Why are people poor? A cursory investigation almost always blames the poor for their own poverty. Poor people seems to make stupid choices all of the time. They are disproportionately likely to have children while in their teens, to be an unmarried mother, to drop out of school, to abuse drugs, to commit crimes etc. Non-poor people also engage in this kind of irrational behavior but the costs to them are much smaller. So rationality would tell poor people to stay away from such behavior. The fact that they don’t leads many to conclude that poor people are especially irrational, perhaps even dumb.
Many conservatives often adopt this causal theory of poverty, although not always in those terms. Perhaps it’s a reaction to liberals who tend to situate the cause of poverty far away from the poor themselves, e.g. racism, capitalism etc. Both camps, however, remove responsibility from the discussion. If you’re too dumb to escape poverty, you’re not likely to magically develop the responsibility to take your life in your hands. And if outside forces as powerful as racism and capitalism make you poor, no matter how strong your sense of responsibility, you’re not likely to win.
A multicausal understanding of poverty seems closer to reality: dumb choices, lack of effort and responsibility and outside forces all contribute to create and maintain poverty, in different measures for different people. It’s likely that poor people aren’t different from anyone else in this respect: everyone makes dumb choices, lacks responsibility in key moments and suffer the brunt of outside forces, the poor just pay a heavier price. They have smaller margins of error, so they suffer disproportionately from the errors they make. And their reserves and defenses are weaker, so the impact of outside forces is stronger. And we shouldn’t forget poverty traps as a cause of poverty: the more you’re down, the more difficult it is to get up again. Partly because of material reasons (for example, the trap of the ghetto or the vicious circle of poverty and ill health), but also because of psychological reasons:
A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The more of a painful or undesirable thing one has (i.e. the poorer one is) the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems. …
If, for example, our car has several dents on it, and then we get one more, we’re far less likely to get that one fixed than if the car was pristine before. If we have a sink full of dishes, the prospect of washing a few of them is much more daunting than if there are only a few in the sink to begin with. …
[B]eing poor is defined by having to deal with a multitude of problems: One doesn’t have enough money to pay rent or car insurance or credit card bills or day care or sometimes even food. Even if one works hard enough to pay off half of those costs, some fairly imposing ones still remain, which creates a large disincentive to bestir oneself to work at all. (source)
This is a classic example of a poverty trap: being poor makes you poorer. People just get overwhelmed by problems and their ability to cope suffers. It’s not just that they are dumb or irresponsible; they’re simply overwhelmed. All of us would be, even the smartest and most responsible among us.
It also means that, as Charles Karelis has argued, there’s something wrong with the disincentive argument about help to the poor (giving them help reduces their incentives to do something about their situation, like giving unemployment benefits reduces the incentive to find a job). Things may actually be the other way around:
Reducing the number of economic hardships that the poor have to deal with actually make them more, not less, likely to work, just as repairing most of the dents on a car makes the owner more likely to fix the last couple on his own. (source)