The Link between Poverty and Ambition

Poverty is a social issue that is as old as human civilization itself. And as long as there has been people living in poverty, there have also been many explanations as to why many of them appear to be trapped in poverty, spending most of their lives struggling to make ends meet and have children that either break the cycle or continue to live their lives in poverty as well. Our society, ideologically speaking, is built on the notion that "anyone can make it if they try hard enough"; from making a higher salary, finding the better job or saving to buy a house, we believe that just about anything can be attained through hard work. And based on this ideology, our society has, to some extent, assumed that the poor must be 'lazy' or at the very least, 'unambitious' and it is these personal traits that brought them to and kept them in their financial hardship. But what if we are being one-sided on the issue? Perhaps living in a 'Culture of Poverty.' (Lewis, 1963) is the direct cause of lowered ambition? When an individual is living in a long term state of poverty, this has a direct effect on their level of ambition. Se x Poverty Ag e S.E.S * * Socio-Economic Status

Ambitio n

For the purposes of this research, an individual will be considered suffering from ‘Poverty’ if the household income falls below the LICO threshold for two consecutive


years or more. The LICO indicator used by Statistics Canada considers an individual as in poverty when they must use more than 55% of their household income to meeting the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing. If someone has to spend over half of what they make on resources to simply survive, it is safe to say that there a significant degree of financial struggle in their lives. The criteria of having to fall below the LICO threshold for 2 years or more is to rule out those going thru a ‘hard time’ but are able to pull themselves back up again; this research only concerns those that are chronically impoverished. Defining one's level of ambition requires considerable more criteria since the numerical value of money cannot be used as a measuring stick. Low Ambition will require that the household has met the above mentioned criteria for ‘poverty’ as well as: • • Rates themselves as having low ambition. Feels that their friends and family would rate them as having low ambition

These two ratings are important in that we learn about the respondent’s personal view in how they see themselves in relation to their levels of ambition. • Not actively seeking employment they are currently qualified for that would provide more income. Those that are in poverty are typically employed in low-wage jobs or underemployed all together. The first rational step to having more money is to have a job that pays more than what they currently make. • Are they aware of social programs for education and/or job training that they qualify for? The programs could be though the local, provincial or federal governments or thru any other private organizations. The purpose of this question is to qualify whether the next logical question ("Have you applied and/or researched whether or not you could get assistance from the programs you are aware of?") needs to be asked. If the respondent


is indeed aware of programs that could assist them and has or has not pursued them, this speaks to some extent as to the respondents level of ambition. Many people in poverty lack employable job skills and/or lack post-secondary training of any sort. Many have not even graduated high school. Whether it is a high school diploma, technical school diploma, 1st year trade apprenticeship training or even a university degree, study after study shows that those with more education tend to receive higher employment wages as a result (Morissette and Drolet, 2000). • Describe their financial situation as ‘hopeless’ and therefore, do not have any sort of plan to improve their situation. This is an excellent indicator whether or not a person has given up on improving their future. The day-to-day stress of making ends meet (or suffering from not making ends meet) has worn them down to a state of helplessness. • Exhibit symptoms of chronic low self esteem.

A classic American study of 150 working class men and women (Sennett and Cobb, 1972) showed that there was a common thread of low self-esteem amongst them. This esteem problem was the result of not only having to deal with the constant stress of making ends but also that they solely blamed themselves for their failure in achieving prosperity. This kind of internalized shame can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the long term and is therefore important to be aware of.

Research Design:
While there could be countless economic issues varying from region to region within Canada that put someone in the position of choosing whether to pay rent or buy groceries, psychological factors that exist amongst the working poor are probably more uniform. For the purposes of this research, we can therefore study one local region and apply the findings to many different regions within Canada. Respondents for this research would be chosen at random from a list of Alberta Income Support recipients in the Calgary, AB area that have been collecting income support payments of any amount, 3

consecutively for the last two or more years. Only those aged 18 - 65 years would be used for the sample as people in this age range are expected by our society to be taking care of themselves. Those below 18 years of age could still be considered legal minors (and probably do not qualify for income support anyways) and those older than 65 years are typically considered 'retired' and are not expected, generally speaking in our society, to sustain themselves through active employment. The respondents that are selected for this research have to have been collecting income support for 2 years or more so as to rule out those who may have employment that is seasonal in nature. These seasonally employed individuals may be below the LICO threshold at some point throughout the year and perhaps draw on income support during these times but it is presumed that they will be able to bring their income above the LICO in the following year.

Collection of Data:
This sample would be questioned through telephone surveys (when they have a phone line to be reached on) and if not possible, they would meet with an interviewer to conduct the survey questions verbally. Telephone surveys are the best choice in this situation for their cost effectiveness in obtaining clear, accurate responses to the questions in a fast and efficient manner. For those who do not speak or understand English very well, a follow-up would be scheduled so that the interviewer can have a translator on hand. It is important to ensure that collection includes data from those more difficult to reach, such as non-english speakers as well as those that may not have access to a telephone so as to not indirectly exclude certain portions of the sample base and create what is an otherwise avoidable bias. Of this active sample, 33 of them (who agreed to be contacted for follow up data collection in the survey) would be personally interviewed. These personal interview questions, while formal, would also be open-ended to encourage the respondent to 'tell their story' and subsequently provide more holistic data in terms of their own personal circumstances, how they feel they got to where they are and if they really believe that they will be able to effect positive change in their own lives. Themes for the questions would measure if the respondent is indeed aware and/or believes that they


are in poverty. This is important to establish as those who do not seem themselves in poverty are unlikely to feel the need to improve their situation through any means necessary. If the respondent does not see themselves in this way, their lack of action on the matter could be wrongly interpreted as a measure of their ambition level. There are also to be questions to assess whether the respondent suffers from depression or low selfesteem issues of one sort or another. If one does suffer from these afflictions, they will definitely have an effect on their ambition levels in general.

The benefit of this research is to gain more of an understanding on how being in poverty can affect one emotionally / psychologically in terms of their ambition to improve their situation. The benefits from this kind of research are plentiful and there is foresee ably very little in the way of potential harm to the respondents by participating. The data collected is aggregated and therefore, the respondent’s right to privacy is maintained as their individual answers are not linked to them in the final analysis. As part of establishing informed consent, the respondent would be briefed on the nature of the research and the reason it is being collected. Effort to ensure that his explanation is done so in 'plain english' will minimize the chances of a respondent misunderstanding when they have consented to. As well, only those selected that are of sound mind and act as their own power of attorney would be used for research. For this to be considered ethical research, the respondents must be made aware of the fact that they are part of a 3rd party research that IS NOT being conducted for the direct use of the government. If respondents believe that the government (or any other institution that plays a part in providing them with Income Support) are asking them questions related to their subsidy, they may be inclined to censor or exaggerate their responses. By making the 3rd party, non-governmental nature of this research clear before any questions are asked, it is hoped this will help to offset the potential for Hawthorne effect.


I believe that my hypothesis will be, for the most part, confirmed. The relationship between poverty and ambition is admittedly a question of, "Which came first? The chicken or the egg?" Arguments and subsequent research could conclude either poverty affects ambition or it one's ambition affects whether or not one ends up in poverty. While the latter is a reasonable and probably popular perspective in current society, I believe that if we are to ever truly reduce poverty, we must be as strongly aware of how being poor can make one feel trapped and helpless as a result.

Cited References:
Morissette, René, and Drolet, Marie. "To What Extent Are Canadians Exposed to LowIncome?." Statistics Canada: Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series No. 146(2000): 14. Lewis, Oscar. "The Culture of Poverty." Society 35(1998): 7-9. Sennett, Richard, and Cobb, Jonathan. The Hidden Injuries of Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.


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