20 Ways to Blame the Poor

I’ve seen a few people recently share an article from Dave Ramsey called 20 Things the Rich Do Every Day. I don’t know enough of Ramsey’s work, but I’ve seen enough others for the red flag to immediately be going off with the sense that what he really means is “20 ways to blame the poor for being poor.” Maybe that’s reading too much into it, but if he wasn’t implying that himself, it is clear that a lot of the commenters are feeling no qualms about making that statement outright.

I would like to very briefly debunk some of these victim-blaming tactics. Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way first.

  1. I am not suggesting that there are not some things which the poor could do to help themselves out. They do have some freedom.
  2. For the actual stats, look at the original articles. I’ve generalized, precisely because I think that’s what the article was promoting.
  3. Similarly, I’m generalizing here for dramatic effect. Yes, some poor people actually are simply lazy. Just like some rich people. The difference is the lazy rich people are ignored while the lazy poor people are seen as stereotypical of every poor person so you may as well not even bother helping them. I make generalizations in the opposite direction simply to help explode the false assumptions.

Anyway, let’s look at those things.

Wealthy people eat less junk food. I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that this has something to do with the fact that junk food is much, much cheaper. I even remember parents complaining about this in high school. Our caf sold a giant thing of poutine (fries with cheese and gravy for the non-Canadian readers) for $3.50. You would be full the rest of the day on that. Or you could get a sandwich for $5 that kept you full for 20 minutes. Even as middle-class adults, we wrestle with this almost every week: just how much healthy food can we get within our budget before we fill in the rest with cheap garbage?

Poor people gamble more, especially with the lottery, also known as that government tool which doesn’t mind exploiting the desperate in order to get money. That is precisely why poor people play the lottery too much: they’re desperate. Rich people don’t play the lottery because they don’t have to. Poor people figure that the 1 in 30 million odds have to be better than the guarantee of continuing to slide into debt because there is no other way to pay the bills.

Wealthy people get to be single-minded on their goals. Poor people are usually too busy working multiple jobs and whatever else it takes to survive to be able to have one abstract overaching life goal (other than survival, that is).

Wealthy people exercise. Poor people often don’t have the time, the money, or the energy after all the survival demands put on them.

Wealthy people listen to audio books and read to further their careers. Poor people can’t afford the devices to play those audiobooks or the books themselves.

Wealthy people maintain a to-do list. Poor people usually have too much to handle to be able to sit down and work out a nice neat list. Hmmm, should I eat this week, or pay the rent? Which is my higher priority on my list? Same concept for how wealthy people write down goals but poor people do not. Pretty basic hierarchy of needs stuff.

Wealthy people make their children read. Poor people can’t afford books for their children. Yes, libraries do exist, to varying degrees of effectiveness, but I’ve also seen the way that the wealthier people in libraries look at those who are obviously poor. If I was in their shoes I wouldn’t be in a hurry to go through that. Plus, as we move to more electronic books and less physical, the poor can’t afford the devices for reading.

Wealthy people make their children volunteer. Poor people try to get their children jobs as soon as possible so there is just a little more help in paying the bills. This trend of unpaid internships rampant in North America? Only works if you have enough money from other sources to live on.

Poor people say what’s on their mind, unlike rich people. I’m sorry for suggesting that the oppressed also want a voice – even if few are actually listening – and not just their oppressors.

Wealthy people network. Poor people don’t have the time and money to stroll around golf courses chatting up strangers, or pretty much anything else that qualifies as “networking.”

Wealthy people wake up 3 hours before work. It’s hard for poor people working 18 hours a day to not be asleep the other 6, which is still not even enough to be healthy.

Poor people watch more TV and especially more reality TV. Sure, this is something they could change, but I have a hard time blaming somebody for needing to crash occasionally when there are as many stresses in life as most poor people deal with.

Wealthy people think good habits make good luck and bad habits make bad luck. Poor people are often disillusioned that the American Dream (or the Canadian Dream) didn’t work out for them and so no longer see such a nice and simple cause and effect relationship.

The wealthy believe in life-long educational self-improvement. The poor aren’t sure if their “life-long” will last more than another year if they don’t focus on more immediate concerns.

In short, the article presents all of these things as if everyone has equal access and some simply choose wiser than others. That assumption is intensely out of touch with the real world.

The Real Question

Maybe the question isn’t the usual “what did they do wrong so we can justifiably dismiss them?” but “how can we help them, out of our own sacrifice, learn to do better?” In that case, maybe this list can be redeemed to give ideas of how to help our hurting neighbours (yes, it does necessitate knowing poor people): give books to people in need, give them jobs and a fair wage where they aren’t too depressed and stressed to do much other than watch TV after, make a garden on your lawn and give the excess fresh vegetables away, and most importantly, stop pretending the American/Canadian Dream has any basis in reality so we can dismiss the poor.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Stephen Foltz

    I am glad you broke this down in a sympathetic way, Steve. This is what Dave Ramsey should have done, instead of just listing statistics. I am not sure if he meant to degrade the poor, but he certainly went a ways toward making the rich feel they deserve what they have and that the poor are just too dumb to figure out what they ought to do.

  • Cindy Battles

    Here’s my thing…if all it took to rise up from poverty was nonfiction books, reading to your children, making lists, or networking I’d be rich as hell and not wondering what I’m going to feed my children tonight. Poverty is bondage. Man made bondage forged by the system, choices others have made and-indeed-your own choices. But even if I do everything on this list, and I do quite a few of them, it is not going to change the current economic situation or the fact I’ve been laid off for five months.

  • lee_r

    Ramsey continues a looong trend of assuming that the things which produce success are equally distributed among rich and poor. That is, of course, total nonsense, but it is deeply ingrained in affluent people (for what I consider obvious reasons).

    The theory was recently stated by someone on a web site which I frequent::

    “Given that most in this country are equal physically and intellectually, why should a person who worked hard, in school, developed skills neccessary to earn a livable wage be forced to give to the person(s) who drop out of school, have not developed skills required to earn a livable wage?”
    The assumption: physical and intellectual abilities, applied to hard work, equals success.
    That is demonstrably untrue, yet it is believed by millions upon millions. Many poor people even believe it and end up beating themselves senseless with the idea that maybe they really are just lazy, worthless, etc.
    Any honest look at our society will clearly show that opportunity plays a major role in success. Preparation for life in the mainstream of our society is a huge factor. Connections to other, successful people play a huge role. Psychological and emotional health ply an enormous role (try “succeeding” if the first 16 years of experience show you repeatedly that you are doomed).
    Blaming the unsuccessful is the flip side of the successful feeling good because they are “responsible for their own success.” It is also a very easy & simplistic way for the affluent and successful to relieve themselves of the need to think about or, God forbid, do something to alleviate, poverty and misery.
    Like every other simplistic, self-serving rationalization, it’s both extremely destructive and almost impossible to correct.

  • Kristen Rosser

    Ramsey talks about how choices bring about results but seems blind to how results bring about choices.