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What is Poverty Mentality?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 16, 2024
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Poverty mentality is an attitude. It's a way of thinking that is said to perpetuate poverty because the focus is on what one doesn't have rather than what one does have. Thoughts and comments such as "I can't afford this..." and "I'll never have enough money for that..." may turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's not clear where this concept came from, but one of the earliest motivational speakers to discuss it was Zig Ziglar.

Zig Ziglar noted that focusing on the concern about what is missing in one's life rather than focusing on what is there can lead to further poverty. Ziglar and others believe the ones who break out of poverty and really succeed are those who use what they do have, are grateful for what they do have and most of all aren't jealous of what others have. Basically, it's an attitude of self-belief and empowerment rather than one of self-pity and jealousy that is thought to combat the destructive poverty mentality.

Being positive and building on what you do have can lead to developing a positive, workable plan that can lead to all types of successes even if you don't believe the so-called poverty mentality exists. The ideas of thinking positively and believing in our selves and our abilities often seem so cliche that many of us tend to ignore these concepts. Yet if we think about it, ignoring them may be quite self destructive.

If we don't want to live in poverty, no matter how much we may wish to be rich or richer it isn't enough. We have to have a workable plan and an attitude that brings money our way rather than repels it and keeps others from wanting to help us. The first step in overcoming poverty mentality is becoming aware that we have it. We can rethink the statements we make about money and stop focusing on being poor. Rather than concentrating on what we don't have compared to others, we need to focus on what we do have, what our purpose is and how we can positively get what we want.

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Discussion Comments

By anon279758 — On Jul 14, 2012

I would like to expand on georgesplane's remarks and say that even in a third world country like India, China, Brazil etc., if you're not able to "move up" economically, that doesn't mean your life is void of friends, family and other local "rich" experiences in life. Essentially, having money is only half of the happiness equation. Believe that!

By anon237423 — On Dec 29, 2011

I think the poverty mentality is a state of mind that keeps a person poor because they're too busy not doing what's required to get them on the right track. And 'poverty' isn't about financial wealth. In many respects, 'riches' can be paraphrased using the elusive term, 'happiness'. There's too much focus on financial wealth - it's a means to an end, not the end itself.

Which is why, "In today's world, even the rich are poor..." - Ansaa B.

By GlassAxe — On Nov 30, 2010

Your argument about the wealthy supporting the poor through taxes as a justification of the poverty mentality theory is absurd. The wealthy should shoulder the burden of higher taxes since they control larger portions of resources thus contributing more to the externalized costs that are a detriment to those on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. The wealthy are also the first ones to benefit from most of the significant subsidies given out by the government.

It is not the poor who own the mineral mine, bank, auto manufacturer, or oil company that receives billions a year from the government. The amount paid out in corporate entitlements is far greater than the amount paid in entitlement programs for the “poor” (education, welfare, fuel assistance, etc.). You could eradicate hunger in Africa with a fraction of the money paid to energy companies, the same companies that pay no taxes, are owned by the wealthy, and charge exorbitant amounts that keep the poorest Americans right where they are...spending almost a third of their income on their products.

By cougars — On Nov 28, 2010

@ Georgesplane- While you may be right about the poverty mentality issue applying only to industrialized countries, I think that was the point of the idea. It was used to describe the American mentality that keeps people stuck in poverty. I believe that there is actually a poverty mentality in this country, and many of the impoverished would not be so if they broke through this mentality and actually applied themselves. I am not saying that success guaranteed for everyone, people often make their situation worse than it has to be. In many cases, wealthy people became so by working their tails off. They also carry a significant portion of the tax burden, which in turn pay for most of the social programs in this country.

By Georgesplane — On Nov 26, 2010

I believe that the poverty mentality theory is only relevant in industrialized nations that have some form of safety net to protect the poorest members of their society. The theory would be completely irrelevant to poverty in countries of the developing world, countries that subscribe to a caste system, or countries ravaged by war. In these countries, society expects people to accept their socioeconomic fate, or the people are simply happy to be alive. For example, someone in India may not be able to move up the social hierarchy because they are born into the lowest caste, regardless of what they do, the other members of society will not allow them to move up.

Another example would be in a war torn region like Darfur, where there are simply no resources. People in this region have no means of upward mobility. They are simply trying to avoid the bloodshed, and scratch together the resources to stay alive. Even if they do escape and become refugees, very few will make it to a place where refugees are not considered the dregs of society.

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