Oct 15 2009

Why Poverty Ain’t So Bad

Published by at 7:20 am under culture,psychology

Hold onto your politically-correct hats — today I’m going to suggest that maybe poverty isn’t so bad. Maybe it’s not the big problem it’s cracked up to be.

First, the research that got me thinking. In a statistical study about factors associated with well-being in Costa Rica, Mariano Rojas discovered this -

[O]nly 24 percent of people classified as ‘poor’ rated their life satisfaction as low. Furthermore, 18 percent of people in the ‘non-poor’ category also reported low life satisfaction. It is therefore clear that poverty alone does not define an individual’s overall well-being and it is possible for someone to come out of poverty and remain less than satisfied with his life. On the other hand, a person can be satisfied with his life even if his income is low, as long as he is moderately satisfied in other areas of life such as family, self, health, job and economic.

This finding agrees with other research into the importance of money to happiness. Namely, it is negligibly important. (Further evidence we aren’t Homo capitalists by nature.) Once above a limited threshold, in fact, money seems to matter not at all. The most important contributing factor to life satisfaction? Personality traits. But I digress.

From his findings Rojas concludes,

There is more to life satisfaction than money, and public policy programs aiming to tackle poverty need to move beyond simply raising people’s income to also improving their quality of life in other areas.

What are the other areas? Family, health, job . . .

Here’s the thing about poverty as a variable: it is frequently a short-cut term. When people talk about poverty as being a problem, they don’t necessarily mean a lack of money. Instead, it it a bucket of a word. Inside the bucket, if we bother to look, we find a host of lifestyle factors: family, neighborhood, crime, drug use, social resources, education, healthcare, etc., etc. To do good science, and generate effective public policy, we need to know which of these variables truly matter. We need to get specific.

A pie-in-the-sky push to eliminate poverty is often presented as a panacea for eliminating all of societies woes, from decreasing crime to increasing longevity in minorities and everything in between.  But as the above study and others suggest, even for lowest-income individuals, a lack of money itself isn’t likely the biggest issue. And in an effort to help, it is smart to focus on the bigger issues.

We should remember, by the way, that poverty is relative. Being classified as poor in India is substantially different than in being “poor” in this country. On the bell-curve of affluence for a given population, the poor are on the trailing edge. No matter how affluent the average.

Rather than “eliminating poverty” (by disfiguring the bell curve of affluence?) the focus should instead be on more specific issues. Healthcare. Jobs. Family variables. Social resources.

Lastly – and this may make a few readers gasp in horror – perhaps some of we liberals need to more tolerant of the existence of less-fortunate individuals.  If being poor is not causing a significant degree of suffering, then we may be wise to back off the issue. Our resources could be put to better use — more precise use, in the least. Otherwise we might merely be attempting to treat our own feelings of discomfort and guilt at the recognition that some people are not as well off as we are.

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