Living in poverty impacts the way people make decisions and see the world. What is the psychology of poverty and what we can do, as a society, to tackle this issue?
Though we’ve made major progress in eradicating poverty worldwide throughout the last century, around a billion people still live for less than a $1 a day, mostly in poorer African and Asian countries, and the streets of wealthy cities are the only shelter for the homeless.
As psychologists and sociologists have observed, there’s something about poverty that completely changes one’s outlook on the world. In fact, there’s plenty of empirical evidence that shows how a change of income influences a shift in societal trends and tendencies.
Poverty can cage entire generations and neighbourhoods in vicious circles. What impact does poverty have on one’s life attitude and why it’s so hard to escape its merciless grip?
George Orwell on Poverty
In 1933, George Orwell published his first full-length piece, a memoir entitled Down and Out in Paris and London. In the book, he recalls his thoughts and experiences from the times when he worked as a plongeur in Paris and when he was a tramp in London. Down and Out in Paris in London gives us a clear outlook on what it’s like to reach the societal pit.
The memoir was targeted at lower and middle-class citizens, hence Orwell wrote it in a non-academic tone. First thing that he noticed when running dangerously short on cash, without money for food or rent, was that poverty completely eradicates the future. In other words, one no longer cares about their career in five years’ time, their child’s future education, or any forward-thinking notions such as insurance. To survive the day and have some money for food and tobacco for tomorrow is as far as one can plan.
Ipso facto, being poor is indeed embarrassing. Orwell noticed that when he started to feel his wallet shrink in his pocket, he tried to do everything to hide this fact from his friends. Sometimes he would spend two days’ food equivalent during a night out with his mates, just to show that he could afford it.
During his days as a plongeur in Paris, he would work for fifteen hours a day, six to seven days a week. It left him with no room for other pastimes whatsoever. He was also amazed at how the relations with his colleagues would depend on the situation. In the backroom, they would call each other names and act quite vulgarly, a behaviour changed once one interacted with an establishment’s guest.
While tramping in London, Orwell noticed that the society had no use of the masses of homeless people who spend their days begging, collecting cigarette butts from the street, and spending their only money for two slices of bread and a tea. Britain’s tramps were mostly men, and the tendency is still present today. He proposed that if society wanted to put these men to work, they could organise self-sufficient households, where the tramps could grow their own food and have a more meaningful life.
George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris in London had a strong impact on how society sees poverty and how it changes people’s mindset. Some 90 years later, we still struggle with this issue. Over decades, psychologists found more ways that poverty influences one’s way of thinking.
The Psychological Impact of Poverty
There is not a shadow of a doubt that poverty is not good for human beings. Morality in itself should motivate us to tackle this problem and help people escape poverty worldwide.
This vicious circle starts at the very beginning of one’s life. Scarce resources and poor nutrition is harmful to the development of every child’s brain. Later on, this has a negative impact on their cognition and overall physical and mental development.
Furthermore, incessant stress that comes along with the fight for survival can lead to diseases and debilitation of one’s immune system. With neither money nor free medical care, people living in poverty have little to no access to vaccines or any other crucial medications.
In fact, studies have shown that children from poor families tend to have less-developed brains, mostly due to the lack of books and other educational amenities in their immediate environment. Losing sleep is yet another detrimental factor. Over years, their cognitive and linguistic abilities are at a large disadvantage – and that’s a result of neither choice nor laziness.
Having been raised in poverty, children sometimes grow to have a low self-esteem. Even in middle-class and high-income communities, people have the tendency to compare themselves to others. It’s a great confidence-crusher to be at the bottom of the social ladder, which changes one’s perspective as well.
Because money becomes the prerequisite of their survival, not a luxury, poor people constantly have rent, bills, and groceries on their minds. As Orwell noticed, any plans for the future are eradicated. This may lead to making bad decisions without forward thinking, leaving people in poverty without any savings or insurance.
Poverty impacts our way of thinking and makes it even more difficult to escape this hopeless bottom of society. But, speaking of society, poverty seems to be instilled in our socio-economic structures. Many of these issues still need to be addressed.
Socio-Economic Repercussions of Poverty
Nowadays, we struggle with a plethora of global issues that need the brainpower of all humanity – terrorism, ecological crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, there are billions of people whose cognitive potential is wasted. As we mentioned, living in poverty deteriorates one’s cognitive abilities. According to Dr Jordan B Peterson, a psychiatrist and public intellectual, if we want to combat climate change we shouldn’t protest for a systemic change, but rather focus on educating more people to find a solution to this issue – two birds with one stone.
Neighbourhoods and communities that suffer from poverty tend to be hatchery for crime. When people are down and out, they often see no other way but to turn to the life of crime.
Such statistics and observations gave rise to culturism: a generalised bias based on a group’s tendencies. For instance, a person can be discriminated against not solely because of their ethnicity or skin colour (that would be racism), but because, for example, crime rates in their community are high. At the same time, just because an individual comes from a poor environment with high crime rates doesn’t mean they are violent, etc.
To fight discrimination against the poor we should approach everyone as individuals. As Orwell noticed in London, the tramps he met were regular people like you and me, somehow demonised by societal prejudice.
An interesting statistic shows that the wealthier people are, the fewer children they decide to have. No surprise about it – an African farmer has to have many children, so that they can work and then help their parents in old age. One could draw a logical conclusion that by helping people escape poverty, we can tackle yet another problem – overpopulation.
A Way Forward
The capitalist dream has it that if you work hard enough, you will become a millionaire. This conservative outlook, however, lacks basic human empathy and could even be seen as utopian. As you know now, poverty has a variety of psychological influences on one’s way of thinking, which often prevents one from going up the socioeconomic ladder and escaping extreme poverty.
Moreover, by focusing on eliminating poverty we can, as a result, tackle a plethora of other global problems that we’re facing now – from climate change to overpopulation. We don’t really know what poverty is until we either experience it on our own or thoroughly educate ourselves on the topic.
By understanding poverty and its impact we can work together to tackle this issue. This “crusade” started by George Orwell in 1933 is slowly but surely going mainstream, with more and more people trying to find solutions to the world’s most pressing problems – out of pure willingness to make the world a better place, and not the race for profit or social status.
A positive outlook can have a positive impact during tough times. Here’s some great ways to support yourself:
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