Why Do We Always Blame the Poor?

zero day finance why do we always blame the poor

I’ve been writing this post for the past 6 months.  I’ve written and re-written it at least 10 times, and it never quite feels right. I’m always concerned that that it will be negatively received.

Whatever.

This is a really important post that needs to get out there, so here we go.

There is something dark lurking in the personal finance community. I didn’t notice it at first, but after starting Zero Day Finance a year ago, it has become painfully obvious. There is a small (but vocal) group of people who hate on poor people. Sometimes it shows up overtly in conversation, other times it is more subtle. Regardless, it is something that the personal finance community should not tolerate, and even seek to correct.

Poor People have a Tough Life

We need to get this out of the way. Right now. Poor people have a tough life. There is nothing glamorous about being poor. You almost universally work low-paying, high-stress jobs. Note the plurality of jobs: most poor people need to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

And when I say “make ends meet,” I really mean that they can pay for their rent and food, but not much else. Maybe they’ve got an old car that needs an oil change and new tires. If they’re really lucky, maybe they have a few dollars left over each month to make them feel human.

When you are poor, Everything is Expensive

You can ask a poor person how much milk and bread costs – they’ll know the lowest price, and at were to buy it. Because when they go shopping, they need to go to several stores, based of the current sales. They can only afford to purchase food on sale.

When you are poor, you don’t get to use the same financial system that higher-income people enjoy. What am I talking about? Banks. When you are poor, you most likely can’t bank like the rest of us do. At some point, you’ve overdrawn your checking account. Probably multiple times. If you don’t have enough money to pay for both rent and food, which one do you choose? Well, most likely food, because you need to eat to survive. At some point, you’ll have too many derogatory marks in ChexSystems, and then no more banks.

If you’ve never heard of ChexSystems, think of it like Equifax, but for banking. If you’ve never heard about it, then it probably never affected you before.

Many poor people have to rely on “Checks Cashed” storefronts to get their money. So they spend a ton of time working long hours at multiple jobs for minimum wage, and then need to pay exorbitant fees just to access their money. How bad are the fees? They are usually between 5% and 10% of their total salary, which is a lot for them. And hopefully they’ve never been really desperate, and taken out a payday loan. Because if they have, they’ll probably never escape that vicious cycle. Payday loans often have interest rates of 400% or higher.

Or, maybe they’re lucky and don’t have any negative marks in ChexSystems. Now they can just pay high highly fees to use your Bank of America checking account, because they don’t meet their $2,500 minimum checking account balance. Sure, the fees might only be $12 or $15 per month, but that is a lot when you only make $1,500 a month.

Survival is Your Mindset

When you’re poor, you don’t have the luxury to fantasize about the future. You live in a harsh reality where you don’t know if you’ll be able to put food on your table that night. So how in the world can you start thinking about IRAs and 401(k)s? You don’t have the time or the energy to spend hours reading MMM or Dave Ramsey. Excess time and energy are a luxury. Time and energy are your main currency, you convert that to money at a meager exchange rate.

When you’re poor, you probably don’t know that you can open up a credit union account and pay less (or nothing!) in fees. Hell, most high-income Millennials don’t even know that. Don’t believe me? Just go to r/personalfinance and see how many times that question gets asked in a single day. Or just observe the fact that there are tens of thousands (at least) of personal finance blogs. Why? Because so many people don’t know anything about finance. Why do we gently teach high-income folks, and blame the poor ones?

When you are poor, everything is about the present. Do you have food for tonight? Do you have $7 to put 2 gallons of gas in your car. Because you can’t even remember the last time your car had a full tank of gas. A full tank of gas is a luxury that you cannot afford. You don’t have time to research that if you invest $15 a day, you’ll build a $1,000,000 portfolio by the time you retire, because you are wondering if you have enough gas to get back home. What’s the best case scenario? If you’re poor, you’ll meet a “financial planner” that sells you an expensive whole life insurance policy with the promise of riches.

If you want to find out more about what it is like being poor, here is a Reddit thread (hint: you won’t get any warm fuzzies).

Too Many People Blame the Poor

Poor people need our help, and the personal finance community is perfectly tooled to help out. In fact, I am consistently surprised by the community that I now call home. Yesterday, I posted on Twitter, asking how people were planning on giving to charity in 2018. I was not prepared for the positive responses, and pure generosity of our community.

The tweet had more than 21 replies, broken down into several threads. So many people donate both their time and money to help those in need. Whether its volunteering for your church or a local food bank, to making donations to organizations that help those in need. The wide variety of ways that people in my community help others makes me extremely happy.

Unfortunately, there are some of us that don’t share these opinions, and that’s okay. We don’t have to agree. But what happens when these opinions become increasingly negative? What happens when these people chastise and blame the poor? What happens when these people rob the poor of their own humanity, and reduce them to bad decisions and apathy?

I can’t stand for that. Given how connected we all are with text messaging and social media, I can guarantee you already know somebody like this. Some of these people are in our community, and they are often very vocal.

Overtly Blaming Poor People

I’ve seen too many tweets that overtly blame poor people, and fail to recognize the struggle they go through on a daily basis. So I’ll post some of them. I’ve slightly tweaked the content of these tweets, so you cannot search them and find the original posted. I actually toned them down, these tweets started off much worse.

“95% of poor people are poor because they want to be”

Woah. Pump the brakes. What? 95% of poor people are that way because they choose to be? This isn’t even factually accurate. Let’s think for 1 minute. Would you rather be financially poor, or financially comfortable. Oh, you picked financially comfortable? So did 99% of everyone. This is just a ridiculous, condescending comment.

We just went through 1,000 words that barely tips the iceberg of the struggles that poor people face. Struggles as I understand them, and I’ve never lived in extreme poverty. The closest I came to that was when I was a student. My financial aid + TA job barely covered my $425/month apartment, textbooks, and food. I can guarantee you that I did a piss poor job describing what it is like to be poor, and I already painted a negative picture.

Now just image what being truly poor feels like. Do you really think those people, 95% of them, actually want to be poor? I don’t think so.

Now, this original post didn’t get much attention. However, someone in our community, who we all interact with and is fairly popular, decided to share that tweet. It has since been deleted, although it was there for several days.

“Certainly true in USA, Canada, and Australia! Bar is low in these parts.”

Saying the bar is low in the USA, Canada, and Australia shows a lack of understanding about the struggles that poor people face. Unfortunately, this belief is built on a lie. The lie is “The American Dream.” The American Dream is the belief that anyone, even the poorest of the poor, can make it big and become successful.

Of course, this is technically true. There are thousands, even tens of thousands of poor people who have gone from rags to riches. But there are more than 300 million people in this country. If we want to isolate the group of people that actually went from poor to rich, we are talking numbers so small that you need scientific notation to accurately describe them. Going from rags to riches is the exception, not the rule.

It is this dream that leads to statements like this. I love the fact that people can make it big in America, but it isn’t common, it is extremely rare. So rare as to be effectively negligible. But enough of me talking about it, let’s hear from somebody who actually came from rags, and ended up in riches. Seriously, read that article. It is long, but informative.

Here’s another person that fails to appreciate how difficult it is to save any amount of money and get ahead.

“The bar is low in America. How to be in the top 5%: save/invest half your income, read a book a week, exercise 3x a week.”

That last tweet? It has 103 likes and 50 retweets. If you are reading this, and came from Twitter, I would bet money that you either follow or have interacted with this person. Remember, things seem really easy when you are sitting on a leather couch, typing on your $2,000 computer, and checking snapchats on your $800 cell phone. Let’s break this tweet down piece by piece. Remember, we are interpreting this within the context of “the bar is low in America.”

Save/Invest Half your Income

This just isn’t easy. Period. No if, ands, or buts. Saving half your income isn’t easy. I would wager that not a single person who makes anything less than $50,000 per year can do this. If you make $50,000 per year and pay 0 taxes, that means you need to live on $25,000 per year. Most people just can’t do this. Hell, I lived for free with parents for 4 months last year, and my spending was still a full $10,000 more than this figure. Saving half of your income is impossible except for very high income folks. We can’t call this a low bar.

Read a Book a Week

This one also isn’t easy. I’m an avid reader, but I just don’t have time to read 1 book a week. If the average book is 300 pages, and it takes 2 minutes to read a page, then you need to come up with an extra 10 hours a week to do this. Sure, 10 hours isn’t that much. But if you are poor, you are probably working 60 hours a week across 2 jobs. You might even need to take public transportation to get to the library to check out books. 10 hours can easily become 15 or 20, especially if you aren’t a fast reader.

Exercise 3x a Week

Again, another random metric. Exercising is a privilege. To exercise, you need a gym membership or a home gym. Of course you can get a $10/month gym membership from Planet Fitness. Realize this assumes you can easily get to the gym in the first place. If you need to take the bus to workout, its now going to take 3 hours to workout, or at least 9 a week. Wait, weren’t we supposed to spend an extra 10-15 hours a week reading? Where is all of this tie coming from?

Now, I’m going to be honest. I wholeheartedly agree with the second sentence in the tweet. I believe that if you want to be in the top 95th percentile, save half your income, read 1 book a week, and exercise 3x a week. But seriously, the first part of the tweet is cruel. The first part of the tweet implies that doing everything in the second part of the tweet is easy. It isn’t, not even for people who make $100,000 a year.

Stop Blaming Poor People

Poor people already have a ton of problems. From stressing about having enough money putting food on the table and paying rent on time, to not buying clothes for their kids because there just isn’t enough money. And this isn’t even referencing the impact that additional stress has on the human body. Stress often causes sickness, and I can tell you that poor people don’t have good healthcare plans.

Life is tough. I’d bet dollars to donuts that fewer than 1% of poor people actually want to be poor. Yet, so many people think the opposite. So many people blame them for their situations or trivialize their existence.

This is something that I will never stand for, and this isn’t something that the personal finance community should stand for, either. But we can change this. We can all work to help out.

I have a challenge for you. Let’s all positively contribute to peoples lives. If you were considering donating time or money to those in need, now is the time. If you see people blaming poor people, say something. As a community, we can enact so much positive change to help those in need. Whether it is through direct time or money, or helping to change peoples opinions. We can help, so let’s do it.

Good Hunting, and welcome to 2018
David

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58 Responses

  1. Piggy says:

    Thank you so much for writing such a compassionate truth bomb of an article. Agreed 10000%. Let’s change the narrative about poverty and stop engaging in poor shaming when talking about finance. It’s just ugly and unhelpful.

  2. There’s two sides to this, one of which you clearly don’t see. On the one hand you should never judge others. Some portion of society is poor and you can’t know their circumstances, so judging them is plain wrong.

    On the flip side, poverty can also be a mindset. If an individual views themselves as in a financial situation that’s doomed to failure, they will fail. The general culture in the US, regardless of which social class you reference, is financial self destruction. And in some ways not pointing that out in general does no one any favors.

    I know half a dozen people making multiple six finger incomes that save 0. If they lost their job tomorrow they’d become poor, and a huge driver would be that they didn’t wake up from that self destruction. So in some ways not saying something in general that might change people’s behavior is just as bad. Saying something about a specific individual is wrong.

    • David says:

      Thank you for your comment, FullTimeFinance. I’m extremely lucky to not have a much insight into this topic. I was born and raised in a solidly middle class household. Some years we did very well, other years we did quite poorly. When I applied to college and filled out my FAFSA, my EFC was $0 because of the impact that the Great Recession had on my family.

      I appreciate your view, that poverty is a mindset. It is absolutely, 100% true. How do you think we can help people with a bleak view of their financial future? You said it right, if you believe that you are doomed to fail, then you will fail. How can we change people’s opinions?

      • I was closer to the bottom rung as a kid thanks almost entirely to my parents poor decisions. Sadly now one of my parents by all definitions lives in poverty. In their case they made a good wage when they worked and didn’t save. That’s a story for another day. However, I have no experience with poverty since becoming an adult, so even my own experience is limiting.

        The key for the majority is to focus on fixing the causes, education in general is the key. Education in finance like saving for a rainy day. Education in a field that can help them get a better career. Etcetera. I donate my time and funds heavily to education and employment causes that can help those less fortunate for this reason.

        But, there will be some that even with that education through no fault of their own will stumble. Those who are less fortunate should be helped not judged.

        I view the responses to you via Twitter as an attempt at education rather then a look down their noses. At least I hope so…

        • David says:

          That’s a very good idea. There is so little financial education that children and adults actually receive. The only thing I learned before I had my first job was that the government would take a huge percentage of my salary in the form of taxes. But emergency funds, how credit cards work, debt, credit scores, mortgages, raises, even budgeting, I never learned any of that until I was already employed. Luckily I had a job in software, otherwise I wouldn’t have survived my first year, and would be in a ton of debt.

  3. I wish the bootstrapping mentality would just go away. I think many people can get places in life based on hard work, but the support of others (and not having a system or systems that are built to work against you) is essential.

    • David says:

      Thank you for your comment, Penny. It’s great that we can pull ourselves up by our boot straps. But we need to realize that not everyone can. People have different goal and dreams, different levels of determination, different circumstances and upbringings. Some people are lucky, others aren’t. And so many people resent the poor that can’t succeed, like it is their fault when it isn’t.

  4. Jeannie says:

    Beautifully written. It’s a difficult topic to tackle.
    I also often see moral superiority with having more money or being better with their finances, more common with people I’ve met in real life than in the PF community. But occasionally I sense it in some writing in the community as well.

  5. Matt @ Optimize Your Life says:

    The “poor people deserve to be poor” argument is based on the idea of America as the land of opportunity where anything is possible. It’s based on a belief that anyone born into any station of life has a fair shot at achieving success. It’s based on a lie.

    The number one predictor of whether you will be poor as an adult is whether your parents were poor. The US right now has terrible socioeconomic mobility. We need to be doing more to allow the poor the chance to have their shot at the American dream rather than patting ourselves on the back and looking down on them.

    Thanks for writing this.

    • David says:

      Thank you for your comment, Matt. The socioeconomic mobility really is difficult. The opportunities afforded to affluent children are significant. Starting with affluent babies hearing more words and having more books read to them, all the way to fancy SAT practice courses. If you aren’t extremely intelligent and hard working, the odds are stacked very strongly against you if you are born poor. Doesn’t mean it isn’t possible, just the exception, not the rule.

    • This is what I was going to say. We believe so much is meritocracy that the converse is that poor people are losers. The movement among economic quintiles shows that’s a lie.
      I agree we should help, I think you can start with a friend in a tough place.

      • David says:

        the more we can help out the less privileged, the better our society will be. Even small things can change someone’s life significantly.

  6. Great post. Thank you for your compassionate look at the challenges of living in poverty and of some of the intolerant attitudes that exist within the personal finance community.

    I think one of the things that frustrates me the most about this conversation is that some people equate acknowledging privilege/the challenges of poverty with saying that poor people are doomed and won’t ever benefit from hard work/financial education/etc. I don’t think there’s anyone in the personal finance community who doesn’t think that education and effort can improve most people’s financial situation; those of us (such as yourself) who acknowledge privilege simply recognize that the same amount of education and effort will get some people much further ahead than others.

    • David says:

      Thank you for your comment Solitary Diner. What I notice the most is that people get very defensive when somebody tells them they are privileged. There is nothing inherently wrong with being privileged. The problem arises when somebody who is successful with the help of their privilege forgets where they came from, and then speaks negatively about people who are less successful than them.

  7. Mr Shirts says:

    So many feelings on this and I understand both sides. I primarily write with the hopes of educating anyone who wants to read about personal finance.

    I understand the folks who want to blame the poor in the US. These people won life’s lottery, born in a country that immigrants spend generations to get to then squander that opportunity. I grew up very poor to knucklehead parents and kept this view for a long time.

    It wasn’t until later on I realized that my parents were born into all the privilege in the world (white middle class college educated parents) and squandered it. One out of laziness, the other out of a “victim” mentality, with something always being someone else’s fault. We also have a great social safety net, provided people can get access to it. It still bothers me to see immigrants risking their life to get into this country and people without a physical or mental disability not working.

    Our “poor” in the US are also much better off than the poor in other countries, generally having access to food and housing programs, electricity, and clean running water. I still cringe when I hear someone spouting off “systematic oppression” like we are living under Joseph Stalin. I am and will always believe in the power of capitalism, we have raised the standard of living in the world. People risk their lives to escape Cuba and North Korea every day. Workers risk their lives crossing the deserts in between Texas and Mexico go make it here.

    However, with all that being said, my views have eased over time. I had a human services (emergency assistance) not for profit as a client then joined the board of another once we moved. Board service has put me much closer to this issue.

    Poverty is much more complex, there are still plenty of people who squander opportunities and make terrible spending decisions, but a lot of the poverty is due to real circumstances – Poor parents, lousy education, teen pregnancy, drugs being treated as a criminal issue vs health issue, difficulty accessing government services (our organization specifically provides emergency support trying to get people back up).

    One last thought, no matter what the country had done over the last 50 years, the percentage of people in poverty is still roughly the same. The question becomes how do I support initiatives that will keep people from falling into poverty and what can we do as a personal finance community to effect long term, generational poverty. Freedom of information is powerful, I personally want the personal finance community to about opportunity. Finally, if you aren’t relatable to people (the white male engineer from a college household), go support people who are relatable

    • David says:

      Thank you for your comment, Mr Shirts. You’re right, poverty is a very complex topic. There will always people, rich and poor, who squander their good fortune. And there will always be people, rich and poor, who work very hard and become successful. And there are still hundreds of millions of people inbetween. In America, it is fairly easy to survive, with an abundance of reasonably cheap food. But America was never meant to be a place where people just survive, it is a place where we should aim to thrive and do the best that we can. That means working hard in our own lives, and helping to lift up others that are less fortunate than ourselves.

  8. Great post. This is a very difficult subject. I don’t think that most people choose to be poor, but the reality is one of the strongest indicators of success is the environment a person grows up in. It can be really tough to make the leap from poor to middle class or rich. I have made giving a big part of my financial roadmap going forward. It’s the least those of us more fortunate can do to help others.

    • David says:

      Thank you for your comment, FinancialPilgrimage. Seriously, this is a difficult topic. I don’t remember who posted it, but something like 8% of people born in poverty in the USA make it to the top quintile of the economy. I realized that I can do more, and giving is now a large part of my financial roadmap as well.

      Thank you, and let’s do some good.

  9. LF Tommy says:

    I want to thank you for writing such a compelling and well thought out post. Society loves to generalize based on limited bad examples. I always say I grew up low income. That’s because we were much poorer than my peers but we always understood there were people who were far poorer than we were and I couldn’t bring myself to say we were poor. I know the hardships of being poor where moldy bread and cheese means most of it is still edible and although some escape poverty through luck and fortune, poverty is a something that can become a generational trap. Compassion seems to be in short supply politically and culturally in some places. I applaud your post and hope everyone will step back and take the time to understand that most of the poor didn’t do something to deserve poverty and nobody wants to live in poverty. I pray that people will think about what they can do to help and above all get involved in supporting social issues around poverty that needs address.

    • David says:

      Thank you for commenting, LF Tommy. This was a really difficult post for me to write, thank you for giving us your story. I really appreciate hearing from other people whose experiences are different than my own, so thank you.

  10. Well written and compelling stuff, David. I kind of hate the privileged opinions that permeate personal finance, and FIRE in particular. The success narrative seems nearly universal (“Do these things and you’ll get these results!” “If I did it, anyone can do it!”).

    I suppose I see where people are coming from: success really is often result of your efforts, sure. But so many of us are starting from a kind of crazy advantage (“Hey, look at that, I’m a male who grew up in middle class America and, shit, look at that, I’m white, too. And hey, I started hearing about early retirement through frugality after already earning a big ass income, isn’t that nice?) — those initial advantages rarely gets acknowledged in this success narrative.

    • David says:

      Thank you for commenting, Done by Forty. I see those statements all the time, sometimes coming from myself. If you just do these things, you’ll be successful! But it’s never that easy, there is always hard work, sacrifice, and a ton of luck involved. We have a massive survivor bias

  11. JoeTaxpayer says:

    “Minimum wage workers should go get an education, and a better job.”

    This is one I see all the time. And I wonder how they expect a couple already working 120 hrs/week combined to pay rent and put food on the table would find the time and money to pay for such schooling.

    One of the solutions is a higher minimum wage. I’m sure you’ve seen the #FightFor15 hashtag. This would go a long way to improve the lives of millions of families, and at the same time reducing reliance on government handouts. If you follow the money, the taxpayer is supporting large corporations by subsidizing the underpaid worker. A good wage would result in the slightest increase in some products, but far less than what we pay now.

    • David says:

      Thanks for your comment, Joe. I’ve definitely heard that before, and I’m a huge proponent of paying people a livable wage, and the current minimum wage doesn’t cut it. But we already see the signs of what happens when workers get too expensive. Every damn grocery store buys those stupid self checkout lanes, and they suck. But they are cheaper than people over time, so that is what businesses decide.

      We need to start educating children better from a younger age. You can’t effectively educate somebody when they are working 120 hrs/week, it just isn’t possible.

  12. Wealth Rehab says:

    Good stuff David. The collective generosity of the PF community can really make a difference for our neighbors struggling through poverty. My motto is this: earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can. Thanks again for this post.

  13. melaniepartnersinfirecom says:

    This was a great article. Thanks for writing it. I think the idea that America is the land of opportunity and everyone can be rich if they just tried hard enough was the greatest scam ever sold to a population. The poor blame themselves for their situation rather than revolting. The middle & upper classes blame the poor “they should’ve just worked harder” and ignore all the systems that helped them get ahead while keeping the poor down. Middle class families constantly vote to keep low cost apartments out of their neighborhoods. They don’t want affordable housing to lower their property values. They resist any city measures to diversify and integrate schools. They don’t want their child’s education that their property taxes paid for to be disrupted by a poor kid. Stuff like this happens all the time. And it’s way easier to blame the poor for being poor than to take a look at our own actions and realize we contribute to the problem.

    • David says:

      Thanks for your comment, Melanie. Definitely agree with a lot of these points. Places like SF continue to vote to not allow more low income housing, which is desperately needed. So many factors make being poor, and simply surviving, terribly difficult

  14. Laine at The Green Purpose says:

    It can be a sad, vicious circle. Those of us that were lucky to be raised in at least middle class families very likely had parents to teach us the importance of education and finances and pointed us down the standard path of success: do well in school, get into college, get a job. Even those that were given this sometimes fall and end up back at home. But for them it’s ok to fail because your family is behind you.

    What about the kids that never had that guidance? Didn’t have parents that taught them they had to go to school and study? How are they supposed to learn? Yes, some eventually will as adults but that means they just started that much further back than the other kids that had it all along. People need to have more compassion. What seems “obvious” and “second nature” to some is only so because someone took the time to teach you. Not everyone is lucky enough for that.

    • David says:

      Thank you for commenting, Laine. Very good points. There are plenty of kids that don’t have guidance that will help them in life. Hard work can only go so far, at some point you need help.

  15. othalafehu says:

    I will try to keep this short, but it is your fault for writing too good a post. I have had the benefit of seeing both side of the fence. I started out suburban middle class until age 12 and then divorce left me poor very quick. I am one of those bootstrap kids. I made something of myself by sheer force of will or at least I like it when people around me tell me that. The truth is far more complicated. I had no support from a parent and was rather feral moving up the ranks of undergraduate, law school, and the legal field. But I know that is not solely because of my willpower or talent. I had a very good public school system. I paid little to no money to go to college. I joined the military to get even more advantages, and I had a fundamental understanding of HOW to get out of poverty because of the expectations and information passed on to me during my more affluent childhood. We all are products of our environments to some extent. But you can not simply want to get out of poverty, you also have to overcome the initial ignorance that also comes along with it. If you do not have parents, friends, or institutions that will shoe you this path you have far less of a chance to ever leave poverty behind you. I will chop this up with another comment next.

  16. othalafehu says:

    The other part of this equation for getting out of poverty always involves some piece of luck. Usually this is in the form of somebody giving a shit about you. Sometimes that is a teacher, or a cop, or a social worker, or a boss. We are a community and until more people realize that we are in this together and that we do not rise and fall completely of our own accord, we will always have poverty. I blog anonymously, but I can say this. There are many cogs in the system who hold power in their everyday lives over people they do not know. Those positions have to be filled with people who are compassionate about others circumstances. I was a prosecutor for a long time and was offended often by people ruining lives of other people at the drop of a hat without any thought as to why someone would make the stupid decision that they made. I never went in for the big lawyer money. I sit everyday on the other side of the bench making decisions that effect poor people in drastic ways and feel it is part of my job to periodically be that one guy that gave some kid a break rather than breaking them.

    • David says:

      Thank you for commenting, Othalafehu. Thank you for sharing your story. You’ve done some really great things, don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. Something you said really resonated with me. “There are many cogs in the system who hold power in their everyday lives over people they do not know.” You are totally right. In your life, you chose to help out the disadvantaged and provide a real service to our society at large, so I thank you for it. If we had a few more people like you, the world would be a much better place.

  17. Well said David. Poverty is incredibly hard to break out of. I’ve never tasted poverty (a bit like you, the closest I came was a few years as a grad student on $30k a year) but from the few friends I have who grew up truely poor I’ve realised a few things – they work their arses off, they’ve sacrificed a ton, and poverty like that is generational. In the sense that they will find it possible in their lives to have a roughly middle class life by their 50’s – after tons of work and sacrifice, but it’s their children or their children’s children who will have an opportunity to become comfortable/wealthy on a more equal playing field. They have experienced the world in a way I hope I’ll never truly have to understand.

    • David says:

      Thank you for your comment, wealthfromthirty. I also noticed the same thing. You can work just as hard as somebody else, but be in an entirely different financial situation. And you can work as hard as possible and become successful in your 50s which is a great thing because you’ve created opportunity for your children if you decide to have them.

      But breaking out of that initial socioeconomic class is really tough, even with hard work and perseverance.

  18. It is a thought provoking post. Raised in a middle class family and having seen utter desperate poverty all around (I have lived all my life in India) the one thing I try to do when I see the poor is feel greatful. When you are in the pits of that kind of poverty, it is not easy to dig yourself out irrespective of financial education. There is a basic threshold of earning that even the poor would need to climb out.

    As far as “poverty is a mindset” is concerned, that I think holds true for people who are able to get enough cash inflow but are voluntarily living paycheck-to-paycheck. Statements like “they are poor because they want to be” might apply to the unconventionally poor with enough outward appearance to not look it.

    • David says:

      Thank you for your comment, Aparna. I definitely feel grateful for my situation when I see others struggling through poverty. I know how hard it is for me to push forward, and I’ve got it much easier than most.

  19. Lord, YES. See also:
    https://whatever.scalzi.com/2005/09/03/being-poor/

    (Especially the comments on the Scalzi piece. Read ’em and weep. Because you will.)

    Touched on this myself in a post on my own site. An excerpt:

    “Our country is in love with the idea of the self-made man, the self-starter who sees what needs to be done and does it in the face of tremendous odds. Sometimes that still happens.

    “But by and large these myths are just that: fairy tales. We applaud them the way we applaud to keep Tinkerbell from dying. We want to believe. If we acknowledged that Horatio Alger stories are fiction, then a little part of our nation’s self-reliant, can-do spirit might die, too.

    “We might have to acknowledge that maybe we didn’t do it all on our own, that Lady Liberty’s lamp has gone out and that the Golden Door actually remains stubbornly closed to a whole group of people.

    “Worse, we’d have to acknowledge that layoff, accident or illness could one day put us on the other side of that door.”

    (That link, if it’s kosher to include, is http://donnafreedman.com/if-youre-so-smart-why-arent-you-rich/)

    • othalafehu says:

      I love John Scalzi, his Old Man’s War is awesome, thanks for this link.

    • David says:

      Thank you for your comment, Donna. It’s late here, but I’ll definitely check it out tomorrow. Having that positive mindset is very important because it helps us be more than we think we can. But it is sold almost as a… guarantee? That isn’t quite the right word. But people expect prosperity as the result of their hard work, when nothing is ever guaranteed, and the odds are almost always against you.

  20. SherryH says:

    David, well said. One reason it’s easy to blame the poor is that poor people “make poor financial decisions.” And many do. But one reason poor people are perceived as making poor decisions is that financial strategies that work well with a decent–or even a reliable–income stream aren’t always as effective with a very small or spotty one. If you receive a sudden windfall, your first instinct might be to sock it away in savings. But if you’re dead broke, it’s likely to get frittered away over frivoloties like car repairs and replacing the shoes whose soles you’ve walked through and propping up the food budget that week your paycheck is short. So from a certain perspective it makes sense to blow that windfall on getting the washer fixed so you can stop going to the laundromat, buying a slow cooker so in the long run you can cook better meals at home, or even taking the family out to dinner because it’s someone’s birthday and when are you going to get the chance again?

    Another example: Start a side hustle. Grow a garden. Learn a new skill. All good strategies, all potentially helpful. But there are only so many hours and only so much energy to go around. And if poverty is expensive, it’s also a huge time suck and can be physically and emotionally draining.

    I heartily second Donna’s recommendation of John Scalzi’s post, and he did a follow-up, ten years on, I think, which is also great reading. In one of those posts, or possibly the comments: “Anyone can get out of poverty. But *everyone* can’t get out of poverty.” I may misremember the exact wording, but the truth has stuck with me. That’s because systemic factors such as low wages, income inequality and even poor financial literacy play their roles as well–something I don’t think enough people, particularly people who’ve never been truly poor, pay enough attention to.

    I don’t know what the answers are. Good financial advice, financial literacy, hard work and luck are all necessary–but without getting at the root causes of poverty, I don’t think they’re sufficient. I do know that blaming the poor isn’t going to help.

    • David says:

      Thank you for your comment, Sherry. I think that is part of a superiority complex. Money is something everybody interacts with, so it is easy to relate. But even if you have two people who are both relatively successful, if someone does better, irrespective of their absolute success, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is shaming between the more and less successful person.

  21. Thank you for this post. ” If you were considering donating time or money to those in need, now is the time.” OK. I’m on it!

  22. This post needs to be shared again and again and again. Hard work and drive do a hell of a lot, but you have to get out of the starting gates first.

  23. jasonedwards57 says:

    You are definitely right we do blame them too much. But the answer is power. Poor people don’t have a lot of power. You don’t see reporters talking about the poor unless it is a crime, some kind of incident involving weather, etc. When they interview people for a segment it is usually middle-class and up. Poor people have little purchasing power so the politicians don’t pander to them. It really, in some respects, come down to power. How do they increase their power? Well, I think part of it is banding together and realizing where they are at. However, there are lots of poor people who vote against their interests because of larger identity concerns or don’t think of themselves as poor. I am not sure this would/will change. And if we have a market downturn poor people get blamed even more.

    • David says:

      Thank you for your comment, Jason. Power is definitely something that poor people lack when compared to the more affluent. And with Citizens United, corporations wield so much more power than even affluent Americans. The more we can band together and elect people who want to help, the better things will be. Unfortunately, we haven’t been doing a ton of this. Voting is power

  24. Thank you for writing this important post! I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve written. People living in poverty may make poor financial decisions, but there are often reasons for that. I read an article just the other day explaining how financial stress overloads the brain in such a way that makes it difficult to make good decisions and what one non-profit was doing to help with that issue. You also touched on several other issues that make climbing out of poverty difficult, and to add to that, many people have significant healthcare costs holding them down as well. Instead of judging the poor, we should all be finding ways to help. I’m glad you had the courage to publish this post.

    • David says:

      Thank you for commenting, Gary. This doesn’t even just affect people in poverty, it affects stressed out people. We can say the same thing about people who suffer from anxiety and depression. Their thought processes are already so warped, that their capability for making calm, rational decisions is significantly diminished. The more we can help people, the better

  25. You’re right about almost everything in this post except for one thing: Poor people *don’t* usually go to multiple stores to find the best prices. They often don’t have the time and/or can’t afford the gas to do so. In fact, a fair chunk of the poor are trapped in food deserts, areas where you don’t have grocery stores nearby. Instead, they’re stuck with bodegas and convenience stores, which have inflated prices and little to no fruit, veggies or other healthy alternatives. Yet another reason why it’s infuriating when people blame the poor for not eating more healthily.

    • David says:

      Thank you for commenting. I can’t admit that I have all of the data, just my experiences. I’ve always lived in pretty urban environments with good public transportation, so I know that, at least in those areas, people would go to multiple stores based on the price.

      I’ve also heard about the food deserts, where people are forced to pay higher prices for the same food that more affluent enjoy. In fact, I vaguely remember reading that food costs in affluent neighborhoods are much lower, because those people have time to kill on the weekend and will drive to the cheapest areas.

      Either way, its much harder for the poor to get high quality food at a reasonable price, or even the prices that a lot of us enjoy. Let’s hope that Aldi continues to be successful and moves into poverty stricken areas.

      • My high school was located in a food desert. The closest grocery store even now is 1.2 miles away (food desert is defined as having no car and no grocery store within 1 mile). A lot of people at my school had to get their groceries from quick marts and dollar stores, which meant very little fresh food and often higher prices. Many ended up getting their food from places like McDonald’s instead, so not only was it more expensive, it was also less healthy. So now you’ve compounded the problem by charging poor people more money for worse product. Crazy how it works out.

        • David says:

          The number of ways poor people get screwed is astounding. Too poor to afford a car? Now you’ve got to walk to your local grocery store. Oh, can’t walk 2 miles there and back to the cheap grocery store? Now you’ve gotta go to CVS, 7-Eleven, and the dollar store, where food is more expensive and less healthy. And then you have poor people with higher rates of obesity because they don’t have access to healthy food, and then health effects start compounding. And guess what? They don’t have quality healthcare either.

          And at the end of the day? We say it’s their fault they’re poor, and then elect people to government that want to cut benefits and programs that keep their children from being hungry.

  26. zeejaythorne says:

    I experienced dire poverty in the US. It was not because I wanted it. I am lucky that I was able to get out. Most people aren’t. Think about the people in Flint, MI (and many other towns) whose very water was destroyed by forces outside of their control. If you were even lucky enough to own a home, you cannot sell it now to get out because you can’t sell a home with a known lead issue without abating it. Abating it costs $$$$. And you and your children now have lead poisoning. That diminishes your brain’s capacity.

    There are whole communities that were red-lined out of receiving basic government services. The white half of a rural community gets sewage treatment, but magically the black half does not.

    Meritocracy is a myth. A pervasive myth, but a myth. Poverty is real in the US. Poverty kills in the US. It can also kill the spirit.

    • David says:

      Your family’s financial status is the strongest indicator of what your financial status will be. It is so hard to get ahead. The number of people who actually break out is negligible at best.

      • zeejaythorne says:

        Super negligible. And you always fear you’ll fall back to your family’s state. Since you don’t have a safety net and have to learn to navigate other class’ waters without a guide. It is hard.

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