Bad Decisions Are Not the Cause of Poverty

Shelly Fagan
Apr 24, 2019 · 6 min read

Poverty causes people to make bad decisions.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Many Americans blame poor people for their situation believing it is the result of “bad decisions.”

Despite 41 million people living below the US poverty line, comprising 13 percent of the population, conservatives believe enabling these choices through assistance programs is what keeps people down.

It is a lack of self control at the core of the issue, not a lack of opportunity.

Republicans promote an erroneous idea which says those who are trapped in poverty are the ones that couldn’t delay gratification. The downtrodden are painted as entitled, scamming the system and more apt to abuse drugs or alcohol.

Researchers from the University of Warwick, Harvard, Princeton, and the University of British Columbia found struggling with a real-life financial problem was roughly the same as a 13-point deficit in IQ or losing a full night’s sleep. For many poor, these stresses are an everyday occurrence, resulting in regular beatings to their cognition.

The lucky ones in our society -- those born into good families with plenty of opportunity that leads to high-paying jobs -- believe they are successful because they earned it.

That is not to say that lazy or entitled poor people don’t exist, but likely they are as prevalent as those who are successful and do the same.

It is not that rich Americans don’t understand poverty. They don’t recognize their own privilege.

Let’s examine one example of the “cycle of poverty.” If you wake up to your car not starting, you have several options. For most of us, the choices go something like this:

  1. Take another vehicle or get a ride from someone in your household.
  2. Call a ride share.
  3. Take the day off and fix the problem.
  4. Take a bus.

This would be a minor inconvenience for most privileged Americans.

For the poor, it can cause an irreparable cascade of problems which result in serious financial hardship. Such a small annoyance for us can take on monumental importance and become a life or death decision with possible catastrophic consequences. There is the a risk of something as small as a flat tire may result in homelessness down the road.

For those struggling on the lower economic ladder, their car may be the only vehicle in the household. It may even be their home.

If they have a credit card to arrange for a ride share, which is doubtful, they may have to choose between taking on more debt with interest and eating, daycare or going to work. Catching the bus triples the commute time. If they are working an hourly job, being late will jeopardize their position. They cannot afford to take the day off as any loss of pay will make their situation worse.

It is true the poor aren’t concerned with future gains. They are 100% focused on making the best decision possible for immediate survival.

To blame the under-privileged is like condemning someone lost in the desert for not rationing their water better, as if this decision was the primary cause of death and not the fact that they were in a hostile environment in the first place.

This is exactly what society does. We point to the better choices we would make. It is absurd to blame a lack of planning rather than the real issue — a situation of limited options and no appreciable opportunity to improve their life.

In fact, society’s downtrodden face more of these crucial decisions on a regular basis than the more fortunate. Their ability to survive is a testament to their decision-making skill in this regard.

Researchers found that poor people often make more rational financial decisions.

What Does it Take?

Photo by Hugh Han on Unsplash

Let’s reverse the process. Rich Americans think that climbing out of poverty is as easy as getting a better job.

Say you want to improve your situation. Frequently, the unhelpful advice to move up the career ladder is vomited upon the unfortunate as if they have not considered this obvious move.

In order to do that, in many communities outside of urban areas, you need a car. You can’t afford decent, reliable wheels without a steady paycheck. You will need at least an additional $300 a month for a used car with insurance. A better vehicle will likely make that figure closer to $400, assuming your insurance isn’t actually higher.

That means you’ll need to earn about another $2.50 an hour. For someone pulling down $15 an hour (about twice the federal minimum wage), the jump to $17.50 will likely require moving to a new position because this is the most feasible way to increase your pay. Poor people recognize employers are opposed to any wage increases, especially for those on the lower rungs.

To put this in perspective, someone who makes $50,000 a year must find a way to make $10,000 more but they can only look at companies on the same street.

Without transportation, you have to carpool, walk, ride a bike or take the bus until you can afford a vehicle. That limits your prospects to a much smaller geographic area. It also eliminates most sales and service jobs, or anything requiring reliable transportation.

This dynamic applies to everything — housing, healthcare, education. What seems merely difficult or inconvenient for the rich is akin to climbing Mt. Everest for the poor. Every financial hurdle becomes an epic battle.

Accessing better opportunities requires greater effort, carries more risk, and requires an enormous investment of their skimpy resources.

“I Did it, Why Can’t You?”

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

When you present these arguments to conservatives, they offer an example of an achievement in their own life as a model for what the poor could do if they weren’t lazy and busy making bad decisions. This is known as “fundamental attribution error.”

“…people have a cognitive bias to assume that a person’s actions depend on what ‘kind’ of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces that influence the person. Saul McLeod

When I asked how someone trapped in a minimum wage job without transportation would improve their situation, they pointed to getting job training or a degree. The only consideration was the cost of tuition. Not only do many conservatives believe the poor get full ride scholarships, but the challenges end there. Simply put, they believe this because that is how the world works for the privileged.

Regardless of one’s life situation, upbringing or intelligence, anyone can manage a full-time job and a college education, they surmise.

Privileged upbringing never enters into the equation. Conservatives do not see they had the advantage of a good high school education, nutritious food, and parents who supported their efforts. They do not see how the cycle of poverty chips away at someone from birth, how their same opportunities do not materialize for the poor, how successes or failures tend to multiply.

None of the conservatives had a suggestion on what the poor kids should do to overcome being born into bad family situations.

There are a number of legitimate challenges that create unique circumstances like when a child is kicked to the streets at age 18 before they have graduated high school. How is an unemployed youth who is missing teeth because their parents neglected or couldn’t afford dental care supposed to find that great paying job? What should someone do to get a better career if they have an untreated learning disorder?

One conservative quipped, “They should have made their parents care more.”

The Progressive Edge

Veracity. Dissidence. Liberation. The edge of social and political progressive thought.

Shelly Fagan

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I make complicated subjects accessible. Politics, Basic Income, Philosophy. You clap, I follow. You read mine, I’ll read yours.

The Progressive Edge

Veracity. Dissidence. Liberation. The edge of social and political progressive thought.

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