Imponderables: Why do some people escape poverty?

Regular readers of News Cut probably have surmised that I like to ask questions that have no answers, in the hopes that the ensuing discussion can make it easier to at least begin to sort it out.

A new post on TED about a woman who escaped a Nairobi slum, and pursues dreams of becoming a doctor raises an old question: Why do some people escape the most unimaginable challenges and succeed and others don’t? Is it just luck? Or something else?

Some comments attached to the video raise a more intriguing question: Does telling the story make us less inclined to solve the underlying problems of poverty?

  • bsimon
  • As a factory worker in Des Moines in the ’70s, I had a coworker from Harlem. He had gotten a scholarship to play football for a small Iowa college and when he blew his knee out, he stayed in Iowa.

    He told me once that no one ever left Harlem on their own. Without help, he would have never have graduated or gotten a scholarship. Poverty teaches you how to be poor.

  • Paul

    I just have to say, just because you may think a given question has no answer, doesn’t mean it doesn’t, it may just mean you don’t know the answer. Or it could mean you’re asking a poor question.

    As to the poverty question at hand, this a Bermuda Triangle question. If you ask: “what happened to all those ships and planes?” your supposing that the same thing happened to all of them and your looking for a single explanation that doesn’t exist. With poverty your asking why some people get out and other don’t as if there’s one or two reasons that can explain millions of individual experiences. Your looking for a single explanation that doesn’t exist. You can look at one person and see why they do or do not “escape” from poverty, but the degree to which you can generalize that is very limited. It isn’t that case there is no answer, rather there are millions of answers.

    Of course your characterization of poverty as an individual “failure” is problematic as well. There are a variety of institutional factors in both cases.