When considering poverty, our national conversation often turns to its origins. It is natural for us to look for attributes of a person that led him or her to poverty, such as poor self-control. David Brooks of The New York Times, for instance, placed the blame on poor people’s lack of virtue. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Congressman Paul Ryan argues that poor people’s individual choices are at fault. Bad choices can certainly be a factor in poverty. But just because someone makes bad choices doesn’t mean they lack virtue or have no self-control. To the contrary, psychology research has discovered a variety of perfectly good reasons why poor people make the choices they do. These reasons explains how a smart, moral person can become trapped in a cycle of poverty.
Together, these reasons are enough for anyone to give up. But the point of this article is not to say that poverty is hopeless. Science has identified lots of ways to teach people how to become better at self-control. The key to helping people is not to blame them but instead to address the underlying factors that perpetuate poverty, especially early in life.