Guest Roast: Is Poverty a State of Mind?

By Erin Taylor

What is the psychology of poverty? This question has been a contentious one in anthropology, particularly during the last half a century. In La Vida (1966), a study of poor Puerto Rican families, Oscar Lewis argued that poverty produces certain psychological traits and social behaviours that become enculturated. His ideas caused an uproar because they were widely interpreted to imply that so-called poor people are not capable of escaping poverty. Critics lamented that his book was being misappropriated by the U.S. Government to implement paternalistic, “blame the victim” policies among poor African-American communities that stripped them of their agency, treating them like hopeless cases that needed to be disciplined rather than assisted.

Since then, a plethora of research in poor communities around the world has overturned the idea of a global culture of poverty. Produced just a few short years later, Ulf Hannerz’s book Soulside (1969) paints a far different picture, showing life in a Washington ghetto as characterised by a cultural richness and sociality that is determined by far more than income or social status. More recently, Philippe Bourgois’s (1996) fascinating ethnography of Harlem demonstrates how crack dealers exhibit an impressive degree of entrepreneurialism, management skills and deployment of social capital as they seek to make a living under the radar of the law.

Across the Atlantic, Adrian Peace (1979) has described the lives of Nigerian factory workers who have migrated to the city to earn money and buy a few mass-consumption goods before they return to rural life. These young men struggle, certainly, but their extraordinarily high levels of self-discipline and group cooperation are a world away from the day-to-day survival mentality and self-destructive behaviour described by Lewis. There can be no global psychology of poverty, because people’s responses to it are as varied as their cultural and social lives.

However, it would be illogical to argue that experiences of poverty have no psychological ramifications. Anyone who has suffered chronic lack can tell you how much of a struggle the experience can be: feeling trapped, frustrated, and insecure are just some examples of psychological effects. When lack of resources threatens one’s health or one’s family, depression and despair can ensue. In Chile, Clara Han (2012) has described cases of chronic depression among women in one small community as they are worn down by the experience of constantly losing their battles to help their families and themselves. These women know that what they need is financial assistance, not medicine, but most accept the prescriptions their doctors offer them to help them cope with their tumultuous and uncertain lives.

Yet depression does not always accompany poverty. How people respond depends just as much upon self-perceptions of economic position, and the presence of support networks, as it does upon a quantifiable level of wealth. At the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) conference in Paris last year, Tereza Kuldova presented the telling case of rural Indian women who reject outsiders’ advice on how to escape poverty and live a better life. These women embroider fabric part-time for fashion designers from Delhi, who are constantly frustrated in their quest to get the women to work harder, complaining that they are too stupid to realise that they could earn more money and buy more things. The women have their own strong opinions about the psychological health of the designers:

“We laugh at them, they have everything but still they are miserable. They think that we are poor, that we don’t have anything. But we have everything we need (zarurat). Look at the village, everything is here, fresh air, water, fields, food, and look at the city, it is just dirt and people miserable and fighting, and they try to teach us how to live?”

This idea that the poor have a better idea of how to live than the wealthy is one that I encountered during my own research in Santo Domingo (Taylor 2010). In a survey that I conducted in a squatter settlement in 2005, I was surprised how many people told me that the poor are far happier than the wealthy because they do not live in fear of being robbed or losing their money. Nor are they locked up in isolation in opulent, but alienating, mansions. In the barrio they are surrounded by their friends and family, and in the city they have a freedom to walk the streets in a way that a wealthy person would never dare. In other words, poverty can facilitate forms of psychological and bodily freedom that may be blocked by wealth.

In some cases, the psychological effects of poverty affect the middle classes the most. Also at EASA, anthropologist Marta Vilar Rosales discussed the fate of Portuguese descendants who had lived for generations in Mozambique but were forced to migrate to Portugal after the 1974 revolution. Accustomed to wealth and privilege in colonial Africa, they had to leave many of their possessions behind and get used to living in far smaller apartments where they had to cook and clean themselves, often for the first time ever. The experience of impoverishment weighted heavily upon them, not only because of their lost wealth and status, but because they also lost material possessions that held sentimental meanings and had their lives disrupted from one continent to another. Impoverishment, for them, was also about being displaced from their homes.

There is no single answer, then, to the question of what is the psychology of poverty. It depends a great deal on people’s perceptions of their needs and wants, relative to the sociocultural conditions in which they live. When trying to understand the psychological aspects of poverty, then, we would do well to begin by asking “What does it mean to be poor?” and “What does it mean to live a good life?”

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Erin Taylor is an Australian cultural anthropologist. She is working as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais, Universidade de Lisboa.

For your reference:

Bourgois, Philippe. 1996. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Han, Clara. 2012. Life in debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lewis, Oscar. 1966. La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty – San Juan and New York. New York: Random House.

Peace, Adrian. 1979. Choice, Class and Conflict: A Study of Southern Nigerian Factory Workers. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Harvester Press.

Sahlins, M. 1972. Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.

Taylor, E.B. 2010. A Reluctant Locality: The Politics of Place and Progress. In C. Trundle and B. Boenisch-Brednich (Eds.). Making Locals: Migration and the Micropolitics of Place. Surrey, UK: Ashgate.



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  2. Poverty is a state of mind. The older societies were well versed on the idea of poverty and it’s effects on human psychology. That is why they had evolved their own social security networking, not in shape of cash, but in shape of some community values, i.e. sharing possessions, equal respect for all elders irrespective of status, hospitality, and many more.

    Even if we interpret modern poverty on the basis of capitalist, cash-in-hand values, poverty is still a state of mind. I feel happy to be with my brother even if I have 1 dollar, or I feel unpahhy with everyone if I have a few dollars is my own state of mind.

  3. I’m a poor brazilian studant of anthropology in Brasília, Brazil, and this article is really poor in ideas and experience.

    • Hi Artur, thank you for your comment, however, would you care to expand why you think this is the case and what in particular has struck you as ‘poor ideas and experience’?

  4. Interested where Sahlins fits in? One of my favorite books but seems fairly disconected from the article.


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