Poverty: Whose Fault Is It Anyway?

Dave Ramsey, in a post script to one of his blog posts, writes:

Basically speaking, poverty is caused and perpetuated primarily by some combination of three things:

1) Personal habits, choices and character;
2) Oppression by people taking advantage of the poor;
3) The myriad of problems encountered if born in a third-world economy.

While I don’t disagree with the fact that the three factors listed, I will point out that Dave Ramsey is not an expert on poverty, he’s an expert on wealth. If “expert” is the right word — he knows what’s made him rich, certainly, and he knows that others can become rich by taking these same actions. But that doesn’t mean that the actions he’s taken to become rich are even possible for someone else to take (they aren’t, at least in my case), nor has he explored the option that his way is not the only way to become rich.

The above list displays his lack of knowledge of poverty and the causes of it. Without even thinking hard, I can add the following:

    4)Discrimination due to age, gender, sexual orientation, the colour of your skin, and your faith background (Dave doesn’t realize that coming from the dominant group in ALL of these has given him advantages that many of us can only dream of)

    5) Exploitation — of the poor by the rich, certainly, but also of natural resources and the environment by those who take the profits and leave behind the mess for the locals to deal with

    6) Legal barriers — it was only at the end of the last century that women were legally allowed to sign papers on their own behalf if they were married, or open bank accounts. Even today, in the United States of America, certain classes of people (eg. those who are legally married) have economic advantages (like health insurance, tax breaks, etc.) that are not available to other couples

    7) Homelessness. Even apart from all other factors, someone who is precariously housed or not housed at all will find it nearly impossible to get themselves out of poverty. How can you even start to look for a job if you can’t take a daily shower, wash your clothes, sleep soundly because you feel safe, cook yourself a nourishing meal?

    8) Natural disasters. And not just in “third world” countries, either. (I hate that term — we all live in the same world!) What about the people of New Orleans? How many of them are still struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, eight years ago?

    9) Repressive and punitive social welfare programs. If you’ve never been a recipient of social assistance, it’s eye opening to find out just how poorly recipients are treated. Social assistance of any kind is a trap, and every effort you make to better yourself is scrutinized, with the sole aim, not of helping you escape poverty, but of cutting off your benefits. While getting folks off assistance is, of course, the hope of every poverty advocate, cutting someone off of assistance because they’ve found a part time minimum wage job is a little like sending a schoolchild off to work because they can already read. They’re nowhere near ready, and it causes regression back to assistance, or worse.

    10) Physical, intellectual, or social disabilities. As a mother of a son who has severe autism, I resent the implication from some that every person with a disability can overcome it and lead a productive life like the rest of us. The truth is somewhat less rosy: my son Robin and his cohorts (who have a variety of conditions, including but not limited to autism, Downs’ Syndrome, and various severe physical disabilities) will NEVER be able to participate fully in the lives of our communities without a very great amount of assistance from those of us with less severe disabilities. (Because we all have SOME sort of disability…)

    11) The biggy: Mental health issues. Almost all homeless people, and a very large number of social assistance recipients have either unaddressed or inadequately treated mental health issues. Unless the illnesses are treated, the poor person will almost always remain poor. Very often these folks are seen to belong to Ramsey’s first category, that of those whose “personal habits, choices and character” cause them to be poor. They’re called lazy or worse, and consigned to the garbage heap of humanity by those with adequate mental faculties.

It also needs to be said that the “research” that comprised the basis for Ramsey’s post was done by Tom Corely, whose bio reads:

“For five years, Tom studied the daily activities of 233 wealthy people and 128 people living in poverty. He discovered there is a difference the size of the Grand Canyon between the daily habits of the wealthy and the poor. During his research he identified over 200 daily activities that separated the “haves” from the “have nots”. “

What Tom Corley obviously is not is a scientist, because anyone familiar with research procedures can tell you that all Tom found were differences in what rich people do and what poor people do. For those of you unfamiliar with scientific research, the applicable caveat here is “Correlation does not equal causation.”

In this case, it means that the poor person’s habits may be causing them to be poor, or they may be a result of the fact that they’re poor. Or they may in fact have nothing at all to do with the poverty, but be the result of an unidentified factor like, say, family background.

For example, it’s easy to believe that being prepared creates luck if you’ve been lucky. We all like to attribute our successes to our own efforts, don’t we? And since the rich have more likely been lucky (everyone loves a rich person!), they attribute the luck to their own efforts, and not to the attraction their riches hold for others.

I don’t disagree with the statement that some poor people have habits that are keeping them in poverty, whilst rich people seldom have these habits. I don’t disagree with the belief that cultivating these habits will help you have a more meaningful and financially balanced life.

But individual causes of poverty are only one out of eleven factors (or more — as I said, this list is not the result of exhaustive research, but only something I was able to write in half an hour or so) that can cause a person to be in poverty, or to have more difficulty in raising themselves out of poverty.

Some of those who have become rich through hard work (though not nearly as hard work as a young girl in sub-Sahara Africa who might have to spend six or more hours a day fetching enough water for her family to drink) might be prone to forget that not everyone has the advantages they have taken for granted. Or they may drastically underestimate the number of people who are so disadvantaged that they need intensive help even to start to pull themselves out of poverty.

I understand this, because at times, I make this very mistake. I look with pride on the progress I’ve made in cleaning up my life, and forget that I have a healthy body, a relatively healthy mind (obtained through years of therapy and intentional work on my part), and a superior education. I have friends, and not all of them (or even most of them) are poor.

I really am poor due, in large part, to my own lack of financial self-control.

I celebrate the fact that I have the will and the means to dig myself out of the hole I’ve dug, and I’m eager to work with those, like me, who are both willing and able to change their lives and get out of poverty.

But at the same time, I hope I will remain compassionate to those, who through no fault of their own, will always be poor.

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About Ruth Cooke

Ruth Cooke B.A, M.Div., MPS is a writer, public speaker, and itinerant preacher whose areas of expertise and interest include poverty issues and solutions, parenting exceptional children, sexual orientation, and the place of religious institutions in society. If you would like Ruth to come preach, speak or lead a class or group, please contact her via email.
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