Ever wonder what it is that holds people in poverty? Although never expressed in polite company, there is an undercurrent in many circles that the poor are victims of their genes. There isn’t a word for it, like racism or sexism, but the mindset still exists.

Here’s the real skinny: poverty, like wealth, is usually inherited. Poverty is primarily the result of competition from other human beings. People like you and me took their jobs. It is also a matter of statistics and energy. A street orphan in Bangladesh has essentially zero chance of becoming CEO of Boeing, no matter how hard he or she tries.

How do you suppose President Bush, a man who rarely reads and can hardly string a grammatically correct sentence together, became president of the most powerful nation on Earth? He was not only accepted into Yale (SAT scores: 566 verbal and 640 math), but managed to graduate as well. He later attended AA, and with the help of a higher power managed to kick the drinking habit he had developed while at Yale. The best analogy I can come up with is a ten-mile race (having been a long distance runner for most of my life, I prefer footrace analogies to football analogies). Dubya started life’s race two feet from the finish line and staggered over it. Others started in a huge pack at the starting line. Arrayed before them, somewhere between the starting line and the finish line, were people born to wealthier parents.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations matched.

There are only so many jobs, and some jobs are much better than others. The paradox of improving education is that if the number of coveted jobs remains fixed relative to the number of people seeking them, statistically speaking, improving education will not result in more people getting those coveted jobs. Individuals with social advantages of one kind or another will continue to get the best jobs.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Wealth and status gradients exist in virtually all complex societies. All social experiments to eliminate these gradients have proven to be horrific failures (communism). Like the temperature gradient that is necessary for the functioning of any heat engine, status gradients appear to be necessary for proper functioning of human societies. Societies should work to minimize the slope of that gradient, with government serving as a throttle for the excesses of free markets (providing things like a high minimum wage and high-quality public services). The key is to strike a balance lest the free market engine stall, creating mayhem. Restarting stopped engines can be difficult — witness Russia today. Poverty can be minimized, even eliminated for the most part (depending on the definition), but social inequality cannot.

Let me revisit that suspected genetic link to poverty. Paris Hilton is a well-known example of a child of wealthy parents. Brilliant, innovative, motivated, and creative, she is not. Her children will probably be even less so. The pattern often goes something like this: wealth builds in a given generation, then peters out with succeeding generations. In the meantime, new wealth comes into being through other genetic lines, and the cycle repeats itself as that wealth is passed on to succeeding generations of descendants.

I am in the unique position of having one foot in both worlds. Although I was raised in poverty, my children are in private school and I often find myself hobnobbing with some of the wealthiest people in Seattle. What I have discovered is that they are just regular people (with a hell of a lot of money). They are not any more or any less talented than the general population. Wealth begets wealth. It is not particularly difficult, given a little time and effort, to parley $200,000 into a million dollars. It is impossible to do the same with $200. If one’s father is a physician, and you, as his child, attended the same Ivy League College, your odds, given acceptable grades, of getting into medical school are very high. Another person, from a middle class family, with acceptable grades in a no-name public college, is just another grain in a big bowl of chaff.

Wealth also creates leisure. Many of the great thinkers through history were wealthy. One might conclude that thinkers become wealthy, but the opposite is often true. Wealth provides those with a proclivity to do so the freedom to think. Darwin had lots of free time to contemplate his belly button. If Darwin had not been born into wealth, the theory of evolution would have taken longer to get here (and Wallace would be famous today). Of course, the vast majority of wealthy people spend most of their time thinking about status, money, and leisure, but just imagine what could be accomplished if the combinatorial power of 6.5 billion minds could be set free to think about the world’s problems.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

A quick peek into the educational backgrounds of the Grist staff and some of the recent contributors on poverty revealed pretty much what I had expected to see: bright people in little danger of going homeless, striving to do good. Here is the list of private colleges they have been affiliated with, along with the annual cost of attendance:

Brown University, $45,000
Carleton, $44,000
Dartmouth College, $41,000
New York University, $45,000
Oxford, $50,000
Occidental College, $45,000
Trinity College, $43,000.
Whitman College, $37,000

Except on rare occasions (Bush), acceptance to schools like these is a badge of honor. Financial aid exists for people who qualify for them, but statistically speaking, this is a list of schools filled with the children of America’s upper middle class.

So then, how does one break out of the poverty trap? There are basically two ways: winning some kind of lottery, or through tremendous effort with some luck thrown in. President Clinton is an example of how it can be done. How much effort it takes depends a lot on your society and how much it facilitates (tolerates) upward mobility.