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being poor VS poverty

Poverty vs poverty: Seven traits of the successful poor

Claire Wolfe

It’s a mystery why one person can be poor but still be proud, independent, and reasonably content while the guy next door is only content to slide into a swamp of misery, blame, slovenliness, dependence, and cigarette smoke.

I agree that Alchemist summed things up pretty well by observing, “Poor is a state of finance. Poverty is a state of mind.”

But why?


Entire tomes have been written about poverty, of course. How soul-crushing it is. How it leads to crime. How it’s everybody’s fault except the individuals who are in that state. How it’s increasingly becoming institutionalized among entire classes.

I have no answers for that (and neither do the tome writers or the politicians who pimp poverty for power). Better to look at the “poor who aren’t impoverished,” the poor who don’t live in either mental or physical squalor.

How are they different?

Please feel free to chime in with thoughts of your own, but here are seven traits that make the difference between the poor and the squalid.

1. Some sense of choice.

Some of the most “successful” poor people I know have, in one way or another, chosen to be poor. Maybe they’ve done it on principle — for religious reasons, to avoid funding government, to pursue adventure, or because they believe in simplicity, for example.

But even people who’ve been rendered poor by disasters, theft, financial folly, or government abuse are better off when they can think, “Well, maybe I put myself here and maybe I didn’t. But in any case, I can now chose how to respond to the mess I’m in.”

2. Responsibility.

Which leads to the next trait. And this one goes almost without saying. Once you conceive you have choices, you then accept responsibility for making choices.

It’s funny that responsibility is always seen as onerous — some dreary, painful duty. Because it’s the outgrowth of choice. As Rush sang, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” So better to choose freewill.

Accepting responsibility is accepting personal power. And isn’t that a great thing to have? Even if you got poor by being whacked upside the head by bad health, crime, untrustworthy companions, fire, earthquake, or accident, it feels better to be able to say, “I’m responsible for what I do now than it does to lay about and blame God, the government, Jews, your mother, the 1%, or an uncaring universe.

3. Creativity or spirituality.

Nearly every successful poor person I know is a person who “sees beyond.” Some are deeply spiritual while others are about as religious as rocks, but all have an innate knack for perceiving what others don’t perceive — and pursuing it.

That may mean something as grubby as seeing the possibilities and purposes in a heap of trash that a more prosperous person has dumped. On the other hand, it could be something as ethereal as “following the voice of God.” It may mean being able to create beauty, comfort, or great food with simple materials. But it always means looking within to find possibilities that others don’t see.

4. Support networks.

Friends. And not the kind you get from clicking “like” buttons.

Most successful poor people (even if they are dedicated introverts and hermits) have huge, reliable support networks. People they can share projects with. People who send them care packages. People who take the time to think of them. People who’ll be there in an emergency.

And just as important, despite all that they lack, they’re also the kind of person who’ll do the same, or the equivalent, for others.

5. A belief in lemonade.

Successful poor people aren’t necessarily optimists. But they understand that even the most terrible things can eventually turn out to have positive consequences. And by acknowledging the possibility of positive consequences, they help create them.

They know how to actively make the proverbial lemonade out of the bromidic lemons.

6. Frugality.

Successful poor people aren’t cheap or stingy. Cheapness and stinginess imply an unhealthy obsession with money and an ungenerous spirit. But they are frugal — and not only because circumstances force them to be.

They understand Grandma’s old maxim, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” And they gain surprising satisfaction by applying their creativity to finding the best ways to make life better through Grandma’s rule.

7. Not thinking poor.

Obviously, being poor can be desperately stressful. It’s hell not to know where your next rent payment or next week’s groceries are coming from. It can be bitter seeing others casually acquiring things that are beyond your reach. It’s terrifying not knowing if medical bills will suddenly sweep away every tenuous bit of security you’ve been able to create.

Successful poor people acknowledge those realities and deal with them as best they can. Sometimes — many times! — they endure hair-raising moments or even hair-raising years.

But they don’t make those realities into the perpetual long-term realities of life. They … live. And ultimately, beyond the perils, find satisfaction in life.