Posted by Joe Smith
08/07/2014

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Why do the poor make decisions that seem to keep them in poverty? Sometimes they might not know the best path to take, the perceived risk involved may force them to make bad choices, or cultural and religious norms may forbid the sensible alternative. Often, however, they know exactly what they are doing.

It is far from uncommon in rural Nicaragua – where many live on under $1 a day – to see families huddled around a television. Where did they get the money to buy it? Some may have been given it by more prosperous relatives. Others may simply have carefully saved. Why would they not invest their money more judiciously?

On one of Nuevas Esperanzas’ recent projects, manual labour was provided by members of a community under a food for work scheme as they were not direct beneficiaries of the project at the time. They were allowed to draw up their own shopping list of food, with the budget corresponding to the income they would have earned working on their own land for the same time. They overwhelmingly opted for meat over their regular staples, despite the fact that its higher price would leave them with a lot less to feed their families on. Is this not counterintuitive?

In most rural communities, some families set up small shops in their front rooms. On top of toiletries and cooking essentials, these shops are often full of sweets, crisps and fizzy drinks. In communities where food security, access to water, and income to spend on such frivolities is limited, how are these shops still in business?

The fact that people do not always do what is best for them is no less true in the developed world. People who smoke know they are filling their lungs with tar. People who eat fast food know what about the high levels of saturated fats. People even make bad financial decisions despite having much more free and impartial advice available than those in developing countries.

Of course sometimes the poor do not see how making different choices would make a positive change to their lives. But as with people the world over, their decisions often simply reflect the fact that they want to make the most of the hand they have been dealt. In essence, everyone wants to be happy. That can mean eating better tasting food, indulging in empty calories, or even enjoying their Mexican soap operas.

As Solomon Northup says in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”