Are Poor People Lazy?

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About a week ago, J.D. over at Get Rich Slowly posted an article about the difference between high income earners and low income earners. Most of the differences between the two that he listed come largely down to personal effort and personal choices.

In the comments, many people jumped to the conclusion that “poor people are lazy,” which is an extremely broad brush, but a fairly reasonable one. After all, if the difference between high incomes and low incomes is a handful of personal choices and actions, the people not taking them – the people with low incomes – must be lazy, right?

To an extent, I agree. Some poor people are lazy. But so are some rich people. Let’s dig into this a little more.

The Nature of Luck
Let’s take a look at that list of traits that J.D. pointed out:

* They maintain a strong work ethic.
* They don’t watch the clock.
* They seek to improve their skills.
* They do quality work.
* They’re flexible and adaptable.
* They maintain a good social network.
* They possess self-confidence.

Most of the time, opportunities and career paths that lead to a high income are purely a matter of luck. Some people do get all the breaks – others simply don’t.

Luck is about being in the right place at the right time with the right people and the right skills and the right information. If you can be there, opportunities open for you – if you can’t, opportunities will pass you by.

Those traits listed above simply increase your odds of luck. Doing them increases your chances of being in the right place at the right time with the right people and the right skills and the right information.

But great opportunities regularly happen to people who don’t do any of these things. The child of a successful businessman can be lazy and unmotivated, but he gets his foot in the door because of his father. A random joe happens to be standing nearby when someone really needs help in a pinch.

At the same time, you can do all of these things and the opportunities don’t unfold. They help build a business that’s later destroyed by a poor manager. They get sick the night before a big opportunity comes along. They make a bad choice or two when they’re young that haunts them for the rest of their lives.

Poverty and Luck
Here’s the problem, though. Building the traits above takes time. You have to invest time in building a good social network. You have to invest time in quality work. You have to invest time in building skills.

Quite often, in order to have the free time that’s needed to build these things, you need to have a strong, stable income. If you’re currently working a minimum wage job and supporting other people, you’re likely working two or three jobs and you simply don’t have the time to develop these things.

In other words, luck is amplified. Someone who gets a great opportunity due to sheer luck is often able to build up traits that lead to further luck. Someone who doesn’t get that opportunity is often restricted in their ability to build up those traits.

While laziness is indeed a factor in all of this – since lazy people won’t bother to put in the work to build up these traits – luck is another huge factor. A rich person you know may have had a great opportunity or two early on, while another person does not. A poor person might have made a bad choice thirty five years ago that they’re still affected by.

What’s the Solution?
The solution is pretty straightforward – live as cheaply as you can and use your spare time to improve yourself.

Instead of buying a case of beer and watching the ball game, drink some water and work on your skills.

Instead of dropping several hundred dollars on hunting equipment and heading out in the woods every weekend with your buddies, dump that money into weekend classes at the local community college.

Instead of cruising for an hour or two before work, go have lunch with someone up the food chain from yourself and ask for advice.

Instead of doing the minimum at work, go the extra mile when you can, especially when it makes everyone’s lives easier.

Instead of buying gadgets and other toys to “escape” from your situation, put that money in the bank and use it to pay cash for your next vehicle, gradually snowballing your positive financial state.

Keep making these little choices all over your life – and these are choices you can make no matter what your situation – and you’ll find, over time, that those lucky opportunities slowly start unfolding for you.

Fortune favors the prepared. Preparation requires work. So, if you want fortune to favor you, you can’t be lazy.

Poor people aren’t lazy, but lazy people are often poor.

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153 thoughts on “Are Poor People Lazy?

  1. I want to say that I have seen many people move ahead in life on sheer luck. I have a friend that failed out of college two separate times. So what happens? His dad sets him up with his own business and he now earns $1500 a week.

    But of course cases like that should be treated as deviations and not the norm. For the rest of us we need to simply create our own luck.

  2. I have to admit I’m kind of offended by this article. Luck and laziness may be factors, but there are so many more factors that you have chosen to ignore (and that, admittedly, would have taken a book, not a blog post, to explore adequately). What about social location? culture? family history? health/well-being/illness/mental-illness? education? a system that favors those who can pay their way in? discrimination? geography?

    this is an extremely over-simplified understanding of poverty that is clearly written by and for a middle class (probably mostly white) audience. And the idea that poor people are lazy, or even that laziness creates poverty, only furthers stigma, prejudice, and polarization that will continue to hurt us as human beings and as a nation and culture.

  3. By far the surest way to riches is to be raised by two well-off, well educated loving parents in a healthy home environment. My son taught at an inner city school for about 7 years and some of those kids lived under horrible conditions and had little or no chance at all of succeeding at anything in life.

  4. Why is it wrong to suggest that there might be behavioral differences between high-income earners and low-income earners?

    Nothing that I write about on my site creates such an uproar. And I’m not even arguing that “poor people are lazy”. (Nor is Trent, although that’s what many people want to read into our posts.)

    Trent and I both grant that there are a variety of possible external influences on wealth and income. We both mention the role of luck. But we both point out that behavior plays a role, too. Yet any time I mention this as a possibility, commenters become irate, as if choices and behavior can play no possible role.

    I’m sorry, but I believe in most cases that choices and behavior play the biggest role of all.

    This becomes especially apparent when you take people with similar backgrounds and compare their success. Last week, in the article Trent mentioned in his post, I had a twin comment. She (or he) has made smart choices and is in a good financial situation. Her twin has not, and is suffering because of it. I’ve heard countless similar stories. Take people from near-identical situations and track their progress. Their choices are what make the difference in their financial success.

    Again, I’m not saying that there are not external factors. There are. And luck is one of them. But it drives me batty that so many people are quick to dismiss personal performance as a key (the key) differentiator between high-income earners and low-income earners.

    Why is this so offensive?

  5. One of the hardest workers I know is a man who lives in a low income housing unit in my neighborhood. He has a knee injury that prevents him from getting a lot of “normal” work (as well as a lack of education). So what does he do to earn money? He spends 10+ hours a day/7 days a week doing odd jobs for everyone in the neighborhood- gardening, washing cars, walking dogs, etc. This is never going to be enough to get him out of poverty in an expensive, urban environment, particularly with older family members and grandchildren to take care of. He is by no means lazy. No matter how hard he works, the truth is that he simply will NOT have the opportunities (or luck) that a white, middle class, less disadvantaged person will have.

  6. Well done Trent!!!

    I’ve seen too many hard working people who are still poor to believe that it’s all about initiative, or that luck doesn’t play a significant role.

    You’re right on the money with “Those traits listed above simply increase your odds of luck.” I think some people may be disturbed by that observation because they cling to the notion that we’re masters of our own destinies.

    Closer to the truth is that we’re masters of our own DIRECTION, but specifically where we land usually has a high degree of luck associated with it. Not comforting perhaps, but true nonetheless.

  7. ““poor people are lazy,” which is an extremely broad brush, but a fairly reasonable one”

    That’s likely the most offensive thing I’ve read all day.

  8. I get torn between the attitudes of 1. Helping the unfortunate and 2. Everyone should take care of themselves. I can see both sides of the arguments, and for me, it boils down to this: I wish there were some way to categorize the “need” of the person who needs help.

    If a person has been making responsible decisions about money for several years but something (lost job, family illnes, etc) derails all their hard work, then YES, let’s do everything we can to help that person get back on their feet.

    If a person has been buying luxuries or useless junk, or not looking for a job or other behavior choices that perpetuate their condition, then I vote NO.

    But I also believe in giving people chances – what if we say YES to a limited amount of help, for a specified period of time, and ask that person to commit to some financial classes, some work (actual job or community service if they can’t find a paying job), some method of improving themselves and their situation, as part of the conditions of that help? If the person shows improvement, then yay, we’ve helped and we hope that person can now move along and take care of themselves. If they can’t commit to participating in their own recovery, then forget it.

    I don’t like the broad-brush of saying that this group or that group got a bad break and can’t do anything to improve. I think it’s all about the individual cases. I am so tired of reading stories in the paper about a couple who are out of work, living with parents, collecting welfare, but still planning to spend $15,000 on their dream wedding. What ever happened to a quiet ceremony in front of the Justice of the Peace (I just read that Barbara Streisand’s first wedding was like that; if she can suck it up…)

    Or the story about the woman who knew for a year that she was on the road to declaring bankruptcy, but still bought a $50,000 luxury SUV and was sad that it had to be repossessed in the bankruptcy.

    Or the one today about the woman who will be evicted from her FEMA trailer, which she’s been living in for 4 years. Her family has been paying all her utilities and expenses – she has no money. I know that the hurricane was a horrible thing, but what has she been DOING for 4 years??? How long will she remain a victim? And if her land is the only thing of value that she owns, then yes it’s sad, but maybe she needs to sell it in order to use that money to take care of herself. Or find some way to make that land generate income.

    I guess my point is this – in general, I think people need to take care of themselves, but in an individual case if they truly CAN’T, then we as a society/government need to step in and help. But for me, I want to see the proof that they really can’t and not just rely on the statistics of the overall group.

  9. “I’m sorry, but I believe in most cases that choices and behavior play the biggest role of all.”

    Choice does play a big role, but so does opportunity. Not everyone gets to make the same choices.

  10. Opportunity plays an important role, but I do agree with J.D. and Trent that behavior is important too. For example, my parents paid for me to attend college so I recently graduated with no debt….BUT…I worked my butt off in college, often working at research assistant jobs to gain the experience and network, forgoing nights out to study, etc., and I got into my top choice grad program because of it. My parents gave me the opportunity, but I didn’t sit on my butt and drink away college like some of the other people I know either.

  11. @DD (#10
    Yes, of course. You’re absolutely correct. Nobody is denying that opportunity plays an important role. But I believe that how we choose to respond to our opportunities is more important than the opportunities themselves. That’s the point I keep trying to make: That given a level playing field, it’s the person who applies herself that is going to come out ahead. Yet suggesting that this is the case is considered heresy, and I just don’t get it.

  12. @ JD

    Given a level playing field I think you would be correct. I think the disagreement stems from the fact that there are very few “level playing fields” out there.

  13. JD:

    I’m with you on this one. It’s difficult for me to understand as well, especially given the fact that Trent clearly outlined luck (e.g. social location? culture? family history? health/well-being/illness/mental-illness? education? a system that favors those who can pay their way in? discrimination? geography?) as a huge contributor.

    The only thing I can think is that, as a society, we’re moving towards a belief in equality of outcome as opposed to equality of opportunity. Personally, I think this is because it’s tough to fix the things that prevent equality of opportunity. For example, truly ending discrimination requires changing hearts… difficult work indeed. So instead, we focus on creating equality of outcome b/c that’s easier to fix. I can always just GIVE you money that you were not able to earn.

    The action of trying to “fix” the world by creating equality of outcome makes it offensive to people to say that inequality of outcome could have to do with anything other than inequality of opportunity.

    But that’s just my opinion.

  14. Everyone makes choices, and those choices cause a lot of the “luck” people have. If you are CHOOSING to live in an “expensive, urban” area and are CHOOSING to pay for your other family members rather than get educated in a field that doesn’t need a healthy body (desk job?), then yes, you may be “poor” despite working hard, long hours, but you chose it. If you choose to believe that kids that are brought up in “horrible conditions” have “little to no chance at succeeding at anything in life” (I find THAT incredibly offensive) well, then, yes, it is a self fulfilling belief and completely ignoring those that DO overcome their poverty and circumstances growing up. Your opportunities are determined by your choices. If you choose to continue to live in a downtrodden area (you may have good reasons to, but no one is holding a gun at the city limits forcing you to stay in), then your opportunities are different than if you CHOOSE to move somewhere for a better job. If you choose to use your money to help out a family member rather than use it to take night classes (again, you may have a good reason, but you still CHOSE to use the money in that way), then your opportunities for a higher paying job is limited to only those no requiring a degree. If you choose to be bitter and resentful towards those that are rich rather than network with them and lern from them, then you are loosing opportunites for them to think of you the next time a great job opens up.

    The choices are hard, it’s easier to blame “luck” and “circumstance” and “discrimination” rather that make those hard decisions to bring yourself up out of poverty.

  15. I dear friend of mine actually tells her two daughters that when she graduated high school she would never set foot in another school again. She is a housekeeper, albeit an excellent one with very happy and loyal customers who tip well. I grew up in a home that put education first, she did not. I am now the one who is helping her daughter navigate FAFSA, college apps, etc. Her daughter will go onto graduate, the first in the whole family. Where there is a will there is a way, but family support is extremely influential for kids.

  16. This post immediately reminded me of Gladwell’s “Outliers” (which I read b/c of Trent’s review)… it’s “both/and”, not “either/or”… as Gladwell demonstrates, highly successful people often get the benefit of external factors beyond their control… the “stars align”, so to speak. *But*, they also are *extremely* focused, determined to succeed and resilient. That by itself does not mean that someone will succeed (as Cara’s example @ #5 illustrates), but it’s rare for someone to succeed *without* that persistence.

  17. Has anyone read John Scalzi’s essay “Being Poor”? This gem is buried in there:
    “Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.”
    He’s made his way to a better place – through work, not luck.

    Laziness occurs at all levels. So does Luck, and Optimism and Chance and a host of other things that contribute to a person’s decision to better themselves throughout life.

  18. This is such a rough subject overall because like anything else there are so many facets and factors to take into account before drawing any black-and-white conclusions. Hopefully all of us who read this understand the gray inherent in this subject. I think regardless of socio-economic background, one of the largest challenges is to see that a person is “in charge” of themselves and their actions. Opportunity, fortune, luck, etc… are things none of us can truly control, but we are in charge of our own responses and actions to our life circumstances. The gist of it for me is to let go of a sense of victim-hood and hopelessness which I think can be perceived as laziness.

  19. Yes, I think ChrisB hit the nail on the head. It isn’t an “either/or” situation, it is a “both/and” situation. And I thought of Gladwell’s book as well. He wrote an entire book on the subject on this post!

  20. Reading it again (and again), this article needs to be clarified talking about poverty versus being poor. I was reading it as “the impoverished are lazy”, which isn’t the case? In my mind the “poor” people do have the opportunity to somehow help themselves out — they have the basics of life — food, shelter and water. They also have “free time” and the ability to get somewhere like a library, community college, community center, church, etc.

    Contrasted with the truly poor who are struggling even to eat something, the above people do have the means to improve their situation.

    It’s still a very difficult road to walk, though. Role models and peers have a huge influence on people — and we take them for granted. For example, coming from parents who have a stable marriage and are hard-working, it’s not hard to see where I get the drive to succeed. But in many poor families, these role models don’t exist — all people see is a bunch of other people just like them, so the status quo is, well, the status quo (think of the “That’s the way it is” post from yesterday)

    Unfortunately, this kind of thing can’t be painted with a broad brush, though. Poverty and poorness has been around a long, long time and will be with us probably forever. The contributing factors are many and various.

    Perhaps the better question to ask would be “how can I take my knowledge and skills to help out a poor person?”. There are certainly many, many opportunities to provide a helping hand to those less fortunate, ranging from monetary contributions to charities to mentoring young kids so they can succeed.

  21. How to get wealthy:

    1. Graduate from high school
    2. Don’t get married in your teens.
    3. Don’t bring a baby into the world until you’re married.
    4. Get a job–any job.

  22. I have a young (25 or 26 yrs old) co-worker who really believes that all of his success is something he has earned/deserves and to those who don’t have the same success…. well, too bad it’s your own fault.

    This is a young man who has EVERYTHING going for him. He’s from a stable family with a healthy income. He was raised in the very nice suburbs. He went to all the best schools – his parents paid for his private education in an expensive private college. He is tall, handsome, a really good athlete and very smart. He’s also white. All of these things together will not make someone successful. But they sure do increase the odds. And if he makes some really major mistakes along the way it doesn’t automatically derail him as it might someone without all those advantages. Did he work hard to get good grades? Absolutely? Was he blessed with the brains, role models and circumstances that made that possible. Absolutely. He didn’t earn those lucky breaks.

    Sen. Ted Kennedy died on Sunday. Love him or hate him there is no denying he came into this world with advantages most people cannot even imagine. He made HUGE mistakes along the way. But the advantages of his background allowed him to overcome those mistakes. He also lived by the adage “to whom much is given, much is expected”.

    I was born with unique gifts. I didn’t always use or appreciate them. The advantages I had made it much easier to overcome the consequences of bad choices and mistakes. We are all dealt a different hand of cards in life. Some have lots of advantages. Some don’t. Some don’t even get to see that there are better possibilities. Some have great skills in coping with adversity. Some don’t. Some never even see anyone who knows how to cope with adversity. We can all make better decisions, starting today. Starting today we can also be more compassionate and perhaps try to help out someone who needs it.

  23. Opportunity comes to the ones who watch for it. I’m an executive assistant at the age of 22 with barely any college, no computer skills and no experience………I simply applied myself to learning the computer, made myself presentable and went to every single hiring place to give a good impression.

    I didn’t let the circumstances(jobless, moneyless with bills and zero capabilities) get me down. When an opportunity came I grabbed it and worked my butt of. I’ve been promoted since I’ve worked here and I’m the youngest employee.

    Opportunities rarely fall in the laps of people who don’t look for them.

  24. Trent, I think your basic message — that those of us who can should try to put ourselves in the way of beneficial luck — is a good one.

    I also think that whenever you want to use the word “poor” in public, you (or anyone!) would do well to clarify the following two things:
    *By “poor,” here, it sounds to me like you’re actually talking about Larry Winget’s “broke” — people who are middle (or maybe working) class and are overspending, rather than people living in actual crushing poverty. Maybe it’s cheesy, but I feel like at least giving the nod to that fact is a good plan.
    *Systematized oppression happens. Sure, some people don’t get opportunities through sheer bad luck, or through not doing things to increase their exposure. Some people don’t get them because they have the “wrong” gender, skin color, or sexual preference, because they speak with an accent or have disabilities. Or because they were brought up in a working-class family and so their behavior is not just like that of the middle-class people holding the jobs they aspire to. These are all things that people — consciously or not! — make decisions based on, and that means that for some people, the kind of lucky break that can make a big difference is much harder to come by. I feel like acknowledging the role these kinds of discrimination play is also probably a generally good idea.

  25. Maybe the issue isn’t just laz/hard working. You can be the hardest working person ever, but if you continually choose paths that don’t pay much, or you continually choose to spend your money on things other than self improvement, then yes, you will be poor. Okay, it’s hard to choose to leave your family when they live in a poor, jobless area, but if you value staying near them and helping pay for their needs, your value of family is outweighing your value of getting out of poverty. Sucks that you have to make that choice, but you do. Sucks to make the choice of believing people that tell you that you aren’t good enough because you are a certain race/gender/physical characteristic or not believing them, but you can make that choice. Sucks that your passion is art but the money can be made in another field, your choice to pursure your passion or the money. It sucks that you have to choose to start workign straight out of high school for minimm wage or take out a loan for college since no one else will pay your way, but it is your choice. It’s hard. But it’s still your choice.

  26. “Closer to the truth is that we’re masters of our own DIRECTION, but specifically where we land usually has a high degree of luck associated with it. Not comforting perhaps, but true nonetheless.”

    I agree with the that statement. Often we can have the skills and while they almost always get us ahead, it may not be as far as someone with luck. Not having the skills may doom you even if you have luck, but not as badly as someone who has skills and no luck.

    And sometimes you have to think outside the box. I am living in a poor urban environment. I see parents who send their kids to NC or the “back home” to the Carribean because they are concerned about the choices they are making here. Often the Carribean parents use it to make daycare cheaper. And while the toddler is gone, the parent is finishing college as well as working full time. That is not luck, but looking around at what resources they have and using them to the fullest.

  27. I’m seriously conflicted with this one. I agree that “poor people aren’t lazy” however, some people living on a low-income do use their “poor” status as an excuse as to why they can’t get ahead in life.

    I will provide a real-life example. My sister and I were both raised in a low-income household. I took out student loans to go to college, graduated, and am now making more than my parents. She never attended school, is working minimum wage and hates her job. Whenever I ask her about going back to school she says, “I can’t afford it.” And that’s it. Sure, she could take initiative and apply for grants and loans, but she doesn’t see anything past that financial limitation.

    I can see how some people would consider that being lazy, but she really doesn’t see any other options.

  28. “By far the surest way to riches is to be raised by two well-off, well educated loving parents in a healthy home environment. My son taught at an inner city school for about 7 years and some of those kids lived under horrible conditions and had little or no chance at all of succeeding at anything in life.”

    That is the most disturbing thing I’ve read all day… I was raised by two hard working, marginally educated (HS diploma only) parents in the economically depressed rural South. They gave me the only things I needed for success (I consider myself successful)- a darn good work ethic and personal responsibility.

    To suggest that people “have no chance” is to ignore the millions of people who rose above their circumstances through hard work and personal grit. All this talk of “luck” and “inequality of opportunity” is kind of insulting to people who’ve worked hard, took risks and succeeded despite what everyone else said.

    I’d suggest reading Kipling’s “If”…

  29. So many issues I see here.

    First…what is the fascination with “working hard.” What does working hard have to do with anything.

    And “…..mostly a matter of luck”? luck may play a small role on occasion, but not continuously throughout ones life.

    No, the difference is simple. Brains

    Exclude inheritance, nepotisim and other things where the person did not have any control, and the difference is using your head.

    Working SMART, not just hard.
    making the right choices.
    Responding to adversity, opportunity, etc. correctly.

    Everyone has opportunities
    Everyone has difficulties
    Everyone has good and bad qualities, situations, and talents.

    But the choices eash of us make in life dictate where we are, where we are going, and how we get there.

    And luck plays a small role.

    The people I know that are successful, whether they be teachers, or multimillionaires come from widley varying backgrounds, geographical areas and upbringings.

    But they all have one thing in common and it aint luck

    The recognize their life and their accomplishments are their own responsibility and derive from their own choices. Their life is their fault, not someone or something elses.

    When a person finally gets that, understands it, believes it, and lives by it, then success happens

    Most everyone is right where they deserve to be in life.

  30. I think people may be forgetting the fact that knowing or not knowing the possibilities out there can prevent someone from getting ahead. If the poor person in question doesn’t know anyone else that has gone to community college or trade school to better themselves, they may have never considered the possibility of doing something outside the box to get ahead.

    How many poor people look at personal finance sites on the web and know what to do, but don’t do it? Simple things like not spending your money on non-necessities, or prioritizing. Maybe some people just don’t know what they should be doing.

  31. Not everyone aspires to gain wealth. Many aspire to gain sustainabibilty so that they no longer need to acquire wealth. This requires a lot of the same gifts, skills, and know how as the rich have. These people will often be among the poor. It is a dynamic topic, one that obviously cannot be covered entirely in one blog post, but you tackled it bravely.

  32. As I said in my comment over at GRS, the poorest people I know are all either very young or have some sort of serious disability, or they’re supporting more than just themselves (some examples: an older relative, a child, or a partner who isn’t legally allowed to work thanks to the vagaries of immigration law). I’m talking about real poverty here, not just being in debt when you have an income that can support you. One paycheck away from the street kind of poverty.

    It’s easy to pull yourself up with “hard work” and “grit” and Rudyard Kipling if you’re young, healthy, and not sending half your paycheck home. It’s a lot harder when those things aren’t true, and for the people who are all offended that someone suggests that yes, they should count themselves lucky that they were born into a situation that led them to success, all I have to say is get over yourselves. You did get a lot of help along the way and you should thank the people who gave it to you, not arrogantly pretend you did it all by yourself.

  33. @ JD (& Trent): You said “But I believe that how we choose to respond to our opportunities is more important than the opportunities themselves. That’s the point I keep trying to make: That given a level playing field, it’s the person who applies herself that is going to come out ahead. Yet suggesting that this is the case is considered heresy, and I just don’t get it.”

    What level playing field are you talking about? Where, in this society (or any, for that matter) do you find a level playing field? ALL societies stratify access to resources.

    In the abstract, this might be a nice idea & true, but none of us LIVE in the abstract, and NONE of us live on a ‘level’ playing field.

    I’ve been reading this blog for quite a while (& JD’s as well), but haven’t posted before. But I’ve also never been quite as angry as I am today. Part of me wants to simply ask: What would white, able-bodied, self-identified heterosexual males with access to technology know about a level playing field?

    But maybe that question isn’t useful. Maybe it sounds like I am blaming you for having your identities. Which I’m not. I’m just saying that your identities have structured the knowledge that you have, and the beliefs you hold about the world.

    My father, who is Puerto Rican (born in Florida), has done *everything* you’ve listed here, Trent. He’s worked multiple jobs. When I was growing up, he worked a full-time white collar job (on the lower end of the scale), plus taught community college in the evenings and on Saturdays. At the same time, he completed his B.A. He was very focused on improving his skills & almost never missed work.

    And never received a promotion, at any of his jobs. Maybe he needed to work on his social skills – one of the most devastating things that happened to his career was being invited to go golfing. He went, but he was dressed wrong, didn’t know the game, and was completely unable to socialize, and felt uncomfortable around his colleagues after that (and also felt they were judging him). So maybe he focused on the obvious job skills, but missed out on learning all the white middle class able-bodied norms he also needed to learn.

    He was never able to build any wealth. The costs of raising 2 daughters (1 with special needs), as well as his own health problems, led to greater and greater debt. There was NO back up – no family who could help out (even with babysitting, so he had to pay for that), minimal services for my sister (who is cognitively disabled and has chronic health problems). Every time he would start to get a little bit saved, something happened.

    He made some poor choices, but when you are living that close to the edge, ONE poor choice or one bit of bad luck has a greater impact – a factor I don’t see included in your luck list.

    But that’s just a personal example. What about the VERY long history in the US of legally (& extra-legally) blocking access to growth for specific groups? For most of U.S. history, all minority groups in this country (Black, Asian, Latino/a, women, etc. as well as those who were once considered minorities, but are now considered white, like the Irish and Italians) faced limitations on access to education, as well as the right to have a business/property, or even have a certain amount of money.

    Those barriers don’t disappear overnight. And while the legal ones have been greatly eroded, the subtle ways of maintaining the stratification haven’t disappeared. I personally have made less money than men with the same education working the same job in the same damn office. I’m sure the manager who assigned my salary found some justification for it that wasn’t framed as gender, but I also know that when I confronted that manager, he couldn’t explain the justification to me. And I was *lucky* to find out – most people don’t know their coworkers salaries.

    I have ALSO seen how I get advantages that people of color don’t get (my mother is white, and I look white, unlike my dad), as well as the advantages I have simply because I DO have internet access & have had the time/energy to educate myself on the many things I didn’t learn growing up (which includes finances).

    I’m not disagreeing that behavior makes a difference. Because it does. But the majority of individuals will not overcome systematic oppression. If they are one of the few that does succeed, they’ll be held up as the example that proves that behavior makes the difference (like Oprah & Obama are, and, I could argue, you, Trent). And that ignores all the help these folks get in beating the odds. It also ignores just how horrible those odds were in the first place – and that those odds DEPEND on the vast majority of people failing. And it ignores that some folks, because of certain identities (race, gender, ability, etc.) who are not born into the middle- & upper-class, will have an easier time getting into those classes – because the world is more open & welcoming to their gestures, their behaviors, their work.

    Maybe you just wanted to simplify the conversation, to identify characteristics that successful folks (defined here as affluent or lacking in debt) have in common. You actually could have done that without bringing poor people into play at all, especially since you don’t seem to have any actual data on what the lives of the poor are like.

  34. My guess is by observing someone for even a few hours you can tell if they are lazy or not. Rich or poor or in-between.

    BTW – I’m not sure any American can be classified as poor (in poverty, whatever you want to call it) when looked at from a global perspective.

  35. I am not replying as a person with a college degree or a stable job. For most of my adult life I have been a full time wife and mother. The actual money I have earned in my lifetime would make most people laugh, but I chose to be at home with my kids and have attempted and used every tightwad/frugal idea known to man. My problem is the opinion others in my family (Yes, including my husband) have about my degree of laziness. since I don’t have gainful employment, I am lazy. I can tell you all the things I do each day, laundry, cleaning, cooking, and you might say, well people who work do those things too. Yes, I know, someone has to. But lets look at what I do that others in my family/community do not do. 1) I teach Sunday School. I have the joy of telling young children the truth of Jesus Christ. I have taught other classes in my church, and have sat on committees. I have spiritual joy. 2) I spend time with my children and grandchildren. Sometimes it is just for fun, but because I don’t have a job, I am available to them when needed in illness and emergency. 3) I volunteered at my youngest son’s elementary school, working with children who needed a little extra help in reading, math, or working on a project. 4) I am available to anyone who calls me and needs help, babysitting, driving them to the dr., picking up some groceries for them if they are not able to get out. 5) I make a comfortable, as stress free as possible home for my husband and teenage son. 6) I pursue my passion for reading, arts and crafts. These are important to me, and I use the library and budget for art supplies. I have a great deal of satisfaciton in my life.

    I am about to start a 6 week course to become a pharmacy tech. I decided to do this for a number of reasons. I want to have a skill I can use in the event that something happens to my husband, and I want to contribute to our household income, and I need to think about my future as a senior citizen. I do not regret the decisions I have made, they were the right ones at the time, but I would be insulted by someone thinking I am lazy. I think the bottom line is what do people give to others around them, not just money, but time, a positive attitude, a caring spirit. I really do consider myself to be very, very rich. My husband is a good husband and provider, and puts much emphasis on his bank accounts, but he has no ability to dream, or to ever think ouside the box he is in. I find that very sad.

  36. “You did get a lot of help along the way and you should thank the people who gave it to you, not arrogantly pretend you did it all by yourself”

    honestB- I’m not pretending or implying any of my success is entirely my own. I don’t think any truly successful person thinks that at all.

    But one thing is certain- it sure didn’t happen without me.

  37. I would like to say that I agree with both JD and Trent on this topic. I come my a rural family where my Dad does auto body repair and is a school bus driver and my Mom cleans offices for a living. My parents divorced when I was in Junior high. Both parents have remarried others that do similar types of work. I have not been given every opportunity but have had to make my own as I have grown up. While in high school I worked full time during the summers while running a small lawn care business. I have worked my way to a Masters of Accounting by selling cell phones in a retail store. My parents have been hindered by the decisions they made as kids and have recently realized that now that they are in their mid 40′s that they need to be worried about retirement. Each have now taken jobs that have pension plans attached.

    The premise of both JD and Trent’s articles are that if you are willing to work hard you have a better chance of being lucky. I would also like to think that you can create your own luck. You can’t find a job? Start a business. My current employer was laid off from a $70,000 a year job and could not find a job for over 6 months. He borrowed $20,000 from the local bank and started his own business. This is year 5 and he is on pace to clear $250,000 this year. People that are willing to take the time to improve themselves will see gains in their lives. Just because someone goes to work everyday and works hard does not mean they are doing everything they can do to better themselves. You can work hard for your 40-50 hours a week and still be lazy.

  38. If you are lucky you will have a moment of insight someday. In that moment you will realize how very little you know about anything. Or to put it another way, you will see that you know next to nothing about anything. If you have not experienced the crushing nature of poverty, then you are not worthy to make a comment about people who have. People who have first hand experience about a thing have a right to an opinion. The rest of us have a right to be respectfully silent. Stuff the arrogance and show a little humility.

  39. “To suggest that people “have no chance” is to ignore the millions of people who rose above their circumstances through hard work and personal grit.”

    Mike, a kid who has addicts for parents that are abusive and stoned every day surely does not have much of a future. One of the kid’s had a parent killed in the house. Another was seen on the street with a pimp shortly after quitting school. These may be rare cases but they do exist.

  40. Let’s also remember that most of the industrialized world’s governments gave up having full employment as an economic goal decades ago (although most did at least briefly shoot for it in the postwar period, which was very prosperous), so for our economic system to work, there has to be some unemployment. Someone loses out. The labour market is just as influenced by factors beyond our control as the stock market is – but no one ever says that someone who loses money when the market crashes would have magically not lost that money if only he’d had the values of hard work and responsibility. That’s ridiculous.

  41. yep, poor people are lazy..

    please go tell this to the billions around the globe, that it is their own fault for being in the position they are in.. there’s no usury by western societies or pilaging of their resources for our benefit.. we just need their resources and efforts because we are smarter and more hard working than they are..

    GIVE ME A BREAK.. this issue is allot more complicated than either of the articles can even think to give analysis to..

    Western Society needs to better evaluate what we ‘deem’ success to be..

  42. I think that Anne, #21, clearly stated the difference between being poor and being disadvantaged. I come from a middle-class, white, family, and until a few months ago, truly believed that with hard work, EVERYONE can succeed. What a naive thought this was.

    I’m recently reading a few required books, for a teaching credential, about diversity in the classroom. Some of the assigned books deal with incredibly disadvantaged children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. These children NEVER see anyone close to them succeed, they aren’t welcome in adjoining, wealthier neighborhoods, and they have no hopes of their own.

    So the last comment Trent made, “Poor people aren’t lazy, but lazy people are often poor.” is accurate, you may also want to add “Without Hope, positive influences, and a desire to achieve goals, there is no hope of succeeding.”

    -Little House

  43. That’s the point I keep trying to make: That given a level playing field, it’s the person who applies herself that is going to come out ahead. Yet suggesting that this is the case is considered heresy, and I just don’t get it.

    I contributed a couple of comments to the AskMefi thread that JD linked to and which kicked off this hubbub (with the Irish alcohol link I’m jamesonandwater over there), and I think most of us answered the question in this spirit. I know there are exceptions, but it’s fair to say most Mefites are educated, quite smart, from rich countries and so forth, so we were answering from within that “level playing field”. And there’s no doubt in my mind that what JD is saying is true.

  44. Anne’s post (comment #21) is worth a read for anyone who glossed over it.

    We are not all born with the same advantages. Is that “fair”? Probably not, but I suppose that depends what you mean by fair.

    I have a friend, let’s call him “Dave”, who is essentially a trust fund baby. His grandparents invested in a beer and wine distributorship which grew into a multimillion dollar empire that he has now inherited. It basically runs itself, he just collects checks.

    Dave has never really needed to apply himself. He grew up knowing that he would be rich no matter what he did. His father “Bob” was in the same boat. Bob dropped out of college after one year of heavy partying. So there was no expectation that Dave would even go to college.

    Yet Dave graduated in the top 2% of our high school class. He drove a beat-up used Ford Escort that he worked to buy and maintain, not a fancy daddy-bought-it-for-me car. He went on to 8 years of college and got a law degree, and he has passed the bar exam in two states. He now lives in a modest ~$200k house in a quiet neighborhood in a small town with his wife and kids, and works as an attorney.

    In short, Dave used the advantages he was given in life to set himself up so that he doesn’t even NEED his family’s fortune anymore.

    This has always fascinated me. Why did he bother?

    On the flip side, my stepfather “Joe” was born dirt poor to a mother who drank and a father who ran out on his mother when Joe was a baby. Joe had no advantages in life at all, including no family stability. He often tells us a story of how he used to stand in line with the winos and the indigents to sell his blood plasma for spending money while managing a restaurant and working construction part-time.

    However, Joe had a good work ethic and knew what he wanted in life. Joe joined the Army to help pay for his medical degree. After a four-year tour as a field medic, he went back for eight years of postgraduate work and is now a specialized surgeon.

    He now owns a very nice house and his own medical practice, and is a leader within his community (school board, Kiwanis president, scoutmaster, etc.)

    All that, when he literally came up from nothing.

    The parallel here is that both men knew that they wanted something in life more than what they were given. They had vastly different amounts of “initial opportunity”, but both men capitalized on what opportunity there was, and they both worked hard and put in the time and effort needed to get what they wanted.

    Here’s a hint to the disadvantaged: If you weren’t born into money like Dave, chances are, you’re going to have to do what my stepdad Joe did. If he can do it, so can you. So can we all.

    But like Trent says, sitting back with a beer and watching the game every night isn’t going to get us there. We must all make the daily choice of inertia versus personal development. Choosing inertia isn’t necessarily wrong, as long as you’re ok with where you are and what you have.

    If you’re not, I would re-read this article and take it to heart.

  45. @Mike

    “To suggest that people “have no chance” is to ignore the millions of people who rose above their circumstances through hard work and personal grit. All this talk of “luck” and “inequality of opportunity” is kind of insulting to people who’ve worked hard, took risks and succeeded despite what everyone else said.”

    And what do you say to the many more millions who were not so lucky, and worked just as hard or even harder?

    I, similar to yourself, was raised by immigrant parents who had the equivalent of an elementary level education. They worked their asses off so i wouldn’t have to have a part time job just to put food on the table. I worked hard to get to college, graduate, and get a a good job. Do I ever think I deserve the life I have just because I worked hard? HELL NO. My parents worked harder than I could ever imagine to give me the opportunity to concentrate on my education. They have worked harder than I ever will, and I will easily make more than they ever had their entire lives in a few more years. What do you say to my parents? Or even your own parents? They certainly don’t have the amount of success we have. Gonna tell them they didn’t work hard enough?

    In college, I was nowhere near the hardest working/studier. Many had to work full time because they didn’t have access to the low-income scholorships/grants I had access too. I never studied as hard as they did because I had a gift to understand the material quickly. I would study a few hours and get the top grade while they slaved for days. It’s not that I was lazy, but that is all the time I needed. One of my buddies had a learning disability, so he literally spent weeks studying. He would start studying for the next text when the previous one finished. Gonna tell him he didn’t work hard enough either?

    I have never taken for granted what I have because I know I’m lucky. I am where I am today because I worked for it, but most importantly, I was given the opportunity. Without the opportunity, I would be slaving away in the kitchen of a restaurant.

  46. Thanks Trent good advice on self improvement. I think the point here is that the tips at the end can and should be implemented by anyone who wants to improve their financial well-being, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, luck, etc.

  47. Trent, Finally way off base on this one.

    First of all, I don’t believe in luck. Everything that happens has a certain percentage chance of happening in the first place. Those that seem to be “lucky” are simply those that have stacked multiple factors, each with their own probability of outcome, and multiplied the effect….so yeah, I agree with some of your premise, but not the overall statement…eh, potato, potato.

    Second of all, allow me to interject my own theory. Plainly stated, one’s circumstances in life directly correllate to their emotional development. Phisiological changes occur during puberty that progress an individual’s desires, skill-set, etc. Some people, for whatever reason, never mature beyond adolescence. Those are the people that act like teens; make excuses, have outragious claims to fairness, can’t see the future….Those that can emotionally develop beyond their teens will then have varying degrees of “success” in life based on how far they develop.

    Good example. Those in gangs. They lack the emotional development to think beyond the gang mentality and feed off each other for development – never progressing. It’s not until they’ve been removed from the environment and provided a difference source for emotional development that they can progress their lives.

    Likewise, someone born with the “silver spoon” that doesn’t develop the mature mentality will suffer the same dire consequences as that of a gang member. The only difference is they are given more money to get into more trouble with. You see it all the time- trust fund kids who waste their lives on drugs and crime.

    Point is- it’s emotional development, NOT luck, that determines one’s chances for success.

  48. The problem with posts like these is it completely dismisses any questions about why people make bad choices.

    If you get someone committed, stable, productive and intelligent – great!

    But when you get disabled (and NOT just phsyically disabled – depression supposedly manifests in 8-10% of woman in North America… and depression can easily be confused with being ‘lazy’ and ‘self-indulgent’), raped, beaten, or lack structure and love in your environment then you have to work really hard on improving your mental well-being BEFORE you can work on your financial well-being.

    And let’s not kid ourselves. Not everyone is smart in a way that the economic market likes. Manual labourers skills are valued less than the ability of someone to move paper around. Good luck getting a degree – even in something like engineering – if you struggle with reading and writing. My brother is never going to get a degree – not because he is stupid, or lazy – but because he is good at practical building skills, and not at words and numbers. I couldn’t knock a nail into a wall, but I get paid more than twice as much as him. Why? because I handle paperwork.

    If you suffer an abusive childhood, as millions do, you are more likely to spend your teenager years engaged in a variety of self-destructive activity that will take years to undo. Eventually, most emerge wiser and calmer, but they will have lost years of education, resume building, and probably acquired a criminal conviction or mental illness diagnosis that holds them back.

    The reason so many people get offended when Trent and JD talk about these issues, is because both are white men, with university degrees, heterosexual relationships, no apparent childhood abuse, and clearly a high level of writing and reading comprehension. They are usurping the voices of those who are truly representative. No matter what they say, they will face opposition, because they have only an abstract notion of what it means to ‘pull through’ after your father has raped you, or your dyslexia went unnoticed for 12 years, or your mother encouraged you to drink because it ‘shut you up’.

  49. I think the line that was most offensive to me, and prompted my earlier comment, was this one:
    “jumped to the conclusion that “poor people are lazy,” which is an extremely broad brush, but a fairly reasonable one.”

    a fairly reasonable one?

    with that as the foundation, the rest of the article reeks of middle class prejudice, at least to me. sorry.

    I agree that given a level playing field, work ethic will have lots to do with it. it’s just that level playing fields pretty much don’t exist.

  50. Perhaps the original intent of the article needs ot be clarified. What was meant by “high-income earner” and “low-income earner”? When I first read the article on Trent’s site, my thought process went to people who work in the same field. The one who applies himself is more likely to advance than one who does not (exceptions exist, of course, for things like discrimination and nepotism).

    The same is true for two people in poverty. One who is able to see opportunities and maximize them will be a higher-income earner than one who does not. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to move to a big house in the suburbs, it means that they will be better off than a person who has chosen not to apply himself. The example that @Cara #5 gave reflects this. The gentleman with the injured knee could have chosen to do no work. But instead, he saw opportunity in working for his neighbors and is able to earn some income. By applying the traits of a high-income earner, he is advancing himself as far as his circumstances (luck) will allow. And isn’t that really the best any of us can do?

  51. I have thought about this concept a lot lately as I watch my teenage kids and their friends. Some of these kids come from horrendous family situations that I know don’t encourage success and, in a lot of cases, outright discourage it (usually because chasing success as a high school student requires some assistance from the adults in the house). We have tried hard to be a positive influence for these kids, but we can’t overcome 17 years of neglect and ambivilence to teach them ambition. A few might find it on their own, but the best we can hope for for some of them is to actually graduate high school. And with that as the starting point, it’s a long, hard road to success. In the mean time, we’ll keep doing what we can to point these kids in a better direction, be that food, a place to crash for the night, access to computers to do their homework, whatever we can offer.

  52. The poor don’t work hard, and that’s a blessing. Why are we all so anxious to insist that poor people run the rat race as frantically as everyone else? They know how to relax. Let them relax.

  53. I have to agree with those who have commented that this post is offensive. I started reading this blog on a regular basis because I wanted to learn more about how to budget and manage my money. However, I don’t feel that my position as someone who responsible with money allows me to make judgments about people who live in poverty.

    Poverty is a very complex issue, and instead of discussing it in a more nuanced manner, this post grossly oversimplifies the issues. By attributing poverty to behavioral factors and ignoring the very real socio-economic factors that contribute to poverty the underlying message is that behavioral factors largely contribute to ones personal situation.

    A number of studies have show that the income gap between the rich and the poor has widened in the past decade or two–you can’t attribute such changes solely to the personal choices that people make. But yet it is very easy to attribute poverty to the choices that people make and vague notions such as “luck” because it means we don’t have to look at underlying issues in society as a whole.

    My main point is that the kinds of opinions expressed in this post are alienating. I have really enjoyed a number of things I have read on this site, but I am starting to wonder if I should stop visiting The Simple Dollar. If you really want to address these issue, please do it in a more constructive manner.

  54. I live in the midst of some of the world’s poor. Where I live – Papua New Guinea – the average annual income is around $745. While most of this discussion focuses on the American poor the post is not representative of the world’s poor. Without opportunity work ethic and effort cannot solve a poverty issue. Many people in PNG work as hard as most North Americans yet make substantially less. There many deeper causes of poverty. Until we are ready to discover those reasons we will always find surface reasons that do not completely address the complexities of poverty.

  55. Sarah, yeah, I’m dead serious. My relatives and friends without much money spend so much time simply enjoying life. Of course they don’t retire, but they’ve spread retirement over the years that matter more. I think it’s great and I don’t intend to apologize for them. No trolling.

  56. I agree with Sarah T. about the difference between being broke and being poor. I have many friends who have middle-class incomes and/or higher education that would enable them not to be broke, but still struggle with making rent and are drowning in debt.( They include a grad student, an environmental scientist, and two people in better-paid manufacturing jobs) Some of their choices are simply poor planning/overspending. Some involve addictions such as gambling and substance dependence.One has enormous medical bills from being uninsured during a serious illness. Some of these friends grew up in difficult situations involving everything from substance abuse to sexual abuse to immigrating to the US to mental illness diagnoses as adults. None of them grew up in crushing urban poverty but they so far haven’t made wise financial choices. I’m torn between the simply assigning blame to their behavior and chalking it up to their circumstances.And these are educated and/or middle-income people. When you start talking about people who’ve grown up in the type of poverty that breeds hopelessness, personal responsibility only goes so far. I guess my point is that while I believe in people’s choices affecting their financial state, factors like mental illness, addictions, or unresolved family issues can really cloud one’s ability to make rational choices. I’m also a psychiatric nurse, so I see examples of this all the time. However, I also see “poor” people who are poor simply because they make foolish choices, so it’s hard to generalize.

  57. oh michael….

    the rich love the poor, because if it weren’t for them (the poor), the rich wouldn’t feel special….blah blah blah.

    try out some human-ness from time to time. you might just find that people aren’t really all that bad

  58. Comment #13 FTW! Perfect response to JD’s comment IMO. Says it all and is beautifully concise on top of it.

  59. Hey, Dan, I don’t get it. I don’t see why my uncle should spend all his free time on self-improvement when he can take his pontoon boat out on the lake or drink beer with his neighbor. I know he doesn’t work as hard as Jeff Bezos or Trent or me or whoever we’re defining as rich, but I don’t think that’s a problem.

  60. @ 38, Well said! Most people don’t realize that unless you have walked in another person’s shoes, you can’t have a thorough understanding about the difficulties people have to overcome.

  61. Everyone seems to be fixating on this comment:
    “jumped to the conclusion that ‘poor people are lazy,’ which is an extremely broad brush, but a fairly reasonable one.” because they don’t like the idea that it’s a “fairly reasonable” assumption. But he’s saying it’s just that- an assumption.

    When you see someone who looks like they are really hard-off sitting at a bar having a beer maybe, it seems perfectly reasonable to, at first glance to think to yourself “jeez, why doesn’t that dude just get a real job and improve his situation”. In reality, you have no idea what that situation is and what road he has taken to end up broke and looking lazy. I think Suzie (#38) summed that up pretty well. But it doesn’t prevent people from making assumptions at first glance– all the time. (The same way that you would make the assumption that the guy in a golf shirt driving the Lexus is a hard worker, when in reality he could very easily be a trust fund alcoholic who has never worked a day in his life.)

  62. Sometimes I think that “poor” people who are not mentally/physically ill or any other obvious disadvantaged ways are poor by choice because they lacked emotional support and development in their younger lives. What an above commenter says is correct, they remain teenagers, fueled by passion and discontent at once, and never truly move past small details to try to go big with an idea of change. I’m not saying everyone is a little baby that needs all that emotional support, but most people need it to grow, to learn to dream, and have the support system to work hard and be unafraid to fail.

    To paint poor folks with being lazy may be half true, because they’ve lived so long that apathy seems like a natural thing since it is really hard to visualize change in their lives. On the flip side, I don’t think most of us would be anywhere near where we are, without the proper foundations or good values we’ve been taught in our youth.

    I do know people who aren’t very old but the apathy is so deeply ingrained, nothing can change these people, but they remain decent people who just believe luck is more important than work ethic and attitude. To make matters worse more often than not, these people are completely miserable in their lives and once again, the apathy is so deeply ingrained, they’re looking for solutions rather than self-driven opportunities to change. Trent and JD has been extremely lucky to never feel helpless and hopeless without a support system of family, spouses, and friends.

  63. What could possibly happen 35 years ago that would still haunt a person to this day? If that is the case, I would think that the person is making an active choice to let it haunt them still.

    Could you please elaborate on this point?

  64. There is definitely a relationship the way poor people tend to have a higher percentage of people who are over weight and not healthy.

  65. Argue all you want. Bottom line this is America. Unless you are mentally handicapped, or physically handicapped, you can be what you want to be. Too many people have to many excuses.

  66. @beth — thank you for your comment. Assumptions are really poor ways of judging anything — and there’s a lot of judging going on around here.

    About the only thing you can say with any certainty are that lazy people are lazy and poor people are poor. One does not make the other happen, and “being poor” or “being lazy” are works of art that cannot be painted with a broad stroke — they are likely a tapestry that is woven of many strands.

  67. There is a real problem with using an economic classification as an indicator of an individuals personality traits. People are far to complex for that. Stick to writing about ways to help people in their pursuit of financial stability, leave the social type casting for some other forum.

    My 2 cents

  68. JD, I really respect your blog and I like Trent’s a lot too. I just wish that Trent would be more involved in discussions like you!

    Come on, Trent . . .jump in!

  69. I listened to a fascinating article on NPR the other day about a man who was working for Goodwill teaching job skills, and he found that the training in many cases didn’t help because they were lacking in essential traits like punctuality and a good work ethic and the ability to control their tempers. He looked into the subject further and found that research suggests that if people don’t learn those early skills in early childhood, they will never learn them. So he started a school called Baby College to teach low income parents how to teach those skills to their children – giving them the kinds of advantages middle class kids have. The parents went to the school knowing it would do nothing to help lift themselves out of poverty but would hopefully give their children a chance for a better life. Very interesting concept.

    I think it’s wrong to generalize that all poor people are lazy but many poor people haven’t learned the skills that would get them out of poverty, including a strong work ethic. But for the truly poor, it’s a moot point to talk about living frugally . When you’re barely surviving paycheck to paycheck, there’s simply no way to cut back and save, and particularly the urban poor don’t have the resources to cut costs the way the middle class do – such as a car to get to a discount supermarket. I think Trent’s comments apply less to the truly poor and more to the middle class versus wealthy.

  70. Trent, I didn’t bother to read this post because we’ve had this argument on your blog so many times.

    I just want to point out that the article JD links to does NOT assert that poor people are lazy or that the rich are hard-working. It is a SURVEY asking people what they THINK are the most important qualities in high-income earners (not even wealthy folks). Your 1-sentence summary is completely off-base, as was the way JD treated that survey.

  71. I liked what someone said earlier about everybody having choices, but not everybody having the same opportunities. Ruby Payne has done a great deal of work that speaks to the hidden values, assumptions, mores, etc., that the different classes have. From these comments, it would seem to me that everyone on here has wholly embraced middle class values, regardless of how they started out. And choice does play a part in the matter. But just as not every middle class denizen aspires to make it to the upper class, nor does every lower class person aspire to be middle class, with middle class values.

    However, to say that because this is America, we all have equal opportunities is to be willfully ignorant of the vast differences in the public education system (to name just read one arena). Jonathan Kozol makes that clear in his book Savage Inequalities, and I, as a public school teacher, can see a discrepancy between the district in which I teach and the one immediately to my east.

  72. Is there any excuse for being lazy? I don’t care whether some one is rich or poor, laziness is simply irresponsible, and, IMO, immoral.

  73. Re: Erin’s remark – I bet the guy who set up the Baby College didn’t earn loads of money, but he was probably rich in other ways.

  74. poor are lazy: broad brush, but a fairly reasonable one.

    Disagree on “fairly reasonable”…. I know too many people are nitpicking on this, but I think the phrase does its bit to provoke such nitpicking…

    In my view, the assumption is poorly reasoned….. But I would agree with large other parts of the post on the requirements for a success path….

    If we were to give weightage to the various factors that cause poverty, or keep the poor people poor ( i actually mean impoverishedness and not the lower middle class)… lack of opportunity, upbringing and lack of appreciation for the significance of all those other good traits mentioned by JD……
    they would weigh far more than both luck and laziness….

    To appreciate those qualities, the poor need to have learnt them and unfortunately there is no one to teach them those at the age they can learn… The previous comment #56 of Conscious Shopper on educating for essential traits touched a cord…

  75. There are a number of comments referring to a judgement factor here (“how can you say that about poor people” or “how dare you generalize”, etc), but if you read the article carefully, and JD’s as well, neither are really offering value judgements, they’re just reporting connections of certain behaviors to certain levels of economic status.

    The title of the article may be provocative, but Trent isn’t presenting the conclusion that poor people are where they are by their own hands, or that they’re categorically lazy.

    The thing that I think both want us to take away is 1) what negative traits do some of us have or need to turn away from, and 2) which positive traits are there that we need to embrace. The presence of certain traits/habits and absence of others can determine where we’ll go on our own journeys in life, and there are correlations we need to be aware of.

    I prefer to avoid the any sense of indignation and focus instead on the lessons both articles hold. We shouldn’t miss that part, irrespective of our thoughts on poverty.

  76. I’m amazed neither JD nor Trent cited education & choice of profession as the primary determining factor in high incomes.

    Education & profession matter most. The majority of highly paid people are doctors, business managers, engineers & lawyers or similar professional level people.

    Hard work doesn’t make social workers rich. Luck isn’t the reason doctors are paid well.

  77. One more thing…

    everyone has kind of missed the definition of poor vs. rich….are we all assuming rich means money? some people can not have the glammer job, big house, fancy car….but have a wonderful family who loves them and no debt over their heads….that’s pretty rich too isn’t it trent?

  78. The comments here remind me of an article I read today on Newsweek’s website relating to this country’s hatred, loathing, and fear of fat people. The analysis is the same when it comes to judging those who are poor: they must be poor because they chose to be that way. The article talks about a:

    “psychological phenomenon known as the fundamental attribution error, a basic belief that whatever problems befall us personally are the result of difficult circumstances, while the same problems in other people are the result of their bad choices. Miss a goal at work? It’s because the vendor was unreliable, and because your manager isn’t giving you enough support, and because the power outage last week cut into premium sales time. That jerk next to you? He blew his quota because he’s a bad planner, and because he spent too much time taking personal calls.”

    If you’re so much smarter than poor people, why aren’t you rich? Could it be that circumstances, birth, upbringing, education, culture, race, etc. are the decisive thumb on the scale?

    I am where I am today by virtue of accident of birth that I did nothing to deserve. Being born to loving, devoted, caring parents who cared about education and made me work hard means in real, human terms, that I won the lottery. I could have been born on a trash heap in Calcutta. I am not rich but “but for the grace of God…” things could have been so much worse.

    How can any of you judge these people? You have no idea where they came from, and if you think you do and you climbed out, then count yourself lucky — and exceptional. Truly poor people have far fewer mental, emotional, financial, educational, or other resources — through no fault of their own — that would guide them to make better decisions.

  79. Dan, most people are not Anna Nicole. The discussion is about most people and not extreme examples.

    Everyone is different and there are going to be different circumstances for everyone. Some poor people are lazy and some are veyr hard workers, some rich people are lazy and some are very hard workers. Broad generalizations about any large group are failed cause nobody is really average and stereotypes are just averages.

  80. As someone who was born into the middle-class, I can tell you that the mistakes I made did not have as far-reaching effects on my life as the same mistakes made by someone coming from a less advantaged background.

  81. I think a larger factor than whether people are hard working is whether they are efficient workers. As some have mentioned, many people work very hard, but often the tasks they work hard at can be more efficiently performed or are simply of low value to society and as a result such people have little success getting ahead.

    The key to success as I see it is hard, efficient work. A solid work ethic will only lead to success if you dedicate that ethic towards work that other people value highly and do so in a way that creates more value than others in similar positions are able to do. Work ethic is a large part of this, but so is intellect, being aware of the circumstances around you, paying attention to the needs of others, and having the vision to recognize where improvements can be made in the way you work. In short, this is what JD and Trent said.

    So when you say you know a hard working individual who isn’t getting ahead, think beyond how many hours a day they put in and consider the larger context. Hard work alone does not equal success.

  82. @Dan,

    Anna Nicole got rich b/c she had a goal of becoming rich & was smart enough to know an opportunity when she saw one & go for it. I don’t condone her actions, but hey, in a way she’s a self-made woman. ;-)

  83. @ Scott:

    Great comment! I have to say the last sentence, “Hard work alone does not equal success.” made me think about it differently. Hard work may not equate success but it does negate laziness.

  84. I think there are two different ideas of what “lazy” is in these comments. Those who are offended that someone would see poor people as lazy sees them as the hard workers in factories and such. Yes, there are many people who work long hours every week to put food on the table for their families (my dad worked for the same factory for 26 years before it closed, for very little pay).

    I think the “laziness” the supporters of this argument refer to is the lack of self betterment. Learning how to manage money, taking finance or other types of classes, learning how to invest, learning how (and WHY) to save for retirement… these are the things my poor, 60+hour-a-week-working dad was too “lazy” to do. Now my sisters and I are left to worry about my parents’ retirement (and house payment, and health care, etc), even though they both were anything but lazy, in the general sense of the term. Anyone can get ahead. My parents CHOSE not to.

  85. I like marksmanship. There is a certain level of skill that is required in order to hit the bullseye. Controlled breathing and body movement, judging distance against the velocity of the bullet and estimating how much of a drop will exist, the direction of the wind.

    Is it luck that I hit the bullseye? Or is it the years of training I’ve had? Could my aim be off and a sudden gust of wind push my bullet into the bullseye ring?

    Given the same weather condition and equipment, I will hit the bullseye more often than someone who is unfamiliar with ballistics not because of luck, but because of my skill.

  86. I can sum it all up…
    Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’re lazy, but if you are lazy, you are probably gonna be poor.

    He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand: but the hand of the diligent maketh rich. proverbs 10:4

  87. 50 Steven@HundredGoals.com @ 12:36 pm August 27th, 2009

    What could possibly happen 35 years ago that would still haunt a person to this day? If that is the case, I would think that the person is making an active choice to let it haunt them still.

    Could you please elaborate on this point?

    Abuse itself can haunt but often what was taught along with the abuse can have effects as well. If catering to daddy’s every whim prevented him from smacking you around the room, it can be an ingrained habit to put any man’s needs above your own because it was very successful for 15-20 years.
    If you were sexually abused by a member of your family, catering to a powerful person (like a boss) may feel very wrong and unsafe.

    Either position taken to the extreme and operating on the past instead of the present will cause problems.
    Yes, one would hope that 35 years would be enough to put the past behind you, but the character that it has left with you will always be something you deal with…
    And 5-8 years of trying to get your head straight will leave you behind…

  88. Once the school system is no longer fascist- supported by property taxes that insure wealthy areas get the well-paid teachers and better schools…

    Then we can talk about luck.

    And what of bad luck? If your teachers cannot speak proper English, and you are a minority, what are the chances of you getting the job versus a well-dressed, well-speaking, good looking white woman? Virtually nill. No matter that each may have gotten A+ in their schooling, and worked exceedingly hard. And you can only network with those you meet- what if everyone you know is poor?

    I say this as a teacher who has taught at both ends, and is a well-heeled white woman who speaks well. I am well aware of my advantage, seen it in action in hiring committees, and know of others who work just as hard, are just as competent, but do not fit the mold aesthetically. Heck, even where I live counts as cache!

    Studies show that tall white men have a distinct advantage in getting jobs, top pay, and promotions, and an overweight black woman will have the hardest time. The genetic lottery and social tiering has a lot to do with success, and income potential.

    Attitude and effort counts, but first impressions are all-powerful, and we usually make them on appearances. I would argue that the AVAILABILITY OF CHOICE matters most of all. It is not a level playing field of opportunity.

    And if you have never livd in a very poor neighborhood, you may not know that the price of groceries is grossly inflated, as proprietors know the clientele have no access to cars in order shop elsewhere- customers shop as far as they can carry the bags. Not a level playing field at all.

  89. It’s such a sensitive thing to try in any way to “lay blame” on anyone in any way for being poor. I’m impressed you even considered writing about such a hot button issue. However – that said, I’ll chip in my two cents. Perhaps it isn’t laziness but a combination of attitude and self confidence. I’m one of four children and two of us have made professional careers while two of us work much harder for less money. We all had the same parents and same upbringing but the two of us that earn more have always been considered “arrogant” or accused of thinking we were better than other people by our other two siblings. I would say we always had our sights trained a little higher than staying in the same small town working in the local industry. So we got out – call it luck…or work ethic…I think it’s vision and confidence. My other two siblings work very hard. But they make bad choices in spending because they feel stressed and stuck. They spend their free time zoning out with tv and video games. I’ve just always known I wanted and could get more…and I went got it.

  90. I’ve worked in a convenience store for almost 25 years, a fair amount of it in lower income areas. My own observation is that many people are poor, and remain so, sheerly through bad habits, or if you prefer, lack of proper education.

    They opt for the convenience of the local convenience store, for instance, over the travel to get to a major grocery, despite the very significant price difference. (it’s worth noting that convenience stores in poor neighborhoods, if one can control loss, are highly profitable).

  91. Interesting debate. There are many avenues that one can take this discussion.

    There is no question that certain decisions affect how much money a person earns. For a time, I was able to make a lot of money in a certain window of time because of a need for a lot of overtime. However, that money, while nice and was a great way to fund out goals, came at a cost I wasn’t so happy about,and that was the time away from my family. Due to economic challenges, I had to scale the overtime way back. Some would see that as a drop in my earning, and therefore a bad choice, but it also gave me more opportunities to spend time with and do things with my wife and kids that I wasn’t doing when I was piling on the overtime.

    In short, there are many decisions that we all make, and there are also trade-offs to those decisions. While I admire the doctor who has put in a decade and a half of time and effort into getting her M.D., it’s not a choice I’d want for myself. Will I ever make as much as a Doctor? Probably not directly, no (though for a couple of years through stock options in the late 90′s, I “earned” 2x to 3x more than many of the doctors I knew… and trust me, I’m definitely *not* doing that right now (LOL!) ).

    Does luck play a part? Yes, it can, but one has to be able to capitalize on luck for it to be effective. Can people be very smart and focused and do “OK”? Yeah, I think that’s probably the norm for most people. Beyond that, there’s a cumultive list of choices people make, as well as value judgments and decisions about their lives that determine much of the rest. For me, the crushing overtime was more than I wanted to deal with during my kids formative years. I also decided that being my boy’s Scoutmaster was more important than driving a fancy car or living in a bigger house… and I’m perfectly OK with those decisions.

  92. @Justin #71:

    Your quotation was spoken by Aristotle, I believe, who was himself the beneficiary of being born with certain advantages (i.e., to citizen parents, as a male, wealthy) in a society that was rife with inequity.

  93. Trent,

    I have for the first time mixed feelings on your article. I do in a broad sense feel that poor people tend to be lazier or live in places that just plain depress you and help you lose you hope quickly ( I was once broke….I say broke, as it was financial…poor to me indicates poverty of capacity to better oneself).

    What offends me is that you relegate hunting as a leisure activity when it can be, along with other social activities…be considered beneficial financially and healthwise. Hunting is an activity that requires exercise, and talking to other people who may network you into better stuff. It also helps bring food without money..

    College courses after attending them, are by far in the US a financial drain on people and do not provide what I feel is a sufficient payback to merit the majority of the coursework being required. Granted you get out what you put into it, but I feel that the majority is fluff. If you have to borrow 30-50k for a four year degree and pay it back over the 30years…you will have paid 90-150k for a college education..the equivalent of the house that you have that bought with no equity and not will pay 450k for over 30 years with interest!! Had people just worked immediately for the first 4 years and saved every penny they could while staying at home, mom and dad would have seen them buy a house with 100% cash down and maybe even a car and no debt! For about 80% of Americans….this isn’t realized, and I think it is because we think we need college to tell us how to alphabetize and sit in an office and answer a telephone !

  94. Great post, Trent, judging by the diversity of opinions here.

    The dichotomy that I struggle with the most is between selfishness vs. compassion as it relates to high- and low-incomes. I teach at a college with many students from low-income families, and it breaks my heart to see so many brilliant young people leave school because “they need me at home to take care of my grandma” (or siblings, or parents). I want to tell these kids to tell their families “No” and to insist that an education will allow them to help much more in the long run. But these are people who need help NOW, not in ten years.

    I don’t know what the answer is. All I know is that I have chosen selfishness over compassion most of the time in order to build a solid professional career. I give 10% of my income to “help the poor,” but what kind of sacrifice is that, really, compared with the many people in our society who have given up everything to work for others rather than themselves? Those are the heroes of society–and yet we professionals are the ones most likely patting ourselves on the back and judging ourselves as the virtuous ones, writing comments like this one on a blog from the comfort of a nice home.

  95. Much of what you cover should not necessarily be referred to as luck, but as social structural inequalities. “Poor people” tend more often to be blacks, Latinos, and American Indians, and also women. It is not simply that white people and men have all the luck (because they certainly do not!), but that we live in a system that privileges some groups over others. It does not mean all people with gender or racial privilege succeed, but they may start off a few rungs up the ladder. Nor does it mean that all people who are disprivileged fail, but they often must work harder to attain the skills you discuss and must fight conscious or unconscious bias against them.

    Racism and sexism play a huge role in perpetuating inequality. I highly recommend the following book for understanding structural inequality and social privilege:

    Privilege, Power, and Difference by Allan Johnson

    http://www.amazon.com/Privilege-Power-Difference-Allan-Johnson/dp/0072874899/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1251423965&sr=8-1

  96. May I step in here and say that there are many words to describe people without funds. Poor and broke both mean without Benjamins but have completely different connotations. Like night and day to me.
    Thrifty, frugal, cheap, economical, austere, shrewd, profitable etc…..
    You get the point.

  97. My mother is one of the hardest-working and honest individuals I have ever known, but she will always be poor because she doesn’t feel she deserves any more than hand-to-mouth survival. Anything more, she gives away. She will never have anything for herself, let alone to help her children get a start in life. On the other hand, I have seen people who have shamelessly stolen from their own parents in order to get set up in a business so will be set up for the rest of their lives. Lucky them.

  98. Man, it is sure great that a white, educated male with income, free time, and internet access can advise those without any of those things and who, moreover, have no recourse (or access) to defend/better themselves. Your blog is directed at middle-class over-spenders and is really not relevant to the concerns of the truly impoverished.

    I talked to a mom at the park the other day who had three jobs, was raising three kids and barely enough money to buy necessities (ie food makes the cut, but internet access does not. Forget about a computer…)

    Sure sounds lazy to me.

    And lets not even get started on the trust fund babies (adults? baby-adults? adulties?) I’ve had the dubious pleasure of knowing.

  99. My paternal grandparents were children of the Great Depression. Neither of them completed high school and my grandfather was essentially raised by an older sister. When my grandfather and grandmother married at 19 and 17 respectively, they did not receive any further financial support from my grandmother’s parents ended. They had a traditional marriage where my grandfather was the primary earner and my grandmother cared for children who soon arrived. They always saved a least a little each month and sought out ways to make a few extra dollars. Their dilligence and frugality enabled them to live a comfortable life and raise six children who are contributing citizens. They did not wait for money to fall from the sky but used their talents and hard work to get ahead. There is the saying that the harder I work the luckier I am. The same is true for money. The harder I work, the more financially secure I become.

  100. Personally I find the concept “lazy” very hard to define. I mean, we’re all always doing _something_ right?

    It’s clear that the choice of what we should do to increase our financial well-being is not completely straightforward, or else people wouldn’t bother reading blogs like this. So is the question whether these activities also correspond to those considered to make a person less “lazy”.

  101. Trent, you seem to be interested in causes of poverty and possible solutions, obviously a big topic. They recently had a (rerun) show on This American Life (Thinking Big) about how big of an impact the first 3 years of a child’s life makes. You should check it out, it is very interesting.

  102. I have to reply as someone who is still affected 35 years later.

    I am 49 years old and have a municipal civil service clerical job bringing home 400.00 per week. I live in a financially very depressed city where the majority of properties in my city are owned by landlords and crime, drugs, gangs, teenage pregnancies, high school dropouts, and failure are more the norm than not. I have (out of choice) no credit cards and no consumer debt (including no car or house payment). I do have approximately $40,000.00 worth of medical debt because of not having health insurance at a time that I was diagnosed with a chronic disease and needed expensive treatment. I struggle to make ends meet in spite of what seems to be a relatively small amount of financial needs because I still pay my car and home insurance, food and clothing, income tax, utilities, property taxes (of over 2000.00 per year on a house that I couldn’t sell for more than $40,000-50,000 because of the area I live in) and I am attempting to service my debt as I can afford to I ndo not save for my retirement (I can’t afford to) nor do I purchase anything as luxurious as vacations, new furniture, cable television or such. My one luxury is my computer (purchased second hand from a friend) and my internet and long distance (a set amount every month that allows me to keep in touch with my friends. I am poor (or at least NOT middle class)!

    Where does the 35 years ago come in you ask? It is as simple as this – due to an extremely abusive childhood my mother (who as damaged as she was should never have had a child) was unable to parent me. I ended up attending 18 schools by the time I had reached tenth grade (and as a result of so much irregularity I may as well not have attended at all). At age fifteen I quit school and got a job to support us (she couldn’t hold a job) and never went back. On my 18th birthday I took my GED and applied to college. I wanted to better myself more than anything else in the world. I flunked out because I had to work full-time, deal with her issues, and learn to learn – something I had not had the chance to do by going to so many schools. I kept working and supported her until she died a few years ago. Soon after her death – I was offered a complete scholarship to an excellent four year college. I seriously thought about taking it but turned it down. Why you ask? Simple – I couldn’t afford to not work full time and not carry health insurance through my job. (This was after my chronic illness diagnosis) The scholarship was only available if I took a full time course load. For me – it wasn’t lack of desire or ambition but a combination of my childhood and luck (in a country with socialized medicine like Canada or ENgland or een Mexico I could have afforded to quit my full time job and go to school full time while working part time because I wouldn’t have had to choose between health insurance and my education. What will happen to me in the future? I don’t know – but I do know – it can’t happen unless I can afford to carry health insurance while I do whatever it is and that goes back to luck – am I lucky enough to have a full time job that provides health insurance and where I can make enough to have extra to pay for education/training for a better job?

  103. I’m not offended by the statements, but believe the word “lazy” can go both ways. You have people who are born into money who are lazy yet wealthy like some socialites or as someone said, a son given money by his wealthy father. But, you also have some that are doing everything on that list and still are in poverty. So it’s more of a stereotype verses just wealthy or poor.

    Me, myself I believe it’s more of a mindset verses just class of people. Most people are programmed with the rest of the world to get a job and worried about how much they make an hour yet still be in poverty. Most people are afraid of trying what is not typical. Most are told to go college and get in the rat race. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m presently in college, but to enhance my business knowledge verses continuing the rat race.

    Most people are afraid to risk trying to become successful because they are afraid of failing so they sit in a comfortable (in their mind) low paying positions. I grew up in a less desirable neighborhood, but my thoughts are nothing like the typical poverty stricken person or average person. I know people who didn’t grow up poor, but are stricken to a hourly or salary mindset. Basically, it’s about thinking outside the box and that’s where the successful people fall in. Successful people have faith in themselves where as some people who are less fortunate put there faith in those whom they work for….

    “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different results.” Albert Einstein

  104. I don’t think anybody could accuse Anna Nicole of being unprofessional! I am sure that she possesses all the attributes listed by JD, as did Al Capone.

    It might be argued that not having lots of money and being ‘lazy’ could be an ethical choice. A life spent pursuing the acquisition of stuff is not necessarily a life well spent. Being rich certainly tends to enlarge your carbon foot print.

    I think Trent is just making an argument for taking responsibility for managing your life, not making a value judgement based on a person’s bank balance.

  105. In this region, poverty correlates with two lifestyles–drug users adn African-Americans. One is a choice, the other isn’t. This is not the entire poverty pool, of course, but it’s the majority.
    Sharon–Thanks for the post on behaviors related to abuse survivorship. Took me years to learn that not all authority figures were abusive, and that their behaviors were simply those which got the best results with loud-TV-deaf slackers.
    And, yes, poor health creates poverty. I lost more on hospital bills, working 3 jobs, than I made. Nine months out of the year, I’m a sharp little tack; during spring and fall pollen season, my mental lapses prohibit me from working any job requiring life-or-death precision. As a healthy-looking low-income person, I’ll doubtless be derided as lazy by the unclued.

  106. So what advice would you have for somebody who was just dealt a bad genetic hand (low intelligence, autism,etc.) and who despite their efforts keeps hitting a brick wall? Is there any hope of ever overcoming what seems to be overwhelmingly “bad luck”? (I mean this sincerely, by the way–I’m having trouble seeing my way clear.)

  107. “The poor we will have with us always.” UH… the middle class we will have with us always, too – and the fabulously wealthy!! Why? Because of circumstance. There is very little to substitute for an enriched environment at an early age (I do not mean “rich” environment, but that helps, too). But yes, hard work by someone in a middle or lower class can get someone up to speed in terms of education and skill level. And using one’s family advantages, like going to great school, living in a good neighborhood can be parlayed into something better.

    Next is where the “acceptance” and the “opportunity” can come in. Sometimes those two simply do not come together no matter how hard one tries. IF they come together, then hard work is going to make a person successful… EXCEPT here is where luck comes in. Many people work very hard, and very smart, and they still do not succeed. And others have simply fallen into good situations hardly doing anything… but both of these are the exception. Most people are born into a situation and very few of us catapult completely out of that socio-economic situation. It is rare that the destitute become fabulously wealthy unless they 1) have a special talent; 2) invent an amazing thing; 3) win the lottery. But with hard work, good health and a little luck, most of us can raise ourselves a bit higher them what we were born into.

  108. Try reading the book “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich. Then ask yourself if poor people are lazy…..

  109. I tried reading these comments and couldn’t get past about 30 of them. You really need to implement threaded comments on this site Trent!

  110. #112 Meg, why was your mother like that? It’s a sad fact of life that, regardless of how the system works, we greatly affect our descendants.

    I expect that someone in Canada or Mexico or Denmark would have a similar story except some irritating aspect of that country would substitute for your insurance problem.

  111. Susan (109)–Similar story in my family, except it was both sets of grandparents. They weren’t children of the Depression, they were raising children in the Depression, which couldn’t have been easy especially since two of the four were immigrants, and none of them had advanced skills of any sort.

    However what all possessed was a willingness to work hard no matter what, to live beneath their means (which meant bouts of poverty) and to save what ever and when ever they could. They also had a strong emphasis on faith, family and community, which are unheralded factors in the economic success arena. Between them, they raised eleven successful children (no addicts, criminals or flunkies) and retired in reasonable comfort.

    They had nothing material early in life (one was orphaned, another was close to it), but they had strong values and a stubborness to go forward no matter what, and that seemed to save the day in their lives.

    Luck does play a role, and I’m sure it did with my grandparents to one degree or another, but there’s no question that attitude, values, habits and direction put them in a position to benefit from what ever fortune came their way.

  112. The men in my husband’s family are mostly poor and unhappy, they always complain about their bad “luck” and that they must have a family curse. At 18, my husband (then boyfriend) was a high school dropout with 2 credit cards in default. He was complaining about his bad family luck and said it was no wonder things were going this direction when I couldn’t stand it anymore. We got in a big fight and I told him he had to get himself together. I told him there was no such thing as luck, only choices and attitude, he was just making excuses. At first I forced him do the things he needed to do almost against his will (get his GED, stop spending money stupidly), but then he started to see the results and understood. Not everyone gets the same chances, but everyone gets some chances, you just have to see them and make the most of them. If you are too busy feeling sorry for yourself you’ll miss them completetly. 12 years later, we are both college graduates with a beautiful home, 2 cars paid for in cash, a 6 figure retirement account and no help from parents or rich relatives just alot of hard work. My husband is now working on his masters degree. My husband’s family always tells us my good luck must have rubbed off on him. I don’t think they’ll ever understand…

  113. I wouldn’t focus so much on lazy vs. not lazy and socioeconomic divides.

    Regardless of what you were born into, do you take responsibility, or do you make excuses?

    If you are constantly making excuses for your (work/job/family/financial/social/retirement) situation, then you’re passively sitting in the dugout, watching people play the game. If you step up to the plate, so to speak, and take responsibility, you’re in a much better position to hit that home run.

    I think reclassifying the lazy vs. unlazy arguement into makes excuses vs. doesn’t would be an easier broad statement to make, as there are people in both camps, in every social class, and all those success stories people have shared have featured people who’ve stepped up.

  114. @ #9 Trent

    I do not find it to be “grotesquely out of context.” I would believe that it is an oversimplification of what you actually think. But the difference between what you mean and what you say is not measured primarily by context, it is measured primarily by your skill as a writer. *You* failed to really connect the dots here, not your offended readership. You may be wrong on the substance, or you may be right. This is so carelessly written it’s hard to tell. And when you write carelessly about topics that are so personal and so freighted, you are going to push a lot of buttons and get a lot of negative reactions from people who don’t choose to give your carelessly written words the benefit of the doubt.

    Anyone can have an off day, but that you blame your readers for misunderstanding your own unskillfully written statements des not speak well of you.

  115. I like to think of life as a card game, probably bridge. We are all dealt a hand and over that we have no control. Your hand is your family, race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender, mental and physical capabilities, etc. This part is a given and there is usually nothing you can do to change this. The parts of the game that you can control are who you pick as your partners throughtout life and how you and your partners play your hands. Your partners can be anyone you interact with in life such your spouse, lover, friend, doctor, boss, coworker,etc.
    You can control how you interact with your partner to a point and how you plan the hand alone and together. This is where work, study, asking for help, choices, and all else comes into play. The hand dealt to you sets an upper limitation on your achievement but, in my opinion and experience, most of us never come close to reaching our potential. We often do not choose the best partners or play as well as we can and this is where all the suggestions from sites such as these can help us to play the game better.

  116. Just wanted to clarify a couple points here that most people have touch on:

    1. Happiness: I think we can all agree that being happy is more important than being rich. Trent wasn’t addressing overall happiness here (although he does in other posts). So any discussion of that is pointless in regard to this discussion. This discussion assumes you are either happy, or unhappy, but want financial security apart from that.

    2. Relative circumstances: For the most part I think Trent is basically looking at things like this: we have 2 people born in similar circumstances. One complains/drinks beer/goes shopping and works the minimum they can and the other goes to the library/works hard/saves for their stuff. The latter person is likely to do better financially. I think we can all agree that the behaviour of the first person could be called “lazy.” They did the absolute minimum they could. They are also likely to have less money … let’s say they make $17000 and live in the US. Many people would consider that “poor.” Now expand those 2 people to 200 million.

    3. Exceptions/unusual cases: Many of the posts here seem to be saying “well there is this one case I know of where this doesn’t apply.” EG #6 Cara, #35 dawn. That’s nice, and it’s interesting to hear about. But I’m a bit confused by it. If I say: “many low income people are low income because they’re lazy” you can’t disprove it with one example. You also can’t assume I’m referring to you or your dad or your friend. So for those of you who are a little unsure about it: the post was not intended to imply that a gay dark skinned dirt farmer in Afghanistan has the same opportunities and chances as George W Bush had. But if you take that dirt farmer a and he’s making twice as much as his neighboring dirt farmer and you wonder why? Could it be his neighbor is a bit lazy?

    4. Need to walk a mile: For those that think to attack Trent’s ideas because “he don’t know what it’s like.” Keep this in mind: an idea is not as good as the person who expresses it. It’s as good as the idea itself is! If this article was written but the most disadvantaged/abused person on the planet … would you then say “oh, she must really know what she’s talking about.” Of course not, it’s still the same idea.

  117. Jill – “reclassifying the lazy vs. unlazy arguement into makes excuses vs. doesn’t”

    Well said.

    The victim mindset in our society holds people back. I grew up with little money in the home, little parental involvement, and a high school diploma from a school that would give out A’s just for showing up. I have seen people become drug dealers, get into gangs and violence, and the like, and they all have the same excuses. We all have free will and in this country ANYONE can rise above their circumstances. Get over it.

  118. I read an article not long ago about poor people and how hard they have it. I am not arguing that point, however…

    In the article a man was in a store buying food (where prices are much higher). He had to put some items back – paper towels, wings, and a 2L bottle of soda. He was upset because the prices were so high, and so was the person writing the article. After being a reader of these sorts of blogs for so long, I just thought, so what? Use cloth towels, that will save money and the environment. Cook your own chicken instead of getting something precooked, that will save you money and be better for your health. Drink water instead of soda, much better for your health and much much cheaper.

    When people who don’t make much money but are not “inner city” poor can’t afford it, they make changes in their own lives. When inner city poor people can’t afford it, it’s sad and society should make up for it.

    MAKES EXCUSES VS DOESN’T.

  119. @#124 Takilla:

    Thanks for pointing out that you thought I was talking about an exception. I wasn’t trying to – I was using my dad & myself to illustrate, but my main point was that certain identities affect one’s life chances. In the U.S., this has been maintained through both legal & extra-legal mechanisms.

    If the post was talking about relative similarity, it needs to state that more clearly. Your example of 2 farmers in Afghanistan is fine, but U.S. society is NOT as homogenous. Assuming that the same strategies will have the same effects across identities isn’t fair in the U.S.

    For more data on the working poor, see the U.S. dept of labor statistics: http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswp2005.pdf

    I will note that it says of the 37 million “poor” in the U.S. (defined by the legal poverty line of $19,971 for a family of 4, regardless of where they live in the U.S.), 7.7 million were working. It does not mention what # were children. I haven’t found the data clearly breaking down age for this group (significant since kids can’t work). But we can look at the data on the working poor.

    If you look at the data on the working poor, you’ll see clear trends based on identity. Does it seem likely that, among the working poor, all women are lazier/less willing or able to do the things to advance than men? If not, why did women have a poverty rate of 6.1% compared to men’s 4.8%?

    It could be children. Most single-parent households are headed by women & kids cost money, so maybe that accounts for the difference. It certainly isn’t educational attainment, since women were still more likely to be poor than men even at higher levels of educational attainment.

    There’s also the question of race. Blacks and Hispanics had a working poverty rate of 10.5%, but Whites and Asians had a rate of 4.7%.

    This is NOT about making excuses, or about exceptions. It’s about being aware of what is in your control (your behaviors, attitude) and what is NOT in your control (how others respond to various identities, historic trends of discrimination that have not been eliminated through legislation).

  120. I used to work a very good paying job but left it to home school my kids when my then-husband’s business took off. I thought I would always be employable because I had been an overachieving office manager in the car business. To make a long story short, my ex-husband proved the adage, “To see a man’s true character, give him a large sum of money.” A foreclosure, repossession and divorce later, I am stuck paying off $200,000 in debt on a job that pays $11.41 an hour. Four of the five dealerships in my town have closed in the last year. I continue to apply for higher paying jobs to no avail. My ex is perpetually unemployed and has paid zero toward the debt. Because I pay family health insurance and cannot seem to get ahead of wage garnishments, my take home pay is $600 a month. (Less than Trent spends on food!) Because my gross is so much higher, I do not qualify for public assistance. I cannot discharge the debt in bankruptcy because it is part of a marital settlement. I confess I spent two years wallowing in the “victim” mindset but no more! I still have the same talents and abilities I had before and I intend to use them. I am taking classes and planning on starting a web based business. My plan is to get out of debt (eventually) from my side business and then open my own retail store.

    Success is not measured by where you are but by how far you have come from where you began.

  121. I don’t believe in luck, but I do assuredly know that advantage and priviledge are at work in our society; some have access to it while others do not. There are also many systemic causes of poverty that are not known by many, but that influence vast numbers of people negatively. There are hidden rules at play that apply to each economic class, and if you’re not priviledged to know them, it’ll be difficult to move from one class to the next. Any chance those of you who feel someone’s poverty is solely created by their poor choices has ever befriended a person in poverty to help assist them in navigating through all that’s nessecary to climb from poverty to middle class? They need to know the rules in order to get there. You may have been too busy trying to get ahead yourself to recognize that need in the man who washes your car, or serves your food, or who babysits your children. They need help and encouragement; someone to show them the ropes. You may have to get out of your comfortable home and leave your safe neighborhood and be a bit uncomfortable for a minute. Just think of what a payoff it would have if you took that time and effort though!

    The reality is that the poor teach their kids how to navigate life in poverty; it’s all they know. The rich teach their kids how to grow and maintain wealth, and the middle class teaches their kids what they need to know to live a middle class life style.

    What we all need to come to realize is that poverty affects us all; not just the poor. We need to ask ourselves what we can do to address this problem. I’m not suggesting throwing money at the poverty problem because we’ve seen The War On Poverty that it solves nothing. Poverty rates are higher now than they were back then! I’m suggesting that we each look at what is happening in our own communities and in our own neighborhoods where we can plug in to help address the poverty that is all around us, affecting all of us, and possibly begin relationship with those around us that need our inside knowledge of how to get out of poverty to begin their journey up and out.

  122. This is a terrible article. It made me quite angry. Just gross generalizations. Like if you are x you MUST be y. There are many factors that lead a person to the life they are living. I am quite shy. No matter how much I socialize no matter how many times I try to assert myself I remain shy. Because of this I do not take classes or do many of the things suggested for me to do to get ahead in life. So according to you I am lazy. NOT SO. If allowed I would work 12 hour days at my job.
    I also agree with many of the comments that being in the right place at the right time can have a more positive outcome on you life than anything.

  123. Many people would get offended by this writing because they want to think that discrimination is the true and sole cause of trouble in the world. The world is more complex than that, especially in the USA today. You did not say anything that should be offensive. I think that a lost of people did not read the whole thing closely.

  124. Earlier today, I watched a video with Tony Robbins, and found that I agreed in large part with his conclusions. There is a circle of potential-> visualization and will->effort->effect->leading back to potential. If we succeed, it makes us more willing to believe in our potential, and leading to more effort that eventually means success, or failure. The poor, for whatever reason have failed at achievements, and that convinces them that they don’t have the potential to succeed.
    Plus, despite all the fancy words, the welfare system and its ilk, do not want anyone to succeed, and will fight against it happening. BTDT, when I lived in subsidized housing.

  125. This week, I took on a case where my client is an 11 year old girl. A projects kid, she lives with her mother and five siblings, none of them are also children of her father (not that the men ever come around). She has attended seven different schools. (Her mother wonders why she’s having problems in school. YA THINK?)

    The girl may not be lazy, but she’ll probably always be poor.

  126. People really should stop having kids they can’t afford, from 8 different fathers, no less. When you don’t have 8 babies with 8 different baby-daddies then you can complain about your “situation”.

  127. Nice post, but I know many lazy people with money. They use the money to pay for others to cover their laziness.

    The problem comes when they get a shock to the system and the money is interupted– then they are exposed and at a loss to help themselves. With the current economy there are plenty of examples if you look around for them.

  128. Want to be poverty stricken and unsuccessful in America? It’s easy! 1. Don’t study and drop out of school at 16. 2. Get pregnant at 15 and have a series of children by different fathers. 3. Don’t develop a stable marriage with one person. 4. Smoke. 5. Drink. 6. Break laws, get arrested and jailed. 7. Get lots of tattoos and body piercings so respectable, responsible bosses will not hire you because you look weird and landlords with nice places will not rent to you because you look like street trash. 8. Don’t take vocational training. 9. Blame “the rich” for your sitation. IT’S ALMOST ALL CHOICES! It starts first thing in the morning, get up and get to work on time or don’t. Make coffee at home or buy a $5. latte every morning. Dress nicely or dress like a thug. Study in school or fool around and drop out. Have unprotected sex and get STDs and pregnant or don’t have a baby until married and secure. IT’S ALL CHOICES. If you make the wrong ones, it’s not my fault. Poverty is living in India on a dollar a day and having two changes of clothing, one to wear while the other is washed. There’s incredible opportunity to succeed in America, but you must put forth effort and make the correct choices! Please don’t drag in those felled by terrible illnesses and who are mangled by accidents, we’re talking about the able bodied. Blame your failure on being depressed? Take a brisk walk around the block or go to the animal shelter and volunteer to walk the dogs on death row to save them from the stark boredom of the kennel 24/7. Get over it!

  129. deRuiter – so funny and so true.

    I truly believe the NUMBER ONE way to get yourself up out of poverty (and to avoid it if you are not already there) is to NOT get pregnant until you can afford it. This means don’t get prego in high school, and don’t continue to get knocked up for several more years until you have several children you cannot afford. And don’t you dare blame society if you do CHOOSE to live your life this way.

    This goes for men, too, who go around knocking up those women. It takes two to tango!

    Since you are child free, you are also free to live frugally, get room mates, whatever, take one class at a time if you have to, to better yourself and your life. For many people, the opportunity for self betterment dissappears when a child is born (or at least they think it dissappears).

  130. I would also like to add that many of the people that I know who work incredibly hard at their jobs do not make a lot of money because of certain moral decisions they have made. This is not to say that rich people are all bad, but sometimes deciding to do things because they are the right things to do can hold people back from a lot of money. This does not mean they are lazy, just not willing to sell out for something that goes against their beliefs.

  131. Why on earth has formal logic been removed from our schools? So many of these issues could be rectified by a basic understanding.

    It is not that (all) poor people are lazy. It is that (many) lazy people are poor.
    ‘If A then B’ DOES NOT EQUAL ‘If B then A’

    Saying that laziness will often leave people poor does not mean that poor people could not become so any other way, or that all poor people are lazy. Merely that if you personally are lazy, you have a much higher likelihood of ending up poor.
    And ‘poor’ should not be taken to mean ‘anyone without large amounts of money’, especially if they have chosen not to pursue. ‘Poor’ is ‘struggles to provide the basic life securities for themself and their family, and/or trapped in an unwanted life by lack of financial freedom’.

  132. People are led by their emotions, and so they have tunnel vision, ignore facts, and basically take something and run with it without thinking it through. The Vulcans are on to something…

  133. People can be divided into those who take responsibility for their life and those that don’t.

    Those who take responsibility are first to point out that it’s their own doing that brought what happened to them – either good or bad.

    Those who don’t take responsibility blame everything else except them for anything that happens to them – if it’s bad it’s other people, circumstances, bad luck – if it’s good it’s luck.

    The thing is – the irresponsible react with hostility hearing the word ‘Responsible’ – they think that it means pointing the blame. In other words, they are afraid of being put to blame and defend themselves blindly anytime someone points out that their life is their responsibility.

    So Trent, anytime you or JD will use the ‘R’ word they will respond with “it’s not that simple!” or outright rage :P

  134. In response to #4 from J.D. it’s absolutely a fact that you can take two people who have exactly the same amount of money and track them a couple of years later and find that they will have arrived at two entirely different places. One great example of this is sports players. Some go on to become great businessman who accumulate more and more wealth out of their fortunes, while others simply spend it all soon after their last game.

    It’s really, then, not about how much one makes. It’s not instantly making the claim that one who is poort is lazy. It truly is a behavioral thing. You hand me $5 and I’ll look for ways to turn it into $10. If you hand a $5 to someone else he may go and see what he can find what DVD he can buy in the bargain bin.

    It’s just a fact.

  135. I thought about the couple times in my life that I was worried about money and considered myself poor. Then I thought of a few more times…When I was a kid, my family was poor but I didn’t know it. I lived with my grandparents and they worked at home as well as outside jobs. We grew our own food, made what we needed. We did without. But we were not lazy, we were very busy living productive lives. Then I went to live with my Dad. He was a dairy farmer and worked 24/7. We didn’t have much but a roof over our heads, but we had food. At 27 I bought my first home. What a mistake. I was poor again. I worked night and day to make payments. I bought a cheap house, but with NY taxes…I sold quickly. At 39 I was poor again. My husband lost his job, my dad was dying and I was the sole caretaker. I had a two year old and worked nights because I could not afford daycare. I always worked a home business on the side. We live 20 miles from the nearest city and I still worked, even when we only had one car. There are different kinds of poor. Some people think not having a big-screen tv is poor (my husband). I am sometimes embarrassed about my families lack of “things” that most people have, wall-to-wall carpet, a dishwasher, a new kitchen, a state of the art bathroom, no laptop, no blackberry, no cable tv, ect. But I don’t want to work for those things, does that make me lazy? (I live on a farm, run a business, but only work a part time job so my daughter doesn’t need daycare.) But by not working full time does that make me lazy? We would have more things, but would we have more money in the bank? So many families have cell phones, the latest electronics, pedicures for their pit-bills, designer clothes and lotsa bling and claim they are poor…Poor is when you don’t have money to buy milk for your child. There are too many people claiming to be poor, when they aren’t and too many people claiming they can’t work. They are lazy.

  136. Perhaps people would be less offended if the article said the following:

    Many low income people in America and other countries with similar access to resources (poor people) remain low income because they do not devote as much time and effort to improving their financial situation (IE they’re lazy) as those who apply more effort to improve their financial situation. Regardless of race, sex, disability or other adverse circumstances: the individuals who work harder and smarter will generally improve their financial situation while those that don’t work as hard will generally not.

    In other words: poor people are lazy =)

    Thank you and good night.

  137. Creation and spirit –
    I have lived among the super rich and the super poor – black, white asian latino whatever – homosexuals trysexuals bisexuals whatever – lottery winners trust fund babies derelict and self starters – lucky nonlucky – is there a level playing field – not here or anywhere ive seen – the difference i have observed is those whose situation I see improving is those who are not satisfied with their situation TO THE EXTENT that they CREATE a new reality for themselves – CREATE the path to that reality – and then they have the SPIRIT to continue in that creation – the people ive seen step up do not allow themselves excuses to settle then make sacrifices ensuring their vision becomes their reality and not someone elses

  138. When we say poor people are lazy (we being not-poor) we are saying that we deserve our standard of living, we do not need to feel bad for those who have less. We are telling ourselves that if we follow the rules, we will be successful, and that bad things can’t happen to good people like us. We are saying that we’d like to believe that when bad things happen, the world is not unfair or cruel, but people make their own choices.

    This is nice to believe. But how do we know what we’d do in other people’s shoes? And here’s something to think about: What if tomorrow everyone was blessed with large amount of ambition, drive, and intelligence. What if everyone followed the rules, graduated from high school, went to college, didn’t have kids when they couldn’t afford them, were smart with money. Does our world have enough opportunities for everyone? What if all the janitors and maids, walmart and mcdonalds workers, pizza delivery people, etc, suddenly started doing everything you did to make sure you wouldn’t be stuck in those jobs. Would society shift and allow everyone the opportunity to work in rewarding and well-paying careers? Or would we have college educated people who followed all the rules unable to find work and losing their homes?

  139. To answer Marle’s latter questions, it would be called a recession which will lead to an eventual great depression. Higher wage earners will demand more things and manufacturers will produce more while dealers will continually push the price up until there is too little demand.

    Factories and dealerships will begin laying people off and products will become stagnant until dealers drops the prices back down to acceptable levels.

    Unfortunately, but realistically we need poor people as much as we need the rich. The question that we have to answer is which one would we want to be?

  140. There is no luck to it.

    People who are poor are bad at making decisions.
    They cannot distinguish between the easy way and the hard way. Most often they get the two reversed.
    It might sound silly but consider:

    Not studying in public school seems easy but in reality it’s the most difficult way to get through school and consequently life.

    Many poor think that getting and holding a constant job is good never realizing that it is a dead-end position whose payment scheme is not tied to performance and consistency.
    Espeically when other companies would pay more for similar skill sets.

    Poor people make pitiful purchasing decisions:
    They think food is easy to buy, but really it is not, it is much easier to grow and forage food.

    They think it is better to buy sodas and junk food on sale, when in reality is is better to only drink water and eat whole foods.

    They think paying the utility company to cook food is better, when in reality it is better to use a simple free tin foil solar oven or start eating more raw foods.

    Etc, etc, etc….

    Poor people make poor decisions….it’s that simple.

  141. Well I see there are some offended on this thread. That is why you can’t have nice things, are poor, your children will be poor etc etc.

    Poor people suck, they’re lazy, uneducated, and here is why they suck – THEY DO NOT CARE.

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