Let’s get it straight — Poverty is not a character flaw

Editor’s Note: This is the first column in a six-part series under the theme “Poverty is math problem (and so much more).”

(The results of a Pew survey regarding attitudes about poverty indicate that) the roles of privilege, structural inequalities and discriminatory policies seem to have little weight, and the herculean efforts of the working poor, who often toil at backbreaking work that the body can’t long endure, seems invisible. That construct, that the poor are in some way deficient, is a particularly poisonous and unsupportable position.   — Charles M. Blow                                                                       

Unwarranted assumptions about the quality of the character of the poor, or lack thereof, are part of the long-standing war on the poor. In general society has created imagery to villainize the poor…and, many times, this imagery is reinforced with overt racial themes and substantiated by more subtle overtones.  — Sean Breeze

When considering poverty, our national conversation tends to overlook systematic causes. Instead, we often blame the poor for their poverty. Commentators echo the claim that people are poor because they have no self-control and therefore make nearsighted choices. But psychology research says the opposite might be the case: poverty makes it hard for people to care about the future and forces them to live in the present. — Elliot Berkman

(Photo by Kayle Kaupanger on Unsplash)

In a December 1978 interview with the Catholic Herald, Margaret Thatcher stated “…there may be poverty because people don’t know how to budget, don’t know how to spend their earnings, but now you are left with the really hard fundamental character — personality defect.”

Although she went on to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom six months later, Thatcher’s remarks nearly 40 years ago seem well out of step with today’s prevailing view in western Europe where, according to a Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Survey, a significant majority believe poverty to be more of a systemic problem as compared to a matter of personal responsibility.

In America, however, where the principle of individualism historically runs deep, it appears more common to blame the poor for their plight as opposed to other factors.

I have no intention of undermining the virtue of individualism and personal responsibility. American history is rife with examples of individual triumph over insurmountable odds. But is it fair to apply the famously old idiom of “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” to someone who doesn’t have any boots. Does collective responsibility no longer have a place in this nation or this world?

It is beyond troubling to me that anyone would choose to define poverty as some sort of character flaw. Stagnant wages, worrisome budget and policy priorities, rising disparities, and the expanding wealth and income gaps have significantly increased the number of people living in poverty since the turn of the century.

Did the 15 million or so American citizens who joined the ranks of the poor in the last decade-and-a-half suffer a spontaneous collapse of character? Or, is it something else?

Dr. David Coates of Wake Forest University’s Department of Politics and International Affairs sarcastically notes, “If a life of poverty is something people genuinely choose to adopt, then it is remarkable just how many people in America now seem keen to make that choice — both for themselves and their children. It is even more remarkable that the children of the poor consistently make that choice again and again as they get older.”

So did millions of people somehow come to view poverty as fashionable, bowing to another common construct that the “people choose to be poor?” No; of course not. And the truth is that there are approximately 100 million Americans, who in 2017, can be classified as economically insecure, meaning that they are one unforeseen event from falling into poverty themselves.

In recent years a critically important phrase has made it into the American lexicon regarding the causes of poverty. An abridgement of this maxim, which has undergone several iterations and been used by the likes of Barbara Ehrenreich, Rugter Bregman and others, is “Poverty is not a character flaw; it is a math problem.”

I intend to spend the next four parts of this six-part series demonstrating how poverty is a math problem focusing on the areas of employment, education, housing, and transportation. Then, in the final installment, I will explore why poverty, while indeed an issue of arithmetic, is still so much more.

Recent scientific studies, as well as the groundbreaking work of Dr. Ruby Payne, have acutely addressed the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual aspects of poverty as “hidden rules among classes.”

Poverty is a complicated issue, perhaps even the most intricate issue we face as a global society. But we cannot afford the crude and morally evasive option of blaming the victim.

Instead, I believe that we must do whatever is in our power to help lift our fellow citizens up and out of the clutches of poverty. I am reminded of a page in journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller Outliers: The Story of Success, where he writes “No one  —  not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses  — ever makes it alone.”

Well said.


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.


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