How to Cope With Poverty

Poverty can be very difficult to cope with, demanding immense courage and determination. Above all, it demands endurance. Without these qualities, it can slowly grind you down. Unlike a sudden trauma, for example, it is relentless – and boring. First, and most obviously, there is the deprivation. Poverty means going without things you would like, both for yourself and for those you love. Then there are the endless practical irritations, like a car that constantly breaks down or an air conditioning unit you cannot afford to replace. On top of this, however, there is the emotional and psychological struggle.

The History of Poverty

The definition of poverty changes. Until very recently, what today would be called extreme poverty was normal. Even in a very wealthy society like 19th century England, the center of a huge trading Empire, the majority of the population were extremely poor. For example, the novelist Thomas Hardy could remember a boy from his village who literally starved to death. And this was in the south of England in the 1850s! Extreme poverty was widespread right up to the 1930s, even in nations like the USA, UK, and Germany. You have only to read chroniclers of the Great Depression, like John Steinbeck and George Orwell, to see this.

Attitudes towards poverty also change. In many times and places, it was seen as in itself immoral. In early Victorian Britain, poverty was almost synonymous with immorality. Thoughtful and humane individuals like Charles Dickens may have argued that it wasn’t always a poor person’s fault, but for many people poverty was a natural consequence of (and punishment for) sinfulness, just as wealth was a sign of decency and respectability.

The idea of a safety net is also a relatively new one. The novelist J.G. Ballard, for example, left a chilling account of life in pre-war Shanghai. Ballard, who was the child of a European businessman, recalled seeing half-starved Chinese peasants who had drifted to the great city. In the morning, he would see groups of them, emaciated and exhausted, slumped by the side of the road as he cycled to school. On his ride home that evening, many would have simply died right where they’d been sitting. Throughout much of history, if you fell, you fell all the way.

The Self-Pity Trap

Above all, you must avoid self-pity. Of course, you may be justified in such feelings. You may indeed have been hard done by. And no, maybe it isn’t fair that you have ended up like this. But what good will it do to moan and complain and feel sorry for yourself? It is simply a waste of time and energy (time and energy that could be better spent finding a way out). People will say things like “it isn’t fair. I have worked hard all my life and what do I have to show for it?” Or they will grow incensed that a neighbor with no qualifications is earning a small fortune while they, with their college education, are living on food stamps. But what do you want? Pity? How would it help you if someone said “I am so sorry for you”? It wouldn’t help you at all. The world owes you nothing. And never forget, self-pity is a deeply unpleasant trait that others intensely dislike.

Practical Steps

Before turning to the psychological problems, it may help to look at a few practical steps you could take. First, consider your unnecessary expenses. Some people will agonize over every cent they spend in a shop and yet leave the heating on at home. Do you leave the bathroom light on while you go downstairs to make a phone call? Some spend a small fortune on cigarettes, alcohol, and junk food. Not only do these cost a great deal, they are also unnecessary. And they damage your health, leaving you with less energy to go job hunting or build up your own business.

Think carefully. These unnecessary expenses are everywhere. Even when you make a cup of coffee, only put as much water in the kettle as you need. If you fill it half full, it will cost more electricity to heat it. This may sound petty, but if you drink a lot of it, just think how that adds up over the course of a year! If you run a car, take the shortest route. When you heat your apartment, put blankets over the windows and block any drafts, and so on. Plenty of websites offer page after page of money-saving tips.

Perhaps the single best thing you can do is to draw up a budget. You need to keep track of every cent you spend and every cent you earn. The more carefully you draw up this budget, the more conscious you will become of unnecessary expenses. It will also reduce the temptation to waste money on silly impulse purchases. If you know you cannot afford something, you won’t be tempted; if you are unsure, you are more likely to say “what the heck”. First, make a record of every source of income, no matter how small. Next, make a record of expenditures. Now, divide these into “fixed essentials” (things you will always need and which generally cost the same), “variable essentials” (things you will always need but which vary in cost from one month to the next, such as gasoline and groceries), and “non-essentials” (things like alcohol, candy, and trips to the health spa).

The Psychological Impact of Poverty

The psychological effects are often the most distressing of all, especially the sense of failure and humiliation. And this has been supported by research. Studies have found, for example, that the inhabitants of relatively poor but equal societies tend to be happier than those who live in affluent but unequal ones. In other words, the happiest people are not those who live in the richest societies but those who live in the most equal ones.

The key is not to derive your sense of self-worth from your possessions and income. Imagine if someone you admired said to you “I have gone bankrupt and am going to lose my house. I am now a terrible, horrible, worthless human being.” You would think that was crazy: they are still the same kind, witty, interesting person they always were – they just don’t have any money. Try boosting your self-esteem in other (much healthier) ways. So, for example, you could go out of your way to be kinder to neighbors and friends, to give what you can spare to charity, and to teach your children the same.

It is also vital to maintain your dignity. Poverty will rob you of many things – never let it rob you of this. Maintaining dignity will in itself boost your self-esteem. Unfortunately, poverty often leaves people struggling with depression, which in turn makes it harder for them to keep motivated and to keep up their standards. You must fight this. Do not allow yourself to sink into a “who cares?” state of mind. Wash your hair, have a shave, iron your clothes and so on, but do these things for you rather than to impress others. Of course, this does not mean acting as though you are superior to those in the same situation. It simply means maintaining the standards by which you have always lived.


People often feel especially guilty for not providing their children with a better standard of living. First, it must be emphasized that children need love and security far more than they need expensive designer clothes or the latest computer games. Of course, your children may not agree with this now, but in years to come they will! Console yourself with this thought: there are kids out there who would gladly swap their expensive sneakers and detached house in the suburbs for hugs, kisses, praise, and interest from their parents. More than anything, children need to feel wanted; they need to feel that their existence, in the ugly jargon of self-help books, has been “validated”. You don’t need money in order to give them that.

And you don’t need money to make your children’s lives happy, exciting, and fulfilling. OK, so you can’t take them on expensive trips to the art galleries and museums of London and Paris, but that doesn’t mean you can’t inspire and excite them in other ways. It doesn’t cost much to take them out into the countryside at night and show them the stars. Neither does it cost money to read them bedtime stories, take them swimming in the ocean, or feed the birds in the park. Remember, enthusiasm and curiosity are infectious. The more you say “wow”, or “look at that”, or “God, isn’t that fascinating”, the more they will see what a beautiful, extraordinary, and exciting place the world can be. That is a far greater gift than a pair of sunglasses or rollerblades. In any case, children soon grow bored of the latest gadgets and toys. Countless parents have looked on in exasperation as their child shows more interest in the cardboard box than the $200 toy it contains!

No matter how bad things seem, the wheel of fortune will turn. So avoid bitterness and self-pity, keep fighting, and, above all, keep a sense of hope.


  1. Thank you for your fine article on living in poverty. It occurred to me today there is little that is written that is of positive, practical help in difficult financial times. I’ve coped with this a lot and would like to report things have gotten better, but they haven’t resolved. Like you said it’s important to not fall into self-pity or depression. I would really like to hear from others about how they kept their spirits up. I have found meditation helpful. Through this I have seen that I did not put myself in this position but I have dealt with it to the very best of my ability. I get up each day and seek to resolve all the myriad situations that arise from life in poverty. Just stepping away from the self-blame has given me some breathing space so I can focus on healing the situation.

  2. “But what good will it do to moan and complain and feel sorry for yourself? … But what do you want? Pity? … The world owes you nothing. And never forget, self-pity is a deeply unpleasant trait that others intensely dislike.” Very disappointing argument. It’s no wonder, therefore, that viable legislative policy to effectively overcome increasing rates of poverty and homelessness in the wealthy West, especially among our communities’ most vulnerable, is so reliably shot down. After all, it’s a personal problem. If only people didn’t succumb to intensely loathsome self-pity, they could draw up budgets and be proactive about solving their problems.

    This essay reads like an extended opinion piece rather than advocacy for research-corroborated interventions to solve the persistent, worsening problem of poverty and its corollary social ills. Again, very disappointing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

Recommended Articles