7 Most Common Causes Of Longterm Poverty I’ve Witnessed

Yes, some people are down on their luck. These things, though, are more likely the cause of your headaches.

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Editor's Note: This is a part of YourTango's Opinion section where individual authors can provide varying perspectives for wide-ranging political, social, and personal commentary on issues.

Today, I walked with a client who became a very close friend of mine. He mentioned to me that he was shocked that I was able to keep my head above poverty despite a crippling drug addiction in the first two years we worked together. He then paused.


"You know, you’re proof that poverty is a choice. You had every reason to stay down in the gutter but you didn’t. You’re now working self-employed, have an apartment, the works," he noted.

To a point, I agreed. However, I’ve been screwed around in life long enough to realize that poverty isn’t always a decision. For most people I’ve met, though, it was a decision.

For every single person that has a horrible financial situation out of their control, there are nine who have no one to blame but themselves. Most people are not rolling a 1 in Luck on their life’s D&D sheet, know what I mean?


Having befriended people who are worth millions and people who have lived on the streets for years, I can say that there are certain habits I’ve seen destroy peoples’ wallets. These are the worst culprits I’ve seen.

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Here are the 7 most common causes of long-term poverty I’ve witnessed:

1. Unchecked mental illness



Untreated (or uncontrolled) mental illness is the easiest way to make sure that someone stays broke. Why? Because it’s a clear pathway to self-medication, self-sabotage, and lashing out at people who could help you.

It’s weird. When you’re deeply insecure, trauma-riddled, or otherwise not mentally well, the impulses you get almost seem to be designed to keep you poor. With me, it was a serious drug habit, trauma-induced sexuality, and hyper-aggression.

Most people do not want to work with people who they think are unstable, full stop. They want reliability and predictability. People who are one stop away from the psych ward are not going to offer that and can even actively destroy their options.

This is why you don’t see people getting hired off the street. It’s why people who have clear instabilities don’t get promotions. Moreover, showing instability is also a quick way to lose credibility — putting you at risk of users.


My Advice: If you can find free mental health programs, use them. Recognize what’s triggering your issues, if you can, and walk away from them ASAP. That’s what saved me.

2. Death jobs

What’s a death job? It’s simple: it’s a job that will pay you less than a living wage until the day you die. Death jobs are dead-end jobs that also eat up your time and spirit. They make a point of making it hard to leave your job and learn new skills.

Trust me when I say that jobs that try to monopolize your time are doing it on purpose. They are there to make you dependent on them. When you’re in a death job, you’re not just killing your bank account. You’re killing your future and your soul.

My Advice: Switch to gig working if at all possible. Even if you make a minimum wage from gigs, you’ll have the freedom to learn a highly-paid skill that you can springboard into a well-paying career.


Also, never agree to a minimum-wage job that promises better wages down the road. That’s a predatory sales pitch.

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3. The wrong crowds

Being with the wrong people is the easiest way to ruin your life. However, who the wrong crowd is can greatly vary depending on where you are in life and who you are.

For me, the underground rave scene/street life was my savior. I wouldn’t be sober and alive today without them.

For most other people, my scenes would be a one-way ticket to a lethal addiction and a jail record the size of their arm. Incidentally, my time at Vocal was with the wrong crowd for me — even though most people would have seen them as "up-and-comers."


What’s the difference? Well, it’s a little street smart and also the dynamic you have with the people around you. A bad crowd will do the following:

  • Drag you down
  • Refuse to celebrate with you
  • Betray you
  • Refuse to comfort you
  • Encourage you to spend money on things that don’t benefit you to impress them
  • Emotionally corner you
  • Encourage you to do things that hurt yourself, intentionally or unintentionally
  • Use you or take advantage of your kindness
  • Encourage you to give up on your goals
  • Refuse to help you out with your dreams or promote you

My rave friends and hood friends always have my back and always are there to be my shoulder to cry on. Even though they have addictions and serious issues, they don’t hold my sobriety against me. When they see me doing something stupid, they also tell me in a kind way.

My Advice: Bail from people that hurt you. Even if it seems like it’s a major loss now, the loss you’ll experience if you stay with them is worse.

4. Refusing help when you need it

I wrote about things that keep people broke before, and a big one was refusing the help and advice of people who want to give you a hand. No one likes to ask for help, but let’s face it. If you’re not in a position to refuse, you need to accept it.


Don’t be the fool who refuses free house and board because it wasn’t exactly what they needed. Don’t be the guy who turns down a job because it wasn’t what they wanted to do, especially if you need that money to make rent.

My Advice: If someone offers you a helping hand, accept it. If someone who has been in your situation offers advice, listen to them. They know better than most what you’re up against.

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5. Martyrdom

Some of the most beautiful and kind people I’ve ever met were also some of the most impoverished, unhealthy, and horribly treated of all. They were people who often faced homelessness.


Every single one of them had a certain level of martyrdom complex — and it’s something that can be browbeaten into you by both your culture and your family.

It sucks. Been there, done that.

There is this weird narrative we tend to push that martyrdom means people will eventually pay you back or like you. This isn’t true. Martyrdom isn’t sexy. It’s not healthy for anyone, especially the person who’s sacrificing their well-being for others.

Sacrificing yourself for the convenience of others (and yes, it’s convenience 99 percent of the time) is not a flex. It’s foolishness and it’s how you set yourself up for financial and emotional abuse.


My Advice: Learn to say no, and learn to ghost people who can’t take no for an answer. They are not your friends, and they don’t love you back. Oh, and learn to fight back. It only takes making an example out of someone to force others to respect you.

6. Giving up

I had all the reasons in the world to give up. Almost did. Almost was ready to just leave all my possessions in New Jersey, grab my car, and start roaming across the country until I ran out of money, then spange until I died in a gutter. Real talk. I was at that point.

But sometimes, being tenacious pays off. They say Thomas Edison made 1000 bad light bulb designs before he found one that works. Setbacks happen to everyone. It’s how you deal with them that matters.


Giving up means you don’t get the perks you want. In my case, I was almost ready to give up a roof over my head and decent food. Eventually, I snapped out of it and realized that living rough was not for me. I had to get back on the wheel.

My Advice: Ask yourself if accomplishing your goal is worth the pain. Would you be happier if you gave up and tried a different approach? In a lot of cases, trying something different or coming up with a new strategy is all you need. Nothing comes easy.

7. Bad life decisions

A lot of people ruin their lives by making decisions in a stupid manner. For example, I heard a rumor (in my weird business circles) of a Princeton grad who was only earning $30,000 a year as a writer. Her degree cost $150,000. She’s not going to make that back at this rate.

The longer I look around, the more I see a bunch of stories like this. The most common culprits I’ve seen include:

  • Getting fleeced by employers/landlords/predators. It’s too common. This is why I believe everyone should read up on laws, get contracts and buy some legal courses before they move or work anywhere.
  • Believing that a degree will give you a great job. Degrees do not a good career make. I’m currently making more than a typical person with a four-year degree makes in most fields. More importantly, I have no student debt. People forget that degrees are an investment, and that means you need due diligence.
  • Assuming that any job will present itself to you and give you a full living. The days when a regular 9 to 5 will be there for you are numbered. A lot of jobs are death jobs. You can’t live like that.
  • Investing when you know nothing about the company. The more due diligence you do, the more you’ll benefit. Investing at random is a total crapshoot I’ve seen bankrupt people overnight. (*cough* Crypto…*cough*)
  • Refusing to learn new skills or keep up with your industry. So many people who could have been millionaires never bothered to learn the skills they need to make their dreams come true.
  • Not having a Plan A or Plan B. If your first goal fails, what do you have to fall back on? Please don’t sell your home or car to chase after a dream that happens only once in a million times.
  • Assuming that employers/borrowers/others will do stuff for your best interest. More often than not, this isn’t the case.

My Advice: If it seems too good to be true, it is. Stop assuming things will present themselves to you on a silver platter, and start questioning things around you. Oh, and stop letting people indoctrinate you.

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Ossiana Tepfenhart is a writer based out of Red Bank, New Jersey whose work has been featured in Yahoo, BRIDES, Your Daily Dish, New Theory Magazine, and others.