IRRATIONAL? Common Misconceptions about poverty in Jamaica (Part 1)

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It’s easy for those of us who are not poor  to make pretty big assumptions about people who live in poverty. We question the life choices these individuals make based on how we believe we would respond to their situation. Fair enough. This is human nature - we copy and paste our realities onto those of others despite coming from completely different backgrounds. When we do that, chances are we’ll get it wrong. Sometimes, when we genuinely cannot explain the actions of the poor in a satisfying way, we simply label them as being irrational. But is it wise for us to believe certain behaviors don’t make sense . . . simply because we can’t understand them?

Let us dig deeper.

Focusing on the Jamaican context, let’s explore some potential causes to 3 common behaviors of the poor which others often find baffling.

To be clear, these are not the actions  of every poor Jamaican person. Nor, by any means, an exhaustive explanation of the reasons behind each of these behaviors. They are simply some factors for us to consider when we observe behaviors that we have hard time understanding.  


1. Why ‘Waste’ Their Very Limited Money?

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Expensive Funerals, Weaves, Nails, Dances . . . when we see people with very limited resources spend (or “waste”) their money on these items we often scratch our heads. The common thinking is this: If they don’t have enough money to cover their everyday expenses, why not spend the little they have to pay their children’s school fees, for more groceries, or just to save for a rainy day?

Sound argument. Or is it?

It does not take into consideration the psyche of one who is constantly deprived of economic resources. Research has shown that poverty affects the brain in quite a peculiar way. It causes humans to think in a much more short-term manner. There are a number of reasons why this happens. For one, persons who have little are brought up to treasure the present more than the future.  If you really think about it, this makes sense.  Linda Tirado, a woman who has experienced a life of poverty said the following:

“I will never not be poor […] It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to […] because no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days anyway. When you never have enough money it ceases to have meaning.”
— - Linda Tirado

According to this study, wealthier individuals are only slightly more likely to delay gratification that those who are poor. They are possibly able to hold off on certain pleasures in life because, in the meantime, they still enjoy other privileges that keep them comfortable. The truth is, even if more poor people  became future-focused and ready to delay their immediate desires for the sake of reaching their long-term goals, they still have “more pressing short-term needs” which pull at their “limited resources”. So, they are unable to properly save or invest  for the future.

To clarify, this behavior is not unique to Jamaicans; it is also evident in other economically challenged population groups.

What Do You Think?

What do you make of this explanation? And how do you think Jamaicans can help curb this way of thinking? We’d love to hear your feedback! Drop us a line on Twitter or Facebook or leave a comment below!

Want more answers to these kinds of common questions?

Stay tuned for our next blog in this series!

Part 2 tackles the question: “Why Have So Many Children They Can’t Afford?”