Poverty is NOT a Disease

Mon, Aug 29, 2011

income, poverty, rant

Warning: This post is super duper long. If you have plans for today, you might want to bookmark for later.

A few days ago, I read a post over at Gen Y Wealth that really got me fired up. While I have a ton of respect for RJ, the blogger behind Gen Y Wealth, I nearly blew a gasket when I read the intro to his post about cause and effect. I’m pretty sure I can talk about it now while maintaining my blood pressure, but I can’t make any promises. The post began with this:

Imagine being poor was a disease. Something your doctor diagnosed you with.

The symptoms of poorness would include lack of money, no ambition, and the inability to learn new things.

When you have a disease, your goal isn’t to eliminate the symptoms by taking a pill. If that’s all you did, you would still have the disease. Your goal is to eliminate the disease itself.

In order to get rid of poorness, you need to attack its root cause– the hundreds of choices you make on a daily basis.

The highlighting is mine - that’s the part that has me so upset. Was this a Freudian slip? An oversight of some sort? Or does RJ really equate poverty with being lazy and stupid?

Let’s pretend for a minute that poverty is a disease. Poverty is defined as the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support. So if I catch poverty from someone (makes me think of the cheese touch on Diary of a Wimpy Kid), I suddenly don’t have enough of anything. No money, no stuff, no way to maintain any quality of life.

Now just where in the HELL does the definition of poverty tell us that its disease form would cause me to lose brain cells and become a lazy bum?

The Progression of my Disease

When I was a teenager, my dad made $15 an hour. That wasn’t much for a family of four. My parents made excellent financial decisions, but we were still poor on paper. At the time, my dad always worked at least one side job to make ends meet. He did a lot of research and built a house himself to save money. He has always worked 10+ hours a day to take care of his family. How was he lazy? How was he stupid? My dad is an engineer. He’s one of the smartest, most ambitious people I know. He might have had the poverty disease in the past, but he’s completely healthy now.

My ex and I made $19,000 the first year we were married. For a family of three in 2002, that was considered poor. My son received Medicaid and I’m sure we would have qualified for food stamps if we had applied for them. My ex was working as a state government employee (he was promoted to supervisor in 2003) and I was attending full time classes for my bachelor’s degree. How were we lazy? How were we stupid? At that point in our lives, we had definitely caught the poverty disease, but we managed to put it into remission.

When I got divorced, I was making less than $36,000 per year. While that doesn’t fit the federal definition of “poor,” it still isn’t much money. Add in utilities, debt, $50k in student loans, and day to day living expenses, and there wasn’t a whole lot left over. Yet I have a master’s degree, a professional career, and I took on a second job to increase my income. How was I lazy? How was I stupid? I had a poverty relapse - but the disease still didn’t get the best of me.

Maybe I Misunderstood?

I really think RJ was referring to generational poverty in his post. This is a concept I studied extensively in graduate school. Some people, after being raised poor, remain poor in adulthood and raise children who grow up to be poor. This cycle can be very difficult to break.

Having worked with families where generational poverty exists, I can tell you a few things about their way of life.

Imagine growing up without seeing a single member of your family get up and go to work every day. Your parents draw SSI/disability. You and your siblings may also receive an SSI check each month. You depend on food stamps and other government benefits to survive. Your neighbors live the same way. Other than your teachers at school, you never interact with people who live any differently than you do. Your grandparents don’t work. Your friends’ parents don’t work.

How do you learn what it means to go to work? How do you know that you’re supposed to grow up, go to college, and get a job? You don’t. Unless someone intervenes, children who grow up in the cycle of poverty may never break out of the cycle. But it’s NOT because they’re lazy and have no ambition.

People living in generational poverty are some of the smartest, most resourceful people I’ve ever met. They know every possible way to survive on next to nothing. They will go to extraordinary lengths to provide for their families, taking on odd jobs that many of us would refuse. They know exactly who to contact in the maze of county/city/state government agencies to resolve an issue. They rely on family and friends to help meet their needs. And they aren’t afraid to speak up when something is unjust. People who grow up poor usually don’t plan to stay that way - they just may not know how to get out. Not because they’re dumb, but because they aren’t sure where to start.

Choices DO Matter

RJ is right when he says our choices affect our ability to shake off poverty. I chose to go to college. I chose to go to grad school. I chose to change jobs in early August. All of these things affect my ability to earn money. But if I had made different choices, that doesn’t automatically mean that I have some kind of disease and need to see a doctor.

Middle class people often try to project our values onto the poor. Since we were taught that we should work hard and be self-sufficient, we think everyone else should, too. We look down on people who don’t live their lives exactly the way we do. We may call them lazy or stupid. We may feel better about ourselves when we insult them.

I may not personally understand someone whose ambition in life is simply to raise their kids, stay out of legal trouble, and just make it until they die. But does that mean those ambitions aren’t worthy? I want more than that for myself, but is there automatically something wrong with someone who wants different things?

Everyone struggles on his/her own level. My challenges may be increasing my income and balancing life with work. Someone else’s challenges may be putting dinner on the table tonight and finding shoes for their child to wear to school next week. But that person is still making an effort. Still trying. Still working, though maybe in a way that doesn’t guarantee 26 paychecks a year. It doesn’t make a person stupid or lazy to struggle with something that comes easily to me or you.

Poverty is NOT a disease.

For much of this post, I have discussed poverty as if it were a disease. Something you can catch, then later recover from. And while it is entirely possible to move out of poverty (I’ve done it at least three times in my life, as I discussed above), calling it a disease is just an excuse to treat poor people like crap.

Diseases are undesirable. We immunize our children to keep them from getting things like polio. We wash our hands and carry around little bottles of hand sanitizer so we don’t contract any germs or illnesses. We spend millions of dollars researching cures for cancer and AIDS. Why? Because we don’t want those things. And I totally understand, because I don’t either.

Poverty is also undesirable. So often, though, we don’t talk about eradicating poverty because we want everyone to have enough and be equal. We talk about it because we want poor people to go away. We stereotype them as lazy, unable to learn new things, maybe dirty and untrustworthy. Throw in a few more negative adjectives if you want. We warn people - OMG, make good choices so you don’t end up like THEM. Well maybe if we took a fraction of the energy we spend talking smack about the poor and used it to get to know a poor person, or help them out, we wouldn’t have to worry about it because poverty wouldn’t exist.

No one chooses to be poor. Just like no one chooses to have a disease like cancer. People may make choices that RESULT in poverty, just like smoking can result in cancer, but people also become poor or sick in ways that have nothing to do with choice. And even the people who made poor choices didn’t do it on purpose. As a smoker, I could be diagnosed with lung cancer someday. And if that happens, I’ll acknowledge that my choice to smoke resulted in my diagnosis. But that doesn’t mean I smoke because I want to have cancer someday.

You know what disease I think is really at work here? The disease that permeates RJ’s post on Gen Y Wealth, trying to infect as many people as it can? Bigotry.

23 Responses to “Poverty is NOT a Disease”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I just read RJ's post (don't know him, never been to the site before) and I don't think his metaphor extended as deep as you've interpreted it, though you do make some really good points here. I think all he meant was that poverty isn't solved by fixing the outward signs, just like a disease isn't cured by fixing the symptoms.

    I would argue, however, that choosing an action when the likely consequence is known is essentially the same as choosing the consequence. If I'm a student and I know not turning in an assignment will cause me to fail the class, if I don't turn in the assignment, I'm choosing to fail the class.

    Your points about children in poverty not knowing there are any other options are right on point, though.

    • I understand what you're saying. I didn't take issue with the entire post; just the stereotype that poor people lack ambition and the ability to learn new things. While those things may be true for some people, I think it's dangerous to state that all poor people are dumb and lazy.

  2. JT says:

    Extreme couponing is a great example of generational poverty.   Round trip, most seem to save roughly $10/hr when you count their REAL savings, not just the stuff they buy because it's free, or even negative in cost.  It seems everyone on the show has a story about being poor as a child.  I remember two bankers who were extreme couponers.  After running the math on their 20hrs they dedicated to EC, they' save something like $15 an hour, which, after adjusting for the tax-free benefits of saving money, is like $20 an hour or less.  Something tells me banking pays more…What about this statement?"I may not personally understand someone whose ambition in life is simply to raise their kids, stay out of legal trouble, and just make it until they die. But does that mean those ambitions aren’t worthy? I want more than that for myself, but is there automatically something wrong with someone who wants different things?"Is it wrong that their actions are afforded by your hard work?  If you were to go canoeing, would you be happy being partners with someone who didn't want to row, even though you did?I don't think RJ is a bigot for saying what he said.  Not even close.  In most cases, poverty is a result of decisions.  As an example, everyone likes to discuss health as it relates to wealth.  The favorite statistic of many is that health care creates more bankruptcies than any other product or service.Does that mean that health care is broken?  Couldn't it just be that most people aren't in good financial shape BEFORE a health care related event?  A $5 Big Mac doesn't push people into bankruptcy because it can be avoided, and because it's a really small cost.  Health care is both expensive and necessary, and thus a service purchased regardless of your financial condition.
    I watch people make really bad decisions everyday.  They should have the freedom to make these bad decisions.  I should have the freedom not to subsidize those decisions.  

    • Personally, I don't get too upset about where my taxes go and whether people are deserving of government assistance. I know a lot of people are very bothered by those issues, and I can understand it to an extent; it's just not the way I look at it.

      With your canoeing example, I don't really mind if the other person doesn't help. If I want to get somewhere bad enough, I'll do the work it takes to get there. Some will say it's unfair that the other person gets to the destination without putting in the same effort as me - that may be true. But what if that person has no arms? Should they still be expected to work as hard as I do? Someone may lack the tools, but that doesn't mean they don't have a desire or enough intelligence to row a boat. That's the point I was trying to make. (I LOVE metaphors!)

      I won't say much more since I'm sure you're jealous of my paragraph breaks, but I do appreciate your opinions as always. I enjoy hearing how people think and feel about certain issues, especially when they disagree. :)

      • JT says:

        Money is only part of it.  Honestly, I don't earn enough to seriously gripe enough about taxes.  I'll give you another example of socializing costs, though.  

        Each month I spend 1hr-1h30m to go to the doctor and back to get a prescription because some people, not me, abuse it.  Every few months I (plus the people on our group insurance) spend $140 so that the doctor can spend 5 minutes with me to tell me I'm not a drug addict.  Add it up and you get $140×4=$560 plus 18 hours of my time each year just to protect other people (who still find ways to get prescription drugs) from drug abuse.

        Why is my time wasted for the poor decisions of others?  Should I accept that I should expend my time to protect other people who cannot protect themselves from their own decisions?

  3. Carla says:

    I agree especially with your "choices do matter", which to me means that if you *choose* to not work & go on welfare, food stamps, and whatever else is out there (there are many resources out there) you choose to live at a lower income level, same as choosing whether or not to smoke. You may not *choose* to get cancer, but most smokers will get cancer or other serious smoking related diseases. Life is all about choices, for better or for worse.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I guess what I will add is that I agree with you ( though I have not read the article that you spoke of). In my life, both personal and professional it has been and continues to be a struggle to get people to really understand poverty and those issues that affect low income families………….and JT as for your comment (and maybe I have misunderstood, but I don't think so) that poverty is usually the result of decisions, is just flat out wrong and from the same way of thinking that says if you are poor/ on some sort of assistance then you are lazy/greedy/ don't want to work….Even more comments coming in with the same mindset….I continue to shake my head and am even more committed to working to promote better understanding…….sheesh

  5. Anonymous says:

    I find the statement that "most cases of poverty are the result of decisions" flat out wrong because:  what I'm hearing is that he believes that individuals and families got in their situations as a result of some "decision" that they made and that factors other than that do not come into play like race, gender, age, stereotypes,discrimination, punitive policies for the poor, and the undying belief that if you work hard enough you can achieve some sort of American "dream".   Recognizing that there is more to one's "personal responsibility"  as a factor to living in poverty is a huge if you want to address any of these issues in a fair and productive way.

    • Kay, I think you may be my new BFF. Not just because you agree with my point of view, but because you look at poverty through the same lens. If only it were as simple as making a decision…. If that was true, I would decide to be a billionaire - forget working for a living!

      I am a firm believer that hard work pays off. But I also say that as a white, middle class, college educated 20-something who has had a ton of advantages in life. I've made some absurd choices, but had lots of help and support to fix my mistakes. Where would I be if I grew up in a family who couldn't offer that kind of help? Probably collecting welfare and working for minimum wage. Not because I'm not capable - obviously I've proven that I am - but because of the circumstances.

      Part of me is glad that so few people understand poverty. It likely means they have never been there, and hopefully they never will. But until more people truly understand it, I don't know how we as a society can fight it.

  6. Frugalforties says:

    A few months ago there was a Yakizie blog swap post about what various bloggers would do if they found themselves homeless. I was so angry at the series of posts that resulted from that "exercise" that I almost fired off a post of my own about it. Eventually I decided to sit on my hands and breathe for a little. I may still post about it, but only when I know I can do so w/out blasting anyone.

    This:  "as a white, middle class, college educated 20-something who has had a ton of advantages in life" is the whole problem. Very few people see or acknolwedge that they have a ton of advantages. They completely and totally fail to understand that what they take for granted is not commonplace to those in poverty. I got into a blog argument one time with someone who said they didn't understand why a "poor person" wouldn't have access to a bank just like everyone else. He couldn't comprehend that there might not be a bank that was open, safe, and accessible by public transport - or that someone in poverty might fear putting their money in a bank (in the hands of some unknown middle class white person who might do anything with it) and find it safer to squirrel it away or even to spend it.

    I'm so sick of seeing white men (and women to some degree) talk about solving the poverty problem by "working hard" and makign the "right decisions".

    • Good point re: banks. Many of my clients don't use a bank because (1) they don't trust them, (2) they can't due to something negative on their ChexSystem report, or (3) they work during banking hours and/or don't have transportation. I'm always impressed by the ways people find to handle finances without a bank - I don't know that I could do it.
      I know what you mean about the Yakezie posts on homelessness. I know no one meant to sound condescending or clueless, but some of them definitely came across that way. I opted out of that post swap because I didn't think I could post on the topic from my current background. I can't imagine what I would do because I will likely never be in that situation.
      It's amazing how people can be so intelligent but have no understanding of poverty. It makes me sad.

  7. Little House says:

    I know I don't completely understand the issues behind poverty as a middle-class, white woman. I've had opportunities that others haven't because of this. I'm not rich by any means, as my poor choices have actually hindered the growth of my finances (something I'm choosing to work on!)

    However, as a teacher I work with students from all income levels. And you make an excellent point that some poor children see only poverty from their family and friends. Some even have parents who can't read or write. They don't see their parents go to work so they don't understand that's what many people do each day. In our school district, we teach thematic reading comprehension and some of those themes revolve around careers and money. Though these students may know plenty about different professions and what you can "grow up to be," they may have no clue how to get there. They also may think it's only for the people they see in the photographs and not for them.

    I have no solution to poverty in and of itself. All I can say is that education helps prepare students for a life of choices and opens up possible opportunities.

  8. Peter says:

    The topic of poverty, and how to get people up and out of it is a tough one.  While i do think just about anyone can lift themselves out of poverty by making good choices, I also believe they can handicap themselves by making poor decisions.  Because it in many cases a matter of choice and of decisions people make, we'll never fully be able to get rid of poverty.  People are flawed, and make poor decisions that end up hurting them.

    Are there a whole host of people who aren't able to lift themselves out of poverty through no fault of their own?  Of course, there are always going to be the widows and single mothers, mentally ill and others who aren't able to get out of poverty due to their health, poor decisions of others or other reasons. Those are the people that should be helped - or are truly deserving of our help.For every poor person who isn't able to get out of poverty, there are just as many folks who aren't getting out of poverty through their own poor decisions - even though they may have the ability to..
    You're right that no one chooses to be poor (who would?), but at the same time people make poor choices every day that allow them to continue to be in poverty.  It's tough when you're surrounded by others who are living in poverty and making poor choices as well.  It makes those poor choices feel like they're normal, and that there is no way to get ahead.  How can I get ahead if no one else around me can either?

    My father worked at a local food shelf and aid agency for many years and we would go there to help out quite a bit.  The people you see coming in there really did run the gamut from single mothers just trying to scrape by, to those who suffered with addictions, mental illness, criminal backgrounds and a host of other problems. Unfortunately a majority of the problems keeping people in poverty that I saw there had to do with poor choices people were making..  Having children as teenagers, becoming addicted to drugs, engaging in criminal activity, not pursuing an education and on and on.. 

    So how do we help people up and out of poverty - without inadvertently helping to trap them in it?  By helping people to learn new skills, get an education and by giving them the resources to help better themselves.  Job training programs, education grants, mentorship programs and a variety of other things would be a good start.  

  9. Alex | Perfecting Da says:

    Your points are right on, along with those of the others.  People judge others with a bias.  Most people think they are better than average, that if something bad happens to other then it must be their fault, while if something bad happens to themselves then it's an accident.  Same as good things:  if someone else has it good then it's luck, but if they themselves have it good then it's all about the wise choices they made.

    Everybody wants to be successful and courageous and smart and wealthy.  I think most of that comes from luck for everyone.  Even if you're studious and hardworking, that comes about because of your upbringing and your genes.  You can't expect to have Donald Trump's life if you were killed in Libya during a civil war or your parents died of AIDS in Africa and you have to dig up roots for your three siblings to eat.  At the same time, Trump's daughter will never know hunger and will see all her "hard work" and "intelligence" and "good choices" yield a life of excessive wealth almost no matter what she does.  People do what they know using what they have.  They don't purposely make bad choices, they just don't know how to make different ones or don't have the resources.  As said, they may not even have something as simple as a bank nearby or a way to get there.

  10. Yakezie says:

    Thanks for your perspective Andrea.  If we don't walk in other people's shoes, we don't know, so we probably shouldn't judge.

    I will always remember making $3.15/hour at McDonald's.  I worked hard to be the best damn egg mcmuffin guy I could be.  I wanted to never return, so I did everything possible to escape.

    Best, Sam

  11. Practical Parsimony says:

    I think one thing people are forgetting when talking about choices and calling them poor/bad choices is that people often make uninformed choices. They do not know what the consequences will be when they make a choice based on a lack of knowledge of the consequences of the choice.


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