People of low socioeconomic status are often considered responsible for their impoverishment. This mentality—“the poor are poor because they don’t work hard”—is seen so often in those looking from a point of privilege. Even when disregarding hereditary disadvantages, poor  individuals are blamed for bad choices that perpetuate poverty, such as smoking and failing to save money for long-term plans.

These judgments, however, are misguided in the way they criticize individuals so severely. Many psychologists, including University of Pennsylvania neuroscientists Joseph W. Kable and Joseph T. McGuire,  now believe that poverty influences the way humans—all humans—make decisions. In other words, individuals cannot be blamed before interpreting the psychological wear of poverty.

Complementing their findings, a poignant post on, an online forum, acts as a window into the thought process of someone at the bottom end of the socioeconomic totem pole. Here’s an excerpt:

“I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be.

“Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different baby-daddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It’s more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that’s all you get. You’re probably not compatible with them for anything long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.”

This woman’s writing illustrates exactly what Kable and McGuire showed in their experiments. It seems that, contrary to common thought, patience is not always adaptive. Impatience and giving up can be the appropriate action if, for example, the future is unpredictable and may not hold the rewards one is waiting for.

“There are lots of situations, probably the majority of situations, in the real world,” Kable says, “where waiting longer is actually a valid cue that the reward is getting further and further away.”

Patience, which is linked to both intelligence and success later in life, may be a construct of privilege. When one comes from a place of privilege the rewards one waits for are, more often than not, granted. The same cannot be said of the poor, so naturally it is harder to wait when the reward of patience is usually not granted. It is especially hard to plan ahead when one does not have money and giving up is so simple and so instantaneously rewarding—when smoking a cigarette, like the woman on continues to say, is the only relief.

“Our environment trains us about the value of persistence. Sometimes, it makes sense to wait,” said Maria Konnikova in an opinion piece for the New York Times featuring Kable and McGuire’s study. “At other times, the adage about the bird in hand begins to make sense.”

The adage goes, aptly, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” For people of low socioeconomic status this may be not only true, but also adaptive.

Adam Kaminski

Sources: New York Times, Killermartinis
Photo: Salon

The Hunger Games Global Poverty
For a young adult series, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games offers a surprisingly biting criticism of the status quo in the West. Her story is one of a privileged district in society that is altogether indifferent to the suffering going on outside its boundaries.  Although Collin disguises it with different names, she has not ventured far from our present reality of global poverty.

The Hunger Games is set in a dystopic future world, where citizens live in an area divided by districts. District One & Two are the wealthiest, and control the majority of the resources. As they spread further and further out, the regions become more impoverished. The heroine of the novel, Katniss Everdeen, is from the last, District 13, and relies on her wits, her will and a crude bow and arrow to support her family. Through its fantastical descriptions, outlandish characters and futuristic technology, Collins’ world manages to appear quite distinct from our own. Yet, in a thinly veiled criticism Collins has painted an unsettling portrait of ourselves and the world we live in.


The Hunger Games: A Lesson on Global Poverty


The parallel escapes many of the fans of the books, but those who live in District One are akin to the top percent in the world: they have enough to eat, access to clean water, safe homes and opportunities for betterment. For this percentage of the world, daily life is not a struggle: it is a thing to be enjoyed, to find happiness and meaning, to indulge in fads and fancies and fashion. Much like the District One in the books, the humans in District One seem bizarre and alien in comparison to those struggling on the fringes. They have none of the same concerns and seem largely unaware of the brutal reality that exists just beyond their borders.

The Hunger Games offers an uncomfortable mirror to our own world. In our daily lives, we often obsess about trivialities: we track celebrities, dedicate time to watching who wore what dress, aim to buy smartphones and cars while the vast majority of the world struggles to scrape a living out of the most dire circumstances.

As audiences, we automatically condemn District One; without even meeting them, we judge everyone in it and see the plot’s revolution as inevitable and cheer for Katniss. In reality, however, we are not quite as benevolent. We are quick to make excuses to preserve self-interest. Poverty and the state of the world do not often rank among our daily concerns, as much as what to wear and what people think of us. On the national scale, US foreign aid consists of less than 1% of the budget; this covers everything from healthcare to military aid to food assistance.

The Hunger Games has captivated a number of readers in the United States; and yet, for some, Collins has posed a very uncomfortable and very important question – what makes us so different from District One?

– Farahnaz Mohammed