When I started my first job, I made some poor decisions with my financial planning and couldn’t afford to pay my rent one month. I had to borrow money, and being in debt sucked. From thereon, every single decision, from where to eat to going out with friends, was approached with a penny-pinching mentality. I was stressed, fixated on the short-term, and lived with the motto “hustle and survive.”
Think back to a time when you were strapped for cash. Maybe you paid your way through school and were barely scraping by. Perhaps you were laid off and were frantically looking for your next job. Or maybe you were slapped with a steep medical bill and had no idea how you were going to get the money.
What did you feel during that time? I’m willing to bet that you didn’t experience emotions of overwhelming joy and appreciation for being alive. You didn’t have a thirst for knowledge to start taking online classes on Coursera. You didn’t want to go and meet your friends (or anyone) and socialize, even though that might be just the thing you needed to cheer you up.
Your focus inevitably shifted to the short term. “Shit, how am I going to get through the next week?” When we are thrown to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, our problems are front and center. But what if you felt like that every single day? It’s safe to say that when you’re concerned about survival, it’s unlikely you’re going to make grand plans for the future. Not because you’re stupid or lazy, but because people behave differently when things are scarce, like when they lack food, work, and money. To see this in action, one only has to look at the looting during a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, where normally civilized people will steal and hurt others to grab what they can get.
This ‘scarcity mentality’ is what poor people experience every day. As one philosopher summarized it, “You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.” The effect of the scarcity mentality and why we’ve failed to solve poverty issues in both developed and developing countries is the topic of a great video by author Rutger Bregman, which you can check out below.
If you ever find yourself asking, “why can’t poor people just get up and get a job?” this talk might just give you another perspective.