How poor do poor people feel?

The honest poor can sometimes forget poverty. The honest rich can never forget it.

Gilbert K. Chesterton

Growing up in 1980s and 90s Russia was not easy. For the first few years of my life three generations of my family lived in a tiny two bedroom flat on the fifth floor of a ten story grey Communist monolith. Living in such close proximity, my grandparents on my mum’s side, my parents, and my sister and I shared a lot, except perhaps privacy. With regular state salary payments being rarer than all the world’s blue moons, my mum forwent many meals to keep my sister and I fed. On the flip side, every year, for the best part of the three months that a typical Russian school summer break lasts, my father’s parents inherited the responsibility of taking care of us, the kids. Their apartment, located in a rural town called Gorodovikovsk in the southern Russian Republic of Kalmykia, where my grandmother still lives, was a little roomier, but it lacked many of the amenities that most people living in developed countries take for granted. We used the communal outdoor, hole-in-the-ground latrine, using only old news pages for toilet paper. Meanwhile, on the count of, at best, an unreliable water supply, we filled up every pot and pan in the kitchen with fresh water from the local well, heating just enough every other day to have a quick “bucket wash” (perhaps this explains why I am still unable to take a shower that lasts longer than a minute).

For many people, this scene undoubtedly describes poverty. And, objectively speaking, we were most definitely not wealthy. But we certainly didn’t feel that poor as our lives were rich in so many other ways. Our family life was close and connected, nurturing a deep love and respect between grandparents and grandkids that lasts to today. My grandma worked at the local Polytechnic College and my grandfather taught music and, to supplement their meager earnings, they also kept chickens and the odd duck whose eggs would make it to the dinner table every day and whose flesh we’d eat on special occasions. During the warmer months, a herb garden kept us supplied with dill, parsley and chervil, whilst the local reservoir enabled much loved overnight net fishing trips with my granddad that, in turn, provided regular

Eating just picked watermelon on the dacha with my grandma

feasts for the local mosquito population. And, of course, as with most Russians even today, we grew vegetables, fruits and berries on our own plot of land called a dacha, tilling the soil with spades and manually pulling weeds in the smoldering heat of Russian summers. The farming work should have felt like hard manual toil, but, perhaps through the prism of childhood innocence, it was more like fun and games that brought the family together. It also allowed for winter supplies of pickled vegetables and jarred jams to be swapped and shared across the extended family, friends, and neighbors and even used as part-payment, part-nicety to laborers coming to fix a leaky balcony. We may not have had a proper toilet or a regular water supply, but, with close family and community ties, excellent agricultural knowledge, and a relative lack of hunger, very poor is not how we felt.

Beyond personal anecdotes, evidence all over the globe points to the fact that ‘poor’ people’s own conceptions of what it means to be poor often differ from those of the people trying to “do development” or “tackle poverty”. Bolivians, for example, feel poor, but not that poor; Whereas official estimates class 38 percent of Bolivians as extremely poor, only 11 percent report feeling so. Meanwhile, many Britons actually don’t feel rich at all, despite their situations being far better than many of their developing country counterparts. And, as in my own family’s case, cross-cultural anthropological evidence suggests that many misconceptions arise because we, the people in rich countries,

not only fail to notice that so-called ‘poor’ people lead very rich material lives, but also that we often completely fail to appreciate how they value the things and people that surround them.

Anthropologist Erin B Taylor.

This is not to deny that abject destitution is unacceptable, but to recognize that the relative nature of poverty and cultural differences in what is sought to give richness to people’s lives can be problematic when trying to identify, measure and reduce poverty. It can also be fascinating when long-held assumptions about poverty are blown out of the water under closer scrutiny.

To look into the more ‘subjective’ side of international development, January is dedicated to Poverty and Psychology at INESAD. Stick with us throughout the first month of 2013 as Development Roast explores not only the psychology of the ‘poor’, but also the psychology of the more wealthy, and the aid industry’s general psychological attitude towards developing nations and the people who inhabit them.

Like this post? Sign up by email at the top of this page to receive weekly notifications directly in your inbox.

Ioulia Fenton leads food and agriculture research at Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.

For your reference:

Andersen L. (2007) “Bolivians feel poor, but not that poor,” Development Roast, 5th August 2007. []

Gordon O. (2012) “Do Britons feel rich or poor?” The Guardian, 7th September 2012. []

Taylor, E. B. (2012) “Stuff that poor people like: Cross-cultural evidence from EASA,” Erin B. Taylor blog, 18th July 2012. []



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  1. Thoughtful article Ioulia.

    Feeling poor is psychological, isn’t it ? But feeling the pangs of hunger is certainly horrible. At least socialism tried to keep its citizens away from the horrid pang of hunger.

    And what about saying, feeling poor is also comparative. Were rich people a few hundreds of years ago not poorer than an average man today. The old King Cole had lesser choices of clothes to wear than today’s citizen.

    I would sum up my point of view by a quote from Oscar Wilde ” Those who have little, always share. Those who have plenty, are always greedy”. So who is poor ?

  2. Ioulia, this is simply brilliant! The have-nots, a rather rude characterization made by the haves, do not really care about what they do not have. They are much more attuned to what they have. Of course, if one is hungry, thirsty or otherwise deprived, the balance changes, but in general the poor – who do not necessarily view themselves as being poor – make do with what they have and are reasonably at peace with the world. Urban areas, though, tend to create situations where the poor can feel stigmatized by seeing all the wealth and material goods they could never afford. Does one ever “need” a Mercedes? Of course not. Seeing a shiny new one goes by can create a moment of “that would be so nice” if one is inclined to think that way. If one is content on crowded mass transit though, such covetous thoughts might never occur. It depends on the individual. Clearly, you grew up in a very comtent and supportive environment with a close and loving family. That is what is most important in life.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments Malcolm. I agree with you that wealth is what creates superficial ‘wants’. Keeping up with the Jones’s is a sure way to start feeling poor. We will write something about this effect this month, stay tuned!

  3. People with a lot of money have a materialistic outlook on life. People who do not have a lot of money look to the quality of their relationships. Those two groups usually battle to socialize because of their difference in focus.

    The answer to helping people with less money to have more material things in their lives is not through handouts (which are (mis-)judged necessary by a materially well endowed mind, but not necessarily thought of as important by those who are not materially well endowed) but through making educational and support opportunities available to those who do not have a lot of money and who seek such help.

    The reason handouts of good will often do not benefit those who do not have a lot of money in the long term is because the focus of those who do not have a lot of money is not on sustainability on that level, i.e. the individuals helped were not selected in a way that would support/encourage long term sustainability.

    • Dear Peter,

      Thank you for your comments. I agree with you in principle that handouts may not work, but there is a qualitative difference between big aid handouts to developing country governments and things like Conditional or Unconditional Cash Transfers (e.g. giving poor people money directly on the condition they send their kids to school or just giving them money). The latter can and often does work because they treat poor people with enough respect to trust them to know what is good for them and trust them to spend the money in the best way that suits their family. But yes, selection is also a big part of the issue of aid and we will discuss selection issues this month, so stay with us and we would love your thoughts when we do.


  4. GREAT IOULIA!!! In fact, as a third world citicen, i totally desagree with the international politics and NGO´s that come to impose what they call DEVELOPEMENT, to say the truth, i belive the ¨standars or messures of poverty¨ coming from the first world countries are again a way of imposing their ¨imperialism¨….
    My country shares a lot in commun with Russia except (30 years after) what you remember is what we live NOW!!
    So POOR is relative!!! at the end it might only be a word,……

  5. Excellent article, Ioulia.
    In those days in Russia we definitely did not feel poor. For us the poor were the people on the streets with no place to keep at night and no bread on the table, which was not the case in soviet Russia. Traditionally, young families were sharing the flats or houses with their parents and grandparents until they could afford to buy or to rent their own. We were not well off, but we were not poor! Yes, we had some problems with the water supply, due to local water board development, but you can find many rural areas in developed countries, in France where we live now for example, that don’t have mains water and people live out of the well or a spring. In Russia, as many people here in France, we learned how to cope with the situation. We were not rich, but we definitely were not poor. Yes, we did not have Super Supermarkets with cheap processed food on the plate. But, we had our dachas to grow our own veggies and fruits. We did not throw away out-of-date food, because we never had it out-of-date. We were not poor, but we knew how much labour goes in to have a good meal on the table. In act, we were rich, very rich because we had our family around and together we shared our “goods” and “bads” . We definitely were not poor!


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