Article Title: Why Being Poor isn’t About Money

Article Content

Why Being Poor isn’t About Money

Have you ever wondered why some people move out of a situation of poverty, while others do not? Perhaps the answer lies in how we define poverty.


When I would talk about my childhood, I would say, “I grew up poor.” Growing up in a single parent home with 4 siblings, times were tough. I remember our lights being shut off, having no gas for our stove, running out of fuel, not having needed winter clothing, no access to dental care, and moving several times. When I was 16 years old, we were homeless for a period of time. My mom, 4 siblings and I lived, ate and slept in one room in a church basement for about a month. My mom, little sister and I shared a king-size bed and my brothers took turns on a twin bed and cots. This was the only option we had while my mom was waiting for an opening in public housing.

One home we lived in had no electricity upstairs to the bedrooms so we had to run an extension cord from downstairs. When my brothers wanted to annoy me, they would unplug the cord downstairs so my bedroom light would go out, and my radio would stop playing! I would run down and plug it in and go back to my room, only to have them wait a few minutes and do it again. With their talent for being pesky and antagonistic, they seemed to do it right when my favorite song would come on too!  


After a brief description of my childhood, you, too, may agree that I grew up poor. But, as I have taken a deeper look at what makes a person truly impoverished, I have come to realize I wasn’t really that poor. Instead, I would describe my childhood as growing up with very little financial resources, which is not necessarily the same thing as being poor.

Money, income and wealth are the first things people think of when talking about instability and poverty. While money is important to stabilizing lives, it is important to take into consideration other resources. According to Ruby Payne, PhD, in the book, Bridges Out of Poverty, the definition of poverty is “the extent to which an individual does without resources.” The resources she lists in her book are the following:


  1. FINANCIAL RESOURCES- Having the financial resources to purchase the goods and services and to save or invest money and having a good understanding of financial matters.
  2. EMOTIONAL RESOURCES- Having the stamina to withstand difficult and uncomfortable emotions, being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self-destructive behavior. This is skills such as teamwork, teaching others, leadership, negotiation, and working with people from many backgrounds. This resource shows itself through perseverance and the choices you make.
  3. MENTAL/COGNITIVE RESOURCES– Having mental abilities and acquired skills (reading, writing, math) to succeed in daily life. This includes how much education and training someone has in order to compete in the workplace for well-paying jobs.
  4. LANGUAGE- Having the vocabulary, language ability and negotiation skills to succeed in the workplace and/or school.
  5. SPIRITUAL/CULTURAL- Having beliefs that can be attained by a higher power, or believing in a (divine) purpose and guidance. Or having a rich cultural connection that offers support and guidance.
  6. PHYSICAL- Having physical health and mobility.
  7. SUPPORT SYSTEMS- Having friends, family and backup resources available to access in times of need. RELATIONSHIPS/ROLE
  8. MODELS- Having frequent access to adult(s) who are appropriate, nurturing and who do not engage in destructive behavior.
  9. TRUST AND INTEGRITY- Having people in your life that you know, with some certainty, will do what they say, nearly every time, and that you feel safe with.
  10. MOTIVATION AND PERSIST- Having the energy and drive to prepare for, plan and complete projects, jobs and personal changes. Overcoming fears, doubts and setbacks and continuing towards your goals
  11. KNOWLEDGE OF UNSPOKEN RULES IN MIDDLE CLASS- When a person has knowledge of the unspoken cues, rules and habits of the economic class they wish to move into, it is a resource.


Knowledge of unspoken rules of the economic classes are better understood with an example, here is one. Planning ahead or planning for the future is very much a part of middle class culture or what Ruby Payne calls a “hidden rule”. Schools and workplaces, which operate from a middle class, expect individuals to be able to plan ahead. Students and employees are given deadlines for a project or to complete assigned work which requires planning ahead and time management.

In middle class, I find myself planning for vacations, holiday parties and home improvements. I plan for my daughter’s college education. I plan ahead and save to purchase a car. I start planning in February for what I will plant in my garden in June.

Planning ahead is not a privilege afforded to many in poverty, nor a skill that gets practiced or even taught sometimes. Why would you make plans to plant your garden or for home improvements if you are unsure where you might be living? Why plan a vacation or for a college education when they seem so far out of reach? Planning ahead doesn’t make much sense when you feel the uncertainty of what crisis tomorrow could bring.

My mother was too busy surviving day-to-day to plan. When you are worried about eviction, the utility bills, food to eat, a broken washer and gas for the car, it doesn’t leave energy to plan anything. I would get an invitation to a friend’s birthday party a week or two in advance and I would ask if I could go. My mom could never give me a definite answer about things in the future. The answer was usually, “I don’t know, we will have to wait and see.” Now that I am older, I know that “wait and see” meant it would depend on what my mom had to deal with that day or if she could afford it.

To move successfully into middle class, it is important to understand that planning is often an expectation. Learning to set aside time from the chaos to plan is a skill that can be learned and is a tool needed to be successful in the workplace or school. There are many other unspoken expectations of each economic class; planning is just one example.


Score yourself in each of the resources on a scale of 1-5, with a 5 being strong in that area and 1 being weak in that area. The higher the score in each resource, the more likely a person can improve their overall economic and living condition.


True poverty is a lack of resources and money is just one of those resources. A person can suddenly come into money and become poor again quickly if they haven’t built the other resources. For example, someone I know had inherited a large sum of money. They had increased their financial resources, but lacked many of the other resources. Emotionally they were not coping well with the stresses of life and loss, and developed a problem with alcohol and substance abuse. They shared that the alcohol was a temporary escape from their current pain. This soon led to an OUI, job loss and legal fees, and soon all of the money was gone. This person did not have a strong support system or people they felt they could trust. The substance abuse began to cause and worsen physical problems, including diabetes and high blood pressure.


As we learned from this example, money does not always help a person stay out of poverty or improve the overall conditions of life. I have adopted the definition of poverty as a lack of resources because of examples like these.

I understand why my mother was slowly able to improve her quality of life, and I also understand why, as an adult, I have a middle class income and the cycle of poverty was not repeated for me or my siblings.  It is because my mother modeled building resources. She had key relationships and mentors who helped her, and she developed a strong faith that gave her courage and a purposed life. She built a support system with other women who came from middle class backgrounds. She was emotionally strong and modeled perseverance and a positive attitude. She often used humor to help us get through hard times. She demonstrated unconditional love and kindness, which added to the wealth of our home. She worked hard to complete an education while working full-time and being a single mother to 5 children. I am thankful for my mother’s example of how to use these resources to improve the quality of life for all of us.


If you are currently struggling with a lack of financial resources, look to build the other resources mentioned in this article. You don’t have to wait to have more money to improve the wealth of your life. Penquis offers a variety of support and resources. Let us know if we can help be a part of building your resources.

When you see a family or person in poverty and wonder why they don’t do something about it, consider their available resources. Even better, consider establishing a relationship with that person and perhaps you can be a part of helping to build their resources.

Someone who has very little resources, like a person from generations of poverty, will have a longer road and a bigger challenge in their journey to a better life. It will take support, encouragement, mentors, and acceptance from people they trust.

I’m thankful for those people in my life who helped bridge a gap from a life with little financial resources to a stable financial future for me and my family.

If you would like more information on the topic of understanding poverty or would like to have a speaker come to your agency, contact me at Penquis at

If you would like to join us at Penquis in helping to build resources for families, visit us at or

With Hope and Appreciation,

Renae Muscatell -Community Relations Manager, Penquis