It’s common for many people to tell the poor and minorities to make better choices so their lives would be better - stay in school, work hard, establish your career, get married, and avoid having children before you can afford them. If they did all this, they wouldn’t be poor. This shows a simplistic view of the complex social phenomenon. But, the thing is: poverty is not a personal choice, but a reflection of society.
High levels of poverty are particularly seen in South Africa, where more than half of the country still lives below the national poverty live. Most of its wealth remains in the hands of a small elite. "The country was very unequal in 1994 [at the end of apartheid] and now 25 years later South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. There is no country that we have data about where the inequality is higher than South Africa,” Victor Sulla, a senior economist for the World Bank in charge of southern Africa, said.
A 2018 report from the World Bank revealed that the top 1% of South Africans own 70.9% of the nation’s wealth. The bottom 60% of South Africans collectively control only 7% of the country’s assets. This is just one of the major reasons why the country ranked number one in the world’s most unequal countries. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former head of the African Union, stated that the nation has been facing the triple challenge of poverty, unemployment, and inequality. "We are a relatively rich country but with a lot of poor people," she said.
According to National Public Radio, an online site that delivers breaking national and world news, South Africa has already invested heavily in social programs such as a plan for universal health care, free primary education, minimum income grants to parents, infrastructure projects to expand access to clean water, and many more. Despite these efforts, unfortunately, the number of South Africans living below the national poverty line has actually been increasing since 2011. Previous reports showed that 55.5% of South Africans or more than 30 million people were surviving on less than $5 a day in 2015.
Sulla explained that the lack of progress against poverty is primarily due to opportunity inequality. Most of the time, people who've traditionally had wealth and economic opportunities continue to enjoy access to many benefits while the poor are left in the dark. This only shows that if an individual did finish school, work hard, or get married, it wouldn’t guarantee them a better life. These kinds of notions need to stop.
On People’s Beliefs Towards Poverty and Inequality
A 2001 national poll conducted by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School revealed that respondents were roughly equally divided when asked which is the bigger cause of poverty today: people not doing enough to help themselves out of poverty or circumstances that are beyond their control? It was shown that 48% believe that people are not doing enough while 45% blame circumstances that caused people to be poor.
Many people view poverty as an individual phenomenon and believe that it’s primarily people’s fault why they are poor. According to PRB.org, an online site that analyzes demographic data and research to provide objective, accurate, and up-to-date population information, one persistent stereotype is that the poor are unmotivated. These people lack aspirations to “get ahead,” or don’t work hard enough to succeed. The same poll showed that 52% of the American public believed that lack of motivation was a major cause of poverty. These are the same people who believe that motivation and hard work can pull people out of poverty, regardless of their background.
This mindset ignores all historical and environmental conditions that contribute to certain outcomes. This includes slavery, segregation, and discrimination against women. It is easier for the privileged who ignore the historical context of poverty to attribute an unfavorable outcome, such as poverty, to the person. A book titled “Rugged Individualism and the Misunderstanding of American Inequality” discussed how American's politics and cultures’ distinctively individualist ideology shape attitudes toward poverty and economic inequality.
The book criticizes the widespread perception that a person’s success or failure in life is largely the result of personal choices and individual characteristics. "We tend to view poverty as the fault of the individual, and therefore, you simply need to pull yourself up by the bootstraps to get ahead. As a result, we provide minimal assistance to lower-income families. The result is the highest rates of poverty among the industrialized countries,” co-author Mark Rank said.
Also, the authors explored a concept called "skeptical altruism," which they used to describe the American public's hesitancy to adopt a more robust and structurally oriented approach to solving the persistent problem of economic disadvantage. "We use the term skeptical altruism to describe America's ambivalent attitudes toward assisting the poor. On the one hand, Americans do express a moral commitment to helping the poor. Yet, on the other hand, they are skeptical about the effectiveness of such help. This results in a very limited social welfare state, and an emphasis upon the importance of individual charity,” Rank added.
A Simulation Game Can Alter These Beliefs
The individualist ideology that people believe blames the poor for their fates. To address this, researchers at Simon Fraser University developed a poverty simulation game to make people better understand what causes poverty and economic inequality. Initial findings showed that using a relatively easy, cost-effective, and "low-touch" intervention can foster lasting and meaningful change in beliefs about poverty and reduce support for economic inequality.
According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, the team invited about 600 students to a laboratory setting to play the game called SPENT. They were divided into two groups where the first group was asked to take part in a poverty simulation experience. In the game, they have to live a month in the life of an impoverished person making daily financial decisions. The researchers, later on, revealed that the game helped the participants develop stronger recognition of the situational causes of poverty and lower support for economic inequality.
"How people understand the causes of poverty influences their willingness to address inequality and help the poor," author Lara Aknin, an SFU distinguished professor in the department of psychology, said.