Recently, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said that poverty is a state of mind, and having the right mindset will let people escape poverty. He was both right and wrong. There is a poverty mind-set we should discuss, but it’s not the one Carson lamented. The problem is not that people living in poverty need to have a better attitude to escape poverty. It’s that all of us should have a better attitude when it comes to poor people.
Other researchers have detailed the compelling evidence used by Carson to conflate cause and effect. To the extent poor people feel hopeless and helpless, it’s the poverty they confront that causes these feelings, and not the other way around.
But Carson’s error runs deeper. Implicit in his understanding of poverty — which many share — is that people are poor because they aren’t working and they made bad choices and decisions that landed them in poverty and keep them there. It might surprise Carson to learn that many poor people agree with him.
Helen, a white woman in her 40s, is an example. When I interviewed her, she lived in a dilapidated Philadelphia house with no running water. She did maintenance work sporadically at one of the city’s stadiums. Her husband’s work in construction was also inconsistent and low-paying. She was looking for a better job and wishing for longer hours and higher pay, but she nonetheless told me that poor people are lazy and don’t want to work.
I found in my research among Philadelphia’s poorest that many believed that other poor people were lazy — but knew they themselves were not. They believed that hard work would guarantee they would get ahead, even as most of them worked very hard but stayed poor. They blamed themselves for not having achieved more in life. Given that most poor people who can work do, it is clear that poor people who think the way Helen does are mistaken, and so is Carson.
Approximately 47 million people in the United States live under the poverty threshold. Poverty doesn’t always mean unemployment or welfare recipient. Only a minority of those under the official poverty line receives cash assistance from welfare. The lack of a living wage means that many people who work still live in poverty. In 2014, 12 percent of those in poverty were working full-time jobs, and an additional 27 percent worked less than full time, year-round.
There are only 12 counties in the entire United States where a worker making minimum wage can afford the rent on a one-bedroom apartment, and zero counties where a full-time minimum wage worker can pay the rent on a two-bedroom apartment. Helen and her husband made less than a full-time minimum wage worker would, and the only place they could afford to live was so substandard it required them to bathe at the home of a relative.
Poverty is not a state of mind; it’s an economic reality. Helen had been trying to get out of poverty for years, but her faith in her own efforts had not made that possible. She had the mindset that it would get her out of poverty. But poor people cannot escape poverty by simply having the right attitude, even though many of them think they can — an attitude that does more to encourage them to blame themselves when things go wrong than it does to help them rise out of poverty.
Jobs that pay a living wage and housing that is affordable for all — not a different mindset — are the answers to poverty. Cuts to programs that help make medical care, food and housing affordable and accessible to the poor won’t help — they will only worsen the deprivation the poor face. If we want to begin to enact serious solutions that might make a dent in poverty, then it’s up to the financially secure and politically powerful to recognize that blaming poor people for their poverty isn’t going to get us anywhere. The mindset problem isn’t theirs; it’s ours.
It’s time we realize that people aren’t poor because they don’t work. Too many people work awfully hard to still live in poverty. Carson should be looking out for people like Helen, not stigmatizing them.
Joan Maya Mazelis is an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University.