Keith Payne didn’t know he was poor until one day in the fourth grade. He was standing in line when a cafeteria cashier asked him for $1.25. The cashier was new and didn’t know that Keith was from a low-income family, so his lunch was always free.
Keith never realized that some students paid for their meals. He suddenly felt poor. In financial terms, Keith was no poorer than the day before. Yet he was suddenly comparing himself to kids who were better off. He thought he would die of shame.
In the days to come, Keith grew to hate his clothes, his hair, and the way he talked. He believed they indicated to the world that he was a poor person. Before that day, he thought he was the same as everyone else. Now he withdrew into his shell and kept his distance from everyone.
Keith called it the “moment which changed everything for me.” Keith is now a professor of social psychology. He believes one of the worst things about being poor is feeling poor.
Feeling poor carries health risks. Comparing yourself to others who have more leads to physical stress. This, in turn, can lead to obesity, and drug and alcohol abuse. It can also lead to a compromised immune system and chronic disease.
Keith says that we are hard-wired to compare ourselves to others no matter how much we have. He points to an example of air travel. When passengers flying economy class walk past flyers in first-class, incidents of air-rage on flights increase. When the have-nots come face to face with people higher up the ladder, society becomes less stable.
Poor people are also more likely to take greater risks from gambling to taking out unaffordable loans. While some say poor people are poor because of the bad choices they make, Keith says it’s really the other way around. They make bad choices because they feel they have nothing to lose.
Keith says that focusing on poverty is only half of the problem. The bigger picture is one of inequality. Comparing oneself to those higher on the social ladder is natural, but the gap between the rich and poor in some countries is getting out of hand. Keith says he doesn’t have the answer, but something must be done about inequality “… if we want to keep our societies stable and healthy.”