Poverty is not about Money

Merry Christmas, Most of America. My gift to you is another article about poverty, your favorite topic.(1)

To those of you just tuning in, this post is part two of a four-part series. I recommend starting at the beginning. Here’s the single-page version of all entries to date.(2) In the last post, I introduced myself and why I care about this topic. For now, just call me “Captain Backstory.”

In today’s segment, we’ll illustrate, then decimate, the current modern-day conversations we are having about poverty. Enjoy.

(1) Next time, I’ll get you a tie.
(2) In other words, Internet: you take this entry out of context, it’s on you.

Behind Frenemy Lines

I’m good at talking to strangers. The stranger, the better. overhearI’ve talked to liberals and conservatives, old and young, CEOs and cab drivers. In the process, I have been in attendance at many, many conversations about poverty. Specifically, I’ve overheard conversations about poverty held by wealthy people, who did not know I was poor. As I mentioned in my last post, I can now pass.

Talking about poverty seems to be one of the social rituals of the wealthy. Which is great, right? We like talking. As long as it’s getting somewhere. But it isn’t. It’s just the same conversation, over, and over, and over again.

And it sounds a little something like this.

What we are talking about

How the Wealthy Talk About the Poor, the Flowchart

How the Wealthy Talk About the Poor, the Flowchart

The first thing that we do in a conversation about poverty, is review whether it’s a conversation worth having. We do this by evaluating whether poor people are redeemable. Poor people are either noble, good people who are trying to get hard to get out; or, poor people are lazy, degenerate jerks who sunk to the bottom of the pile. This decision point creates two swimlanes: the “bad people” camp, and the “good people” camp. (I’m not naming any names here, political wings, but you know who are.)

Let’s take Swimlane 1 (the left side) first: the poor are not redeemable. They’re lazy jerks, and if they ever decide to knock that off, they’ll figure their way out. Boom. Conversation over. And the time is? One minute, six seconds.

Swimlane 2 has more phases. If we decide poor people are redeemable, we review why they’re still poor. This breaks down to a kind of ritualized systems analysis: poor people try their best but can’t get money. Mostly, this is because they can’t get education. If they had education they could get money, and if they had money, they could get education. It’s a problem, and one (we heavily imply) we’d have a pretty good handle on if those guys in the other swimlane would just leave us to it. But, they won’t, so…

But in the end, all this is neither here nor there because who, really, are we to talk about it? At this point the conversation degenerates into several rounds of what I’m going to call the “Four New-Yorkshiremen Ritual,” detailed in an upcoming entry. And there, as above, the conversation ends.

So I’ve heard this broken record a number of times. Usually, I just listen, but as of the whole Tirado thing, I’m officially tired of the tune. Now I’ll attempt to take it off the record player, throw it out the window like a Frisbee and shoot an ironic bullet hole smiley-face into it, so that we can dance to something interesting for a change.

Point #1: “Poor people aren’t motivated” is the start, not the end, of the conversation.

Lane 1, your ritual is the shortest, so you get to go first. There’s a lot to talk about here, but the biggie is this: once you decide that “poor people aren’t motivated to escape poverty,” the next step is not “the end.” The next step is “why not?”

If your answer is “because they are bad,” that’s predestination: the idea that we will always be the thing we were made to be. I recognize this is an old tradition, and it worked for a while. But predestination just ain’t the wave of the future, guys. It doesn’t “have legs.” This is because people who believe they’re predestined, don’t waste energy trying to do things they think they aren’t destined to do. So, Predestination Camp people try fewer things. People who try more things, succeed at more things, and people who succeed at more things take the future. Trying shit, and learning from it, is the future. It’s also the present. If you’re not sure, check out this thing the kids are doing called The Internet. It is basically wall-to-wall, 24-7 “people trying shit.” Folks seem to like it.

The only people who get out of poverty, are those that try. Whether “poor people are bad” is true or not, is immaterial. What we want is fewer poor people. Right? So if you want fewer poor people, you need more poor people trying to get not poor. If your main message is that poor people are fundamentally flawed, you’re telling them not to bother.

So, what do you want, here? What do you, Lane 1, want from this conversation?

Point #2: Poverty is not about money.

Lane 2: first of all, I know you folks are trying here. You want this poverty shit fixed, and I personally really appreciate that. But progress means change, right? That’s your whole thing. So how are you going to get change from having the same conversation over and over again? You don’t get change from doing the same thing again. We all already agree on this one. You don’t need me telling you this.

In my personal opinion, the lack of momentum produced by this conversation is mainly because the poverty you’re talking about, in no way actually resembles actual poverty. What you’re talking about is a tiny shorthand notation about poverty, with a vastly simplified physics. Trying to solve poverty starting here, is like trying to ID a criminal using only a child’s stick figure drawing. It is a huge waste of time.

Step #1 to getting any traction at all on this topic is to think bigger. For the rest of this blog, when I say “poverty” and “wealth,” I want to be clear: I am not talking about money.  I’m talking about options and motion.


The wealthy experience moving through the world as though they’re in aboat with a motor and a rudder. The rudder = options; the motor = motion. Poverty, on the other hand, is being in a boat with, max, one out of two. You can go quickly (but not steer), or you can steer, but make no progress. When you have both motion and options, you    move    forward. When you don’t have both, you don’t.

Point #3: Wealth is about resources, momentum and options.

“Motion” and “forwardness” are made possible by resources. Money is one of them. Others include, but are not limited to: community, lifestyle training, social training, health, looks, mentorship, mental stability, psychological stability, perspective, sense of self-efficacy, ability to plan, and education. You can have money and have no other resources. You can have the other resources, but no money.

The more resources you have, the more you can gun the engine and steer. Wealth, aka the ability to move forward, is having so many resources that you can deftly steer the boat away from things human beings don’t like. Namely: pain, death, fear, shame, illness, violence, chaos, loneliness, humiliation, and all the petty predators swimming around looking for easy prey. Poverty is not being able to steer away. (Footnote: geek definition)

The wealthy are people who have gotten so good at navigating away from those things, that they almost never encounter them anymore. Families who have been wealthy for several generations, have often forgotten they exist. But, they still do exist. They haven’t gone anywhere. They are the default state for most of the world. And if God forbid you ever become poor, they’ll be happy to see you again. The world hasn’t changed. You have.

Poverty is not money. Take the first entry in this series. What makes a smart, driven person try to solve their problems by writing comforting words in white chalk on a white wall? Which so pathetically, flagrantly, obviously will not help? Because they honestly think that of all the options before them, that’s their best bet. That is the secret. That feeling, that moment. That’s poverty.

Not convinced yet? Still think poverty is about money? Let’s test it out. Story problem:

Use case A is a single guy with two kids, who was doing ok until some shit happened and he lost his job. Fly over him with a helicopter and air-drop him some money. Does he get out? Probably.

Use case B: same parent, but this one is third generation American poor. He has never had a stable relationship with anyone who was not poor. He has never seen people plan a future (direction) and successfully act on it (motion). Air-drop money. Does he get out? … Maybe?

Use case C: same guy, but now he has a low sense of self-worth. Why? Lots of reasons, but it doesn’t help that he’s mildly schizophrenic. He’s outside the medical system, undiagnosed, no social support. All he knows is that people think he’s weird and that inside his head, everything sucks. So he self-medicates with booze, and when he can get it, coke. Back when this guy had a job, on payday, his two kids would hide behind the sofa. Now fly over and air-drop money on that guy. How’s that going to go?

Guy A has $600. Guy C has $700. Which one is poorer? Choose A, B or C.

Lots of people go through a period of time when they don’t have money. That’s not the same as not having motion or options. (1) So when I say “poverty,” World of Wealth, I don’t mean someone who went through a rough patch after undergrad. I mean someone whose plight scares the living shit out of you. That person over there in the corner that it hurts to look at. That is who we’re talking about. That is the poor person you’re trying to help. That’s who’s here, reading your articles, on your forums, in your internets. If you want to work with us to solve poverty, which you so clearly do, then look it in the eye. Look us in the eye.

Big problems mean big conversations about big ideas. You can’t hold big ideas in one metric. Thinking big is one of the greatest luxuries of wealth. So think big.

[Footnote: poverty in geek terms.]  Sure, let’s call it “poverty,” because that’s the standard index. But really, it’s more “non-motility.” These aren’t accounting-class deficits, they’re physics deficits. Newtonian poverty: no energy, potential or kinetic. The opposite of immotility is velocity: speed and direction. That’s wealth.

——- If you read the original two entries and are jumping back in, resume here. ——–

The original version of the article was published here, and I gathered in some internet response to the article so far. I heard the following points. In the continued post, I’ll attempt to address them.

  • The premise of “poor people are either good or bad” is silly (Yay! I strongly agree!)
  • People in the developing world have it worse

Point #4: Poverty is not one single thing.


Point #4.1: There is more than one kind of poverty.

Use cases A, B and C above are different types of poverty with different traits and dynamics. There are many, many more than that. Since poverty is a lack of resources, and there are a lot of different types of resources, there are one heck of a lot of types of poverty. Yet another type of poverty would include the Russian nesting doll of the developing world, with the thousands of different poverties that contains.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the developing world, talking to people. Lots of things are really different from our poverty in the first world. The main difference, to my eye, is that if you’re poor in Nigeria, everybody pretty much agrees that it’s probably because you’re in Nigeria. We here in the first world, don’t have that excuse. So for the sake of this four-part series, I’ll focus on the first world. (1)

And while we’re defining things, for the sake of this series, there is no “middle class.” Just “wealthy” and “poor.” Oversimplification? Totally. Wealth isn’t a set of categories, it’s a continuous spectrum. It’s not two classes (poor, and wealthy), it’s not even three (poor, wealthy, and middle class). It’s complicated.

But, words are way better than no words, so for the rest of this entry, we’ll just have to use them badly. For this series, “wealthy” means anybody who isn’t “poor.”

Point #4.2: There is more than one kind of poor person.

Are poor people good people? Or are they dumb, lazy jerks? The debate rages. Which is true?


Buckle your seatbelts, folks. Both are true.

Poor people are not only one way. We are people. Just like you, we have our share of garden-variety assholes, with no brains, drive, or morals. And, just like you, we have pillars of strength, kindness and wisdom who will go to any length, no matter how absurd, in order to be decent to each other. Some of us are extremely driven: our boats may be broken, but our motors are nuts.

There are different types of poor people. Some poor people, like Linda Tirado, even get out. Part of what affected me most about the response to Tirado’s article, was seeing the specific factors used to debunk her. For example: she speaks multiple languages, and has had some modicum of success in her career. She now owns a home, and has visited Las Vegas on vacation. She has been educated.

Linda is getting somewhere with life. She’s educated. Therefore, she can’t be poor. Right? She can’t ever have been poor.


You might think you’re a member of swimlane 2, the “poor people are good people” camp. But you might not be. Take a hard look, in the privacy of your own head. You don’t have to tell anyone what you see. We all have it. I have it too. It’s in our wiring. Check out this cognitive bias: The Just World Hypothesis. It’s the pervasive, ubiquitous human tendency to try to see the universe as fair. For the universe to be fair, poor people must deserve what they get. If poor people deserve poverty, they must be flawed. It’s written into our very neural code to think so.

It’s vile, but it’s real and it’s there. So we have to keep an eye on it, or it creeps into everything.

(1) That’s why I talk mainly about the first world here, not because I think it’s more important than developing world poverty. I don’t think it’s more important, I just think we’re going to need the home team advantage for this one. If we learn from it, that should help us make headway globally.

The Four-New Yorkshiremen Ritual

Multiple factors, multiple poverties, multiple personality types. Well, this is starting to get complicated. Let’s take a 3-minute comedy break.

This is the Monty Python sketch “The Four Yorkshiremen,” which deliciously illustrates a stereotypical old-wealth ritual: competing for who used to have it hardest. Myself, I don’t see this one so often anymore. What I do see, nowadays, is the opposite of that old routine. It’s a ritual enacted by swimlane 2 just before ending the conversation.


In it, we go around the room and take turns establishing how easy we each had it, and how much we had going for us, and how, therefore, we really have no right to talk about poverty. I call it: The Four New Yorkshiremen.

It’s another extension of ye olde Oppression Olympics: the more you have, the less you’re supposed to talk. It’s bizarre to me, because all day long, I hear people boldly hold forth about things they’re not authorities on. I hear about the Middle East conflict from 8th graders. I hear about what America is like, (constantly in fact,) from people who have never lived anywhere else. We talk anyway, because we want to see what happens when we talk.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great when people acknowledge there’s a part of life they don’t know about. It’s literally the only way to learn. The problem is that it stops there.

Point #5: Despite how it looks sometimes, most people care about poverty.

This “we’re not qualified” ritual is an expression of helplessness. Rituals grow on systems like barnacles when systems stop evolving. Systems stop evolving when they work well enough, or when they are stuck. Wealth distribution doesn’t work well. It’s stuck. And the worst thing about this is that people assume it’s stuck because nobody cares.

No, we all care. Everybody cares. One, wealthy people really do personally care about the poor having miserable lives. On top of that, wealthy people care about how even with poor people living miserably all over the damn place, we’re about to crash the planet into a brick wall. Back in the day, wealthy people truly believed they were superior. But, those people made idiots of themselves and got murdered a lot, so we’ve backed down from that cliff, thank god. We really do want to give people what they need and see what they can do with it. We just can’t figure out where to put our energy in to get an acceptable result out the other side.

The human mind, however miraculous, is filled with all kinds of bugs called “cognitive biases,” which basically roll up to mean “ways in which humans are bad at thinking.” One thing humans are especially bad at making sense of, are problems with lots and lots and lots of factors. They’re “wicked problems”; when the human brain sees them, it just kinda runs screaming in the other direction. Poverty is one of these: there are many poverties, made of many factors, stimulating many human responses, some of which are sad and creepy. All of this creates a fascinating mosaic of countless unique, crystalline snowflakes of depressing shit and there isn’t a brain in the house that wants to look at it.

The lack of apparent engagement about poverty
is not a sign that people are selfish jerks.
It’s a software glitch.
Accusing people of being assholes, just because they aren’t doing anything
just makes them feel bad
it doesn’t make them more useful.

As a human race, we just haven’t got a bead on the resource distribution problem. It’s over our heads, it’s intimidating, so people shut down.

The conversation is stuck because individual people are stuck. And people are stuck for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that everyone is freaking out. When somebody opens their mouths to talk about it, somebody else rips their freaking head off and spits down their neck hole.

This conversation isn’t working for anyone. Let’s don’t have it anymore. Let’s start with what we should be talking about.

Next up: What we should be talking about (or Poverty Solved in Four Words.)

Wondering what’s up with the comment threads on this blog? Check here. This page features the first prototype branch discussion, among a few brave WSPA pioneers.