I read this past week of efforts in many countries to eradicate poverty by, as some have phrased it, “paying the poor.” The generic term for such programs is “conditional cash transfers” (CCTs), meaning that the government essentially pays cash to families in poverty that meet certain criteria, such as keeping their children in school, having regular preventative medical check ups, and attending workshops on financial skills and disease prevention.
Reportedly, the CCTs can have a widespread positive impact on reducing the income gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in that country. Today’s topic, though, is not about the pros and cons of CCTs or whether we should implement one in the US. Rather, I’d like to address the less tangible side of poverty: PovertyThink, if you will.
I would describe PovertyThink as a set of beliefs, attitudes, and accepted presumptions held by individuals of ALL income levels that prohibit them from implementing, or cause them to take action contrary to, wisely money management behaviors, particularly with regards to building a satisfactory positive financial net worth in a capital-base economy.
Please do not misunderstand my statement. I am not referring to poverty (deficiency of money, goods or means of support) as being a choice. I am talking about people of ANY income level that subscribe (usually subconciously) to PovertyThink as a view of the financial world and, consequently, who fail to achieve financial success or independence.
Following are possible indicators of the presence of PovertyThink:
- Blaming others, particularly banks and creditors, for your financial woes. After all, you reason, they are the ones who have sabotaged your finances by charging ridiculously high penalty fees for bounced checks, late payments, and/or other mistakes.
- A strong distaste for the rich. In your mind, being rich is driving luxury vehicles; vacationing at luxury resorts; living in large homes; having mountain retreats or ocean-side cabins; having a garage full of motorcycles, ATVs, or snowmobiles; dressing in designer outfits and suits; and be able to buy just about anything else you want. You feel that those who are rich probably don’t deserve, and certainly don’t appreciate, what they have.
- Obsessing over the lifestyles of the rich. In spite of your feelings about the rich, you are often prone to obsess about their lifestyles and dream about what you would do if you were “rich.”
- Playing the lottery. You play the lottery because it offers you the best chance of becoming rich. You feel that the lottery is a way to become rich without having to financially injure anyone else on your way to the top, as the rich often do.
- Believing that finances should be fair. You hold to the belief that life should be fair for everyone and that the riches of the world should be equally available to, in not downright divided among, everyone. It galls you as completely unfair to think that the “rich” have it all and you don’t. After all, you believe that the harder a person works, the more they deserve to be rich, regardless of what they do for a living or what they contribute to society. And since you work harder than the wealthy you see on television, you feel you are just as deserving of riches as anyone.
On the surface, these beliefs seem harmless enough. In fact, #3 and maybe even #4 seem to you to be attitudes that should actually motivate someone towards financial success. So how do these points above, collectively identified as PovertyThink, actually do more financial harm than good? Let’s address them one at a time:
- Blaming others gets us no where. Blaming the umpire or referee for a bad call, in fact, can get you thrown out of the game. Blaming others for our financial woes just means that we’re throwing ourselves out of the financial game. What should we do, by contrast? Accept responsibility for (and the consequences of) our mistakes. This may mean additional fees, high interest rates, and more work for us in the short term. However, once we recognize that we often get ourselves into financial troubles, we also recognize that we are responsible (and capable) of getting ourselves out of them. No one else wants us to succeed like we do. It’s time to hunker down and approach our financial challenges with more focus, patience and wisdom. Lashing out only turns would-be friends to long-term foes.
- Those who dislike the rich the most are often those who want to become rich the most themselves. Unfortunately, they also usually have a warped sense of what it means to be rich. For those in the grips of PovertyThink, being rich is a lifestyle or a certain amount of income. If someone earns, say, $100,000 a year, well, they may be defined by a PovertyThinker as rich. It’s considered whether the same person earning $100,000 a year is spending $110,000 a year, is deep in credit card debt, or is staring foreclosure in the face because they can’t take care of their mortgage payment. The same could be said (and often is true) for a large percentage of people who drive the fancy cars, live in the opulent neighborhoods, and dress and accessorize themselves in the most expensive fashions. PovertyThinkers assume that the rich are greedy and have oppressed others while they earned their riches. The irony is that those who live the luxurious lifestyles tend to have noticeably smaller net worths as a percentage of their income than most millionaires, who buy used, American-made cars and live in modest homes. This PovertyThink tenant is, therefore, based upon inaccurate assumptions.
- PovertyThinkers are often seen buying or reading magazines about celebrity lifestyles. They know what brands of clothing celebrities wear, what types of vehicles they drive, where they vacation, which celebrities have their children in a private school and where that school is located, etc. Because many of the truly wealthy typically shun the spotlight, there is no magazine that gives an accurate description of what a real millionaire’s lifestyle is like. So, PovertyThinkers use transitive arguments to equate celebrities (who tend to earn large sums of money) with millionaires (who, outside of their primary residence, have a net worth of $1M or more in assets such as investments, accounts, business ownership, and real estate). Unfortunately, not all celebrities are (or stay) millionaires, and only a very small percentage of millionaires ascribe much importance to the extravagant lifestyles of many celebrities.
- Every week, we can read of or watch on television the report of the latest multi-million dollar lottery winner somewhere in the US. PovertyThinkers will see a dream come true for the winner, because they think in terms of amounts and dollars. In reality, many lottery winners (even some of the multi-million dollar jackpot winners) end up spending and/or giving away ALL of their winnings within a few years. Some huge jackpot winners have notoriously ended up living in trailer parks or with family members because they did not have a true appreciation of how much money they had won. They figured that since they were millionaires, they could give away or spend whatever amount they chose. They soon learn, though, that even a million dollars is a finite sum.
- The idea that reward should be directly tied to effort is not new, though it is pervasive. “Johnny got an A for effort.” However, it is a fundamental reality that effort is only one of several factors that our society rewards financially. Others include competence, creativity, productivity, personal affinity, loyalty, and on and on. To base someone’s financial compensation solely upon effort is to deny the importance of the other factors. Such an inflexible practice would lead to stagnation in productivity and innovation. Unfortunately, PovertyThinkers who fixate on the importance of effort tend to shun or ignore opportunities around them to solve problems and create solutions that could otherwise lead them toward greater compensation and reward. Developing an entrepreneurial work ethic or style, even if one works as an employee for someone else, creates an entirely new way of considering the value of work as it relates to their income.
So what’s the answer for PovertyThinkers? Since becoming a financial educator, I’ve always felt that the formula for personal finance success has more to do with motivation than with numbers, math, or school grades. PovertyThinkers, if left to themselves, often have to hit rock bottom or experience some other sort of life changing event before taking the decision to make changes. Otherwise, not surprisingly since this is coming from a financial educator, I believe education is key. Whether through workshops, webinars, conversations, or readying materials, learning about others who have broken the PovertyThink cycle and learning how they did so can provide the hope and belief that makes such individual progress possible.
Such stories are not hard to find. Most of us just don’t look for them or don’t recognize them in the context of breaking the PovertyThink cycle. A large percentage of rags-to-riches stories (excluding lottery winners and those who inherit their money) are case studies in overcoming PovertyThink.
Have a fantastic day!