Think about this: people generally don’t avoid work.
Let’s be serious. Consider this question and answer it honestly: suppose someone offers to support you all your life, but only on one condition: you can never do any productive work. You’ll spend your life just sitting around. Would you do it?
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t accept that offer and I don’t think many people would. Think about the hard hours you put into your job, completing a project that you find worthwhile. You may be tired, but you also find it very satisfying. In fact, do you know what the best sign of laziness is? Depression. It’s where you feel like you don’t do anything. You just want to sit around, and it doesn’t seem worth it to give any effort. And that’s not a desirable state. These people don’t want to work, and that’s because they have this feeling of hopelessness and are severely depressed. Now what type of people are going to feel this way? It’s when they have these dead-end jobs that don’t give them satisfaction.
If this is the case, then placing people in desperate poverty is actually not the best way to encourage effort. In fact, placing them in poverty makes things worse. It makes them have a sense of helplessness, a sense that things are now out of my control.
Have you heard of Martin Seligman?
He did some research what is now called “learned helplessness.” The experiment was he placed dogs in restraining harnesses: they couldn’t escape, and he shocked them repeatedly. Then, he took these dogs out of the harnesses and placed them in shuttle boxes: boxes with two compartments and there’s a wooden barrier. The dog only had to jump over the barrier.
On one side of the compartment, the floor would still shock them. Now the dogs who have never been shocked would immediately jump over the barrier. The dogs who were harnessed and were shocked repeatedly stayed in the shocked floor, just waiting for the shocks to stop. These dogs gave up. Eventually, these dogs just lied down, whining while they were being shocked. They even dragged the dogs to the other barrier where they wouldn’t be shocked again. But as soon as they were placed in the shocked section again, they still wouldn’t escape, but they stayed and they cowered. They had to be dragged again and again, repeatedly encouraged to escape, until finally they got over their helplessness and started to escape on their own.
Now this has been done on humans as well, not shocking them, but similar modes. The upshot is that when people give up, we feel disgusted by them. We say things like, “why don’t they try? How can we help him if he won’t try?” It’s the same thing. Have you known women who won’t make any effort to escape their abusive husbands? How about students who give up on school? It’s the same thing: there are long-term impoverished people who have gained this “learned helplessness.”
We often say that people do these things because they choose it. Sure, but their options are extremely limited. People sometimes have to choose terrible things because in practical terms, they have no choice. Prostitution is a good example of this. Now, I’m sure there are some women for whom sex work isn’t a last resort, but as a deliberate career move, but in many cases they are driven to it out of desperation. Also, the fact that something unpleasant is the best choice available to someone doesn’t make it ok, if they could be offered something better at little or no cost. For example, managers in factories in the developing world often refuse their workers sufficient bathroom breaks, deny them drinking water, and fails to follow local laws or health and safety procedures. So what if working in one of these places is still the best option locally?
In the latest study, the major component of depression was actually unable to work.
People throw in a red herring when they say that if workers were paid US wages in some third-world country, employers wouldn’t be able to hire them. But the choice isn’t between sweatshops or Western pay and conditions, it’s between the opportunity to earn a decent job or working long hours in poor conditions for barely enough to live on. Simply saying people should just “buck up” is avoiding the issue.