The Cancer of Linking Poverty to Morality

TLDR:  Poverty is a moral failing of the affluent, not the poverty-stricken.


I’ve thought about writing this post for months.  I’ve thought about it regarding education.  Health care.  Criminal justice.  Really, it’s about our nation, the ‘western’ world, and the planet as a whole.

The core idea is earthshakingly simple:

Do we have enough wealth for everyone to at least live a lifestyle one would consider minimally sufficient in a first-world country?

It’s a much easier question than ‘how we should distribute wealth?’  It’s not ‘what is fair?’, but rather ‘Do we have enough?’

This answer answers the questions in regard to what we do about things like education, healthcare, and nutrition assistance.

We can either afford to provide everyone with a baseline, or not.

If the answer is “No, we lack the resources”, we need to scrap the idea that anyone can succeed in this country.  We need to quit telling people that it’s their fault they’re struggling.  If it is guaranteed that some portion of our citizenry is going to exist in poverty, we need to stop lying to people and we need to restructure all of our talking points.  If there is simply not enough to go around, we need to acknowledge the truth- that peoples’ excessive success is directly tied to others’ inability to succeed.

The nature of economic competition in such a world means that those who are more able, due to talent or resources, are going to surpass those who are less able, and there is nothing to be done about it.  We use our competitive advantages to insure our success at the expense of others.1

If the answer is “Yes, we have the resources!”, then the next question I have to ask is, why aren’t we using them to establish a baseline?  If there is enough material wealth in our nation to provide everyone with a baseline standard of living- a baseline level of equality, why aren’t we doing it?

Are we scared of what would happen in a competition that’s not fixed?2

Or are we so addicted to our lifestyles that moving from a 55″ HDTV to a 65″ HDTV is actually worth 100 children missing a meal?


Up top, I asserted that poverty is a moral failing of the well-off.  It’s time to elaborate on that.

Most people look at poverty as evidence of poor choices (morals) on behalf of the poor.  Most commonly, I hear one of two things:

“I survived / escaped ‘x’ through force of will, determination, hustle, etc.3

“If a person finishes his education, gets married before having children, and stays married, his chances of either becoming poor or staying poor are small.”

Both of those statements are bullshit.  There’s just no other way to put it.  Two words invalidate the entirety of ‘Bootstraps Theory’- generational poverty.

I have written in the past on the topic of generational poverty.  It’s a very simple concept:  If you grow up in poverty, you’re infinitely more likely to live in poverty.  If you happen to reproduce…  Your children grow up in poverty.  Rinse and repeat forever.  The only two ways to break the cycle are to have a child that makes an intuitive leap before they are too badly damaged, or for an adult to ‘wake up’ and then overcome all of the challenges that have been laid in front of them beyond the norm.

Think about it.  Do we allow twelve-year-olds to work in coal mines or on crab boats?  Get tattoos?  Drink or smoke?  If they break the law, we have a whole different court system for them.4  In several religions, there are formal rites that indicate the passage from childhood to adulthood, and, rather than even an age-based determination, it is based on the child’s ability to demonstrate knowledge and understanding.

Yet, we expect children growing up in poverty to magically raise themselves and make all the right decisions, like staying in school or getting married before having children.5

Or, we expect an adult to ‘come from behind’ in a society designed essentially to prevent that sort of success.

How can it be a moral failing for a child to make poor decisions, when society, in myriad ways, acknowledges that children lack the wisdom or moral development to make many decisions, and even acknowledges that they cannot be held fully culpable for said decisions?  How can it be the moral failing of an adult

On the other hand, it is absolutely a moral failing to allow generations of children to grow up mired in poverty.  Society at large benefits from a full grasp, if not a precise consensus, regarding what is acceptable morally.  Further, society encompasses the entirety of our material resources.

Thus, it follows, at least in my mind, that a society that does not use its’ resources to destroy poverty by establishing a baseline level of resource equality- a society that deems a 7-year-old more culpable in his / her poverty than the most affluent in said society, suffers from a morality that is absolutely cancerous.

Disclaimer:  I absolutely have more material things than I strictly need, and I have also made poor choices at times in my life even when I possessed the knowledge to know better.  I’m not perfect, but I am aware.6

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