What Causes Poverty? Not a Lack of Money, but a Lack of Social Relationships

There's a lot missing from debates and policy surrounding poverty but the biggest deficit, according to Dr C. Nicole Mason, is in honesty. Impoverished people aren't poor because they're lazy, they're poor because social mobility is institutionally suppressed.

C. Nicole Mason: We’re not talking honestly about what it really takes to get from poverty to the middle class. So, for example, we know that only four percent of people who are born into poverty will ever make it to the upper middle class or to, you know, have middle class success. And so what that means is that 96 percent of people are not making it out. And I think we’re being dishonest when we say everybody has a fair and equal chance of achieving the American Dream. So it wasn’t until college that I figured out that I was poor. I hadn’t – before then I had no context for what it meant to have less than other people who lived around me or across town. And I certainly didn’t know that I was outside of what was considered the middle class. And the first time that I heard about people living in poverty was in a political science class. In there we were talking about welfare policies. And one of the big policies at the time was welfare reform. And the debate was raging about what should be done and a lot of the conversation was up here and really detached from the women and families that were going to be directly impacted by the policy.

So we heard a lot of things about welfare queens, people living off the system, not wanting to work, women being lazy, having multiple children. And that really wasn’t the reality for the women who were actually impoverished. And so when we look at the kind of policies that result – the kind of policy, the welfare reform policy that we got on the other end we got a policy that said well, you can’t – if you don’t work you can’t receive benefits. And you have time limits. And if you have another child you’re penalized. Those policies and that restrictiveness was counter to the everyday lived experiences of the women who were actually receiving the benefits. So what was excluded from that policy was a clear pathway out of poverty like education. There missing – in the very beginning there was very few provisions for childcare and a lot of other things that we know family and women need to be able to chart a path out of poverty.

When people think of poverty they think about money and resources and cash. But a big part of poverty is the lack of social connections and social networks. And what we know is that those social networks and connections are really powerful in terms of helping people to navigate complex institutions and structures. And for poor people those social networks are often missing. And when we talk about bridging from poverty to the middle class social networks and social capital that are really important to making that leap. And so when we talk about what can institutions and leaders do to support that it’s really important to make sure that children and people in low income neighborhoods have ample access to bridge opportunities meaning opportunities outside of their community, that they’re engaged in programs not only within their community but outside of their community that connect them to people outside of their normal social network. What we need to do is be working together across class, across race and across all these markers of difference to figure out what are the connections? How might we support one another? And looking at the richness of what each of us bring to the table as opposed to assuming there’s a deficit coming from one end.

The poor housing, the poor quality schools, the infrastructure, the lack of libraries and institutions in communities and hospitals and high unemployment. We’re not talking about how those things are barriers in and of themselves to people escaping poverty. And so when those things are absent from communities people are rightly preoccupied with securing those things. And we’re not having that conversation about what does it really look like for a community to be thriving. We know what it looks like. We’ve seen it, you know. We know that communities that have great schools, low levels of unemployment, low levels of crime, high civic engagement, great grocery stores and banks. Those communities are doing well. The people and the kids in those communities are doing well. And when those things are absent we know that the communities are not working and that people are struggling. And so we just need to be honest about what it really takes for everybody to have a fair shot at the American Dream.

Dr C. Nicole Mason was born in Los Angeles, raised by a beautiful but volatile 16-year-old single mother. Early on, she learned to navigate between an unpredictable home life and school where she excelled. Having figured out the college application process by eavesdropping on the few white kids in her predominantly Black and Latino school, and along with the help of a high school counselor, Mason eventually boarded a plane for Howard University, alone and with $200 in her pocket.


Mason found a path out of poverty – something that only 4% of America’s impoverished population are able to do. An alarming majority will never rise into the middle class, and so it seems that in the US, if you’re born poor, you stay poor. And no one is being very honest about this invisible caste system.

Mason is a vocal advocate against the presumption that the poor are poor simply because they don’t help themselves enough. "[In college] we heard a lot of things about welfare queens, people living off the system, not wanting to work, women being lazy, having multiple children. And that really wasn’t the reality for the women who were actually impoverished." Mason found that the policies were detached from reality, and in fact the barriers built into the system (some intended to motivate people) – such as time limits, additional child penalties, and few provisions for childcare – were ineffective and suppressed social mobility. "What was excluded from that policy was a clear pathway out of poverty, like education," she says.

When people think of poverty they think in terms of money and material resources, but a large part of being poor is suffering from a lack of social connections and networks, and living in a low-income area with no infrastructure that enables the leap up to the middle class.

If institutions and leaders want to support and elevate poor communities, Mason argues that they need to provide better infrastructure (like libraries, parks, good grocery stores, and hospitals) as well as bridging programs both within the community and, very importantly, outside of it, so people can get in contact with people outside of their normal social network. "We just need to be honest about what it really takes for everybody to have a fair shot at the American Dream," she says.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason's new book is Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.