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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Poverty isn't about money

Geraint Rowland, Flickr

This is what I thought as I scrolled down the "what life below the poverty line looks like" pictures on this site (click here).

Admittedly, the first thing that comes to mind when you look at the pictures linked above might be something along the lines of "Come on, people, take charge of your own lives!"

It is hard to understand why people would

- give babies coffee (or soft drinks, as seen elsewhere)
- be extremely poor yet obese or a regular smoker or drinker (all that wasted money, some will say)
- have babies in the "wrong circumstances"
- etc.

But as my friend K's wisely remarked when, in my younger years, I started commenting on the way some of her students (she's a special ed teacher) were probably raised...

"Don't judge"

Many North Americans who live below the poverty line still do have a roof, heating, drinking water, food, some furniture, some appliances, some clothes. Their material belongings and income might not differ that much from those of people who actively choose simplicity - and are happy about it.

Which makes you wonder: why does it seem like "the poor"'s life sucks then?

The difference lies in that simple word: choice. There is a huge difference between choosing frugality and being forced into it because of external reasons (which are usually not good reasons, by the way).

More than once in my life I made the choice to live simply. At some point I did not own a microwave nor a TV, which is unthinkable to most. My weekly groceries were monastic. My spending money almost nonexistent. And you should have seen the size of that apartment! It all felt good because 1) I had made the decision myself and 2) I knew that my choice could be reversed if I decided so.

No matter how little money or stuff I was living with, I was still floating on the cloud of a happy childhood, a nice upbringing, a solid education.

I did not feel poor.

I am not in a position to judge.

Judging is the first mistake we make when observing people who are struggling. We assume they have total control over their destiny, if only they were willing to pull up their sleeves. We misunderstand the reasons underlying their "questionable" choices. Yet we have not walked a mile (not even a foot) in their shoes. What is their background? What are their circumstances? What is the society we live in doing for them (or against them)? What is their level of personal agency, real or perceived? Ever heard of the term "vicious circle"?

Things don't have to be that way. But it will take a whole lot of elbow grease to make them change.

Wealthy, educated and generally speaking privileged people don't always make the right choices. How can we expect those who had a rough start to make the right choices?

Don't judge.


  1. i liked reading this post. ive had some pretty rough patches in my life and people would assume that i did things wrong or else i wouldnt have those challenges. looking back i believe i was not making wrong desisions mostly. some time life just throws something difficult at you and you have to deal with it as best as you can. the good thing is, you get experienced in dealing with rough times and can be of help for others facing the same situation...
    the other point you made is true for me too. if i choose to live poor it has a completely different flavor to it. it may even make you happier because you have more time for your priorities.
    always great to visit here! keep the good stuff coming!!! ;)

    1. Thanks for adding to this by sharing your experience!

  2. So very true - Chris and I have talked so many times about the role that choices play in our lives.

    1. You should write about the result of those discussions! :-)


  4. Interesting topic.

    It is difficult to not be judgmental, but I think the more educated we become, the better we are able to understand complex issues like poverty. As you state, "choices" are a driver and certainly the support or usually the lack of support for those making these sometimes seemingly unreasonable choices.

  5. Judgement, choice, we are all different, we are all individual.
    Who are we to judge what our next door neighbour is doing, is living, is buying.

    The internet/web enables a good many of us to make informed choices as to how we want to lead healthier lives. How we may want our children to live healthier lives. If we have our health it usually enables us to choose more ...what we want to do our pockets i.e..money or time may dicate ......

    Alas some do not have that situation, they may be facing droughts, famines, war.

    Many thanks Julie for a thought provoking post

    Have a good weekend

    All the best Jan

  6. Many very poor people work two minimal wage part-time jobs for years and dead tired most of the time, and it affects their decisions , leads to the luck of planning and doing things making them feel good at the moment but costly and unhealthy on a long run, like smoking and drinking.

  7. Each morning before the sun rises, Is it in a dark room in contemplative prayer. Among the first things I ask myself to do in the day ahead is to NOT BE JUDGMENTAL. By 8am I have usually blown it all to hell. Still, the next morning I will sit in that darkened room once more, and remind myself of the same.

    Judging people, and situations, however morally shallow it might seem on the surface, is a Darwinian step to protect ourselves -- our genes.

    Now a social judgment, which is what you are talking about, and a safety judgment which is deep in our DNA may seem to be different. However, the need to judge is ever present. It's what we do with that judgment, or how we apply it, defuse it, or release which is one of the things that make us moral -- or not.

    Poverty can be caused by so many factors, and is most always the sum of many factors. A faltering priority system among western cultures is as much to blame as any single factor. Homeless people with cell phones, and cigarettes instead of pens and job applications might bother me on the surface, but then I would try to remember just what I would do if I were in their shoes, and all hope seemed gone -- I would try to feel good, if only for a moment.

    Ultimately I don't believe a human life should be judged at all, but not opposed to judging corporations, and governments for how they disrespect a human life...

  8. The world can be a tough place for sure!

    Considering how we as humans behave, we sadly deserve what we sow.