Why Poverty Makes us Resentful
Updated: Jun 15
There is a saying in Christianity about money being the root of all evil, but honestly, sometimes it can be hard to agree with this statement.
In fact, there are times when one is compelled to think the opposite: that poverty really is the root of, not all, but some evil.
Indulge me in this.
Money is morally neutral, if we could put it that way.
It is the attitude towards material wealth that has earned money its bad rap; so bad that some people have this subconscious fear of getting rich because, well, money will turn them into vile human beings.
You can understand this assumption when you look at it from the point of view that money keeps the wheels of evil operations oiled – human trafficking, poaching, violent dictatorships, terrorism, you name it. The pursuit of material wealth also drives people to do terrible things to one another.
Then again, we can’t deny that money also does an awful lot of good.
Were it not for charities, millions of children the world over would still be sleeping on the streets. Millions others in far-flung areas would starve to death because they rely on relief food for their survival every year. And money donated by citizens in developed nations has gone towards setting up hospitals and provision of vaccines in poorer countries.
Not too bad, eh?
Poverty, on the other hand, is a different ballgame altogether. It is a bitter life pill to swallow.
Poverty Breeds Poverty, Says Research
Being poor is a downright bad situation to find oneself in. And you can’t really fathom it until you find yourself wallowing in its stench.
It consumes from within, stripping one of dignity and dealing a blow to the self-esteem. And the worst thing about poverty is it can be a vicious cycle from whose clasp it is hard to escape from.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Genevan philosopher, was right when he said:
“It is too difficult to think nobly when one thinks only of earning a living.”
When faced with poverty, a person enters a “scarcity mindset” which forces them to focus on the here and now, harbour feelings of failure and internalise negative images. These were the findings of a study by Oxford University in conjunction with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
It goes on to say the effects of poverty extend to the cognitive, echoing the findings of a separate study authored by Professor Jiaying Zhao of the University of British Columbia.
The latter found poverty takes up so much mental energy that the affected have little brainpower left to concentrate on other aspects of life, other than survival. As a result, there is less mental bandwidth to take the necessary steps to help break from the cycle of poverty.
In another landmark study carried out in 2010 by researchers from Concordia University and the University of Ottawa, it was noted that kids who come from impoverished backgrounds have higher chances of dropping out of high school, become premature parents and go on to raise their kids in poverty.
The study, which followed a group of boys and girls over a period of more than three decades, revealed low socio-economic status can have long-term detrimental effects – even when variables like education, childhood behaviour etc. are considered.
So, what has this got to do with poverty being evil?
The thing is, we live in a financially unequal world where the gap between the rich and the poor is growing – this disparity is being felt across the world, not just in poor countries.
What this is doing is creating a big class difference. Sure, social classes have been there since the dawn of time, but times have changed.
Today, it is not uncommon to find two college graduates who attended the same classes living totally different lives after school. Of course, everyone has their own path, and the reasons why it unravels differently for everyone is beside the point.
The point we need to glean here is that some people will have more than others. In turn, what this does is lead to economic envy that stems out of these societal classes. The rich discriminate against the poor, while the poor look upon the rich with apathy.
It is natural for us humans to compare ourselves to one another. It is in our genetic makeup. We can spot it from early on in life when children engage in sibling rivalry, something rooted in the need to better the other, blood-related or not.
The danger of this social comparison, though, is that it sows seeds of acrimony, especially when you see your friends or peers doing better than you.
You know the feeling – that time you fall into the envy trap and start skimming through your friends’ pictures and updates on Facebook and Instagram. Suddenly, everyone seems to be leading a happier life than yours.
They come across as more accomplished, better looking, more loved, more likeable. We refresh our newsfeeds, and what do we see? – Mark and Lizzy posting pics from the Azores while we are stuck in a cubicle grinding out the day.
This arouses social media FOMO (fear of missing out) in us, and we start to irrationally believe everyone else’s life is superior to our own.
And it is a dangerous thing, this social comparison. It leads us down a destructive path which stirs sentiments of envy, jealousy, bitterness and sadness within us.
We still compare even when we’ve made it. Most millionaires, for instance, do not consider themselves “rich”. This is because they compare themselves not with those below them in the social echelons, but with those above.
It’s what we humans do – compare.
And it is normal, at least basing this on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
We first look to provide our loved ones with life’s basic needs, namely clothing, food and shelter. Once that is achieved, we then crave for other ranks within our social norms through the attainment of:
Powerful job titles
Better looking spouses
Seeds of Discord
It is not a coincidence that people from impoverished backgrounds tend to be more bitter with life.
Of course, this is not to say there aren’t some happy souls out there living humble lives. But given the option, most people would rather be the ones in the luxurious holiday pictures with perfectly-toned beach bodies – not on this other miserable end.
This is the rationale behind the bitterness and jealousy that consumes the poor.
And you cannot blame them really.
It is hard to look at the glass as half-full when you are a poor farmer with eight mouths to feed.
It is hard to be chuffed about life when some are buying food and ingredients in bulk or dining out at the best restaurants while you are struggling to put porridge on the table.
It is hard to stay positive when your kids are getting sent home for school fees while someone else is taking his/her kids to the best schools in the land (or even abroad).
Psychologists have established that envy resulting from poverty depresses wellbeing and pushes down life satisfaction. It is positively linked with depression and neuroticism, and it breeds hostility which can make us sick.
In 2008, Gallup ran a large survey in America which asked people whether they felt “angry that others have more than they deserve”.
Those who strongly disagreed with this statement – aka those who were not envious – were nearly 5 times more likely to answer that they were “very happy” with how their lives were going compared to those who answered in the affirmative.
Poverty is very destructive in nature. It can turn good people into lunatics; saints into monsters; kings into slaves.
Poverty has claimed many a life because they lacked five dollars to buy drugs.
Poverty has robbed many girls of their innocence by forcing them into prostitution just so they can provide food for their siblings or family.
Poverty causes people to murder for money. Others have turned to terrorism lured by the promise of good money because they need to survive in a world where they can’t secure a job.
These are all things we witness on an everyday basis, and they are all triggered by – yup! –poverty. The root of evil.
In the words of the famed Roman poet, Juvenal:
“Poverty is bitter, but it has no harder pang than that it makes men ridiculous.