Poverty isn’t caused by bad decisions

istock_83167945_xlarge_3Living on a low income makes it difficult for people to plan for the long term or make the best decisions. That’s the (unsurprising) finding of some new research. Our Communications Manager Liam Purcell considers the implications for tackling poverty  – and stigma.

Published earlier this month, How Poverty  Affects People’s Decision-Making Processes pulls together an impressive volume of existing research on the topic. It provides overwhelming hard evidence for many facts that are well known to people experiencing poverty, but often ignored by journalists and politicians:

  • Poverty is stressful. It can make it harder for people to think clearly.
  • When you’re only just managing, you will probably make decisions that help you deal with immediate problems rather than working towards long-term goals.
  • More importantly – decisions that might seem unhelpful in a different context can be perfectly rational responses for someone experiencing poverty . (For example, journalists and politicians often suggest that people supported by benefits shouldn’t buy widescreen TVs. But when you’re on a low income with no immediate prospect of improving your situation, watching TV is the best value entertainment available to you – and rent-to-own stores often don’t stock any other kind of TV.)
  • It also affects people’s confidence, and makes them less likely to believe that their actions matter or to play an active role in their community.
  • All of this affects people’s performance in school and jobs, making it harder to escape poverty.

These facts are obvious to those of us who work with people experiencing poverty, and we now have data and evidence to support them. But a lot of public discourse is based on completely opposite assumptions: that people cause their own poverty by making bad decisions, and that they should be judged by society for any mistake they make. This doesn’t just increase the stigma and exclusion associated with poverty – it means that policies and programmes designed to tackle poverty  focus on the wrong things.
The report points out that policy-makers need to understand the impact poverty  has on people’s decision-making processes. It suggests lots of solutions, from support with planning and parenting through to tackling prejudice and redesigning services.
The problem is that there will never be the political will or the public support for policies like these, until more people understand what it’s really like to live in poverty from day to day. That’s why it’s vital that we continue making voices heard, building empathy and solidarity. We need to tell a better story than the ones shared in the media every day that say poverty is people’s own fault.