The Poverty “State of Mind”

Ben Carson, our HUD Secretary of somewhat dubious expertise, recently burbled on about how he thinks that “poverty, to a large extent, is a state of mind,” a statement which earned him some well-justified push-back and which prompted several people, knowing of my general thoughts about poverty, to wonder if I had any thoughts on the matter.

My thought on poverty in the United State being a “state of mind” is that what it really is, to a rather larger extent, is a lack of access — to money, to education, to opportunities, to adequate housing, to networks of expertise and help, among many other things, and most importantly (and as often a consequence of all the others noted and more) to the margin of safety that people who are not in poverty have when any individual thing knocks them off their stride.

It’s the last of these, in my opinion, that illustrates the gormlessness of Carson’s thoughts on poverty. You can have the most can-do spirit in the world, but your state of mind doesn’t mean jack when confronted with, say, a broken-down car you can’t afford to repair, which means that you can’t get to your job, which means that the job goes out the window, putting you at risk of not being able to pay the rent (or other bills), increasing the possibility of putting your family out on the street, making it more difficult for your kids to get and maintain an education. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to a worn-out timing belt or transmission. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to the landlord who decides to raise a rent you can barely afford, because he knows he can get more from someone else. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to the ice outside your home you slip and fracture your arm on when you head off to your second job. Your state of mind is not telekinetic. It can’t fix things that are out of your control, and which by dint of poverty you have no immediate way of addressing. When you’re poor, so many things are out of your control.

Conversely, if you have margin, your “state of mind” matters even less — because you have the ability to address problems as they arise. It doesn’t matter what my state of mind is if my car stops working; I can afford to have it taken to the shop and fixed. My state of mind is not relevant when I crack my arm; I have good health insurance with a low deductible. My state of mind is neither here nor there to my housing situation; my mortgage is paid off. My margin is considerable and will be regardless of what state my mind is in.

Yes, you might say, but you, John Scalzi, have an industrious state of mind! Well, that’s debatable (more on that later), but even if it is true, is it more industrious than the person who works two shitty jobs because they have no other choice? Am I more industrious than, say, my mother, who cleaned people’s houses and worked on a telephone exchange while I was growing up, so that I could eat and have a roof over my head? My mother, who barely cracked a five-figure salary while I grew up, worked as hard as hell. Tell me her “state of mind” was less industrious than mine is now, and I’ll laugh my ass off at you. Tell me any number of people in the small, blue-collar town I live in, who make significantly less than I do, and who are one slip on the ice away from tumbling down the poverty hole, have a “state of mind” substantially less industrious than my own, and I’ll likely tell you to go fuck yourself.

I happen to be one of those people who went from poverty to wealth, and because I am, I can tell you where “state of mind” lies on the list of things that have mattered in getting me where I am. It is on the list, to be sure. But it’s not number one. Number one is access to opportunity, which I got when my mother — not me — decided to chance having me apply to Webb, a private boarding school that cost more than she made in a year (I was a scholarship kid), with immense resources that allowed me entree into a social stratum I might not have otherwise had access to.

Number two is a network of people — mostly teachers at first — who went out of their way to foster me and nurture my intellect and creativity when they saw it in me. Number three is luck: being in the right place at the right time more than once, whether I “deserved” the break I was getting or not. Number four is my creativity, my own innate talents, which I then had to cultivate. Number five are the breaks I got in our culture that other people, who are not me, might not have gotten. Number six would be Krissy, my wife and my partner in life, who has skills and abilities complementary to mine, which has made getting ahead easier and building out our family’s margins much simpler than if I had to do it on my own.

Number seven — not even in the top five! — I would say is my “state of mind,” my desire and determination to make something of myself. And let’s be clear: this “state of mind” has not been an “always on” thing. There have been lots of times I was perfectly happy to float, or fuck around, or be passive, because times and opportunities allowed me to be so. There have been times when I have been depressed or apathetic and not interested in doing anything, and I didn’t — but still got along just fine because of my margin of safety. There have been times I have been overwhelmed and barely able to make any decisions at all. “State of mind” is a changeable thing, and importantly can be deeply influenced by one’s own circumstances. It’s much easier to have a positive “state of mind” when you know that no one thing is likely to knock your entire life askew. It’s easier not to give in to fatalism when not everything has the potential to ruin everything else. It’s easier to not feel like nothing you do matters, when you have the ability to solve many of your problems with a simple application of money.

I have seen people with what I’m sure Carson would describe as the correct “state of mind” fail over and over again because their legs are kicked out from under them in one way or another, and who never seem to make it no matter how hard they try. I’ve seen people who definitely don’t have the right “state of mind” succeed and even thrive — have seen them fail upward — because on balance other things broke their way. “State of mind” as a predictive factor of economic mobility is, bluntly, anecdotal bullshit, something to pull out of your ass while ignoring the mountains of evidence showing that economic mobility in the United States is becoming more difficult to come by. It’s not “state of mind” that’s the issue. It’s long-term systematic inequality, inequality that’s getting worse as we go along. Ignoring or eliding the latter and pinning poverty “to a large extent” on the former means you’re giving everyone and everything else that contributes to poverty in the United States — from racism to inertia to greed — a free pass.

I’m well aware that Carson has his own anecdotal rags-to-riches story, as I do; we both even have mothers who sacrificed for us so we could succeed. Good for him! I applaud him and his effort to get where he is now. But this doesn’t make his story any more than what it is, or what mine is — a single story, not necessarily easily replicated at large. Certainly my story isn’t easily replicated; not every poor kid can be given a break by a private boarding school catering to the scions of wealth and privilege. I think it’s fine if Carson or anyone else wants to lecture or opine on the poverty “state of mind.” But until and unless our country makes an effort to address all the other long-term issues surrounding poverty, Carson’s opinion on the matter is bullshit.

Control for opportunity. Control for access. Control for margin. And then come back to me about “state of mind,” as it regards poverty. I’ll be waiting, Dr. Carson.

102 thoughts on “The Poverty “State of Mind”

  1. Growing up in the Bronx, I went to a Catholic High School which drew students from the entire city. There were kids who’d commute for hours by subway and bus to get there. A graduate a few years before me recently became a current Supreme Court Justice. My father was a garbage man. He paid for me and my siblings to go to those schools. I though we were pretty well off; in retrospect, probably not so much. But you only know what you see as a child.
    But what I did see at Cardinal Spellman were others from places where their norm was abysmal compared to ours. Those were the days of Fort Apache in the South Bronx. Brooklyn was not the upscale place where people who worked in Manhattan lived. The spectrum of backgrounds and expectations was stunning. What each of us considered the “norm” was very wide.
    That school was an opportunity that a lot of parents made great sacrifices to give us. Working two, three jobs, every overtime they could get.
    That was the American Dream. I say was because I feel we’ve lost it to a large extent. By and far, Americans, like all people, are good. But we have allowed a handful of people of wealth (regardless of where they came from) to manipulate beliefs and fears into something that can make their lives even wealthier, regardless of the cost to the country as a whole.
    If we’re going to change that, we have to face being afraid. Afraid of terrorism, afraid of immigrants, afraid of people of other faiths and beliefs and backgrounds. Heroism is taking action in the face of fear. To stand up to it.
    I fear the current administration for a lot of valid reasons.I fear we may be too broken with ideas of “fake news” and lies being the norm.
    But I learned action from very early on. So I will face it. I believe most Americans will in the coming times of trial.

  2. Everyone – please watch Alex Gibney’s short documentary (54 mins) Park Avenue. (It’s streaming on PBS!) Really well done, and it connects so many dots. Basically, it shows how, in the U.S., poverty and the destruction of the middle class have been, and continue to be, deliberately engineered through union busting, manipulation of the tax code, the housing bubble, privatization, voter suppression, wage theft, the diversion of public resources into endless war and a metastasized “homeland security” apparatus, and much more. (Exhibit 5000: this week’s NYT piece on how noncompetes have become ubiquitous and are now used not to protect intellectual property but to disempower employees.)

    The .01% have lost any sense of common humanity: to them, we’re all just an exploitable resource to use up and throw away. Please watch this movie, and keep resisting. This goes WAY beyond Trump.

    http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/park-avenue/

  3. There is a large industry of people preaching that “state of mind” cures all problems. It allows people to blame others (for not having the right state of mind or True Belief), where we don’t blame them for, say being a cripple. And it is a kind of patent medicine that we can fix our problems without really working.

  4. There is a large industry of people preaching that “state of mind” cures all problems. It allows people to blame others (for not having the right state of mind or True Belief), where we don’t blame them for, say being a cripple. And it is a kind of patent medicine that we can fix our problems without really working.

    Prosperity “gospel” comes to mind. And it strikes me as a blasphemous doctrine.

  5. You see the same “state of mind” thing with health care. Look at all the statements along the lines of, basically, “sick people brought it on themselves”. Yes, the three people my age I know who have MS (I’m in my 40s) all should have not done something. We don’t actually know WHAT they shouldn’t have done, as the cause of MS is still not really known, but I’m sure it was SOMETHING. Sucks about the pre-existing condition of course!

  6. It’s not just gormlessness.

    When Carson and the GOP say “Poverty is a state of mind” what they’re implying is that the poor are lazy and stupid and it’s their own fault they’re poor, so they don’t deserve help. No food stamps, no medicaid, no livable minimum wage. The rich need their tax breaks.

    It’s cruel, callous, and entirely deliberate.

  7. I’ve been there. Been there, done that, bought the tee shirt. I have lived on the wrong side of the poverty line. But I busted my hump because accepting welfare or charity is seen as a disgrace in my family – and I got out of the poverty cycle. I even saved up enough to put myself through school without having to take out loans. Today I can even afford to make modest donations to carefully selected charities myself.

    So when I say that poverty and stupidity and laziness go hand in hand – I know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen the abusers, the cheaters, the druggies, the baby-mommas, the slugs – and all I can say is that with a large percentage of the welfare class, they are their own worst enemies. Car goes down? Car pool. Ride a bicycle. Take the bus. If you have a good work ethic, trust me – your boss will make allowances. If not, get a job closer to home. Or move. I’ve heard all the excuses and I’ve seen the people trying to make them. You can’t BS me.

    Today I am not rich but I am free. I own my home and cars, I have no real debt, and my life is easily as good as those of people that earn ten times more than I do. The American/Canadian system works. Life has its ups and downs and you have no right to give up and make someone else pull your weight. If you are able bodied and of sound mind you should be working or looking for work and no bones about it.

  8. Hillary Rettig,

    I will spread the word. Thanks!

    If more people were to realize how they are being manipulated, and make at least the barest effort to fight back, much of the world’s discord would be at least minimized to an extent.

    Which is why I admire those who aren’t in politics, but are influential or popular, speak out. I hope people such as Greg Popovich never give in to the harassment they receive.

  9. John, great summary of the circumstances of poverty. As noted by others, the system has been engineered to keep poor people poor. Things like outrageous penalties for over drafts (where the banks order the checks to maximize the penalties) and a thousand other things that keep poor people poor.

    Unfortunately the poor sometimes make bad decisions. Either because they were never taught better or out of desperation. That’s where their lack of financial backup really ends up hurting them. They can get in a hole that they can’t climb out of.

  10. I also come out of the working poor, the only of of five siblings (all with IQ scores in the top percentile) to make it past high school. I got tired of being cold and hungry and quit university before getting a degree so I could start a career as a journalist. Four years on, I was editing a shakily financed tabloid in a British Columbia milltown, when a newly elected MP asked me to come to Ottawa with him and ghostwrite his column for the press in the riding.

    I’d been there six weeks when my MP was selected to second the debate in the House of Commons (a big deal for a maiden MP). He said, “Write me a speech,” and I did. I’d never written one before but I just did what seemed right. It was a big hit. He got asked to speak all over the place and I began to develop a reputation as a hot kid speechwriter.

    Less than a year after arriving in Ottawa, I was on the personal staff of the Minister of Justice as speechwriter and press secretary. Out of that experience and cred, I built a career as the top speechwriter in British Columbia.

    State of mind? Sure. Can-do attitude? Yep. But the fluke of being asked into politics by that MP — something I’d never considered — plus the fluke of him being picked for the Throne Speech debate: being dealt those two wild cards made all the difference.

    If you’re poor, you’ve got to have all kinds of qualities. But you’ve also got to have luck.

  11. I’m not sure what I can usefully add, unless it is to echo John’s comments about luck. My mother, who had come from an area where the coal pits, the shipyards and the steelmills were the only job options, should there happen to be anyone hiring them, was determined that no son of hers was going down the mines, and no daughter of hers was going to be a shop assistant at Woolworths.

    And so she worked at making us proficient in the skills we needed to win scholarships, and we worked hard, and won scholarships and the doors swung open for us. We were lucky to have a mother like her, just as John was lucky to have his mother; I’m bloody brilliant at IQ tests but my mother taught me how to do that. That is luck, and has absolutely nothing to do with my state of mind…

  12. Glenfilthie:

    “So when I say that poverty and stupidity and laziness go hand in hand – I know what I’m talking about I’m going to apply what I assert is my anecdotal experience and privilege that over mountains of data suggesting other causes for poverty.”

    Fixed that for you, Glenfilthie.

  13. Glenfilthie,

    Saying all of those go hand in hand is very simplistic and it disqualifies much if the rest if your post.

    Instead if berating all, perhaps just keep giving your all as you’ve been very, very fortunate enough to do so.

    As a last note, there are many, many thousands of wealthy people who act exactly or worse as you describe the poor to be.

  14. Having grown up poor, joining the military to pay for college and working all manner of jobs, I am now comfortably middle class. The problem with the bootstrap mentality, of which I see in one of your commenters, is that there is a failure to see where luck and access to opportunity have played a role. If I imagine even one of the helpful adults or coincidences or the fortune of good health being absent from my timeline, my story would be quite a different one.

    And Ben Carson is the very last person who should be talking about a state of mind when his is like a ramshackle garage sale, filled with nonsensical bits and bobs. He is an unreliable witness, to say the least.

  15. Thank you for this. I grew up waffling from what one would consider a normal middle class life, to getting free lunch. Now my husband, myself, and our kids get by on his monthly disability, foodstamps, and the good will of family in the form of housing. Since my husband got sick we went from living comfortably, to weeks when the spouse and I only had rice and beans to eat. And we only had the beans cause I had hoarded them from my time on WIC.

    I’ve had a variety of jobs since he lost the ability to work. None of them were enough to pull us out of poverty. Now I’m out of work, the stress of caretaking for the last 13 has caught up with me and affected my health. I am trying to find a way to make a little money writing fiction. People tell me they enjoy reading what I write. Now to see if anyone is willing to pay to read them. I am crossing my fingers that folks will want to read my stories. They’ve been brewing in my brain for over a decade.

  16. Another good resource is David Shipler’s book The Working Poor. tl;dr – most of the poor people he interviewed had made mistakes – as we all do – but most also started out disadvantaged and faced incredible hurdles. Most of the people he interviewed were working incredibly hard (as per the book’s title) but couldn’t get ahead.

    Here’s the NY Times excerpt:

  17. Glenfilthie,

    Your comment shows exactly the problem; an insistence that “poor peeple r lazy an DUM” using only one’s own anecdata as proof and ignoring or dismissing anything that says otherwise. You think you’re showing Good Down Home Common Sense and American Self-Reliance when in reality you sound like a misguided, hard-hearted fool who bought into the conservative line with fervor.

    Your attitude ignores people who are poor because of lack of any meaningful opportunities, who don’t have the resources to education to know how to get out poverty. Your attitude ignores people who have chronic illnesses, disabilities, or devastating injuries and who do not have forgiving employers who are willing to work with them. Too many employers simply fire these people, and with the plethora of “at will” states they can do this with impunity.

    You also fall into the common fallacy trap of assuming that when people discuss the poor, that the people YOU know are representative of the whole group.

    In short, your ‘bootstraps’ argument is tired, out-of-touch, and at this point with the Mt. Everest of evidence staring you right in the damn face, infuriating that you keep parroting the same damn tune hoping this time you’ll magically hit the right notes.

  18. So when I say that poverty and stupidity and laziness go hand in hand – I know what I’m talking about.

    So that’s why lifting yourself by your bootstraps these days would take 20 YEARS (if you made no mistakes and you were fortunate enough to have no accidents)?

    I suspect Dunning Kreuger effect here.

  19. “Poverty is a state of mind” reads much like today’s version of Social Darwinism to me–the poor are poor because they deserve to be, so there’s no reason to concern ourselves with them or take any actions to ameliorate the poverty. And second homes in the mountains or beach community are much more fun than paying taxes that they would squander anyway.

    I’ve always thought that having margin is critical to success in life–extra money in the bank to pay for the car repair or tide one through the week with the flu when you’re too sick to work at your hourly job, having the time to leave for work a bit early every day to deal with the inevitable commuting problems when they occur, health insurance to cover the chemo or broken wrist, being able to move to a new apartment when the current landlord raises the rent to high. Living exactly on the edge gives you no margin to deal with life, as I would have thought Dr Carson would understand. And poor people quite to most of the time are living on the knife’s edge with no margin to deal with anything through no fault of their own.

  20. There are a couple of very simple things about being poor:

    1) It’s expensive. From “food deserts” to transportation, the poor spend more on the basics of life and making a living than the better-off do. I’ll refer you to the Sam Vimes explanation of why the poor spend more than the wealthy on boots.

    2) Its exhausting. Not necessarily physically but there is a well-known neuropsychological phenomenon called “decision fatigue.” You only get so many decisions in a day, and each one costs you. By the time lunch rolls around the quality of your decisions seriously declines (great study on, of all people, judges. If you have to appear in court, early in the day or just after lunch is best.) The poor, for reasons John touches on, make a lot more decisions in an ordinary day just on the mechanics of living than the better-off do. No surprise that other things equal they’re more likely to make some dubious ones.

    Of course, the rest of the list interacts too. Poor children don’t eat as well so they have problems with both neurological development and having the energy to pay attention in school, so they don’t get as much out of the meager educational opportunities provided to them. Those poor educations don’t include simple things like life skills including banking, so they don’t know they’re being ripped off by employers who pay them with prepaid debit cards that have high fees per transaction (and kickbacks!)

    It’s a long list, all solidly based in research and available to those with the access, time, education, and state of mind to look at what is known about the cycle of poverty. Alas, this does not seem to apply consistently to high government officials.

  21. @Glenfilthie

    I don’t know what things were like when you were in school, but by the time I graduated from college, working year round could pay for your rent, food, transportation, and books, if you were lucky. No way would working (even full time) pay enough for rent, food, books, and tuition. Let’s break down the math:

    $8.25/hour (minimum wage when I graduated) * 2080 hours (40 hours per week * 52 weeks) = $17,160.00

    Social Security Tax (6.2%) = $1063.92
    Medicare Tax (1.45%) = $248.82
    Federal Income Tax = $676*
    CA State Income Tax = $83.26*
    *Note: These amounts are only if you’re not counted as a dependent on someone else’s tax returns. Your parents can count you as a dependent until age *24* if you’re a student, even if they don’t actually contribute to your finances. Some of my friends got screwed because they got taxed like dependents (so no exemptions), but their parents wouldn’t help them out. The IRS didn’t care.

    Total take home: $15,088

    Rent (a shared room in Berkeley): $800/month (minimum) = $9600
    Bus Pass (AC Transit): $76/month (unlimited rides) = $912
    Books** and other supplies: $600/semester = $1200
    **calculated assuming a 4-course per semester load with 1 textbook and 1 reader per class, purchased used where available

    Left over for food, laptop/other technology, and tuition: $3376

    Tuition (UC Berkeley, a STATE school) = $13,485
    Food (assuming a budget of $5/day, so super low) = $1825

    This leaves our student at least $12,000 in the hole for the year. And this assumes that our student works full time, on top of taking a full time schedule AND that our student isn’t considered a dependent by the government. This also assumes a bare bones existence–no medical conditions requiring prescription medication, very little for food, no laptop, so she has to do all her work at the library, working around the library’s hours.

    It’s nice that you went to school at a time where the government was investing in higher education, so tuition wasn’t so ruinous for families. It’s also nice that you went to school in a time when minimum wage was closer to a living wage, rather than the pittance it’s become because the GOP refuses to raise it. How nice for you that you had all these advantages that don’t currently exist for poor students.

    But sure, tell me all about the lazy who just don’t care enough to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

  22. Great analysis John. I escaped the poverty experience but can certainly see that much of poverty is inflicted by poor policies we taxpayers support by whom we elect. If I could wipe poverty off the map with a magic wand I would do so. Let’s have some laws enacted that assist poverty stricken citizens moving up the socioeconomic ladder. Soon, please.

  23. So in very slight defense of Glenfilthie: Are there people who abuse the system? Of course! Are there people who are in his/her words “abusers, the cheaters, the druggies, the baby-mommas, the slugs”? Yes. But it commits the fallacy of “all x are y, therefore all y are x”. Just because a subset of the poor are probably not the most employable people in the world, for whatever reason (some probably their fault, some almost certainly not) doesn’t mean one should paint the entire poor with that brush. And it’s a remarkably convenient brush, given that it absolves the powers-that-be of any responsibility and lets them point fingers.

    Sadly this attitude in some sense has a long, long history, often being used to blame the victim. I remember being taught in school about the enclosure movement in 18th c. Britain and how it destroyed the livelyhood of people who farmed on the commons. The way it was taught (at least to me) was that enclosure was a passive act, it just happened; in fact, EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM was an explicit act of parlament.

  24. Sadly this attitude in some sense has a long, long history, often being used to blame the victim.

    A long history indeed. See, for instance, the Book of Job. Remarkably few “public Christians” (I include Dr. Carson) seem to have gotten the point of the tale.

  25. Both glenfilthie and Carson are living proof of something I’ve long said, the worst enemies of the poor are those that got out. They are blinded by their own success and see only the worst of the poor. Sure, there are a lot of poor people who would be better off if they could break their bad habits, but there are plenty more who have done everything they’re supposed to and haven’t found their way out of the trap. But the “success stories” folks are too busy trying to punish their “shiftless” former associates to help anyone.

  26. What frustrates me the most about this entire topic is not (just) the attitude towards the people who are not doing well in the new economy, but the entire ignorance of why our social programs exist in the first place. Every one of them was passed by Congress in the last century because thousands of people were suffering, mostly through no fault of their own, and they needed help. \

    Instead of talking about how things worked out great for them, maybe they should go review the history of America in the Great Depression, see why these programs were put in place, and then come back and explain why people in the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, for example, deserved to be in a situation where they were homeless, starving, destitute, and forced to travel halfway across the country to survive, before the interstate was around I might add.

    The core of this misguided attitude has nothing to do with greed or bad values, but it is the exact same anti-intellectual nonsense that drives the anti-vaxxer crowd. We’ve had vaccinations for decades and no one gets polio anymore, so clearly we don’t need no scientists or government mandates to fix the problem and should stop immunizations. In fact, immunizations are making people sick. We’ve also had 80 years of a social safety net and fewer people are starving and destitute than ever before, so we don’t need welfare anymore and in fact that’s what’s *causing* people to get poor.

  27. I volunteer at a local food pantry. Our clients must meet federal poverty guidelines. In most instances, this means that they are receiving food stamps. Fully 20% of the households we provide food to have at least one person who is working. However, I suspect that less than 20% of those individuals work full time. I do know that a large percentage are over age 62. Many of the younger persons are on disability. This is an area where if you can find work it is normally minimum wage (or below if you are in a tipped position)

  28. An observation and a recommendation;

    – Carson’s “state of mind” comment sounds like it could be a dog-whistle for Prosperity theology. (1)

    – Check out “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich. It is a look at the high cost of being poor in America following the welfare reform of 1996. On Goodreads, many readers loved the book, but a significant percentage absolutely loathed it. The reviews section makes interesting reading. (2)

    1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology
    2. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2293666.Nickel_and_Dimed

  29. I’m reminded of your “playing the game of life on easy” post a while back. If you’re straight, cis, white, male, able-bodied but poor, the chances of being able to climb out of poverty are greater than if you’re black and/or female and/or gay and/or trans and/or disabled. Those who do make it out, unfortunately like many women who are successful despite the barriers to their success, often “go native” and assume everyone else who hasn’t had their success is to blame. It’s how they justify their success to themselves, despite all the evidence and research that shows the combination of luck and _relative_ privilege that helped them get out.
    Not everyone is like this, though. See the UK’s stellar Dr Sue Black who succeeded in pulling herself out of poverty but is now a champion of social justice. For instance she’s heavily involved in a scheme to make it easier for working mothers to learn to code, because she recognises that it was this skill that helped her succeed and can provide a brilliant opportunity for others. Instead of requiring others to need her lucky break, she’s raising money to provide them with the opportunity both for free and in a convenient way (not just free tuition, but flexible schedules and free child care).

  30. @leons1701, exactly. They don’t see – or more accurately, don’t want to see – that all their work ethic and striving and finding a way could have gotten them exactly nowhere, if circumstances had been only a little bit different. They don’t want to admit that the next guy over found that a ‘can-do attitude’ means squat when you get cancer you can’t afford to treat, or that the tough hard-working lady across the way lost her job because her boss cared more about his own bigotry than her work ethic. I mean, how much of an ego boost is it to say “not only did I have a great attitude and worked hard, but I was one lucky mofo”? Not a lot.

    They also don’t understand, not having grown up in that milieu, how ‘work hard and have a good attitude and you’ll do well’ is a laughable ethos among the well-off. There, you can fuck up (repeatedly) and had a bad work ethic and still come out far ahead, because your connections, your skin color, and your opportunities mean that you’ll have a soft landing and you can often fail upwards. Calvinism and finger-wagging about attitude is for the poors.

  31. Sure, all systems are open to abuse. And studies have shown that the amount of abuse in the US safety net is so low that the cost of preventing and investigating abuse is more than the actual amount of abuse. IOW, it’s not worth fighting because there just isn’t enough abuse to justify the cost of the fight.

    John, I have a huge problem with Carson believing and saying this shit, against the actuality of why people are poor: he is the fucking secretary of HUD. He now has real power to hurt poor people because of his ignorance.

    I gather he was a superstar doctor and I wish he had stuck with his areas of expertise.

  32. If poverty is a state of mind, then so is wealth; therefore people who operate at Carson’s level of income shouldn’t mind paying a 90% income tax.

  33. By the time I was aware such a thing as money existed, my father had Tenure at a State University. So although we weren’t rich, we certainly weren’t poor, and never had to worry about my father getting laid off.

    Growing up on campus gave me something even more valuable than money: I arrived at my undergrad institution well-prepared to thrive there. Kinda like a kid from a military family going to a service academy.

    So of course I did well in college: I got a head start.

    My mother taught Remedial English for many years. Of course they didn’t call it Remedial English; they used ever-changing bureaucratic euphemisms. But no matter what they call it, students in such a class are inevitably all too aware what sort of class they are taking and why. Those students came from very different backgrounds and life situations.

    So of course they struggled: they didn’t have the head start I was given.

  34. Everything, everything, everything about this could all be boiled down to people not wanting to admit they were lucky.

    Born rich? Fucking lucky.
    Born poor and made it out? Fucking lucky.

    Glenfilthie within the first couple sentences asserts “But I busted my hump”. Nowhere in that entire mindless idiotic soapboxing does any acknowledgement of luck ever make it to print. And any attempt to compensate those who are unlucky is demonized in various ways.

    “welfare or charity is seen as a disgrace”, right, because no one is ever unlucky. They are poor because they didnt “bust their hump”.

    All of which is nothing more than an argument to establish the notion that once someone gets rich, they have no requirement to help those less fortunate. Because no one is less fortunate, there is just the lazy and those who “bust humps”.

    The lengths that people go to to justify being selfish pricks used to boggle my mind. The lengths that people would delude themselves with bullshit to reframe their rampant selfishness used to shock me. The lengths that shitty people would go to to convince themselves that they are the good guys, that they are the “job creators”, that they are the drivers of a “trickle down” economy used and that theirs is a superior, used to surprise me with how eagerly a person would announce what a cluelessly selfish prick they are. But since trump got elected, its pretty clear that idiots, narcissists, and fuckheads who would cheat their mother out of a buck if they could, have taken over the goddamn world.

  35. I am perfectly willing to accept that state of mind is crucially important on whatever planet Ben Carson currently lives on.

  36. It’s not poverty that’s a state of mind. It’s the being continually beaten down, failure after consecutive failure that wears at a soul.
    There is an upper limit to the number of failures a soul can endure before it breaks, mentally or physically. The point at which a person needs help is before they give up, not after.

  37. So the illustrious doctor wasn’t a moocher with the wrong state of mind when his family (when he was a child) needed food stamps to survive? Or is that only different because HE was the one benefiting?

  38. I’m 67. When I was in college, it was possible to earn enough money working at a minimum wage job to pay tuition at a state university,buy your books, pay for a cheap car and live in something other than a total flea bag with a room mate or two.
    These are not those times.
    Minimum wage has not kept up with inflation. Tuition at even state universities are outrageous. Employers are generally total pricks who know that you are replaceable if you miss even one day of work. Wage theft is common and real and there is no recourse.
    My dad had a clerical job, union, we shared a duplex with my grandparents. My mom waited tables for extra money for parochial schools, and I won a scholarship to go to college. Yay me.
    I lucked into a part time job that led to a full time job that led to a 34 year career with a company that let me retire with a real live actual pension and a fat stock portfolio. Again, yay me.
    By no means do I think that I did all that on my own with no luck at all.
    And most especially, I am not so stupid as to believe that people even 15 years younger than I am could have the same success, because the American economy over the last 40 years has become stacked against the working class and only works for the CEO and rentier class.
    Fuck the people who think poverty is a ‘state of mind’ and think that we should have compassion for the taxpayers instead of the people who depend on the safety net. I’m looking at you, Mick Mulvaney! You Tea Party sack of shit.
    Vote these idiots out at every level of government and at every opportunity.

  39. Well said, Mr. Scalzi…

    Seriously, consider running for the Legislature. As Senator Franken said, he made his initial career out of observing absurdities, and it stood him in good stead in politics … Ohio could use someone like you. Seriously.

  40. Webb is a good school. I went to your rival, Laguna Blanca, and I think it conferred a great advantage to both of us. I always try to remember my privilege and help those without it, though.

  41. When I was in college, it was possible to earn enough money working at a minimum wage job to pay tuition at a state university,buy your books, pay for a cheap car and live in something other than a total flea bag with a room mate or two.
    These are not those times.

    This is a point that public universities use for donors, who like to give to scholarships. They baldly state that you cannot work a minimum wage job and attend a state college any more. And they raise money from rich people for that…and these rich people know damn well that this is the case.

    Some folks should think about that.

  42. I believe that the rock hard belief that the poor are lazy and stupid is just whistling past the graveyard – many of us who live in that thin margin where we’re doing okay at the moment but don’t have solid pensions or stock portfolios are very aware that it can all go to hell at any moment. If we can persuade ourselves that We are so much smarter or better than Them, we don’t have to grapple with the unfairness of the system we live in. Admitting that our security is fragile, that we are not in control of our fates is scary.
    This is all too personal for me. At 63, my husband was fired from his job, only a month after getting a stellar review and a raise (on Inauguration Day! Talk about adding insult to injury…). He’s sending out resumes, networking like mad, and has even had a few interviews but jobs on his level and in his field are rare. We are tapping into our retirement account, and we have equity in our home, so we aren’t desperate yet. But that line between Us and Them got very thin very fast. It’s tempting to tell myself that since we’re smart and hardworking, everything will turn out fine, but I know better. Hoping for luck…

  43. Thanks! Your blog post definitely highlights how far from the reality many of our “leaders” are.

    Even though I did grow up on a farm with sometimes not the same amount of toys to play with as many of my classmates there was never any issues with getting an education as there’s no tuition fees to pay where I live in Sweden. So from the perspective of education the opportunity is equal.

    Growing up on a farm also means that you have to be creative when things break since there’s nobody around that can fix it when it’s needed. The “right to repair” issues that I see are floating up now is not just an inconvenience, it’s a necessity for many farmers. More and more specialized tools are also needed. Yesterday the farmer could solve a lot with the tools in the small toolbox on the tractor, today it’s no longer possible due to the need of a large amount of specialized tools needed.

    I also see that it’s more than Trump that’s the problem. Just look at the dimwits in Brussels that don’t seem to have a clue about what it’s about for ordinary people, so I can understand why Brexit occurred. And for the US election it did seem to me that it was just an election between two bad alternatives, so I’m not surprised that people went for the worst just to get things stirred up thoroughly for the next election. Hopefully there will be one. The last one made me think how close it has become to the world turned over in “Revolt in 2100”.

    Also there’s some truism to the statement “Keep your kids short on money but long on hugs”. Because if you as a kid learns that money is short you will work harder to get what you want. There is also a time in your life when you come to realize that you know more than your parents on some subjects.

    And on a different topic – I finished “The Collapsing Empire” recently and it was a good story that seems to leave loose ends that might be a seed for the future.

  44. I don’t think poverty is a “state of mind”. I don’t agree with Carson, but want to comment on the general idea.

    According to me, “state of mind” is extremely relevant. I’m not sure if it your intent to do so, but implying otherwise sends a terrible message.

    I empathize with your ideas, particularly those emanating from your paragraph about luck and the role it plays (broken down car, broken arm etc.). I agree that “state of mind” can’t fix luck. But I’m sure you realize – NOTHING can account for luck. Margins do allow you to deal with bad luck better, but often margins are also luck based. And it’s all relative. A lot of poor people in the US were born into poverty. Yet most poor people in Dharavi, Mumbai (India) would give a limb to be poor people in the US. At the same time, the people of Dharavi are industrious, and find a way to thrive (mostly) in a developing country with far less social security than the US.

    I’m neither from the US nor Dharavi (I live nearby though), and I’m not putting anyone down. I’ll be the first to concede that luck is often the most crucial factor in determining how your life ends up, but attitude (“state of mind”) matters immensely.

    You seem to have acknowledged that as well, when you said – “if you have margin, your “state of mind” matters even less”

    Extending that to its logical conclusion, if you don’t have margin, “state of mind” should matter even more. If you’re poor in the US, a good attitude and great work ethic certainly won’t fix everything, but it’ll help. I don’t think acknowledging that hurts anybody.

    P.S. – I’m a regular visitor to your blog as well as Larry Correia’s, and enjoy reading your diverse viewpoints. It’s funny to me how the American Left and Right accuse each other of being echo-chambers, particularly because some of it does become apparent in the comments sections of your respective blogs. Who would have thought, eh? Yours and Larry’s readers are more like each other than they ever realized!

  45. I think that most middle-class people have one or two family members who are downwardly mobile through many, many bad choices despite starting out with reasonable advantages, and because these are the poorest people close to them, they assume that this is what poor people are like. They don’t see the ones who started at the bottom and are struggling as hard as they can. (Nor do they necessarily recognize that they ones they do know might have an untreated mental illness that is driving the bad choices.)

  46. I drafted a comment, but it ended up as long as John’s original column. TL:DR version? Luck & chance play a part for many of those who make it out, just as they do on the downside for those who don’t. When you’re looking at populations as a whole (scale, we’re not good at it!) – hard work & work ethic sometimes doesn’t mean shit on an individual basis. (Sometimes bad things *not* happening is luck)

  47. Thank You~ You have covered it right. Every day is just one minor disaster away from total implosion when you are poor.
    The fact is that all of those factors you mentioned are so interconnected that just one of them tipping over crashes the rest of them.
    And when you are poor, you are CONSTANTLY aware of it. You choose safe, not risk. Maybe you don’t take the opportunity because it feels like risk. Even tiny risk feels like big risk because one misstep can lead to disaster.
    Carson has a huge case of confirmation bias.

  48. I’ve been watching “Victorian Slum House” on PBS and seeing how many echoes there are with this administration… I really think we need things like that, but American-focussed, so people can see the history, the background, etc. We don’t have a good awareness of our history, of the background behind various policies, etc.

  49. Carson’s statement is an excellent example of white male privilege… except, of course, that he’s Black. That makes his cluelessness and lack of empathy even more remarkable.

    But he’s right in a very different sense than the one he intended: poverty really is a state of mind. When your best efforts are not rewarded, and your burdens increasingly crush you to the ground, you lose your will to keep fighting and you can’t get back up again without help. We the privileged need to provide that help without questioning, recognizing that “there but for the grace of God go I”, as the saying goes.

    There’s a well-documented problem called the “poverty trap”. TL;DR version is that poverty robs you of the resources (health, energy, adequate food, a safe place to live, freedom from depression, money) you need to fight your situation and possibly escape. That, in turn, deepens poverty because it creates a vicious circle of gradually eliminating what few resources you still have and could otherwise use to escape the trap. It’s like falling into a pit, and each time you try to climb out, you fall back and deepen the pit. (That’s also a reasonable description of clinical depression, which afflicts more than just overprivileged one-percenters.)

    It’s by no means an easy problem to solve. But the solution is not to blame people for not trying — it’s to give them the proverbial “hand up, not a handout”. Throwing money at a problem doesn’t usually solve it. Removing obstacles to success can solve it for those still able to get back on their feet and try again. Each success gives them pride and energy to try again.

    A good starting point might be to reward companies for onshoring (bringing back) decent jobs that provide a living wage. Perhaps provide tax breaks for each domestic employee and eliminate tax breaks for products produced overseas? Yes, some of our consumer goods will cost more. We privileged ones can afford it (we did in the past), and the jobs will provide wages that let our compatriots afford these products too. It’s the opposite of a vicious circle, and economists seem to be the only ones oblivious to this principle.

  50. Also (Not enough coffee this morning, sorry) personal anecdote time. I grew up abroad, went to boarding school for two years (HUGE culture shock, just huge) and then went to college. My boarding school experience really prepped me for college, in so many ways. I can definitely see how a lifetime of those sorts of advantages can help. The problem is we are not giving kids options. We aren’t giving them education options, “trades” options, options to learn some kind of skill and use it. That is what frustrates me, we could have jobs, good jobs, for many many people, even as mechanization cuts down on “menial” jobs. We don’t have the opportunity for poor people to move from one place to another easily, this society is so reliant on car transport. There are massive numbers of suburbs with no sidewalks even. I was recently at a meeting about how to ban plastic bags (grocery bags) in a city with massive inequality, and we were talking about that. How do we make this accessible for the poor, who can’t afford a canvas bag from LL Bean, who can barely afford food? There are real stumbling blocks because we’ve interconnected things for profit so much.

  51. Forgot to mention a related point, combined with a PSA:

    If you’re American, fight Trumpcare hard as you can. Lobby the hell out of your elected representatives, particularly if they’re Republican and therefore represent swing votes. A health crisis can affect anyone out of the blue, and even with reasonably good health insurance, you can get blindsided. Just happened to an American colleague (details redacted to make it harder to identify this person), whose daughter suddenly needed a liver transplant — which wasn’t covered by her insurance and will likely be bankrupted by the costs. Welcome to the poverty trap! Yes, it could happen to you.

    The PSA: She killed her liver by overdosing on acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol). That sounds careless, but a lesser-known fact is that the effective dosage of acetaminophen can be dangerously close to the level that will kill your liver (http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/820200-overview). Tylenol is so safe (in general) that most people don’t know the maximum dose they can safely take — even though it’s stated on the pill bottle. Any comorbid problem that is weakening your liver nibbles away at the safety margin, so it’s easy to cross the threshold and begin severely damaging your liver. If you’re in serious, long-term pain, talk to your doctor about safer solutions.

    Can’t afford a doctor? Start your research with the keywords “pain management” at a reputable site such as the Mayo Clinic . But be very, very careful about self-medicating. You can usually find a charity or low-cost clinic — sometimes run out of medical schools or their teaching hospitals — that offers affordable (or less unaffordable) professional advice. This is also true for treatments such as dentistry.

  52. On my way to the doctor the other day, I saw a woman and three kids on a bus bench with a sign saying that they were homeless. Every kid was clean, well groomed, and still had on their school uniforms. My first thought was, this woman got up and got her kids ready and sent them to school, probably knowing that they would be kicked out of wherever they lived before they got home that day. My heart was broken, but I was too far away to get to them to give her some money just so she could feed her kids. Just thinking about it now brings tears to my eyes again. I cannot imagine the heartbreak of being homeless with children to care for. They still had their backpacks on their shoulders!
    I grew up in the America of John and Robert Kennedy. I don’t know who these people are today with their obscene wealth and their disdain toward those less fortunate. E#SPECIALLY the ones who grew up poor themselves (Ben Carson, Paul Ryan, et al). I am ashamed of what we have become as a society.

  53. Me, my family was doing fine until my dad died when I was a teen. My parents had been, I’m told, sold the wrong kind of life insurance; his heart attack got us nothing, though they’d paid the premiums every month. We went from “doing pretty okay” (lower middle?) to down the toilet in the space of a heartbeat stopping. We lived on Social Security survivor’s benefits. I went to college because of need-based Pell Grants and state Tuition Aid Grants. I coasted through college until the last semester of my senior year. I was *not* a hard worker. Not a partier, but I had some stuff to work through, and that (and girls, and friends) tended to come first. When I graduated college, I’d decided in my last semester that I wasn’t going to be useful at the career I’d planned on… so I kicked around doing temp work and trying not to have a nervous breakdown about the bills for the few student loans I’d had to take out.

    And then one day the temp agency put me in with a client who wanted me to write a user guide for cheap. I didn’t work hard enough at that job (or wasn’t smart enough, or didn’t know enough, or had a bad attitude, or all four), and was about to get fired when I quit for another job, where I ran into the same issues. Failed upward. Got a contracting job with a company that taught me how to *do* the job, matured out of the bad attitude, got smarter. That ended. I lucked into another job (the manager I was to work for didn’t want to hire me, but his boss had liked me), and I got better, smarter, less attitudey, and over the years have found myself in the middle class.

    Nowhere in there was there a “can-do attitude.” I mean, yeah, sometime in my late twenties, early thirties I finally matured into my dad’s work ethic; I do the work and I do it well and it takes how long it takes, and if that’s 60 hours instead of 40 sometimes, I deal with it when I have to. But here I am fucking off on the internet during working hours, so, y’know. What it was? Government support when we needed it. Luck to have been interested in things in college that set me up for the right career path even if I didn’t know it; luck thereafter to get jobs that advanced me. At any point it could have all gone down the toilet. I’ve done my share of things to flush it there, but I kept floating. Now I hope I deserve what I’ve gotten; there have been times when I know I absolutely didn’t. But along the way I’ve paid much more in taxes than I ever got. Government support put me where I am. That and opportunity for a quick-talking, mostly cheerful white guy.

  54. It never ceases to enrage me that “pull oneself up by the bootstraps has morphed from “do something literally impossible” to “minimum qualification to be a worthy human being”.

    Defecate that.

  55. ” If you’re poor in the US, a good attitude and great work ethic certainly won’t fix everything, but it’ll help. I don’t think acknowledging that hurts anybody. –Ambarish Sathianathan

    Ambarish, I don’t think anyone is disputing that a positive attitude is of no help or no value. But as John states above, it is fairly far down the list of factors that contribute to escaping poverty. Ben Carson’s commentary basically reflects a common trope put forth (usually by conservatives who want to explain why certain social programs are wasteful) that suggest that poverty is solely the fault of the impoverished and their laziness, poor life choices and general failure to behave in a way to allow them to not be poor. The whole point of John’s article isn’t that a ‘can-do’ attitude is a bad thing, but that it’s not going to magically fix problems that are beyond a person’s control. When I had no money many years back, no amount of can-do attitude could fix my dead alternator on the used car I was forced to buy due to bad credit* and having no money. Yes, I fixed it myself (since I couldn’t afford a mechanic)…but I was only able to do that with the help of extensive network of friends and family to supplement me the cheapest possible tools I could buy, a trip to the junkyard to pull one from a junked car, a friend bring some equipment, a library with a manual and a host of advantages that had nothing to do with my attitude and more to do with my privileged social network (friends from college, parents who could afford to send me money and so on). So while I was impoverished at that moment, I wasn’t what I would consider poor. It’s a significant and important difference.

    Likewise, the discussion of ‘well, being poor in the US is far better than being poor in lots of other places’ isn’t really relevant to the discussion. John has, in fact, addressed this particular aspect of that argument a couple of times before. It’s tangential to this particular discussion, but also a false narrative used by some of the same people who put forth Carson’s argument that the poor in the US aren’t actually poor from a global standard, so they are undeserving of assistance. I suspect you didn’t intend that particular reading of it, but that’s a tactic that has been put forth in the past with that line of thinking.

    * – Oh, and about that bad credit thing? That was not a mistake on my part; it was a series bookkeeping mistakes on the part of the university I attended, compounded by the bank that held my student loans being involved a banking crisis and then many woes from consolidation and credit bureaus that took YEARS and one congressman (our former VP, in fact) to resolve. A ‘can-do’ attitude would not fix that, even slightly.

  56. @Greg :
    Thank you for posting this here. I’ve read it on xkcd.com , but until now I didn’t fully get it. (I got the general idea, but it didn’t really make *click* until now.)

    Semi-off-topic question:
    Reading this wonderful article and the interesting comments reminded me of something – what do you (John, guys) think about microloan organisations like Kiva ?
    (Kiva is the only one I know, maybe there are others, betters?)

    As GeoffHart says, merely throwing money at a problem doesn’t really solve it, but throwing money at a problem is easy and sometimes it will do some good – especially if those who get the money already know how to solve their problem but simply lack the funds.

    (Also, I hesitate to add, it is far easier to give some money over the internet than having to actually talk to someone.)

  57. State of mind is more accurate than you think. Read some of the work by Thomas Sowell on wealth and immigration. He has some very compelling evidence that holding many factors constant, the culture of immigrants to the US is a much better predictor of wealth accumulation. The two I can remember are black Nigerians coming to the US accumulate wealth much faster than other black Americans or immigrants. The other was two different cultures coming from China, both poor, both ethnically the same but one was very successful in the US and the other was not. A belief system based on self reliance and intact family structure is more closely related to increasing financial health than anything else.

  58. “… somewhat dubious expertise …” … Really? A learned and noted brain surgeon .. dubious expertise? Self made. I believe that he is promoting a very important component of what is missing in today’s society. Not a total solution to be sure but just throwing money at people with various issues is not a total solution either. I’m all for helping people who, despite their best efforts, need help. But I feel there are far too many people who are comfortable taking the handouts and living at that level without any real efforts to improving their lot.

  59. “… somewhat dubious expertise …” … Really? A learned and noted brain surgeon .. dubious expertise? Self made.

    I confess that someone who is an entirely self-made brain surgeon is beyond impressive. I don’t even see how he could possibly teach himself those skills without at least access to cadavers, unless perhaps he had a night job as a grave digger or perhaps a serial killer.

  60. @Rod

    The key in your paragraph is “holding many factors constant”–that’s the current problem, we’re stripping away the social safety net that helps hold some of those factors constant. Unless you have a robust social safety net, good public schools, and an anti-racist justice system (at the very least), those factors overwhelm any good a “right” state of mind might have on the vast majority of individuals in a population.

    Solve the social safety net issues that allow us to hold those factors constant? Then sure, we can talk about state of mind. But right now, it’s a dangerous misdirection by people who want to shred it for their own personal gain.

  61. I suspect that in addition to the “not wanting to admit how much was up to luck” part of people who get out of poverty and then go hardline on bootstraps there’s probably a component related to the same psychology that causes people who endure bad hazing turn around and inflict the same or worse hazing on the next group. A sort of “I had to put up with this shit and I’ll be damned if you have it easier!”

  62. I find this whole argument frustrating because it feels like both sides of the argument keep talking past each other and that neither side is willing to acknowledge that they have a point. Like, it is indisputable that there are people who are poor who make “bad” choices with their money that keep them in poverty, and it is also indisputable that there are strong structural problems with the way our societies are arranged that keep people in poverty despite their best efforts, and these are both true at the same time.

    We know, through research, that the people who are making these “bad” decisions are making, from their perspective, rational choices. No-one chooses to buy an expensive TV they can’t afford because they’d prefer to starve for the next month; they do it because their life is shitty and they feel culturally left out and they’ve been told they need to make sacrifices to get the things they want, and a nice television is something they can enjoy and feel like a functional member of society that will be a bigger bang for their buck than a holiday or a computer or a new car or what have you. People addicted to drugs usually are hiding from problems they are not equipped to deal with – as various MMOs (and gambling) have proved, you don’t need to inject chemicals into your blood to drive addiction – and we know that lab rats given access to drugs will wean themselves off it when placed into a new environment that fulfils needs that aren’t being met. Addiction solves a problem.

    So here’s where these alternate explanations for poverty dovetail: “learned helplessness”, a psychological state where teaching backfires, and the subject instead learns that they can’t change their environment, bad things happen for no reason, and they have to just take it. It’s trivially easy to induce. The technique I like is to give two groups of people (who think they’re one group) three problems to solve. The last one’s the same for both groups, but the first two are different: group 1 gets easy problems, and group 2 gets impossible problems, and then you have group 1 announce when they finish each problem. Group 2 will not solve the third problem despite the fact it’s the only one they have that’s actually solvable, because they’ll have already decided that these problems are too hard for them to solve.

    Society has taught people trapped in poverty that their efforts will be fruitless and there’s no point trying. They have a “poverty state of mind”. It was forced upon them. Deeply unfair inequality can bring about someone choosing to waste their time and money instead of fixing their problems.

  63. @D.C. Sessions

    I believe the “dubious expertise” refers specifically to Mr. Carson’s (acknowledged to be a remarkable neurosurgeon) qualifications, or lack thereof, for running the department of Housing and Urban Development. Success and competence in one field doesn’t necessarily translate.

  64. “gormlessness” .. a new word for this retired engineer! Had to look it up.. seems like it is perhaps not applicable to describe Carson’s thoughts on poverty. His self-motivation and self-empowerment history seems to be anti-gormlessness (The definition I found online was “Lacking sense or initiative; foolish” .. perhaps you meant the ‘foolish’ part.)

  65. Further to your point, and though I am (thankfully) no expert on poverty, it would seem to me that if there is any correlation between “state of mind” and poverty, it would be in the other direction:
    living in poverty, without that psychological margin, can train your mind in some counterproductive ways. John Cheese on Cracked.com wrote several articles based on his personal experience that I found quite enlightening on that dynamic.

  66. There was a time when my father worked three jobs to keep our family afloat – his was a rags-to-middle class story that could not happen today, because the job he eventually got would require a master’s degree, when he didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree. Also, being a white male certainly helped.

  67. One of the themes I have seen in this thread is the concept of “Luck”. I absolutely agree that luck is needed in any rise in your social status but what I would say is that I think luck is more common than people think and people often don’t take advantage. Here is an example, the US people have a great appreciation for their armed forces and have created and supported the GI Bill which provides for educational benefits for active duty or retired service members. It allows for full tuition for public schools and around $23,000 a year for private schools. In addition, many private schools will wave the difference for veterans. This is great opportunity for veterans to avoid the pitfalls of high tuition costs and overwhelming student loan debt. In a recent survey by the Washington Post they found that 52% of those that have served in the military since the 9/11 GI Bill Revision have not taken advantage of this. They seem to be throwing this luck or opportunity away.

    I agree with many of the points that have been made in this post and comments that things like economic status at birth, gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, etc… play the most important role in poverty. Close behind is the concept of “luck”. I think “luck” is best described by the old quote by Senaca, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” To have luck you need to have the good work ethic to take advantage of your opportunities.

  68. Don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor. –John Dickinson, “1776”

    There’s a difference between saying that poor people can take steps to improve their situation and saying that it’s all their fault. It’s not victim-blaming to say that a work ethic and a certain amount of ingenuity helps, but it is absolutely victim-blaming to say that if you work hard and still can’t get ahead, it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough. Because there’s no way to disprove that, is there? Your mother worked three jobs and was still poor? Well, I guess she should have worked four, then. Because *laziness*. Everyone wants to believe that if they succeed, it’s because they did it all by themselves. But nobody does it all by themselves. Never has been the case, never will be the case.

    I think the antidote to the thinking Dr. Carson is propagating is to recognize that the existence of poor and rich people does not have to mean that they’re all at each other’s throats. There’s no shame in not having a lot of money. But if you don’t have a lot of money because politicians keep denying you opportunities and basic social services, now is the time to get angry. People in America are very angry about that right now, but a lot of them are angry at the wrong people. It’s a shame. Because, you know, a rising tide lifts all boats, and all that.

  69. Well said, John. I think the people who insist that attitude is enough to allow individuals to pull themselves out of poverty are forgetting (or deliberately ignoring) two things:

    1. Poverty is cumulative. The longer you are poor, the more things break down/run out/go wrong, and the more ground you have to make up.

    2. Poverty is draining. Yes, you can eat (more) cheaply if you grow your own vegetables, bake your own bread, etc. But those things have a corresponding cost in time and effort. Yes, you can (maybe) go back to school. Again, time and effort. At some point, there’s not enough of you to go around.

    I think, though, that the biggest part of the problem is that so much money is concentrated in the hands of so few that the economic deck is completely stacked against those near the bottom. When it’s impossible to make it on minimum wage, even working full-time, the system is broken. And if the system stays broken, I think we’re going to see–maybe already are seeing–people opting out of it in every way possible. That’s if we don’t end up with outright revolt–which I predict won’t end well.

  70. Close behind is the concept of “luck”. I think “luck” is best described by the old quote by Senaca, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” To have luck you need to have the good work ethic to take advantage of your opportunities.

    Don’t forget John’s point regarding negative “luck:” not finding yourself blindsided by illness, injury, crime, fire, flood, or whatever. The median American is less than $500 from bankruptcy — and $500 doesn’t buy a lot of medical care, rent, transportation, or much of anything else.

  71. John – For what it’s worth, I think you are selling yourself short here (perhaps to enhance your argument against Dr. Carson). Looking at your list:


    1) Access to opportunity
    2) Network of people
    3) Luck
    4) Talent
    5) Breaks from society (i.e., privilege)
    6) Wife/family
    7) Desire/Determination

    Your argument is that without #1 through #6, #7 wouldn’t have mattered much at all. That is undeniably true. But it’s also true that without #7, #1 through #6 wouldn’t have mattered much at all. I’m sure there were folks at Webb (or schools like it) who had access to a strong network, innate talent, a supportive society & family, etc. who did not take advantage of those things the way that you did. I’ve certainly seen many kids – from high schools in well-to-do neighborhoods all the way to the Ivy League – squander their many, outsized opportunities due to a lack of #7 (those who throw their lives away to drugs and alcohol come immediately to mind). You worked hard, and you turned the gifts you were given into the success you enjoy today. In addition to having a lot of help, you did, in fact, earn your success.

    Poverty is NOT a state of mind. Of course it’s not. People without #1 through #6 cannot claw their way out of poverty with heaping doses of #7. But people who have some degree of #1 through #6 who DON’T have #7 can easily find themselves slipping into poverty. And for those folks, a better state of mind could be the difference between creating the margin that you speak of and finding themselves in a place where no amount of #7 can help them.

    I suspect Dr. Carson knows this (given his own “rags-to-riches” story), and I suspect his intent was to motivate those who have those opportunities and might not realize the stakes. I also suspect that pointing out the existence of folks who don’t have those opportunities weakens that message, and so he chooses to ignore them entirely, which rightly makes a whole lot of people angry at him.

    Sadly, we have so firmly chosen up sides in our public discourse that a positive statement like “the desire & determination to make something of yourself can keep you out of poverty” needs to be ripped to shreds in order to make the equally valid point that “some people need better access to opportunity, a loving and supportive family/community, and a bit of luck before their innate desire/determination can help them thrive, and those who have such things can do more to provide it to them.”

    The two thoughts don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We should be able to encourage those who squander opportunity by telling them that their state of mind can make all the difference and simultaneously encourage those who have achieved success to create the opportunities necessary for those who have the drive to take advantage of them if they only had the access. But that would involve discussion and collaboration amongst people of different viewpoints. Instead, we tend to call the first point “bullshit” in order to drive home the second, and suggest that the speaker “go fuck himself.” Dr. Carson and his limited view of the world is part of the problem. Calling him an asshole doesn’t solve the problem; it makes it worse.

  72. “The median American is less than $500 from bankruptcy — and $500 doesn’t buy a lot of medical care, rent, transportation, or much of anything else.”

    Pedantic note: being unable to pay an emergency expense is not bankruptcy. In my youth, I was in that position a number of times. Bankruptcy is being unable to pay your debts, and it’s a legal term.

    I understand the sense of what you meant, which is basically “broke”.

  73. One of the common threads I find in a lot of the stories of those who did manage to climb out of poverty is the most important luck of all- what kind of parents raise you. Some people succeed in spite of the way they were raised (often with the help of some surrogate parent), but parents who give their kids the right mental tools to succeed are more likely to see those kids be able to take advantage of the luck and opportunities they might encounter. So in that sense, state of mind plays a factor, but that state of mind developed from the luck of the parent draw to begin with.

    In terms of ways to provide a hand up, one thing that I think it severely lacking in our education system is teaching of basic financial literacy. A lot of people get themselves into trouble because they don’t know enough about the financial traps that are out there.

  74. I had an interview a couple months ago where, my god, they loved my positive attitude, my can do spirit and, holy hell, some of my experience was adjacent enough to what they were doing that they were going to consider hiring me for a higher level position.

    Two days later, I got the call that they wanted someone with more experience to be an ice cream scooper. And while I don’t doubt that more recent food experience would have been helpful (it’s been a long time for me), I’m also guessing the fact that I’m 42 may have come in to play somehow. Because that’s what I’m reduced to. Yes, there are jobs open. Yes, people are hiring. But some of those jobs want younger and prettier than I’ve ever been (and, cynically, probably stupider too).

    So yeah… they’re hiring but let’s be up front about the types and ages being hired too, yeah?

  75. Some people are utterly invested in their personal narratives: “By golly, I’m just a bootstrap-lifting fighter who did it all with guts, sweat, smarts, and my own innate attitude!”

    No one is saying you didn’t work really hard, that you’re not a quitter… but not everyone has the same support systems and privilege that you probably aren’t even aware you had/have.

  76. @Brian Greenberg:
    “… I suspect his intent was to motivate those who have those opportunities and might not realize the stakes.”
    “… the desire & determination to make something of yourself can keep you out of poverty ..”

    Both are very generous readings of “poverty, to a large extent, is a state of mind.” But if you look further along in the transcript of Dr. Carson’s radio interview:

    “You take somebody that has the right mind-set, you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee in a little while they’ll be right back up there.”

    He isn’t saying that the “right mind-set” is one of a number of important things. He’s saying that “the right mind-set” is sufficient for anyone to escape poverty. He guarantees it.

    Characterizing his interview as something other than the common “poor-are-poor-because-of-moral-failings” fallacy seems misleading. And that fallacy deserves to be ripped to shreds.

  77. I like to use myself as (currently, knocking wood) the anti-example of Carson et al’s bullshit: I do fine and I’ve never worked particularly hard at anything but hobbies.

    In school, my mom said I took minimalism to an art form: if the teacher said “write a minimum-five-page paper with at least three references,” they’d get three lines on the fifth page and exactly three citations. I comfortably made Bs and Cs and didn’t care until I got old enough that I wanted to go to prep school, then made exactly the grades and scores and things I needed to get in, then I repeated the pattern to get into the college I wanted. Officially, I majored in English; unofficially, in drinking, boys, and D&D. I can think of two professors whose classes I regularly attended without duress, and I took game/novel notes during most of the others. Graduated, and have since had a number of jobs where I put in enough effort to get the job done solidly, but never regularly did actual work for more than 40 hours a week, and sometimes less. I do well enough to have savings, a decent apartment and food budget, and a hobby that can cost more than a bit.

    I’m not bragging. I’m lucky. My parents are upper-middle-class educators and I only had one sibling; there was always enough food for meals, no housing insecurity, health care for whatever ailed us, and lots of books and scholastic help available. I’m also white, straight, and cis, culturally Christian, mostly neurotypical (minor anxiety disorder), with, so far, no major trauma or health issues. I knew about and had access to birth control from a young age, and if I had gotten knocked up, my parents would’ve supported me both financially and emotionally in getting that taken care of. My folks taught me, without being conscious of it most of the time, the way people dress and speak and act in upper-class society, and they had the background to advise me on the kind of schools and jobs I wanted. We had computers as long as I can remember, and I got on the Internet for the first time in 1995.

    In short: like ten percent of where I am now is due to my own skills–and of that, a good five percent is luck that reading and writing come easily to me and I enjoy them, Working hard? Like two percent, tops.

  78. I liked the suggestion that basic financial literacy would be useful to people, but one thing that has happened over the last 40 years is the continual stacking of the deck in our legal system against the working class.
    That’s why the onslaught against the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is so bad.
    Nowadays, the average consumer has no rights. The ‘contracts’ you are forced into to get any goods or services from large corporations basically takes away any legal rights you might have and says you get arbitration if you get into any dispute at all. Other posters have mentioned the whole ‘tractors are now metal wrapped around software’ issue slamming farmers with untenable repair issues. “Non compete” agreements now affect about 20% of all US workers, including low skilled, no special skills or expertise workers. This forces workers into virtual serfdom.
    Attitude doesn’t help at all when the entire legal system has become rigged in favor of our corporate overlords.
    And a political system that has been hijacked so that honest elections are a thing of the past in the world of extreme gerrymandering.

  79. So much this.

    I teach at a rural two-year community college, well known for its excellent technical programs. In fact it’s more accurate to call it a technical branch, because we do offer a couple of four-year degrees and are actually a branch campus of a state university.

    Most of my students are the first in their families to go to college. Most are from rural areas or small towns. Most of their families are NOT RICH.

    Over and over, their barriers to finishing school have nothing to do with their work ethic or their attitudes. It’s exactly what you describe — they are one sick babysitter or one broken down car away from not making it at all. This is why low-income people depend so strongly on their families — it’s a network they simply must have, regardless of the quality of the relationships. My students are always sharing cars, babysitting, etc., with their extended family. It’s their only safety net.

    I live in a red state that refused the Medicaid expansion. If you want to understand Ryan/Trump/McConnel/Carson’s vision for America, look at Oklahoma. We are already living it.

    Thank you for the post.

  80. So what happens if your parent is one of the abusers, druggies, or cheats that Glenfilthie so kindly reminds us of? John and several other posters have already pointed out, indeed ranked first, the impact of a determined parent. But if your parent or parents are unable to take the kinds of actions that might change things for their child, what is your likely future?

    Too many people don’t recognize how much of the “handouts” are for children in poverty . How much of the education funding is targeted towards helping children in poverty. How many of those children don’t have anyone to help them but the people who are paid by their government, or the food that ends up in their stomach because of that same government. I cannot comprehend anyone who would punish children for their parents’ choices, or mental health issues, or simple bad luck, by denying them funding that allows them to eat, be educated and be healthy. Unfortunately, our government has made it clear that is their goal.

    Too bad those kids don’t have the right mindset.

  81. Free tuition isn’t the same as free education. You still have pay for books and required supplies, food, housing, medical care, transportation, etc. Depending on what gives you the tuition, you might be under rules that make a job impossible and also public assistance.

  82. I’m well-off thanks to family money, but whenever I hear about poor people being “lazy” or making “bad choices,” I have to wonder how much of that is the result of depression, anxiety, chronic diseases, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, bipolar disorder, autism, sensory processing disorders, allergies, endometriosis, lack of mobility aids, inadequate access to necessary medical or sanitary supplies, etc.

    Yeah, someone is going to look lazy if their depression literally keeps them from getting out of bed. Or it’s going to look like they don’t know how to spend money wisely if they keep buying fancy, expensive foods (that just happen to be the only ones they know of that don’t send them rushing to the toilet). And they sure better not try to self-medicate for anything, because then they’re a junkie or drunk.

    Neurotypical, non-disabled, generally healthy people really need to shut the hell up about the importance of maintaining the right “mindset” or “work ethic.” Because, for a lot of people, being able to do so (either at all or to the satisfaction of judgmental onlookers) is a luxury—one that poor people absolutely cannot afford, yet are punished all the harsher for lacking.

  83. From one scholarship kid to another:
    Spot on … again.
    In my case the luck of being born to a truly amazing woman allowed me a margin that went beyond the economic to include the emotional, logistical, intellectual and philosophical.

  84. So what happens if your parent is one of the abusers, druggies, or cheats that Glenfilthie so kindly reminds us of? John and several other posters have already pointed out, indeed ranked first, the impact of a determined parent. But if your parent or parents are unable to take the kinds of actions that might change things for their child, what is your likely future?

    Well said. One wonders if the filthy one understands how many American children grow up in the child welfare/foster care system, with one parent, or a grandparent or older sibling as guardian, or on the streets?

    Hardly Christian, but certainly Republican…

  85. I think people are missing the real message behind Carson’s words; by equating “the right attitude” with “being deserving of success” and then stretching that out to “the deserving have the success” you get nice chain you can turn around to convince everyone that the wealthy are that way because they deserve it. They’re just better and clearly worth more than you plebs.
    It’s the direct descendant of the “King by the grace of god” as a way of asserting unassailable privilege.

  86. Too many people don’t recognize how much of the “handouts” are for children in poverty .

    The majority, isn’t it? As in, the majority of people in poverty are children?

    Though that won’t stop a lot of people from shitting on poor children. They’ve been supporting eating our seed corn for years now….

  87. Brian: ” a better state of mind could be the difference between creating the margin that you speak of ”

    Change “being poor” to “having cancer” and these kinds of shenanigans become clear. Carson is the equivalent of “i prayed and god removed my cancer”. You’re both trying to pretend that the power of prayer can overcome cancer.

    But more importantly, you are ignoring intent. Carson isnt saying this to cure people of cancer. He is saying this for one reason only: that only bad people who dont pray die from cancer, therefore we dont need to pay for medical insurance.

    ““You take somebody that has the right mind-set, you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee in a little while they’ll be right back up there.”

    We dont need unemployment benefits because ANYONE who gets laid off but has the “right attitude” can get back up again without help. Right? Isnt that your point? That prayer heals cancer, so why bother paying doctors?

    If that is NOT your point, then you are laying waste to peoples’ well being without being responsible for the damage you are doing. you are killing people with this nonsense.

    Gary: “But I feel there are far too many people who are comfortable taking the handouts and living at that level without any real efforts to improving their lot.”

    Certainly you would have to *feel* that way, because there’s no objective proof that its true. This is how people defend their alternative facts: hide it behind their “feelings”. When challenged on veracity, the most common response is “I have a right to my opinion”, because opinion and feelings dont have to be proven.

  88. I call total bullshit on “You take somebody that has the right mind-set, you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee in a little while they’ll be right back up there.”

    Of course, if Ben Carson had everything taken away and was put out on the street (at least in the USA), he’d be okay because he has friends and connections. He could call on people he knows, powerful people, who could help him. I’d love to see how he’d do if he was sent to a foreign country where he doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t know anybody. Or how he’d do in America if not only his money and property, but his reputation was taken away, so no one would want to help him out. Something like what happens to the rich guys in the movie “Trading Places,” except he never gets his money back.

  89. You may have just written a better, and much, much shorter version of J.D. Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy!’ Nicely stated.

  90. When I was in the UK last year, I noticed that people who worked in the low paying service industry jobs seemed to be, for the most part, congenial and somehow just more comfortable than people in similar positions in the US. I couldn’t pinpoint it at the time, but after reading your article I think it has to do with the margin you talked about, as I don’t think opportunity or access are all that different over there.
    The UK has a wonderful public transportation system in place, which virtually eliminates the need for a car, insurance, repairs, and a lot of headaches that are downright necessary in most of the US. Also, they have universal access to real healthcare, so you always know you’re covered for emergency or preventative care. These are two of the most troubling and worrisome things for people here in the US, especially when the income isn’t great – and they’re just eliminated in the UK.

  91. If anything, I think causation runs the other direction. Poverty tends to induce a state of mind that habituates the unfortunate to bad, short-term thinking and decision making. You can’t save money if you don’t have enough to meet all basic needs, which means anything that goes wrong can create a cascade reversing any progress made toward getting out of poverty. Loans are more expensive and harder to get, you can’t afford to save by buying in bulk because you need to buy what you need now. In the US, in many areas, a car breaking down means missed days at work, and you simply have to have a car. All that worry and stress leads to frazzled and fragile emotions, impulsive decisions and more worries and stress.

  92. Yeah, it’s very funny how lack of a good attitude doesn’t mean jack once you have the money. You can be as lazy as you want then and Carson will never say you nay.

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