“Mindsets” and Poverty

“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.”

― Herman Melville

Recently, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said (during an interview on SiriusXM Radio with Armstrong Williams) that a “certain mindset” contributes to people living in poverty, that “the wrong mindset” is the product of negative parenting habits. He was speaking about what is known as “generational poverty”, where children of – one might assume him speaking of welfare recipients – see that it’s not necessary to work in order to have food, housing and cash (even a free mobile phone with free minutes) and then adopt that mindset as their own growing up and then take into their own adulthood and, in turn, pass it on to their own children.

That there is some truth in that became evident to me recently, when a certain especially important person in my life who works as a non-teaching middle school librarian related to me, that evening after she came home from work, a conversation she’d had that day with a student. 

It’s the policy of her school district that if a student loses a book, neglectfully damages equipment, or has overdue late fines, and they aren’t paid for by the end of high school, the student will not be allowed to graduate. She pointed this out to the young man, that if he planned on graduating, he (or his parents) needed to pay up a bill he’d accrued. He replied he wasn’t going to pay, neither were his parents, and that he didn’t need to graduate. When she asked him how he thought he’d ever get a job and take care of himself as an adult without a diploma, his response was that he’d just go on welfare, as it works for his parents it’ll work for him, also.

A surprising, but not shocking, attitude that vindicates Carson’s beliefs.

Carson went on to say, “I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind. You take somebody that has the right mindset, 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…and you take somebody with the wrong mindset, you can give them everything in the world, they’ll work their way right back down to the bottom.”

Sounds familiar; sounds like something out of the movie, Trading Places, staring Eddie Murphy in 1983.

He has a point, but it’s too simplistic. It takes an exceptionally rare individual, someone with more than a “right mindset”, to end the cycle of poverty and welfare, to succeed, regardless of what or how the parents think or live. More to the point, to succeed in this world it also requires native talent and job opportunities. (That he, himself, had the “right mindset”, intelligence and opportunity to leave the poverty he grew up in and become a neurosurgeon, is atypical, and rather naive to believe that if he could do it, then everyone can.) 

It doesn’t matter how badly one wants to succeed, if they don’t have the physical and intellectual wherewithal and opportunity, it just ain’t gonna happen. And this leads to what the good secretary calls “a poverty of spirit”, a giving up attitude, the remedy for which he says is where the government can be “very helpful…it can provide the ladder of opportunity [by providing a ‘helping hand’]”.

Just what those “helping hand” programs are, he didn’t say, but if he means programs like grants to assist first-time home buyers get loans or help with a down-payment, and Community Development Block Grants (to revitaliize economically distressed communities) – all under his department – that are slated in the administration’s budget proposal to be cut by billions of dollars, that isn’t exactly helpful.

Add to that the administration’s proposals to slash educational funding, once again allow pay-day lenders (that paycheck-to-paycheck workers sometimes need to get by) to charge the working poor as much as 400% interest, to revamp healthcare (allowing tens of millions to be uninsured), and the only “helping hand” is the one helping to keep people impoverished.

Maybe that student’s parents have the “wrong mindset”; they’re just plain and simply bone-lazy. I don’t know. And I don’t know, nor apparently greater minds than mine, what the solution to the problem of poverty is. But those who are well-housed, well-warmed and well-fed need to stop criticizing the poor and find a way to insure that everyone not only has equal access to a high-quality education, but also to a meaningful (and livable) employment. And stop putting political/economic roadblocks in their path.

That’s how I see it.

But maybe I don’t have the “right mindset”.

– Bill


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