Poverty is a State of Mind

Guest post by Alan Wilkinson

How to define poverty in developed nations is a subject of much earnest angst and statistical controversy.  The dictionary definition such as “The state of being extremely poor” invites the question of whether, in our typically mixed capitalist/socialist states with welfare safety nets, anyone really qualifies compared with the worst of the undeveloped world.

To meet that challenge, various “internally relative” economic measures are promoted – such as the current “60% of the median household income” which is currently popular in New Zealand and has been adopted by the Commissioner for Children.  This kind of measure is then extrapolated into statistical measures of inequality based on distributions of income and/or wealth within these countries.

Finally, these statistical measures of inequality have been compared across nations in studies analyzing whether inequality, changes or measures to deal with it affect economic growth.

Further complicating the definition are the historic improvements in wealth, health and standard of living across developed nations.   The elderly are inclined to scoff at claims of hardship such as cold, uninsulated houses and lack of heating or appliances compared with the Spartan homes of their youth.

Finally, there is the issue of lifestyle choice.  Some in wealthy nations may choose to live a simple, non-materialistic life perhaps living off the land in an isolated rural or island location.  By economic measures of income and wealth they may be judged as poverty stricken, but in reality their lives may be satisfying and even idyllic.  In less extreme examples, very many will choose an occupation and way of life that gives them freedom and less stress than an alternative which may provide a higher and/or more risky income or potential wealth.

So we must come to the conclusion that economic measures are a very inadequate assessment of poverty and are never likely to produce agreement on their relevance or effective action to make improvements.  That leads to thinking about the real causes of poverty hardship in our developed societies, particularly as they affect children.  These are not hard to find.  By the time they begin school at age 5 there are huge differences in the abilities and experiences of most poor vs wealthy children.  Not only do these never recover but they widen as children grow older.  The consequence is that these poor children have drastically reduced options in life and vastly less chance of economic success.

In short, real poverty is a state of mind that cripples all future prospects.  Worse, it transmits powerfully from one generation to the next.  This is the curse of stupid beliefs manifesting in destructive behaviours with many aspects.   These include:

  1. Disbelief in education
  2. Belief in violence to solve conflicts
  3. Valuing power over kindness
  4. Disregard for personal or private property
  5. Lack of trust and disregard for the value of trust
  6. Disregard for sexual integrity
  7. Disbelief in reliability and honesty
  8. Disbelief in goal setting or working to achieve goals
  9. Disbelief in investing in the future
  10. Belief in instant gratification
  11. Disrespect for self and everyone else
  12. Rejection of individual and family responsibilities

That is real poverty:  permanent, pervasive and self-perpetuating.  Other people can be economically poor, for example many recent immigrants or young people, but with the right ingrained beliefs that will only be temporary.

Just as individual poverty is best assessed on the quality of the individual’s minds, so it is with nations.  An economically poor nation with good beliefs will not stay poor and will not feel poor.  Honest Government maintaining peace and supporting education, personal freedom and free and open markets will create wealth and prosperity.  The transitions in Asia since WW2 demonstrate the possibilities.  Once again, the personal stupid beliefs above manifest in a country’s leadership or in any significant portion of the population are a recipe for national poverty.  So too are religious, racial and tribal hatreds and conflicts.

In summary then, poverty is best assessed on the basis of the above beliefs and consequential behaviours.  That leads to the conclusion that poverty is best addressed by changing those beliefs and cannot be fixed simply by redistribution of income or wealth.  Almost certainly doing the latter alone will merely facilitate greater and faster spread of the destructive beliefs that comprise real poverty.

Leave a comment

36 Comments

  1. Timoti

     /  16th December 2015

    Bob Jones said: poverty is a state of mind.The first thing a neophyte learnt in the mystery schools of old was thoughts control your reality: change your thoughts change your destiny.Given that will take personal effort I think most will stick with wealth redistribution.Its the socialist way.

    Reply
  2. Alan the noise in the background is the cheers from me and mine! If I can add a few comments to your starting list:
    1. The real problem is that the affected children are not aware of the importance of becoming educated. It’s the fault of the teachers and parents that they are not motivated and encouraged to learn.
    2. There is a lack of emphasis on the signature tunes of good manners and respect for those immediately involved in their education. The place of the Teacher in the Community has diminished since the 1950’s, concurrent with the growth of Teachers Unions and the lack of commitment to additional extra-curricular activities like sport, additional remedial teaching support, and most importantly the lack of a feed-back system that the child is confident they can use to signal deficiencies in their understanding of the more technical subjects. Its too hard for the Teachers!
    3. Devaluation of individual worth because of differences in culture, religion, gender etc etc because the individual is different and the child is not equipped to deal with that fact, so reacts negatively (Insert Adult instead of Child if you like) to protect their belief in self.
    4. The need for respected adult models is vital for the growth of children. We adults need to learn that if we take the piss out of successful persons, we are diminishing their worth in the eyes of those close to us. Maybe we need to learn when to keep mind in gear and mouth in neutral.
    5. And finally, I continue to be surprised by the intellectual capability of our children and am confident and convinced they will improve on the mess we have passed into their care.

    Reply
    • kittycatkin

       /  16th December 2015

      I have a set of bound Family Heralds from 1887, and people were saying the same things (or very similar ones) about education then as many people say today. The Golden Age always seems to have been about 50 years before the time of writing,. The FH editorials could, for the most part, have been written yesterday. It’s a marvellous time capsule; money really well spent.

      Reply
  3. Mefrostate

     /  16th December 2015

    I have a number of issues with your perspective here, but perhaps the most pointed question is: how do we practically go about addressing the beliefs and behaviours?

    Reply
    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  16th December 2015

      One method that has been used successfully in deprived areas in the US is to directly teach philosophy in schools. This gives the kids a meta language to use on their problems and beliefs and tools to rethink their ideas with. It needs specially trained teachers.

      Reply
      • kittycatkin

         /  16th December 2015

        A schoolmaster friend used to set time aside for thinking ! It could well have produced similar results.

        Reply
        • Alan Wilkinson

           /  16th December 2015

          The philosophy teaching emphasised not just thinking but talking and expressing your thoughts and analysis. Just thinking is not enough. These children need encouragement and reinforcement of their thoughts and opinions.

          Reply
          • kittycatkin

             /  17th December 2015

            I don’t think that he just let them sit there thinking-it was a shorthand way of saying thinking logically and working through ideas. A variation in what you’re saying, really..It was called thinking time for want of a better word.

            Reply
      • Mefrostate

         /  16th December 2015

        This seems like sensible policy, I generally support broader life-skills education.

        What role DO you see for direct wealth distribution in reducing poverty?

        Reply
        • Alan Wilkinson

           /  16th December 2015

          Obviously some people are afflicted with other causes of economic deprivation such as accident, illness and incapacity that are not due to their own beliefs and continuing behaviour. They need a good safety net. Even those with stupid beliefs and destructive behaviour need a minimal support level to sustain them but provide incentive to change. I would prefer to see these administered by private charitable or professional organisations rather than bureaucracies.

          Dealing with their children is especially fraught and depends on the level of mental poverty. In the worst cases removal is the only solution. In the best full financial support of the parent carer is justified. In the middle the support needs to be moderated and monitored to best help the children.

          Reply
    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  16th December 2015

      A very well known and successful columnist in the UK who came from a terrible background said that one adult who believed in him made the difference for him. A great teacher can turn a life around in the right circumstances with the right chemistry.

      There have been quite a lot of mentoring projects but I’m a bit cautious about their effectiveness. I suspect mentor quality is difficult to achieve. Others may know more.

      Reply
      • A great teacher can have profound positive effects. (Or some other ‘significant other’ a child comes into contact with.)

        So who are these ‘great’ teachers and what qualities do they have which make them that? And are those the priority qualities of those we are putting in front of our kids?

        Is the goal and aim of the teachers we hope to perform miraculous recoveries there to do that or get the kids to achieve a tick in the right National Standards or NCEA Level 2 boxes?

        Reply
        • Alan Wilkinson

           /  16th December 2015

          I suspect by the time of NCEA it is too late for most. The chances of getting a tick in the right NS box for these kids before recovery is nil.

          Reply
        • Alan Wilkinson

           /  16th December 2015

          I think it is quite clear from this analysis of the problem what qualities a great teacher has to have to turn these kids around. They have to be able to communicate with deprived and abused children and show them by example and by inspiring and giving them confidence in themselves a vision and opening into a totally different world.

          Reply
  4. kiwi dave

     /  16th December 2015

    Alan’s 12 points look like a Daesh manifesto

    Reply
    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  17th December 2015

      A very interesting observation which probably has consequences for how we should look at neutralising their threat.

      Reply
  5. kittycatkin

     /  16th December 2015

    I knew a family in my home town, of whom one brother ended up an HOD of one of the most prestigious and academically respected schools in NZ and the other was a freezing worker. One son of the HOD went completely off the rails and with a friend committed a particularly brutal home invasion and double murder as the high point of his life of crime. The other children all had the sorts of careers that one would expect from such a background.

    I come from an extremely academic background and my brother (whose IQ is near genius level) is a builder’s labourer, There’s no one size fits all in these matters.

    Reply
    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  16th December 2015

      There is no law that says you have to achieve, or even agreement on what achievement should look like. I am content with a set of beliefs that gives you all the options.

      Reply
      • The place of the Teacher in the Community has diminished since the 1950’s. To link and seemingly note as significant the concurrence of the growth of Teachers Unions and the lack of commitment to additional extra-curricular activities like sport, additional remedial teaching support to that, might be an observation and opinion. If a criticism it is a dismal shot.

        Those changes are surely some of the myriad societal changes. The complexity of those changes and the inextricability of them to multi facets of our ways of life cannot be denied.

        To, for example, say less teachers are committed to additional extra-curricular activities like sport, might be right. Why? Because teachers don’t care now like they used to in the 1950s and ’60s? And if they don’t care, why is that?

        Has there been a growth of Teachers Unions? Growth in what ways? Why?

        I am not surprised by the intellectual (and other) capabilities of our children. I wonder if the narrower educational perspectives will see the next generations having the same opportunities to get to be who they can be compared to those of the past.

        Reply
      • “There is no law that says you have to achieve, or even agreement on what achievement should look like.”

        There is a thing saying you have to achieve. It is even more important than any messages handed down on Mount Sinai on scungy bits of stone.
        It looks like this: NCEA Level 2: ✔️ Achieved 😊

        Reply
        • Alan Wilkinson

           /  16th December 2015

          Considering the life impact of the bad beliefs I have listed, doesn’t it strike us as absurd that we spend a lot of time measuring children’s academic progress objectively but none at all measuring their fundamental value beliefs and progress?

          Reply
          • You don’t need to tell me about that. You need to talk to the Minister of Education. She has her priorities, her key learnings and focus and what needs to be done. The important stuff is shuffled back in a priority list. The prime aim is to end up with I referred to before – fancy graphs about National Standards and NCEA Level 2. Achieving that does not need teachers with the X factor alluded to on here. Technicians there to do the job, tick it off are needed. Robots, ‘kitchen sink’ types are needed.

            Reply
      • kittycatkin

         /  17th December 2015

        The freezing worker brother had a very pleasant life and was a thoroughly decent bloke; I’d say that he ‘achieved’ in his own way, owing nothing to anyone and living a good and honest life. I don’t see how value beliefs can be measured beyond a certain point. There would be no school where lying, bullying, lack of respect for other people’s property and violence are considered acceptable, but it happens. The family in the next street to the one where I saw the house have the values that if it’s not nailed down or locked up, it’s all right to take it. I can’t see what can be done about this. My mother taught one of the S children and was very fond of him; she turned him onto reading and hoped that he would be the one who broke the pattern-but some years later, there he was in the paper and off to prison like the rest of the family.

        Progress is measured, but if a pupil can’t or won’t progress, what can anyone do ? I was excellent at English and languages, but I still can’t do long division.

        Reply
  6. kiwi guy

     /  16th December 2015

    What about IQ? If you are below average you aren’t going to be very good at anything much are you, and its not like you can do anything about it.

    What about Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. AI is supposed to surpass human intelligence in the mid 2020s. What jobs will be left? I’m not sure of the claim that this advance in technology will release humans to pursue new creative activities and fields of employment. Humans could end up like horses – technologically obsolete

    What about the global economy which is playing a game of extend and pretend, doubling down on debt as a response to the GFC. Interest rates at low low levels never seen before, severe malinvestment, savers eg retirees struggling to stay out of poverty, property and stockmarket bubbles, chronic underemployment and low growth.

    Reply
    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  16th December 2015

      I don’t think genetic IQ is all that critical except at the extreme when it amounts to a serious disability.

      AI is still very limited in application. I have a notion Einstein said that genius was asking the right question. I think it will be quite a while before AI can do that. A job is providing something someone else wants at a price they are willing to pay. I don’t see much sign that people will run out of things they want and are willing to pay for.

      Reply
      • A high IQ is a reasonable indicator of future academic success, but EQ (emotional intelligence) is probably a better indicator of a person’s likely quality of life. Soft skills like managing emotions, healthy relationships, self-confidence, setting boundaries, paying attention to one’s body and mind, are not formally taught. Instead what kids learn at school is bullying, toadying, measuring one’s worth by some arbitrary numbers, how being popular is more important than being a good person, and other anti-patterns that sabotage their long term wellbeing.
        That said, poverty is not just a state of mind. It is measurable by the number of kids with 3rd world diseases, the prevalence of overcrowded dwellings or worse living arrangements, the relative affordability of staple food items and rent. These numbers can *absolutely* be improved by government action and money.

        Reply
        • Alan Wilkinson

           /  16th December 2015

          “the number of kids with 3rd world diseases, the prevalence of overcrowded dwellings or worse living arrangements, the relative affordability of staple food items and rent”

          These things are very hard to fix with government action and money so long as the affected minds are afflicted with the bad beliefs I listed.

          Reply
  7. Good topic Alan. I don’t have a lot to contend with in the theory of it. So what of the practise? Firstly though, I believe poverty in NZ can only be “internally relative”.

    ‘Poverty is a State of Mind’ “leads to the conclusion that poverty is best addressed by changing those beliefs and cannot be fixed simply by redistribution of income or wealth”

    The word “simply” is important I think (which is not to disregard any of the others) because some redistribution of wealth will surely be required to ameliorate the situation, the extant problem, ergo, there are people in this poverty situation who need assistance right now.

    When I knew I was going to build a house I thoroughly investigated all the various environmental considerations, comparatively, for all the possible building material options open to me. To my surprise it turned out, all factors considered – despite my dislike for monocultural forests and tanalization – and even considering ultimate disposal of the materials when the house is demolished – tanalized NZ pinus radiata timber is something like 40 times better than its nearest rival. So I buy tanalized timber and make submissions and hope that the forestry industry might plant mixed forests for longer term economic and environmental advantage, but of course they don’t.

    So even financial assistance given to parents might be conditional upon engaging in some form of education themselves? To get some input other than financial about altering their own situation? This may cost money too. It may not change things much or only slowly. It may require the same or even more bureaucracy.

    It may still be that under the best of circumstances, including teaching philosophy and ethics in school, some financial assistance will be required for a whole generation, 25 – 30 years, until the better educated generation mature and the current generation either change or die out? (Terrible thing to say, eh?) So I can’t agree with your assertion those with the most stupid beliefs “need a minimal support level to sustain them but provide incentive to change”.

    This is the punitive model and arguably changes nothing while creating torpidity and resentment. I favour the affirmative action model. These people may in fact require more input, conditional of course. If we accept support is required, I favour it be the best it can be.

    The alternative, it seems to me, is just to leave things how they are? I mean collectively, at a government or societal level.

    “I would prefer to see these administered by private charitable or professional organisations rather than bureaucracies”. Personally I am deeply concerned about the general trend I perceive towards “private charity” rather than public welfare. We already have the ‘Societies of Benevolence’ experience of Victorian England to reflect upon. The profusion of charities for the many poor was reliant upon its extreme opposite, obscene wealth for the few very rich. Indeed, the growth of one today might simply evidence the growth of the other. Charity becomes a means of salving conscience, and of social influence or even control?

    The problems with private charity, the corollary of other ‘privatisation’, are several –
    a) Much of the funding is taxpayer funding anyhow, via the government. Hence, it might be possible for the government to ‘fudge’ public spending reduction by chanelling funds into charity. I suspect this is the situation with KidsCan and child poverty spending at this very moment. So, for instance, as food in school, kids get white bread, uht milk and baked beans. Is this the kind of “education” we want them to get?
    b) The distribution of charity is considerably more open to selectivity and influence
    c) Charity can become little more than a ‘popularity contest’. Despite their possible worthiness, unpopular or unattractive causes may not receive funding or assistance
    d) Charities can be used as tax dodges
    e) They might (I’m not certain) ellicit charitable donations proportionately more from the middle-to-lower income stratas than from the very rich anyway.
    f) As with ‘popularity’, causes can become vehicles of charitable ‘sponsorship’, no doubt tax deductable. Kidscan again = Fonterra, TipTop and Watties.

    Its a good topic. Very well introduced. Very, very important we all discuss it.

    Reply
    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  16th December 2015

      I did not intend that the administration of welfare via private groups implied private funding. I saw it as better moderating and monitoring Government funding. Neither was my proposed lower level of funding for those still suffering from stupid beliefs intended to be at a punitive level but at a level that avoids funding bad behaviours (addictions, binges), leaves room for rewards for improvements and is subject to sensible and flexible moderating and monitoring.

      Reply
  8. @ Alan – you might be interested to know that between posting mine and reading your last, I searched “Victorian Charity” and found this, which, I have to say, despite its moderate length, I recommend everyone read. It does not support my argument or current beliefs –

    http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/social-justice/welfare-and-charity-lessons-from-victorian-england.html

    “Moreover, charity, being individual and voluntary, establishes a “moral tie” between the donor and the recipient, between the rich and the poor. Relief, being impersonal and legal, destroys any sense of morality. The donor (the tax-payer) resents his involuntary contribution, and the recipient feels no gratitude for what he gets as a matter of right, which, in any case, he feels to be insufficient”

    I feel sure there is a counter-argument, which I want to investigate, but in the meantime my belief system, while never firmly fixed, is certainly somewhat “disrupted”.

    Good night.

    Reply
    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  17th December 2015

      There is certainly truth in that statement. Whether it can be made to work is the big challenge though – both politically and financially.

      Reply
      • I agree. It is certainly part of the ‘mix’ I will keep in mind in future.

        The quote above was written in Victorian times, but if it can be said to apply today, there are aspects of it I want to question; notably the assumption of “rich and poor”.

        Notwithstanding perfectly reasonable differences between people and their achievements: Are we, who have and mostly seem to accept ‘governance’ of some kind, going to allow extreme differences between rich and poor to simply flourish and grow?

        Reply
        • Pickled Possum

           /  17th December 2015

          Thanks for that link PartisanZ

          Gertrude Himmelfarb paper on Welfare and Charity was enlightening at 12am this morning. 😎
          and How things have not changed in a 150 years when we are discussing and defining the poor and poverty

          “Such persons (enemies of reform) will, no doubt, avail themselves of the mischievous ambiguity of the word poor and treat all diminution of the expenditure for the relief of the poor as so much taken from the labouring classes ”

          “the poorest countries in Europe had the fewest paupers while the richest country, England, had the most.”

          Children living in poverty in NZ is a most important subject to discuss I agree.
          In my emotional reality that’s all I see we are ever going to be able to do, discuss mull over debate if the last 150 years are anything to go by.

          Montessori education that is close to what Alan suggests. http://www.montessori.org.uk/what_is_montessori

          Reply
  9. I agree on education being a crucial factor in raising oneself up in life, but that topic deserves an entire article in itself. A few points on that, however.
    The older ones among us had the benefit of free university education. That sector has become increasingly closed off to the poorer in our society since it became ‘user pays’. Why not bring back free (OK, state funded) education for all, at all levels?
    Teachers are very undervalued – maligned, even – in NZ, and especially by the Right in my observation. When was the last time anyone on the Right had a good word to say about Teachers? (or academics?) I am not sure why this is – perhaps the Right leaning here can explain? (is is something to do with theirs being some of the last strong Unions in NZ? )
    I agree 100% that a certain teacher (or other mentor) who sees something in a child can make all the difference in the world to that child’s self-belief, progress and future. However, the way the MOE, the ERO, and other govt bureaucracies dictate the terms of teaching in 2015 in NZ is draconian. The way they are allowed to teach is way more prescribed and controlled than it used to be. There is less room than ever now, for the ‘maverick’ types who adjust their teaching to do whatever works with the kids they have in front of them. As well as that, teachers are increasingly bogged down in paperwork and utterly BS ‘reporting’ (to govt via MOE, ERO etc), reporting that probably sits in a vault, and is neither read by, nor useful to anyone (except perhaps the dept of statistics, if that still exists) Teachers do not have the FREEDOM to teach in ways they may personally find effective. Why not give them this, free them from being bureaucrats, and stop bashing them?
    Despite 13 years in school, many many NZ young leave unable to spell, read, write, etc, and most of all unable to Think Critically. Alan’s suggestion about teaching Philosophy is close to this issue I believe. ( From memory, logic was one of the areas covered in Philosophy)
    If all children could be taught critical thinking as a priority, how different our society would be!. To my mind it is one of the most valuable abilities of all and should be prioritized.

    Reply
    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  17th December 2015

      Dare I say that regimentation is the inevitable consequence of State control? I see charter schools as a hopeful chink in that armour which has closed tighter since the taxpayer took over funding most of the private schools other than those accessible only to the wealthy.

      You are certainly right that it was the maverick teachers who made a difference and still stick in our memories long after the box tickers have faded. Invariably these were also people with a life outside the schoolroom. I am a fan for part-time teaching. You have to live to teach well.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s