If you're poor, it's probably because you're lazy

Tuesday, 6 June 2017 at 23:33

TL;DR: It’s a tent-pole belief, that holds up the broad set of Conservative policies and their voter support, and in general allows the believer to have peace of mind in the face of growing hardship, inequality and business as usual. It is though a toxically soothing lie. Get out and vote accordingly on June 8th. This piece is about understanding why this belief is so important, how it arises, why it’s false and what to do about it.

Why is this such a significant belief?

This is a crucial believe, because it underpins a whole political and social disposition. One which forms part of a struggle within modern civilization that has existed from its beginnings and which continues to shape the world we live in.

Unsurprisingly in a market economy (arguably the defining feature of contemporary civilization), much rests on money and the distribution of wealth; not least health, education, social opportunities and innumerable ways to self development and societal contribution. And it is the attitude we take to that wealth distribution, individually and collectively, that determines how it and our society evolves.

“If you’re poor, it’s probably because you’re lazy.” belongs to a constellation of beliefs, including: “Society gives everyone a somewhat fair shot at success.”, “Your fortunes are your own making and your own responsibility.”, “Because I worked hard and made a ‘success’ of myself, everyone else can too.”, “If you’re poor, it’s probably because you’re lazy.” Let’s call these beliefs together the ‘the wealth you get is what you deserve’ cluster.

Looking at “If you’re poor, it’s probably because you’re lazy.” (or more generally the ‘the wealth you get is what you deserve’ cluster) together with the policies of the Conservative party, it could easily be the party’s motto. Consider how it serves to justify Conservative positions on various social conditions:

There isn’t sufficient funding to maintain a world class free health service for everyone, so people are suffering from equipment, space and staff shortages.
But if everyone worked harder, they’d be able to afford private health insurance. And if they took better care of their diet and lifestyle they wouldn’t get so sick in the first place. Why should I pay for other people’s laziness or stupidity? So the situation is to be expected and I’m comfortable with decreased public funding as a fraction of GDP and lowering taxes.

Most social security benefits are dropping in real terms and more stringent means testing being enforced, meaning many more people are now being denied, who would previously receive benefits, and those who are receiving them are finding it harder to make ends meet.
This is a good thing, because it will give people the push they need to be less lazy and work harder so they can take care of themselves. For those few cases were people are genuinely very unlucky a smaller benefits budget would be fine and there are charities that can offer help. Again, reducing budgets and lower taxes are the way forward.

Public sector pay freezes to well below inflation, including for nurses, teachers, the fire service and the police, have meant effective pay decreases relative to inflation for the last 7 years or more.
‘We have to live within our means’ - meaning, there isn’t the tax revenue for much more of a budget for the public sector and people should be free to spend their money as they wish without being burdened with more tax. If employees of the government are not satisfied with their pay, they are free to find another job and take out a loan for retraining for another career if they need to. They shouldn’t worry, because providing they work hard at it, they should succeed.

The general case:
The rationalization (following from the ‘the wealth you get is what you deserve’ set of beliefs) for cutting and privatizing any public service, and of course lowering taxes, is that almost everyone realistically can and aught to be responsibly for providing for themselves and their own families. And so to subsidize that provision is to encourage dependence and laziness and place a drain on the wealth of the nation. It’s an instant justification for the whole of austerity politics.

The above rationalizations of Conservative government policy (regardless of softer sounding election time rhetoric) read very differently depending on whether you subscribe to the ‘the wealth you get is what you deserve’ belief cluster.

If you don’t share those beliefs, they appear thoroughly heartless, self-serving and blind to the reality lived by the majority of people. But if you do hold such beliefs, then these rationalizations are not at all heartless. They are pragmatic, responsibly minded and even encouraging. Because if you truly believe a person’s dire straights are mostly due to their unwillingness to pull their thumb out, and that if they did they’d soon be much better off, then maybe if they listen to your words they’ll get their act together and take some responsibility, then everyone will be better for it. They might even thank you. See how it becomes, still tough love perhaps, but nevertheless clear headed, positive thinking? That is the power of such belief.

Why would you start to believe this and why is it appealing?

How do beliefs such as ‘if you’re poor, it’s probably because you’re lazy’ take root and come to be so strongly held?

An obvious route is being born into privilege. Most people have an innate sense of fairness as well as a desire for the good life. So then to avoid guilt over a lingering sense of injustice and systemic exploitation when looking at the rest of the world, there is a choice. Either reject the idea of fairness and suppress your empathy, by embracing the dog-eat-dog, Malthusian vision of the world, or find a way of rationalizing your privilege. That could include seeing yourself as having generally superior traits and abilities to those born less well off and thus being the best suited for positions of power and wealth. Where you spend wisely, they would only sit idly and fritter it away. Such attitudes being the norm in your peer group would make it hard to think otherwise.

From such a position is would be relatively enlightened to think that people were poor mainly because they were choosing to be lazy, or had undesirable role models, and not just because they were congenitally lazy and feckless. And of course these responses to privilege are seen across society wherever relative privilege is apparent, not just between the upper social classes and the rest. Also in some sections of the working or middle classes in regard to immigrants or the unemployed, or indeed other races for example.

The essential rationalization is: ‘because that group is less well off than my group, there must be something inherently or culturally inferior about them to explain it – because otherwise I’d have to deal with the realization that my group is being exploitative or parasitic’. When it comes to relative poverty, the longer established your relative wealth, the more necessary it is to believe that those worse off (if not people in general) have an inherent disposition to idleness and must be forced into work to be productive members of society. This is, if you are to continue seeing the disparity in wealth as natural or fair.

Another route to this belief is having gone from rags to riches yourself, or to see yourself as well on the way there. If you come from a community where at least relative poverty is endemic, then you’ll probably have seen a lot of apathy, low aspirations and maybe the occasional instance of dodgy attempts to get free money (as so furiously pounced on by certain media sources owned by billionaires). Without considering too deeply the socio-economic reasons for such attitudes, it’s easy to label it simply as laziness, especially in the context of your own success and hard work.

Whether its selling houses or having a highly successful shop or trade, what’s to say everyone else in the community you grew up in couldn’t do the same, if they just applied themselves? Believing that is preferable to thinking you were just one of the few lucky ones of the actually far greater number who do struggle hard to succeed but end up failing. Or to realizing that apathy, hopelessness or low aspirations (all quite different from laziness) are a fairly natural response to seeing how the odds of escaping relative poverty are so slim. No, that would be a miserable perspective. If you’ve achieved some success, it’s natural to want to enjoy it with a mind at peace. And to do that, it’s helpful to see your success as existing within a system that, while not perfect, is at least fair enough to give everyone a decent shot, if they only applied themselves. And hence, if you’re poor, it’s probably because you’re lazy.

A third path to this belief is essentially blind faith, where you are not comfortably off yourself, but you’re trying and part of that effort is to adopt the attitudes and beliefs of those you see as successful. Especially the romantic vision of fortune being won by hard graft and ingenuity, and the corollary that the poor are that way because of laziness and fecklessness. By thinking in the same way you reason, you’ll have more chance of making it. For this reason you’ll also read from a selection of right wing newspapers/websites, which ceaselessly repeat those same mantras. The fact that these media outlets are owned by billionaires whose financial interests are served best the more poor people share those beliefs, far from an alarm bell to you, is more like an act of benevolence, for them to share with you the faith of the successful.

It is along that third path that you're likely to think more about benefit claimants, with the impression they're mainly scroungers, popping out kids for cash and frittering it away on fags and bigger TVs than you have. Each of the regular exposés you read reinforce that impression. The actual figures involved probably do not occur to or concern you. But you might be puzzled to learn that the total officially estimated figure for benefit fraud is only 0.7% of the benefits budget, or around £1.6bn. This figure compares to a conservative estimate of corporate tax evasion of around £5bn. Tax Research UK estimate £85bn per year in tax evasion though (and a further £19bn in tax avoidance). So even though tax evasion is a between ~ 400% and 5400% bigger problem for the economy than benefit fraud, it shouldn't be a surprise which issue the billionaire owned media prefer to focus on.

Whatever the route taken to believing that the wealth you end up with (or don’t) is deserved, because of the psychologically supportive effects of this and similar beliefs, it becomes natural to view those who challenge such convictions, in a negative light. Since having the faith challenged risks undermining the peace of mind afforded by it. Inconvenient facts are rare exceptions, or being blown out of proportion by jealous, free loading whingers, who feed off the success of others and seek to bring them down with their defeatism and idle entitlement. But you’re a winner and you wont let them do that to you. Etc.

What if it’s not true? Would you want to know and how could you tell?

Does it even matter if it’s not true? If you’ve carved out a lifestyle for yourself and a world view that helps you enjoy it, why is the truth so important?

What would it cost you to see things differently, if you’re a current subscriber to ‘the wealth you get is what you deserve’ belief cluster?

Would you be able to enjoy your current lifestyle in the way you currently do?

Would you be able to have the same kind of conversations with your friends, or even keep the same friends if your views changed in this regard?

If not further personal material success, how else would you apply your energies with a different perspective?

What would motivate and inspire you?

Could you maintain economic security, or would you go back to struggling to get by?

Beyond the repercussions for you, suppose for a moment you are wrong. With that belief gone, it wouldn’t take long then to see the gross injustice and waste in the current distribution of economic opportunity and outcomes (wealth), if it wasn’t just down to people not really trying. Would you then want to continue supporting, in how you vote and spend your money, a government, a set of economic policies and a world view that is inherently abusive to the majority of society and depends on the continued squandering and diminishing of that human potential, and the promotion of conflict, environmental destruction and greed for its continuation? Would that sit well with you?

Change is hard work and often scary, uncomfortable and inconvenient. Which is why many people choose to carry on believing, regardless.

Please only read on if you still feel the truth matters.

What else would need to be true?

OK, so you decided you’d prefer the hard truth over comfortable illusion, how could you tell the true? What evidence could you gather? One approach to testing this ‘if you’re poor, it’s probably because you’re lazy’ belief (and similar), is to consider what else in the world would need to be true to support that belief, and then checking to see if those other things are true.

Here’s a list to get you started. If the large majority of poverty and relative poverty was due to a lack of work ethic, we’d also expect to see:

  1. Income reflecting how hard working or at least productive a person is.
  2. There being opportunities for decently paid work for everyone who wanted it.
  3. Inequality decreasing in times of the greatest economic growth.
  4. The wealth you’re born into having little impact on the wealth you end up with.
  5. The wealth of most countries per capita being roughly equal.

Let’s go through those one at a time.

Income reflecting how hard working or at least productive a person is

This is a logical consequence of the belief we’re testing, because if wealth was not a direct result of hard work and productivity, how could relative poverty be a result of laziness? So then does a big hedge fund manager who takes home ~ £1,000,000,000 per year (and this is not the highest income for such work), work literally one hundred thousand times harder than a single mother, juggling several zero hour contract jobs to make ends meet on ~ £10,000 per year? Perhaps not.

And we know it's not about meaningful productivity since most hedge funds lose money relative to the market and if the mother stops working it's food for the children and crucial amenities that are at stake, rather than that new private jet (made by skilled workers, which according to our beliefs could easily find work elsewhere if they put their mind to it). And it's not about intelligence either, since the greatest artists, scientists, engineers, mathematicians and philosophers are rarely if ever the best paid.

But what about a more middle of the road example? Does a factory production line manager work 2-3 times harder than the line workers he supervises? Unlikely. What about an estate agent doing a reasonable business selling foreclosed houses in a town where the factory recently shut down, compared to a husband and wife who having lost their jobs there, now have their days filled with running between part time work to pay the rent, job interviews and looking after the kids? Does the estate agent work 10 times harder? Hard to believe.

OK, what if the relationship between wealth and hard work was just highly non-linear? Could we still hold our belief? Well, consider this scenario. There is a call centre employing over a thousand people. The service is considered essential to the business but the wage labour is a major expense. Fortunately for the bottom line a new automated system is installed that replaces 80% of the call operators at a fraction of the cost. Unfortunately for the now jobless, they live in a town unable to absorb that many people into other work and so most of them end up with no or only a little part time work.

Does their drastic and sustained drop in income reflect a sudden outbreak of laziness? No. But it does demonstrate that your earnings are less about how hard you work, and more about whether you can do something that someone else is willing to pay you for. That willingness is ultimately about profitability or the hope of it and your eagerness to work hard only sometimes has much baring on that and even then only in a highly non-linear way. In other words, if you are poor, in no way can that be a clear indicator that you are lazy.

There being opportunities for decently paid work for everyone who wanted it

If there were no such opportunities then we could not say that poorness was down to laziness could we? Discounting occupations such as drug dealing or prostitution, this should fairly obviously not be the case, providing we set a reasonable bar for a living wage. Industries come and go, technology advances and displaces labour over time, supply chains are subject to unpredictable disturbances, currency exchange rates can drastically affect the profitability of employing a work force, and stock market crashes in highly financialized economies can lead to deep recessions and mass lay-offs.

All of the above factors and more mean that very often, large numbers of people are unable to find work fitting their skills and abilities (let alone passions), without any change to their willingness to work hard. What’s more, if there is an increased supply of labour, without a proportional rise in demand for what they do, then either unemployment will rise, or wages will fall.

Of course, if a person is willing to work for whatever pay is offered, then sure, there is usually something available. But here the supposed connection between work ethic and wealth again becomes broken. However many hours you spend as a fruit picker, or a shoe shiner or a leaflet distributor, you will still be poor. So the conclusion here must be that there are often not opportunities for the kind of paid work that would raise a person well out of poverty, however willing to take that work they may be. And so once again, a person being poor, is not an indication that they are lazy.

Inequality decreasing in the times of greatest economic growth

If wealth is a result of people working hard, then when an economy is booming that should be an indication that more people are pulling together and working hard. And if more people are doing that than before (so creating the growth) then the profit should be shared amongst that greater number of people (because wealth is a result of hard work) and thus inequality should fall.

In reality, do we see that? No, we don’t.

Here’s a chart of the GDP growth rate and various measures of income inequality in the UK over the last half century. (Click it for clearer, larger view.)

If the fact that inequality rises as economies boom puzzles you, consider that while markets grow as a result of productivity and consumption, productivity (useful work) is rewarded only as much as it must be rewarded. So then you can see how globalization, deregulation of financial markets and erosion of labour protection rights would all reduce how much most productivity must be rewarded. Hence a rise in inequality, on the backs of increased productivity.

The wealth you’re born into having little impact on the wealth you end up with

If it’s really true that wealth and poorness are primarily down to hard work and laziness respectively, then starting off wealthy cannot give a significant advantage in the long term. Because if it did, then in a competitive market economy people would be poor who lacked that advantage, rather than simply because they were lazy or lacking in some other way.

There’s a straightforward way to test this one, look at the statistics. Maybe you can guess the result already now?

According to studies by the IFS and LSE, if you have wealthy parents you’re much more likely to succeed in life in terms of both income and educational outcomes, than someone with poor parents.

Even without the statistics that prove it, it’s easy to understand why inherited or early life household wealth is such an advantage. From having a house with plenty of space to play, with funds for all the books or educational aids you’d benefit from, to having money for a healthy diet, to living in an area with a great school and having a peer group of friends that expect to do well and are supported in doing so. All those factors help create a strong foundation for later success. And once you’re ready to join the world of work, knowing you have a safety net there in your family means you’d be more willing to take the kind of risks that successes often require, and you’d have funds to pay for any further training, or capital investment you might need to get started in business. What’s more, having wealthy parents and a wealthy peer group means you’ll have access to people who work for, hire for, or own successful businesses, which means it’s that much easier to get the recommendations and interviews.

It’s also true that being born into wealth would make it easier to waste money or spend it in a non-financially profitable way. But of all the people wanting to succeed financially, if you start off with wealth then you have an undeniably huge advantage. And so once again, the fable of the poor being that way because they choose to be lazy is disproved.

The wealth of most countries per capita being roughly equal

Unless we want to adopt racist theories about other countries and cultures, then we’d have to assume that on average people are about equally able and inclined to generate wealth in one land mass as in any other (perhaps excluding a few paradise islands). And through human ingenuity most disparities in natural resources could be overcome with the ability to offer a variety of products and services wanted by other countries for trade. So then, if wealth if primarily a result of hard work, we’d have to expect that per capita wealth would be roughly equal between most countries wouldn’t we?

Of course, that’s not the reality at all. Compared to international wealth inequality, national inequality is often trifling. Reason being, history is a story of conquests. The desire and sometimes the desperation for wealth provokes war. It’s not by far the only way countries behave with each other (there’s a lot of productive cooperation too), but when they do, vast inequalities result.

And just like some countries exploit other countries, through economic, technological or military superiority, in order to further enrich themselves, some parts of society exploit other parts, to further enrich themselves, using the advantages they have of wealth, better education, political and media influence, and the threat of income insecurity.

And the results are..

Remember, not only one, but all of these conditions would need to be met for the belief to stand up to scrutiny. And none of them are met.

The unavoidable conclusion then must be that ‘the wealth you get is what you deserve’ is a soothing and rather toxic lie. The tragedy is it’s only really the foolish, the misguided and the poor that genuinely believe it, because it gives them hope. Those that have become rich with their eyes open will know better, even if they tell themselves and others this lie of meritocratic wealth and the lazy poor, as some attempt at moral justification, or simply as a way of ending an uncomfortable conversation. They know better really, because their daily profit flows from the contradictions to those beliefs, from the luck, the exploitation and the cumulative advantages of wealth.

What to do and what not to do

If you’ve followed along and found your mind genuinely changed, first let it sit for a moment. Then..

Do not:

  1. Fall back on the other crutch of the right wing hard core. “OK, the meritocratic vision of wealth is utter BS PR talk. But people are all ruled by selfish greed and are opportunistically corrupt anyway, so there’s no point in trying to be any different. Better carry on with business as usual.”

    This is just an excuse for those already behaving in the way they seek to suggest everyone does, to avoid sorting themselves out. It only takes a moment to consider all the valuable time, energy and resources given by parents, friends, mentors and loved ones, and from all the volunteers for charities or community groups to people they have no other relationship with. Then all the labours of scientists through the ages, for the sake of knowledge and contribution to humanity, often without pay, that have made the world we live in today possible. Any of these examples show such a reaction to be feeble, lazy thinking. Yes, people can be treacherous dogs to each other, but there are other, better choices that people allow to guide their lives all the time and live happier, more fulfilled lives because of it.
  2. Get distracted with wanting an exhaustively detailed and water-tight account of a new paradigm for paradise on earth, before considering changing your thinking or behaviour.

    That’s just not how social change happens in reality. It’s a collaborative, emergent, gradual thing, that you become part of by sharing an understanding and an intent. This reaction is essentially, ‘sure, I’ll stop doing this bad thing, as soon as you answer this impossible question to my satisfaction’.
  3. When (re)considering your voting choice on the 8th June, fall for the desperate anti-Corbyn headlines, about ‘radical’, ‘unrealistic’ policies or ‘terrorist sympathizing’. These papers are playing you for a complete fool. Have a look at the policies of other major, successful European countries such as Germany, Denmark, Sweden, France and Norway, to see that practically all of the Labour party manifesto policies (like public ownership of transport and energy systems and free education and child care and more funding as a fraction of GDP for a public health service and higher corporation and top rate taxes) are actually just normal elsewhere. Then have a look at what was actually said or done regarding acts of terror and the context from other sources, not just from the right wing rags, and also consider how much terrorism does selling billions worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and other brutal regimes support? And if you think it’s Labour that can’t be trusted with the economy because of the market crash and recession, read a little more on the actual impacts of spending and debt on the economy.


  1. If you were going to vote Conservative (the party essentially held together by this lie), change your vote to help get them out for the good of the country. Use a site like www.tactical2017.com to see how best to do that in your constituency.
  2. With an open mind, learn more about the real effects of and reasons behind Conservative policies from a news source you might not normally access, such as:
    And there are of course some more mainstream, marginally left leaning options, like The Mirror, the Independent, the Guardian. As with any news source, do your own research to verify claims. But it’s helpful at least to have some serious countervailing opinions to those you normally hear (and not just the token left field column of your usual paper).
    You can learn about media bias from reports such as this from the LSE.
  3. One time in particular where this soothing lie is told frequently is election time, because otherwise voting Conservative would just feel too much like being a vassal of darkness. But once you’ve seen clearly through the lie, can you really keep voting to support it? For that reason, talk to your Conservative voting friends, especially where you see them sharing this belief, to help disabuse them of it and then encourage them to vote differently.
  4. Share this writing if you think it would help someone change their mind and their vote.
  5. Beyond the vote on the 8th June, make a plan for how you can stay better informed and help to inform others.

Thanks for reading.

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