Is Being Poor a Sign of Failure?

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Why you should care

Because success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.

OZY’s next TV show, Third Rail With OZY, is launching on PBS this fall! To kick things off, we’re shelving anything PC and launching debates. Nothing is off-limits, and we’ll go where most fear to tread. Each Wednesday, we’ll post a provocative question, with a focus on topics that might make it onto the show.

Our question this week: Is poverty a sign of failure? We want to hear from you. Email thirdrail@ozy.com with your thoughts or a personal story, and we might feature your answer next week. This week, Leticia Gasca, who runs a think tank called the Failure Institute, weighs in.

Failure ranks highly on the list of human anxieties. Unlike other top fears — like flying and death — fears about failing relate to a deeper psychological concern for our well-being and loved ones. The drive to pay bills and sustain one’s family, after all, weighs heavily on human motivations, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So the bottom line when it comes to the fear of failing? Poverty, plain and simple.

But that doesn’t mean being poor should ever be equated with being a failure.

Poverty is often seen in absolute terms, as in those with less than $1.25 per day. In reality, though, poverty is relative. The concept of “relative poverty” sees it defined in relation to the economic status of others. It’s the opposite of keeping up with the Joneses: People are poor if they fall below prevailing standards of living. The trouble with both definitions is that they focus largely on income and consumption.

Relegating more than two-thirds of the world to the “failure” column? Ridiculous.

Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, offers a more holistic definition of poverty — and one I prefer. The Indian economist sees it as the lack of what one needs to live in society. In the broadest sense, it means survival, but also contribution to and participation in daily social activities.

A whopping 4.2 million American children are born into poverty every year, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Rather than labeling them, we should be striving to empower them — to make them champions of their own success. The fact that we haven’t done so, I think, is humanity’s failure. We have managed to place video cameras beyond our solar system, but we have not learned to fairly distribute wealth.

If the capital owners possess all revenues and don’t raise salaries, nothing changes — except, of course, that 1 percent of the population becomes rich while 1 in 8 people worldwide go to sleep hungry. Every night. According to the World Bank, 10.7 percent of the world in 2013 lived on less than $1.90 a day, and 71 percent of the world lives off $10 or less a day, according to the Pew Research Center. Relegating more than two-thirds of the world to the “failure” column? Ridiculous.

Businessman Andrew Carnegie was born to a poor Scottish family in 1835. He then went on to become one of the richest and most successful men in America. “A man may be born in poverty, but he does not have to go through life in poverty,” he once said. “He may be illiterate, but he does not have to remain so.” His advice? To take control of one’s own “mind power and use it for [their] own personal advancement.”

I disagree with Carnegie. Millions of impoverished people are poor — but not for lack of intelligence, dedication or mind power. The usual culprit is simply lack of opportunity. Being poor can be a consequence of failure, but in most cases poverty actually stems from broader systemic failures.

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