $14,000 easily because of the news coverage and were able to give seven families $2K to start over. People donated clothing and household items and we had a giveaway on King Day. Everyone could come and get what they wanted.… Read more »

Snazster
Snazster

I think the best we can hope for is to help and educate people to do the best they can and, at the same time, have firm government assistance and tax laws in place to limit the extremes. For example, in a modern day developed country it is inexcusable for people to be malnourished, die of exposure, not receive an decent education, or suffer from lack of access to basic medical care (which, right now, means vaccines, checkups, and healing injuries, but probably not heart-lung transplants). By the same token, the other extreme shouldn’t get out of hand either. No… Read more »

Bob Hamilton
Bob Hamilton

Many of the problems of poverty are caused by “unseen” conditions which as a society we cannot face. A large part of our difficulties are due to failure to understand that more than one level of poverty exists. Americans must recognize that we have a sub-poverty group which cannot rise above life’s most difficult situations. This group is not only deprived of food, clothing, shelter, skills, but it is also lacking the ability to think is possible to overcome the grinding conditions in which it exists. A child raised where it is taught that “we are poor people” may never… Read more »

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