How much of poverty is the poor persons responsiblity?

Over in this thread

Marly23 states:

That question implies that poor people are actually poor for reasons other than choices that the poor person makes. I accept that for a certain percentage of the poor there are circumstances outside of their control that may be the cause of their poverty. However, from my personal experience, this percentage is low. Most of the chronically poor I have known have had two specific traits in common, they all continuously made decisions which made their circumstances worse and they all did not try for additional schooling, etc to improve their situation.

Given that some percentage of the poor are poor due to the results of their own actions, what percentage do you think are responsible for their own situations? What percentage is due to outside circumstance that they have no control over?


In my state, 24% of all children in public schools live in poverty. That’s extreme, that’s unacceptable, and that’s not their fault.

There’s also this really weird coincidence that many people have noticed: children who live in poverty tend to do worse in school than kids who live in middle-class or upper-class homes.

And then some folks have noticed even another coincidence: kids that do poorly in school go on to earn significantly less money than kids who do well in school.

If you agree with my initial statement that it’s not the fault of a kid for being poor, and if you agree that poor kids through no fault of their own tend to do worse in school (for a variety of reasons, including PTSD and malnourishment), and if you agree that kids who do worse in school through no fault of their own grow up to earn less, at what point do you hold them retroactively responsible for having been poor as children?

Or is the average difference in adult earnings between someone who grew up in poverty and someone who grew up in wealth purely coincidental?

I think that the line between have control/don’t have control is much blurrier than that. I mean, how you are raised and what you are exposed to has a permanent effect on your ability to make good choices and get more education. This ranges from the impact of early nutrition, healthcare, and stimulation on your intellectual abilities to having a predictable environment that rewards careful decision making to having exposure to people who used an education to develop marketable skills.

I think how you are raised- in what environment, your family’s history, what they value- can directly impact how you handle these situations. I’ve had economically poor students who’s parents actively discouraged them from going to school, or who relied on them to pick up and babysit younger siblings so they frequently missed class. Yes it was their choice, but it was a choice heavily influenced by things outside of their control.

I had students who had no clue how to navigate university bureaucracy because they were never taught how to effectively ask for help, that you could expect someone to help you or what the step-by-step process would be (running to the President’s office, when a Professor won’t change a grade etc). These are skills other kids learn by watching their parents be successful and having gone through higher education themselves.

That’s the cycle of poverty- being poor often just teaches poor mentality and habits and doesn’t teach you habits that are effective at improving your situation.

If there’s an answer to the question, which does a lot of presuming guilt, I’d say it’s this: if the person makes the same effort as someone in a higher socioeconomic class and cannot break out of poverty, it is not their fault. “Fault” would be ONLY not trying as hard as someone with economic advantages, that is, being the stereotypical and probably mythical po’ victim waiting for someone else to come save him.

Most poor and underprivileged people I’ve known (and I have scraped the top of that class myself) work their asses off just to stay where they are. All EXTRA effort they put into the game should be credited to them in some way - and IMVHO it’s the price they pay for support and assistance programs, whether it’s fair they should do so or not. Like it used to be (and still is, in some ways) for women in the workplace, the poor have to be twice as good as the comfortable to “prove” they need help.

That’s a hard thing to estimate.

Here’s one way to look at it – in today’s world, it takes a certain combination of qualities and circumstances for any given poor person to ascend out of poverty. I think the following qualities/circumstances are necessary in the vast majority of cases (which don’t include things like lottery earnings, amazing athletes/musicians/performers, etc):

–Personal discipline and industry (i.e. a good work ethic)
–A lack of expensive dependents (few children, sick relatives, etc.)
–Good physical and mental health
–No addictions other than possibly tobacco/caffeine (so no gambling/drug/booze addicts)
–Basic education and language ability

One could argue that some of those qualities/circumstances are the results of personal choices, but they are choices that non-poor people can often afford to make and bounce back from, but poor people are unable to, in general.

So taking that into account, I think at least 50% and possibly a much larger percentage of poor people in the US lack at least one of the above qualities/circumstances, and are thus poor largely due to circumstances beyond their control.

There are a couple of things anyone could do to improve his situation–learn of opportunities and take advantage of them. If there are no opportunities, then there is nothing he can do.

I trust that sleestak agrees that he is not rich due to choices that he made, and that it is all his fault.

Some people just can’t handle money … the financially irresponsible. Just giving them more money doesn’t help, they’ll be irresponsible with it.

In economics, there is the notion of vicious/virtuous cycles. Communities become poor because they experience loss of resources, infrastructure, brain drain or other factors that make it less desirable to live in. The only people who move there are those who can’t afford to live anywhere else. Typically people with low education, criminal backgrounds, cultural difficulties or drug and alcohol problems. These people lack the wherewithal to start business, fix up homes or otherwise improve the neighborhood and the cycle gets worse.

Conversely, when a neighborhood increases in desirability or “gentrifies”, people invest in the homes and businesses. That further increases the desirability. Rents increase. People with more money move in. So on and so forth.
Generally, one can improve their lot in life if they make good life choices. OTOH, it is difficult to know what those good choices are if you grow up surrounded by people who constantly make bad ones.

Excellent post, msmith.

In general, I think “fault” is not a very useful concept when trying to change poverty. Certainly a lot of poor people could have less terrible circumstances if they changed certain behaviors–but knowing that and doing it are two different things. Many poor people work extremely hard, much harder than average middle-class people, just to keep a roof over their heads, and the things they’d need to do to change their class are more difficult than what middle-class people would need to do to become wealthy. Others, sure, just need to lose the addiction, or whatever.

That’s the catch I think; how does a society or government teach the values and behaviors that would help to break that cycle?

Ultimately throwing money at the problem doesn’t help, and can exacerbate the cycle, if the issue is one of values and behaviors. Neither does coming in and telling people that what they do and how they behave is wrong- nobody wants to hear that, and I suspect that with the tight coupling of race & socio-economic status, it would also be perceived as racist, even if that’s not the case.

For example, one of the things that distinguishes middle class and above children from poor children is their exposure to education at very young ages. For example, my son and everyone I know’s children have dozens if not hundreds of kids books to be read to them and for them to read. Yet I hear tales of poor children who have no books at all, and whose parents never read to them.

But how does someone go into someone’s home and say “You should spend that $9 on a board book for your kid rather than a 12 pack of cheap beer. You should also spend half an hour a night reading to your kids rather than watching TV or talking on the phone. You’re making a stupid decision that will have negative consequences for your kids.” without offending them or being tuned out? Yet that sort of thing is the exact kind of thing that distinguishes poor kids from the rest.

Baby steps. My school recently held a parent education night. The goal wasn’t to tell parents to read more–they’ve heard that–or even to turn off the television, because they’ve heard that too.

The goal was to talk about educational television, and how to pull up things like Magic Schoolbus and Sesame Street on their television or online.

Kids in poverty often have a television running more or less constantly in their houses. If that television can sometimes be turned to something that reinforces academic norms, that’ll be a step forward for those kids.

I have posted this in the past, but the average poor person in the US needs to do the following -
[ul][li]Graduate from high school[/li][li]Get married and stay married[/li][li]Not have children until you are married and are at least 21[/li][li]Get a job, any job, and stick with it until you find another job that pays better.[/ul][/li]Do these things for five years. At the end of it, statistically you will no longer be poor.

Obviously a person does not have complete control over these, but ISTM that people have more control over them than some are ready to admit. One can get laid off thru no fault of your own, but you can also get fired for showing up late to work or insubordination.

I suppose it is a gray area in many other instances - is a 14 year old responsible for getting pregnant from “consensual” sex? If your mother doesn’t give a shit if you go to class or not, are you responsible for flunking out of high school?

Unfortunately, the question is often completely beside the point. One of the most difficult lessons that adults learn is that, sometimes, excuses don’t make any difference at all. Maybe it is your mother’s fault. But it doesn’t do any good to know that. Maybe we can fix it so other mothers don’t fuck it up, but that won’t help your situation. Once you are an adult - no one is talking about blaming children - you are responsible for yourself. That’s what being an adult is about. And part of that is to take advantage of whatever opportunities or assistance are available, while keeping in mind that the end result is something that you have to live with.

And an important fact to keep in mind is that most poor people manage not to be poor after a while. It seems, therefore, given a random universe, that some poor people have habits or characteristics that prevent them from achieving the rise out of poverty that most others manage. If it’s not the fault of the chronically poor that they are chronically poor, why aren’t most poor people chronically poor? I don’t think they are just lucky - luck isn’t defined as “what happens to most people”.

If you offer someone help and they use the opportunity to better their situation, then good for both of you. If you offer someone else help, and they respond with a bunch of really good reasons why it won’t help and why it isn’t their fault it won’t help and you are being selfish for expecting them to do most of the work, that’s something else.

ISTM that we ought to be taking advice from those who used to be the one, and now are the other. Or at least middle class.




I worked with homeless people for a number of years. I believe that homeless children are completely blameless for their lot in life. They didn’t ask to be born and they cannot be held responsible for the actions or the inactions of their parents.

As far as the parents: It’s a series of situations. I have seen people who have made and who continue make exceptionally lifestyle choices. From substance abuse, to frequent arrests, to failure to effectively budget the little bit of earnings which they make, to poor choices in relationships, these people continue to follow paths which constantly lead them back into poverty. Those people I blame for their situation as even minor changes in their thought processes would create different results for them.

Having said that, there are people who become poor due to circumstances beyond their control. Illness or injury (themselves or a family member), job layoffs, a natural disaster or even being the victim of crime can easily reduce many people into poverty or force them deeper into it. Since our society here in the US often ties poverty to perceived moral failings, it’s difficult for these people to pull themselves out of poverty once they get into it as people view their circumstances as being their fault.

So, IMHO, it depends upon the person, how they became poor and what actions (if any) that they are taken to change their circumstances.

I know some people in bad shape financially who deserve what they get. On the other hand, none of us has the same abilities as others of us. I know several adopted kids who have veered in the wrong direction despite being brought up in absolutely wonderful households, being read to, being taught ethics, all the advantages.
I’d be happy if every poor kid and person had opportunities. After that, the ones who don’t take them should have the chance for a job they can do, and not to starve.

I am where I am due to my personal choices. I am a recovering alkie and have been upfront about that for a long time. I wasted about 15 years on that. When I finally quit drinking I was homeless, jobless, carless and basically screwed.

Within a year of getting sober I had a job, a new car and a nice place to live. Within about 4 years I had a house. 10 years in I have a house, I am married and my salary has more than quadrupled from what I was earning when I first got sober. I know the idea of some people taking personal responsibility for their bad actions and the results of those actions is probably foreign to you, at least from your posting history. My life is my responsibility and for a good long time I made a shitload of bad choices and it is all my own fault. And for the past 10 years I have been making the right choices and, who’d a thunk it, I am doing better. Much better.

Additionally, I will be a millionaire when I retire. Assuming the country doesn’t go tits up of course. Not loaded, buy anything I want millionaire but own my house and do a lot of nice stuff millionaire. Oh, and I will retire early. Compound interest is my friend. Had I not drunk away my job and a bunch of stock options that went along with it I’d probably be retired now.

I had some assistance getting up that came from A.A. and a bit from my family. For example, my parents were nice enough to loan me a car and buy me a decent (read $20 each) pair of slacks and a shirt so I could go to a interview without looking like a homeless guy. Oh, I also used their address on applications instead of the address of the halfway house I was living in at the time.

The reason I asked the questions in the OP is two fold. First, it seems to me anyway, that a lot of personal behavior that exacerbates the poverty issue is ignored on this board.

Second I highly disagree with the

mindset though I think a better word than fault would be responsibility, which is why I used that word in the OP.

When looking at a problem, the cause of the problem is a rather important thing to find. If the problem is behavioral, well, pretending it is not a behavior problem isn’t going to help much. The attitude that ‘you can’t blame poor people for being poor’ equates to ‘you can’t blame poor people for being poor, no matter what they do’.

If a poor person is making bad decisions that are going to keep them in poverty, it doesn’t matter if they learned the behavior from their parents or not. What matters is identifying the problem behavior and then convincing the person to change that behavior*.


*Which, frankly I have no idea on how to do effectively. My wife and I are having some issues along these lines with her son and daughter. Both are making some very bad decisions. Trying to convince them to change their behavior is a bitch. However, it seems the oldest daughter is figuring it out now and starting to do the right things.

I didn’t choose to have parents who valued education and who had the money to give me some advantages. I didn’t choose to love reading and to have a good memory and good science and writing skills.

All of my successes in life come down to these attributes with a dollop of a relatively easygoing personality.

Why aren’t you a millionaire now? Or a multi-millionaire? Was it shitty life choices? Is it your “responsibility” that you are not a richer person now?

Why do you seem to be discounting the immense help that AA and your family were for you? What do you think people who don’t have that help do? You know, people who can’t pretend they are not homeless in order to get a job.

I think you misunderstood the issues people raised. The point is that society has a lot of influence in training and teaching people how to behave. I think everyone can agree that almost everyone engages in a some self-sabotage. The issue is whether the effects can be best managed at a macro level rather than a micro one.

It does matter if the mistakes are largely due to extrinsic, global things that we can correct. If someone is selling drugs because there are no jobs to be had, that doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it does mean that society has a role in trying to prevent people from dealing drugs. People generally respond to incentives. If the incentives for a particular person or community don’t create the outcomes we desire, we need to change the incentives.

Let’s use a more innocuous example. We is it that the cops can set a speed trap and almost always catch a number of people despite posted speed limits? Why can we predict how many people how many people each year will get the flu, not use condoms, or a million other numbers influenced by our behavior? All these things happen in large numbers despite millions of dollars being spent to post traffic signs, give away free condoms, and encourage flu shots. Why? Is it your responsibility that you got the flu? In some ways, I guess, but it’s not a particularly useful exercise given the situation after you have the flu.

And did you ask to be predisposed to alcoholism? I’m predisposed to not drinking, and I think it is genetic. Does that make me “better” than you, or mean my choices were better? Not hardly.

A million bucks at retirement is not truly rich, trust me. If I had sold my stock options in early 2000 I’d be richer - but that’s not a moral failing.

An urge to drink is not a moral failing. Neither is a low IQ. Having a high IQ and no desire to engage in addictive behaviors makes your life easier but don’t mean you are inherently better.
Society does not necessarily reward effort. Some people can’t make it through AA. Some people work too crap jobs and make less than other people do looking at their bank statement.
It’s really the theme of Amadeus. Let’s recognize that talent and worthiness, and success and worthiness don’t go together, and let’s not assume the unsuccessful are that way due to will as opposed to genetics and upbringing.