Graphics: Inheriting Poverty – Learned Helplessness and Empowerment in Development

All this month Development Roast has looked at different psychological issues involved in poverty. Today we ask: Does a population’s mentality affect a nation’s development? More specifically, is it possible that when many inhabitants of a country are children of multiple generations of poverty that they can suffer from what could be described as “learned helplessness”, which, as the name suggests, is a feeling of utter disempowerment and uselessness (see graphic). 

This idea was first outlined by American educator and author Ruby Payne in her 2005 book “A framework for understanding poverty”. From her studies of the Urban American class system she concludes that one aspect of generational poverty is a learned helplessness that is passed down from parents to children. This mental attitude means that, unlike the middle and upper classes, many poor people do not foresee a future that is free of poverty and therefore do not have the motivation to even try to escape it.
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Such a negative attitude is not foreseen by many benevolent benefactors, yet it has many ramifications for aid and development schemes if it is true. Payne suggests that it is the existence of learned helplessness that makes very poor people spend their money in seemingly irresponsible ways rather than save for potential future investments. This idea of living in the moment means that they don’t respond to incentives to save and/or invest time in something that may not work.

Bolivia is just one of many countries that is afflicted with multi-generational poverty, and it is perhaps this history that can partly explain the occasionally observed unresponsiveness to incentives and lack of desire to take advantage of potentially profitable situations (including the mega boom that the country is currently experiencing). For example, in order to rapidly improve the education system the current Movement Toward Socialism government had recently offered a financial incentive to school teachers if they brought their pupils up to a certain level. However, in their unions the teachers decided that there was little to no point in even trying to receive this bonus and they were never going to succeed in achieving the required grades. In other words, the teachers did not feel empowered to change their or their students’ lot.

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Empowerment can be a magical ingredient for development, however, it has so far largely been ignored. It is defined as the “opportunity and the capability to participate effectively in social, economic and political spheres”. And it has so far been shown to have positive effects on health, risk adverse decision making, social support networks, savings and alternative incomes, stress resilience  organisational citizenship behaviours, job satisfaction, intrinsic motivation and creativity. Before money is thrown at an individual, community and/or country empowerment programs need to be introduced. If not this money may well just go to waste.

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Mieke Dale-Harris is working as an intern at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia. She is a psychology graduate from Goldsmiths College, University of London.

For your reference:

Payne, Ruby K. Framework for understanding poverty. Highlands, Tex: Aha! Process, 2005.

Jin-Liang, W. and Hai-Zhen, W. (2012) The influence of psychological empowerment on work attitude and behaviour in Chinese orginasations. Journal of Business Management , 6(30): 8938-8947.

Pines, E. W., Rauschhuber, M. L., Norgan, G. H., Cook, J. D., Canchola, L., Richardson, C. and Jones, M. E. (2012) Stress resiliency, psychological empowerment and conflict management styles among baccalaureate nursing students. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 68(7): 1482–1493.

Zhang, X. and Bartol, K. M. (2010) Linking empowering leadership and employee creativity: The influence of psychological empowerment, intrinsic motivation, and creative process engagement. Academy of Management Journal, 53(1), 107–128.

Swendeman, D., Basu, I., Das, S., Jana, S. and Rotheram-Borus, M. J. (2009) Empowering sex workers in India to reduce vulnerability to HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. Social  Science and Medicine, 69(8):1157-66.


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  1. This is a fantastic graphic (with dog). It is a great illustration that I can use with my young clients and their parents to help them understand what learned helplessness is and how it transcends to their life. WELL DONE!!!

  2. I have long thought this is at least partially responsible for the attitudes of the lower stratas here in Colombia and Peru.

    So what responsibility do the governing powers have to alleviate that which historically they are responsible for?

    More importantly, when working in communities where learned helplessness is a factor in the population’s mindset, how do you work around it, or better, lead people out from it?


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