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!

More about...Economics

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*