Is Poverty a Personal Choice?

A discussion over at BlogCatalog about affirmative action - turned socio-economic conditions debate has sparked my need to read. The question that sparked this exploratory post was whether not impoverished people could lift themselves up out of poverty by the very simple act of not making poor personal choices. At first, this question seems exceedingly simple to answer - better choices create better environments and results, therefore yes, making better personal choices would lift people out of poverty. Of course, the real answer is no where near that simple. In fact, the matter is so complex one could invest a lifetime exploring the causes and implications of poverty and socio-economic standing. I'm thinking we could do a brief overview, instead.

There are some common ideologies about poverty, crime, education and so forth that are often used in debates about the issue.

  • Poverty is a choice, the poor choose to remain poor, the poor could lift themselves out of poverty by applying themselves, and the poor consciously make bad decisions to perpetuate poverty.

  • The poor have no choices, are victims and are generally helpless.

  • Poverty is caused by various means, and is a self perpetuating cycle that will require a concerted effort on everyone's behalf to break or correct.

Now, all of these ideologies have a bit of truth to them, but none of them are all true. First and foremost, we have to consider our national economic system's role in poverty. We have a mixed economy that leans heavily towards free market capitalism. In capitalism economic hierarchies must exist, and be appropriately filled in order for capitalism to thrive. That includes the economic class of poor and working class economic brackets. Although extreme or abject poverty provides little benefit for regulated capitalist markets, those who hover right around the poverty threshold fulfill the basic needs of companies offering low wage employment. Students whose age and academic schedules determine that they work part time jobs, or fewer than twenty hours a week means that there simply aren't enough bodies to satisfy the needs of companies. So adults, particularly adults with little or no education, must step in and fill those positions.

Of course, we all know that supporting oneself or one's family on a low, minimum wage, or below minimum wage job (service industry, commission based jobs) is next to impossible, hence you have an entire segment of the population who are now poor. I find it ironic that the very requirements of an economic system that people support causes and sustains poverty, and yet, the poor are consistently blamed for their own financial woes.

Education is key.

The most commonly looked at issue regarding poverty is education, or a lack thereof. Large cities with poor inner city schools are severely lacking in the funds and resources needed to provide decent, or competitive educations. To compound that issue, poor inner city areas also have little in the way of out-of-school educational resources, such as proper libraries, extracurricular activities, youth groups and organizations, tutoring and so forth. The children growing up in poor inner cities simply do not have access to all of the materials and information they need to become successful.

Drop out rates, rates of illiteracy, and poor educational resources result in poor test scores, low paying job opportunities, and a lack of value on education. Compare graduation statistics by cities and, Compare the test results of schools with high vs low levels of poor students. The numbers speak for themselves. However, even more pertinent to the problem are parents with equally low levels of education. Cognitive development studies have shown, over decades of research, that children with parents who have secondary, graduate, or post graduate educations will have children who develop faster and retain information better than children whose parents have little or no education, and for a variety of reasons.

Also, an interesting study and thesis points out that young adults with little to no education, or a poor education, living at or below the poverty level could adversely affect the unborn child and young child respectively due to a lack of pre-natal medical care, inability to properly parent, and exposure to insufficient role models and peer groups. Read - The Vicious Cycle: Poor Children, Risky Lives by Bruce L. Mallory.

Essentially, the idea is that uneducated parents produce uneducated children, and instead of each generation experiencing a progression towards a decrease in poverty, the percentage of poverty and poor education actually increases.

Crime doesn't pay.

Well, actually, it does pay. Crime pays well, in fact for a lot of people who would otherwise be scraping by a meager minimum wage and welfare living. There are a lot of arguments circulating around about the relation of poverty and crime. However, incarceration statistics clearly indicate that far more convicted criminals are coming from, and returning to, impoverished neighborhoods. There are anecdotal arguments about how not all poor people commit crimes, and never would, and that's true. However morals are relative and learned behaviors so it would suffice to say that those growing up who are exposed to crime, and have little education, and little hope for real opportunities have a much higher chance of committing a crime than those who do not grow up under those circumstances. A debate on the direct and indirect links of crime and poverty states:
Poverty creates unstable communities. Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay's classic 1942 study on juvenile delinquency argued that economic deprivation encourages crime only because poor neighborhoods tend to be socially unstable, [and] Unstable employment creates despair. More recent studies, however, have had to revise this aspect of the theory, the authors write. In his 1987 work The Truly Disadvantaged, William Julius Wilson showed that low-skill, high-paying manufacturing jobs in U.S. cities declined drastically during the 1970s. The result has been a concentration of poor blacks in ghetto areas. These areas have experienced extremely high rates of violent crime even though they are not subject to a job-driven turnover of population. [and] low levels of economic well-being directly encourage crime because people naturally shift to illegal activities in order to succeed when legal channels are blocked. [and] Obviously, deciding whether or not social disorganization mediates economic deprivation and crime depends crucially on how "social disorganization" and "economic deprivation" are defined and measured.

A look into the history of gangs and gang violence sheds even more light on the subject of crime, gangs, and violent crimes:
The black youths in Aliso Village, a housing project in East Los Angeles, started a club called the Devil Hunters in response to the Spook Hunters and other white clubs that were engaging in violent confrontations with blacks. The term "Devil" reflected how blacks viewed racist whites and Ku Klux Klan members. The Devil Hunters and other black residents fought back against white violence with their own form of violence.

Although organized crime was nothing new at that time, the organization of gangs that evolved into what we know as the Bloods and Crips started for a very real, logical reason. Protection and survival from racist groups. These gangs, of course, evolved over time, and sought to use their power and numbers to create wealth in areas where poverty reigned supreme. I find it highly disingenuous to claim that poverty and an already violent environment had and has nothing to do with gangs and crime, considering that the gang members are often very, very poor. Top ten poverty locations and gangs. There is a psychology of poverty and social stigma attached to impoverished areas that when paired with an actual need to make money makes ganglife a desirable choice. Not only is the gang member making money to support himself or his family, he is also now commanding respect (through fear and violence) so that he gains power, social respect, and protection for himself, and his family members.

Although "gangbanging" is frowned upon by mainstream society, it garners a particular type of fear based respect from almost everyone. The moment you hear that someone is from a gang, be it the Bloods or the Hell's Angels, the reaction is immediate, and noticeable. One immediately knows not to challenge such a person, much in the way we would react to a brightly colored, venomous plant or animal. The genetic predisposition to stay away from that which endangers us is strong even in social circles. That kind of respect, although generally negative, still retains it's power. And when a person or group of people grow up feeling powerless, gaining social power and respect can and does become a priority. Crime pays out in this respect in a very big way.

It also helps to remember that the ideology of wealth being a desirable goal, and that the wealthy are notably respected for being able to acquire such wealth permeates every aspect of our society. It generates respect, awe, and power along with the financial ability to do whatever you please. This concept is not lost on those living in impoverished areas. In fact, I would say that living with the social stigma of poverty creates a huge desire to accumulate as much wealth as possible.

Look at it like this, if the temptation to commit a crime exists within wealthy, educated people so much so that they commit crimes to attain more wealth when they already have it, it's fair to say that those without educations, and no wealth to speak of, and no real possibility of attaining said wealth, the temptation to commit crimes to attain wealth increases accordingly. Although arguments of needs and wants may creep in, the psychological concept of willingness to commit a crime to accomplish the same goal remains unchanged, and would seem to be even more likely at lower levels of the economic structure, particularly when greed is combined with desperation.

Back to education...

You might be saying to yourself, "But, but, but there are other ways to gain respect, and wealth than crime, we all know that!" And, to an extent, you would be thinking correctly. However, there are other forces at play here that when combined create the the right environment for crime. First and foremost, the lack of [quality] education immediately creates very real barriers to gainful employment above and beyond poverty wages. But you also have to address the psychological issues at play when poverty strikes or persists.

In the above argument about why crime and poverty are linked, it addresses unstable communities, and despair. This is important because when despair sets in, it works a bit like clinical depression, and may even be clinical depression. If a person has been living in poverty, struggling for their entire lives, or if a person has fallen into poverty with the inability to cope, they not only view the reality of severely limited choices as a large barrier, but may even refuse to accept a golden opportunity if one should come along. When you combine despair or depression, or even anger with a lack of education, or training for critical thinking you create a person who may not recognize, understand, or comprehend the available options, and may even create a fear of the unknown.

When you live among criminals and hustlers, you gain the street knowledge of healthy skepticism. If something is too good to be true, it probably is. With a life dedicated to scraping by a meager living, the thought of losing even more by way of a scam can be terribly frightening. Although I'm sure the temptation exists. In that regard, even a true opportunity may be interpreted as a scam.

Can anyone argue that these fight or flight reactions, the basic survival reactions ingrained in our genes are really personal choices? They are choices, of course, but the idea that one is making a calm, educated choice with a future goal in mind in an impoverished and crime riddled environment with a lack of education is taking some creative license with the notion of "choice".

What does it all mean?

If we look at the Census Bureau's statistics on poverty we will see that 13% of the population lives at or below the poverty threshold, and 17.5% of the population hovers right above the threshold, or what is known as 125% of poverty. That would suggest that over 30% of the population is living at, below, or just above the national poverty threshold. That amounts to 91.5 million men, women, and children who are either in, or sinking into poverty.

We can argue that 30% of the population are simply making poor life choices, and leave it at freewill's doorstep, or we can address the very real issue of income and opportunity disparity in this country. 91 million people can't all be making the same simple mistakes.

As we look at the history of gangs, the history of crime, the history of impoverished neighborhoods, and the history of the US we can get a general idea of what happened and why, where it all began. Unfortunately the task at hand now is breaking the violent cycle of poverty and crime. Knowing how it all began is a decent start, but doesn't speak to the changes we need to make it stop.

An answer lies somewhere, and it's time we really tried to find it.

More poverty statistics, independent studies
Culture of poverty, cycle of decline
History Channel's Gangland Series


Pentad said...

I'm with you all the way on this one. Nice job.

Anonymous said...

the human animal requires hierarchy just like all social animals.
so the poor have gang violence and crime to create their own sub-strata class distinctions.

compared to the wide-spread mis-perception that there are no real barriers to it, class mobility is practically non-existent.
the further away any group is seen from the upper strata, the less likely it is that they'll be allowed entree.

so much of this (at least in my lousy opinion) goes beyond most social theory and into the realm of the subconscious and exactly what is really going on in the minds of the planners and policy makers.
the road to hell is paved with good intentions? sometimes...

thanks for kickin' ass on the affirmative action thread. those conservatives were the biggest bunch of goddamned dolts i've ever seen. you'd think people so hell-bent on making an issue of what they obviously perceive of as a genetic predisposition towards failure and low intelligence among blacks would at least want to spell shit properly. jeez...

Melissa Ward said...

That was an outstanding well thought out post - you raise some great questions, ones that we really do need to be looking at.

Renegade Eye said...

Gangs are related to the drug trade, with international cartels and even links inside prison.

We live in a society that values profit over human needs. We have the technological capacity to feed, clothe, and house everyone.

Houseonahill said...

I did my thesis on this subject and you are right on ~ currently I am advocating for legislation to include some sort of community outreach in pre-schools.

If we could just improve self-esteem before the age of 5,across racial and cultural lines, I believe we can change the trajectory of violence and crime.

REALLY nice job!!

Anok said...

Thank you for the great comments. I realize this subject can be controversial, and so reasonable feedback is welcomed and appreciated!

Pentad, thank you. I was wondering if you have ever offered or would offer a synopsis or thesis on self evaluation and betterment that could apply to this area of social problems?

Jazz, I do believe you are right when you say that the crime and gang related problems have something to do with the inherent need for hierarchy in this system. Upward mobility in this economic system can happen, but only in small doses spread out over time, otherwise the system would collapse. So creating your own "upward mobility" within the confines of impoverished parameters makes sense.

Melissa, thank you. Yes, I think we all need to really reflect on the causes and long term implications of these problems. Becasue I believe they can be addressed. With the president elect's new ideas, perhaps addressing the issues can happen sooner than we think.

Ren - you raise a great point. Our system of crime and punishment offers not rehabilitation, but a networking goldmine for criminal behaviors. Again, it speaks to the self perpetuating cycle of poverty and crime.

HoH, I figured you'd done a thesis or some such thing on this subject! I remember you mentioning the poverty and crime where you live. I think funding is key, and then resources - like you said outreach programs - and an overall attempt to get people to participate in their lives and their children's lives more.

One thing that I think needs to change however, is the economic structure. Because we cannot eliminate a low wage class of people in this system. And until we do, betterment may never happen, even with outreach programs. We'd have to fund it indefinitely, and then people will begin to scream about favoritism.

It's a tough nut to break, that's for sure!

Stuck in my head said...

Excellent post.

I love that you took the time to really find all sorts of information.

One thing you did not touch on is the fact that many of us who are not considered below or just above the poverty line are really close to being there - especially now with so many companies laying off workers.

Once there, it is really hard to get out.

I know many people who have been trying for years (hard) to get back into the workforce -- any work force -- yet are denied jobs because they are too qualified, or they don't fit the look (white, clean cut male) that the company is looking to hire.

Education is another key. I am glad that McCain was not elected because his plans for the educational system did not make sense. Obama is going to make gains on this (if he follows his campaign goals and if Congress passes legislation for it without making huge changes). We really need to focus on the children when they are still young. We need to focus on the parents that are having these children so that they are a place where they can raise their children and are capable of educating them in a way that is conducive to academic success.

That makes it sound easy, but I know it is not. There are so many barriers to progress.

Shirley said...

Education is a prime factor in the poverty rate but there are schools doing it right. The Harlem Children's Zone http://www.hcz.org/ teaches kids in Harlem about the stock market and how to invest by grade 2. Parents HAVE TO take a parenting class. 100% of these kids were at grade level for 6 years strait. If people would pass levies and allow children to have an education imagine where could they go? What could they do? A lot of the lack of education we only have ourselves to blame. In Cleveland levies NEVER passed. I never had good grades. When we moved to WV levies always passed and in the 5th grade I went from a 2nd grade reading level to a fourth grade in a year. By 6th grade I was with my class.

Anok said...

Shirley that's a good point. I know where we have kids passing through grades like cattle - whether they can read or not. In our local fourth grade class a few years back, they weren't teaching kids about investments, they were teaching them how to fill out welfare applications.

Something I read in all this research was that another factor is tenure. The teachers in the poor school shave a much higher turnover rate, and generally have less than 5 years experience - so the kids are constantly seeing a different teacher with few credentials versus the better schools with a bit more consistency.

Monkey Suit said...

Education. That is and will always be the key. I understand the other things at play but if we can bring real education to people and give them more tools to use to cpe with their environment then we can see a real shift out of poverty. Education gives these types of tools and furthers ones ability to reason and think. I also want to comment about something you touched on and I couldn't disagree with you more on. The part where you suggest that capitalism creates poverty couldn't be more from the truth. Even if you brought education to people some still won't take it and even if you corrected many of the things in their environments you would still have poverty. Companies pay low wages because people need those jobs. If you had a huge shift from poverty into upper and middle class, companies would have no choice but to pay more. They would go out of business. Companies are nothing without the workers no matter what social class they fall into. They get away with such poor wages because there are so many people in the lower class that need the work. Education is in everyones best interest.

Anok said...

Wrench, your comment is interesting because you contradict yourself in it:
If you had a huge shift from poverty into upper and middle class, companies would have no choice but to pay more. They would go out of business.

If companies were forced to pay higher wages, they would indeed go out of business. That is why capitalism, and the economic hierarchy it creates is to blame for the poor class. Companies cannot pay higher wages for for lower level jobs because it would cut into their profits, and thus create an investment backlash.

Furthermore, if companies paid higher wages, they would pay them proportionately, and would be forced to raise the wages of higher up employees, which would raise the cost of the products, which would perpetuate and maintain that the poor class is still poor. They would be making more than they had previously, but with inflation on all of the products they purchase, they would be left in the same exact situation, and, making proportionately less than those above them.

Essentially, even if education enabled the poor class to elevate their hiring ability to a skilled position, someone would have to fill the low wage jobs. The ones who do will simply be over qualified and underpaid.

There's just no way around it in this system.

a.eye said...

"The teachers in the poor school shave a much higher turnover rate, and generally have less than 5 years experience - so the kids are constantly seeing a different teacher with few credentials versus the better schools with a bit more consistency. "

Such a good point. There are so many low income schools that can't offer the incentives to teachers that districts with higher tax brackets and better paid teachers can. They are stuck constantly hiring the newly graduated who are eager, no doubt, but may not have the skill sets developed yet to really address the academic needs of their student population.

Monkey Suit said...

@Anok yes I purposely did so. I think you will always have people who no matter what will settle to the bottom but if you did have some kind of huge shift it would cause a big disruption in how the classes are currently structured. Capitalism functions this way because of the classes it does not create the classes but it does a nice job of lining them up. Companies and society as a whole would have to take another look at how they do business. It would still be capitalism but I believe they would be forced to keep profit margins a little smaller and sustainable in the long run. Great post by the way.

Anonymous said...

i don't want to pop in here as an apologist for capitalism, but here's an interesting thing about wages: a number of states have a minimum wage higher than what's federally mandated and, surprisingly, most of those states have had no problems with higher unemployment or companies leaving to avoid the burden. higher salaries on the bottom creates good upwards pressure on all wages. in theory, as the effect settles across an economy, the inflation should be expected and manageable. obviously, in any growing economy inflation is desirable, you just don't want it to go nuts. i'm a socialist myself, but realize how completely unworkable my preferences are when dealing with such hierarchical and acquisitive creatures as humans.

Monkey Wrench said...

Hi Anok--

First of all, the poster above me, bearing the same first name (Monkey) is....not me.... He is a suit, I am a wrench!! That aside..... =]

Have you ever read John Dewey? I don't know how into philosophy you are, but Dewey explores in depth the idea that a Democratic Nation will never work unless education is one of the prime concerns. Essentially, Dewey postulates that the idea of Democracy will fail in a nation that bases their vote on political rhetoric and "swagger" alone. People need education so that they might rationally evaluate their elected officials. I'm paraphrasing fragments right now because I'm on a Red Bull buzz, but definitely check out John Dewey!!

Great post, as usual--

Monkey WRENCH! =)

Anok said...

Wrench, Suit, I'm so sorry to get you guys mixed up!!

MS, I see what you are getting at now.

Jazz - I think it's important to realize the individual states have different minimum wages, not because they can afford it, per se, but because they have to in order to maintain the proportionate cost of living.

For example, and you can go Here to compare minimum wages CT's minimum wage is upwards of $8 per hour, but their average median income is $63k, and the poverty threshold is about $30k per year.

Compared to Mississippi who uses the federal minimum wage of $6.55 per hour, and has an average median income of $34k per year.

Monkey Wrench said...


Don't worry about it, interesting that two monkeys converged on the same blog...........

Keep writing, check me out if you have the time. I thoroughly enjoy your work.


dexter said...

I enjoyed this content, and the feedback from others is interesting.

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myundiary@gmail.com said...

This is an excellent and well thought out post. Great writing.

Rob J said...

Anok - I really enjoyed this article. As I was preparing to read it, a thought that frequently comes to mind when I think of the causes of poverty popped into my head - How very convenient it is for a society built on an economic system that relies on the persistence of low wage workers to blame the poor for their predicament. Then, as I began reading your article, you expressed my thought poignantly.

Your discussion of respect being a motivator for gang activity and a way in which crime pays was spot on, as was your link of the formation of some long-standing gangs to the need for protection from racism. In fact, your entire discussion in the "Crime Doesn't Pay" section is refreshing. Your discussion of how the "ideology of wealth" equally affects wealthy, educated Americans and uneducated poor Americans could itself be the basis of several treatises.

If you have not already heard of Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, I encourage you to look him up as he also has some interesting views on the causes of crime - and on the dependence of certain segments of society on crime - particularly in the black community. Dr. Dyson is a black professor of sociology at Georgetown University and also an accomplished author. The interesting thing is that his brother is serving a life sentence in prison. They both came from poverty/crime ridden neighborhoods and Dr. Dyson has devoted a lot of space to explaining why "personal choice" can not completely account for their divergent outcomes. Soledad O'Brien did a segment on them in her recent "Black in America" special on CNN. Here is a link to a recent Op-Ed he wrote at CNN. In the Op-Ed, he touches on something quite interesting - "color consciousness" in the black community, as part of his ongoing dialogue explaining the factors that affect so-called "personal choice".

As crazy as this may seem, I actually think that drug dealers (at least those who oversee an operation) are quite entrepreneurial and have good business management skills. It takes a considerable amount of business acumen to oversee the acquisition, customization, distribution, marketing and sale of any product, particularly one such as an illegal narcotic, which requires that all these activities be done clandestinely. It also requires leadership and inter-personal skills to attract people willing to work under you (as opposed to someone else) for reasons other than fear (and trust me, fear is not the only motivator for people to choose a particular dealer's operation). I could go on, but I can't help but think it a waste of talent for someone to wind up in the drug trade when they probably could have been a successful business person otherwise. In that regard, I am encouraged by people like Shawn Carter (who goes by the trade name "Jay-Z") who walked away from the drug trade to start several successful businesses, head a major record label and even become a U.N. spokesperson in the fight against the global water crisis, all while reaching back to help other people get to college instead of making the same mistakes he made.

Even though Shawn Carter is in some ways a perverse example, I think he and Dr. Dyson provide very public examples to the impoverished segment of the black community that you can come from poverty and still make it in life. Interestingly, President-elect Obama may provide the brightest example in this regard.

Very good work, Anok.

Anok said...

Wrench, Dexter, myundiary - thank you very much for your comments.

Rob - WOW! Holy crap!

Yes, yes, and yes! And yes!

Man I love the way you write :D

Sylvie said...

Great, thoughtful article. Have you considered however, that the system is made to be this way? It's not broken, per se.

You need that bottom tier, not to support the top, but to keep the middle satisfied. If the middle has nothing to look down on they'll start looking up with blood in their eyes.

They won't want to work while the master kicks back with his cigar and cognac, enjoying he fruits of others' labor.

Our system was built initially with a dependence on slavery, and it still depends on it. It's a delicately balanced economy. It needs to be rebuilt from the ground up on a more stable, sustainable footing.

On Education, have you considered that if we all had a college degree jobs for college educated folks would pay what no-skill jobs do now.

I must say, it's good to see someone out there thinking out loud :)

Jeanine said...

Very interesting article. I was a teacher in an inner city school (Watts---L.A.) and I'm currently a social worker, so this subject is something I deal with on a regular basis in the practical sense. I think some people do deliberately choose to be poor but most don't. Most people who are poor lack the support or resources to step up. There are a few amazing individuals who against all odds find themselves very successful.