Serve too much at a wedding? Hoard stuff for fear of running out? Can’t summon up enough positive thinking to claim some fortune? Obsessed with looking for bargains and deals to save money? For all this and more, you will be denigrated and classified as one having a ‘poverty mentality.’ Let’s talk about why this is a terrible way to describe anyone.
Here is a nowhere near exhaustive list of behaviour that people consider evidence of poverty mentality.
- Being constantly worried about money or thinking about it often.
- A belief that things are hard to get and that opportunities are limited.
- Saying things like “I can’t afford this”.
- A “poor me” attitude where you blame external factors for your bad circumstances.
- The deep-seated attitude that things are never enough.
- Thinking small rather than thinking big.
- Making decisions based on fear and unwillingness to take risks.
- A belief that success is temporary and non-replicable.
What’s wrong with it
Refusal to believe people
Inherent in the accusation that one has a poverty mentality is a refusal to believe poor people when they give you an honest account of their lives. It’s a stunning commitment to discrediting poor people and worse to gaslighting them. If someone’s preoccupied with the fact that they can’t afford to meet their needs or they can’t afford something and they tell you that, then you say they just have a poverty mentality, you’re gaslighting them and calling them a liar.
Refusal to see the world for what it is
If you blame other people or external factors for your circumstances, you’re considered somebody with a poverty mentality. Meanwhile, you have little control over a million things that affect your life and finances from government policies to your salary to global pandemics, wars and more. The economic system of the society you live in will have a huge impact on your life so will things like your family’s wealth or lack thereof, your health and more. To suggest that people’s lives are not entirely within their control is another way of gaslighting people. It’s telling them that the reality they see all around them is not real. It’s telling them that they are crazy for coming to the conclusion that their lives are affected by more than just them.
Precarious people cannot afford to take risks. If they fail, they may never recover. They don’t have the opportunity to fail that rich people have and it has nothing to do with their attitudes and everything to do with the material conditions of their lives. Opportunities are limited, jobs are increasingly difficult to get, and success can be very temporary. In Kenya, far too many people are one medical emergency in the family away from poverty. All this is true and outside your control. To suggest that this is just negativity and blaming others for your situation is disingenuous.
Undergirding this talk of poverty mentality is the assertion that if poor people just change their attitudes and develop a positive, abundant mentality, their fortunes will equally change. It’s apparently a character flaw that poor people need to rectify. All this is said with a condescending tone suggesting that if poor people only got off their lazy behinds and tried to do something as small as changing their attitude, everything would be well. To use poverty as a way to criticize one’s attitude or censure someone is insulting, thoughtless and patronizing. It must stop.
About 24% of the world’s population lives in fragile contexts characterized by impoverished conditions and dire circumstances. If someone is constantly worried about money or perpetually worried about lack, maybe just believe them. Resist that impulse to evaluate their attitude based on what some charlatan motivational speakers say. A major cause of poverty is inequality and uneven distribution of wealth and income with the capitalist class hoarding the wealth produced by workers. Inequality and poverty cannot be eradicated without fundamental changes in the mode of production. These are things you have no control over and that can’t be changed by cultivating an abundance mindset.
Poor people are cautious, risk-averse and always worried about whether they’ll have enough money to survive. That is a side-effect of poverty, not a cause. To suggest that it’s the cause is the most vicious form of victim blaming there ever was. In the case of people who are not poor but are still dealing with such fear and anxiety, it’s enough to look at the world and recognize that you’re just one misfortune away from being poor and precarious. The world as it’s organized particularly economically cultivates these fears and anxieties in us all and to ignore that is to willfully deceive yourself and others. Let’s be gracious to each other.
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