Why are poor people poor?

This week I am guest blogging for United Way Toronto’s Imagine a City campaign. I wanted, in my post The answer to poverty isn’t simple, to challenge some of the stereotypes we have about poor people. The solution to poverty is not, I argue, as easy as the catcall, “Get a job!” implies.

To do this, I draw on Philosophy professor Charles Karelis who has written about the cumulative impacts of poverty and who illustrates why what appears to be an irrational choice can be quite appropriate given the number of challenges those in poverty face. Other, more “scientific” research has emerged to support Karelis’ argument.

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist. — Dom Helder Camara

Behavioural psychologists and economists are now finding that simply the stress of deprivation leads to poor decision-making — that the condition of poverty creates psychological barriers. The evidence is showing how almost any of us react within the same straitened circumstances.

Compounding these individual, psychological reasons are the wider sociological barriers,  from racism to simple access to opportunity, which get in the way of moving out of poverty easily. (Much of this blog has tried to describe those barriers.)

Finally, people in poverty have to contend with the same economic, political and ecological tides that we all do and which are re-shaping our world. As Hurricane Katrina or global capital markers show, people who are poor are just more vulnerable among wider societal forces which buffet us all. Their resources for resiliency are already depleted by the daily demands they face.

It’s too simple to say poor people are poor because of individual (de)merit, character flaws, or moral decrepitude. As always, it’s much more complicated than that.

Get a job? If only it were so easy.

Here’s what my preliminary scan found:

 

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