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Why the "Victim Mentality" Argument Upholds Inequality

The real barriers to economic mobility.

Key points

  • Low-income households may face barriers that affect their mental and physical health.
  • The political right is more likely to cite internal explanations for inequality, such as believing the poor don't work as hard as others.
  • Attributing differences in income solely to personal factors ignores the economic reality of marginalized communities.
RODNAE Productions/Pexels
Source: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

This is part 2 of a two-part series on beliefs about poverty that justify inequality. Find part one here.

I was a free lunch kid...I do not know whether free lunch made me work harder. I do not know whether free lunch improved my grades. I do not know whether free lunch improved my classroom behavior. What I know is that I was a hungry child and I was fed. —Veronica Peritte

When talking about poverty, students sometimes mention their interactions with people who are poor but happy. Another response I often hear is that if we talk about the barriers that low-income people face, it will instill a victim mentality. That is, if we let those in poverty know all of the struggles they are facing, they will get discouraged and mistakenly think that hard work doesn’t pay off, and that they should give up. After all, there are plenty of rags-to-riches examples out there to point to. My students are quick to give anecdotes of people they know who came from difficult circumstances and were able to overcome them through grit and resilience.

Unfortunately, the story of the struggling worker breaking out of poverty is the exception, not the rule. The United States lags behind other developed nations when it comes to economic mobility. This likely comes as no surprise to researcher Bhash Mazumder, who found that nations with higher income inequality tend to have lower economic mobility rates.

Left vs. Right

The argument that we should stop discussing the disadvantages of low-income households because it will engender a victim mentality implies that they are not victims. It suggests that they are simply falling short because of their lack of an I-can-do-it attitude. This is often the view held by conservatives. Research has found that Republicans are more likely to attribute economic inequality to personal factors such as “the different life choices people make,” and to agree that “some people work harder than others.” They’re also more likely to have a hierarchical world belief—that is, “the belief that the world is full of differences that reflect objective merit and importance. In this view, hierarchy is natural and inherent such that everything—including humans but also animals, plants, automobiles, etc.—can be meaningfully ranked by value."

There is a concern that telling poor people they are a victim of their circumstances will make them discouraged and demotivate them. But this argument falls as flat as hoping colorblindness will eradicate racism. The issue isn’t that researchers and educators are talking about the barriers. The issue is the barriers themselves—barriers such as lack of health care, harmful social policies, neighborhoods with unclean water, barriers in accessing transit, unaffordable housing, lack of green spaces, and fear of safety. It’s the underfunded schools, lack of educational resources, food insecurity, and malnutrition.

Mindset and Poverty

There is something to be said about having a growth mindset and the benefits of an internal locus of control. Those with these attributes believe that growth is something they can work at incrementally and that they are ultimately responsible for the outcomes they experience in life. We are happier and healthier when we endorse these beliefs. These are adaptive worldviews that can give us hope and the courage to get out of our comfort zones. But insisting that people in poverty simply need more optimism and a better work ethic can feel like a slap in the face. In fact, research shows that for marginalized communities, having an internal locus of control doesn’t protect against anxiety and depression. The benefits of feeling you are in control of your circumstances are minimal when socioeconomic constraints are overpowering.

One study found that optimism has a positive correlation with total family income. However, the correlation is weak, and many other factors were bigger predictors of income such as education. Where can those in poverty learn how to develop a growth mindset and foster learned optimism if their educational opportunities are impeded by our economic systems?

Liza Summer/Pexels
Source: Liza Summer/Pexels

The Lived Reality of the Marginalized

Perhaps we endorse the idea that struggle builds character and that suffering forces us to grow and appreciate life more. There are several cases of people who report experiencing post-traumatic growth, that is, aspects of their life improved following a traumatic event. However, we cannot let this distract us from the many stories of people who continue to suffer after facing adversity.

One of the prominent voices in understanding suffering is Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl. He wrote:

Let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering, provided certainly that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause be it psychological, biological, or political. To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.

Many in poverty do work hard. They do hold out hope for a brighter future. And yet it doesn’t guarantee anything. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Part of fostering our internal locus of control is understanding that everyday people have the power to collectively transform our neighborhoods, cities, governments, countries, and beyond. Systems that perpetually harm those on the bottom will not change if we convince ourselves that people in poverty enjoy or benefit from hardship. Or that the sole factor creating poverty is poor work ethic or mindset. People are not in poverty because of character flaws, they’re in poverty because they have been continuously met with society’s rationalizations rather than its compassion.

On the final page of social psychologist John Jost’s book on how we justify systems of oppression, he leaves the readers with this message:

Nearly all of us are more sensitive to prejudice and discrimination...than were our great-grandparents. This suggests that we are making moral progress in society, though genuine progress is almost always slow. But it should make us worry intently about what it is that we are missing, ignoring, excusing, and rationalizing. Maybe we should be cultivating critical perspicacity, above all else, both individually and collectively. Otherwise, we are likely to remain complicit in the injustices that afflict the social systems and arrangements that happen to provide the setting for our few moments in history.

It’s uncomfortable to grapple with the fact that sometimes people who work hard aren’t rewarded for it. That sometimes injustices do happen. After all, if we start questioning whether the poor actually deserve their circumstances, it may force those in privileged positions to question theirs. But unless we acknowledge the real obstacles that marginalized communities face, and take collective action, generational poverty will persist.

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