Don’t blame poverty on the poor

It is very difficult to face up to the role that luck plays in our lives. Luck is not something you have control over. Luck just happens to you.

No one is entitled to luck. No one deserves luck. Philosophers have for a long time written beautifully about the different kinds of luck there are in the world.

I have experienced lots of luck. I could not have chosen my luck. I have an above-average IQ that has enabled me to do well at school and university. I have a capacity for grasping concepts and logic quickly, which has, with some effort, helped to develop some decent skills such as my debating prowess and, when I was a kid, managing to play provincial-level chess. These are examples of good luck.

I have also had some bad luck. Despite working my butt off at gym, I struggle with my weight. I have cousins who run marathons and play rugby and who also struggle with their weight. There is a potent gene for obesity in my family that is an irritating menace.

I was also born into a relatively poor or working-class family, depending on your baseline of poverty. I remember in matric when my mom and dad heard me play the piano for the first time how shocked they were. Although I had reached grade 12 and had played for eight years already, they had never heard me play. We could not afford a piano.

These are examples of genetic bad luck — my genetic predispositions aren’t my doing — and situational bad luck: being born into a poor neighbourhood in Grahamstown at the tip of Africa. Who knows how much more I might have excelled born into a different family in a different neighbourhood in a different part of the world?

Does this mean I should not feel proud of those achievements of mine that appear to be fairly decent, such as the books I have written or degrees I have obtained? Well, here comes the crux of the complicated story.

Success is a function of genetic luck, situational luck and hard work. Two people can have the same genes and the same resources and still end up in different positions in life. So the idea of someone “deserving” their successes, in some sense, is not entirely unjustified. You still have to exploit your innate potential within the constraints of the resources and opportunities — however many — you have been given.

It should be clear that luck plays such an important role in determining “success” that many of us would do well to be less arrogant about what is on our CVs rather than behaving as if our achievements are wholly and solely a consequence of sheer effort and monumental willpower.

Some psychologists and philosophers even push us to think harder about whether personality traits, including a propensity to work hard, are traits we choose or traits some of us have as a matter of genetic luck. We should even, truth be told, show some humility about our personality traits and work habits.


Besides genes, the environments in which we are raised can also determine the likelihood of us turning out to be adults who are industrious, determined and competitive.

This stuff isn’t news to philosophers. It all came back to me when one of my callers, Vuyelwa, on 702 and Cape Talk, had the callous audacity this past week to call in and berate poor workers at Virgin Active for moaning about their work conditions.

Vuyelwa insisted that if someone does not want to have a job that requires them to clean a gym and leave that gym at 10pm at night and walk home through bushveld to a shack and risk getting mugged or raped because they earn too little to afford their own transport, then they must simply get a better job. They must not be entitled.

Vuyelwa was not just inhumane and lacking in empathy for those whose lives are very different to her own. Her attitude betrayed the classic lie that way too many middle-class people swallow whole. Vuyelwa has long convinced herself that the difference between a poor cleaner at a gym and a banker in Sandton is that the one decided to be poor and the other decided to be a banker.

There is a refusal here to acknowledge the ways in which factors we did not choose, such as the genes we are born with and the families and communities we are born into, determine our lot in life. The material effect of poverty on the average baby born into a poor community is not a reality that Vuyelwa has thought through.

One possibility is that Vuyelwa is simply not very smart. After all, being middle class does not ­guarantee you have the capacity to think carefully.

But I think the real reason Vuyelwa must believe that poor people have the same level of agency as herself is that she needs to sustain this lie to avoid the humbling recognition that she has simply been very lucky.

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Eusebius Mckaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.
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