Poor by Default

A common lament of the left is that the poor can’t help it, that they are more or less stuck in a state of want because social mobility is a fiction. I have always found this argument weak, having seen enough different graphs and stats to fill a stadium. People who believe we have little control over our lot in life find ways to present the facts in a way that appears to support that point of view. People who believe in self-determination do the same.

I am firmly in the latter camp, not so much because I think the statistical facts are on my side, but because of what I observe daily about human nature. The above-cited viewpoint and those like it, cleverly bury an assumption.  Notice that mobility is based on the concept of chance. Specifically, the phrase “chances that they are able to…” implies that if people do not move upward it is because they cannot.

A better question to ask is what each individual does to better him/herself. I feel for the truly poor–those who suffer from some malady like mental illness or a physical disability. It is doubtful that they will ever move significantly upward without help*, though there are exceptions. Yet how many are really unable to do anything about their predicament?

I observe that the people who are stuck in life often just fail to act. They don’t have anything because they don’t do anything. My single biggest problem in working with people who want to start a small business is inaction. Though I do often find resistance to learning basic tools like bookkeeping and personal selling, that is rarely the cause of their failure. Many people I work with simply will not do day-to-day what is necessary to move forward.

Another issue that keeps people I work with from moving forward is the illusion that all effort should result in success. They do something I suggest, say make ten cold calls on prospective customers. Keep in mind that since they are resistant to the idea of selling in the first place, these probably aren’t going the best sales presentations ever made. No one bites. Guess what happens the next week? You got it. They don’t make any cold calls.

Sometimes my clients expect me to be able to tell them exactly how to get results. Entrepreneurs often don’t know what it is going to work. The world changes too fast. For example, we don’t know yet how social media marketing works. We have a pretty good idea that it is going to change the face of business radically, but the particulars are still murky. And when we do figure it out, the knowledge will be valid only until the next big change in technology. It is near-impossible to get people to try different things until they hit upon the key.

Well to remember that a pack of dogs in the wild has about a 10% success rate hunting. Dinner means failing nine times. A batter who fails to get a hit six out of ten times is destined for the Hall of Fame. A successful entrepreneur has often gone bankrupt at least once. Not everyone who hunts a rabbit, swings a bat, or starts a business succeeds. Dogs starve, batters get sent back down, and businesspeople go broke. No one is guaranteed success, but many are guaranteed failure by their unwillingness to try.

We often perceive that life is “unfair” not so much because we fail no matter how hard we try. We carry the fantasy of unfairness to shield us from the uncomfortable realization that we have failed life and not the other way around. We prefer the low-level anxiety of inaction to the bracing terror of honorable failure.

And so it is for generations of people who have fallen victim to the welfare state. We have conned millions into the expectation that they “deserve” as much as the next guy/gal, no matter what they do. We have lulled generations of people into a false sense of security in relying on society at large to provide what they will not provide themselves. I shudder to think of what is going to happen when “society” no longer has anything to give. I tremble at the thought of millions of people utterly without self-confidence, motivation, or skills thrust into the harsh world of making a living on their own when the coffers are empty.

For my part, I hope to give those who do want to try some tools to work with**. I cannot give them success. I cannot motivate them–that is up to them. I cannot provide an encyclopedia of answers to all the questions they have–no one can. I can, however, give them the knowledge that someone believes in their abilities to make it. The rest is up to them.


*This does not imply government help.

**If you want to try and need some tools, write me at terrynoel@facebook.com.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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