The Language and Culture of Poverty and Wealth

Several years ago when I was in my early teens I heard someone explain that the main difference between people who remain poor and people who become wealthy and maintain their wealth is their view of the purpose of money. ‘The poor,’ he said ‘see money as something to be spent, while the wealthy see money as something to be invested.’

I was young and poor when I heard this so I didn’t fully understand it, but I could tell it had the ring of truth. Over the years it’s an idea I have explored more thoroughly and with great results.

Poverty is a huge concern in American society, and all over the world. Politicians, activists and social scientists spend countless hours on this topic, proposing solutions. Billions of tax and charitable dollars are spent and new laws and policies are made each year trying to rearrange society to combat it, yet millions of Americans remain poor.

Poverty and Wealth are Cultural

In 1966, the anthropologist Oscar Lewis coined the term “Culture of Poverty” and asserted that the deeply impoverished, regardless of ethnicity, history, or location on the globe all tend to share “remarkable similarity in the structure of their families, in interpersonal relations, in spending habits, in their value systems and in their orientation in time.” Like all cultures, once it has “come into existence it tends to perpetuate itself.”

Just as there is a culture of poverty however, there is also a Culture of Wealth that can be observed, a manner of living and relating to the world that produces and maintains economic stability and abundance in the lives of its participants. There are many factors, beliefs, ideals, values, and behaviors that distinguish one culture from another. Oscar Lewis identified 70 markers that contribute to the culture of poverty, and the culture of wealth is directly inverse to them. But what is the primary factor by which anthropologists categorize and separate cultures from each other?

Language Matters

The most significant factor that separates one cultural group from another is language. Similarly, subcultures within larger societies can be distinguished by their use of language, lingo, slang, jargon, vocabulary and professional terminology.

Linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf suggested that language and its use may have a significant impact on an individual’s perception, cognition and their view of reality. This is known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

Numerous other linguists have suggested that features within language from vocabulary and grammar to phrases and metaphors influence if not dictate the structure of human thought. The manner in which we perceive and comprehend the world is heavily dependent on our understanding and use of language.

This is also the theoretical foundation for the discipline of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) which studies the effects language has on the subconscious mind and its influence on behavior.

The metaphors a person uses give the key to their life and the way they think. A person to whom life is an adventure is going to approach events quite differently from a person for whom life is a struggle.

Organizations use metaphors. An organization that prides itself on its team players is going to react differently from one that sees itself as a fighting force. One current metaphor for business is a ‘learning organization’, which conjures up a rather different picture.

Strangely the financial world is sprinkled with liquid metaphors. They talk of cashflow, flooding the market, liquid and frozen assets, floating a company. Money is like water, perhaps?
Metaphors are not right or wrong, but they have consequences for how people think and act. (O’Connor-McDermott, 122)

       

It’s well understood that in all fields of professionalism there is a lingo, a vocabulary, terminology that must be learned in order to function at even a novice level. If one aspires to be an engineer, a biologist, or a sailor he must learn the application of a particular vocabulary and vernacular. It should be no surprise to realize that economics, personal finance and simple successful household budgeting require a similar level of competency with its own vernacular, the language of commerce.

Robert Kiyosaki, the author of the popular Rich Dad series of financial books states;

The difference between a rich person and poor person is that person’s vocabulary. You need to learn words such as producer price index, profits and cash flow. In order for a person to become richer they need to increase their financial vocabulary. (Kiyosaki)

This makes sense. Pick up any book about finance and you will run across terminology such as: investment objective, index fund, international equity and the language of commerce, of the Culture of Wealth is revealed. If an individual never has a clear understanding of terms such as positive and negative cash flow, disposable income, financial assets and liabilities, he will never think to apply them to daily life and therefore find difficulty accruing and maintaining wealth.

       

ATTITUDE AND SPENDING PATTERNS

Without the language to conceive of basic financial principles, the Culture of Poverty carries with it many other behavioral factors that keep people stuck in the lowest economic bracket. This behavior is characterized by apathy or hostility toward wealth and finances, a belief in the virtue of poverty, as well as irresponsible and extravagant spending patterns in order to project an appearance of wealth. This equates to financial self sabotage.

Delayed gratification is a foreign concept to the culture of poverty. When the poor find a source of steady income they typically squander it through extravagant spending patterns on short term experiences and material things that quickly lose value. The financially secure however behave very differently.

Thomas J. Stanley, Ph.D., author of The Millionaire Mind, a study of the lifestyle and habits of millionaires found that common behaviors of people whose net worth was $1 million or more included such habits as living below one’s means, entertaining family and friends at home rather than going to extravagant parties in the tradition of the beautiful people. Rather than spending their money on excessive consumables they chose to study and plan investments, attend religious services, and they avoided the use of credit and debt (Stanley 366).

Dr. Stanley found that most millionaires have a well balanced life style without the flashiness of rock stars and Hollywood celebrities. They lead relatively normal lives, but spend a good portion of their time on activities directly related to their financial goals.

       

Similarly, Rabbi Daniel Lapin has compiled a whole list of behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes that tend to lead Jewish people into successful positions and financial outcomes.

Conclusion

In conclusion I’ll say again that poverty and wealth are cultural phenomena, and both of those cultures are in large part a result of language which determines a person’s perception of reality and therefore their behavior. Those individuals who escape the chains of poverty have learned to use and apply elements of the language of commerce while those who remain in poverty do not.

Once an individual familiarizes himself with the vernacular of finance to the point that he feels comfortable working with and applying it on a daily basis, he begins to view things from a much more financially competent perspective. Naturally, this financially competent perspective influenced by a familiarity with economic language is a significantly motivating factor to financially responsible behavior.

If more people of all ages were to become educated in this manner, though many individuals may still never become truly ‘wealthy’ those who put this education to use will come out of poverty and begin to establish executive control over many more aspects of their lives and their community.

If you really want to start learning to be financially independent, start by picking up a book on financial terms. It will change your life.



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