Conflicting Realities, Good Intentions, and Failed Economic Policies

Posted on December 11, 2015

To start, I want to state that this post – and the topic of poverty as a whole – is a hard one for me. I know I’m entering an area where few have successfully navigated, especially coming from a place of white, middle class, and male privilege. I speculate that this is why so many economists, policymakers, and the public in general struggle to fully grasp poverty, and fail to combine research with a true sense of empathy. As I enter this territory, I will try not to make these mistakes, but want to put out there that if I offend, please let me know. I’m cautious about my language, but am trying to not water down important concepts simply to be politically correct. One more quick note. I didn’t spend a lot of time defining concepts here so if you want more information on Supply-side economics or Theory of Mind you can find a lot of great stuff online.

With that said, let’s explore the role of rules, or norms, in poverty.

In my research into economics, I see a major flaw in Supply-side (roughly what you hear from Republicans) economists. While I see genius in how they use numbers to paint a picture, and even understand human motivation better than one might expect, they miss the human experience of poverty. Their theories should work from a systems perspective, but break down at the individual level and fail those in poverty whom they are trying to understand.

What is happening here? I find it somewhat easy to forgive economists, because I see them making similar mistakes that many professionals in public health and social services have historically made as well. When these economists look at those experiencing poverty, they too often apply Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind is our natural tendency to put ourselves in another’s position and ask what we would need to accomplish our goal – the goal here being moving out of poverty and into the higher economic classes. Theory of Mind is our default response when trying to figure out what someone else needs in a certain situation.

Theory of Mind is critical to empathy and compassion, but without experience, knowledge or expertise it can lead to misguided and harmful actions and policies. When someone in the upper or middle classes searches for answers about poverty, they often apply Theory of the Mind, and then tend to miss the experience and impact of poverty on someone’s thinking and behavior. What is often missed more than anything is the different rules that govern those surviving poverty from those in the middle or upper classes. These rules are central to the work of Ruby Payne, who has been the inspiration and driving force behind Bridges Out of Poverty.


While, I’ve struggled with the generality of these rules as they do not fully capture the cultural and geographical differences I have seen professionally, they do provide a thought-provoking foundation on which to reset the economical conversation around poverty. If economists, policymakers, and those in our fields being guided by Theory of the Mind use their own middle- and upper-class rules as their foundations for thinking, making policy, and structuring programs, they will simply not be effective. Historically, we have failed those in poverty by forcing one reality (middle-class rules) onto another (poverty), and then we blame the victims of these misguided approaches when these interventions fail.

I want to stop here for now, not because I do not have more to say, but because I want to give you a moment to reflect. Use the above chart as a mirror for your programming and the policies that drive those programs. Are you and your local, state, and national communities creating solutions that meet the people in poverty in their reality, or are the “solutions” imposing middle- or upper-class values? Please put your thoughts in the comment section.

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