Dr. Tes Tuason, University of North Florida – Psychology of Overcoming Poverty

May 14, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Tes Tuason of the University of North Florida explores the psychology of economic mobility.

Tes Tuason is associate professor at the University of North Florida, in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program within the Department of Public Health. Her research addresses social issues such as poverty's psychological correlates, processes, and coping, and social justice issues related to counseling minority populations. She obtained her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University at Albany, State University of New York.

Dr. Tes Tuason – Psychology of Overcoming Poverty

How do some people who were born in extreme poverty become rich while others remain poor? In a recent qualitative study, I interviewed two groups of Filipinos about being raised poor, one became rich and the other remained poor. Conducted in the Philippines, where 40% of the population is poor (defined as living on less than $1 a day), there was a social justice agenda for the study to address the substantial influence of poverty in a developing country where circumstances are oppressive.

Surprisingly, both groups were more similar than different in their experiences of deprivation: insufficient food, clothing, and shelter. They both expressed negative emotions such as self-pity, envy, fear, and anger. They similarly attributed the causes of their poverty generally to family, such as parents’ unemployment, substance abuse, early marriage, and many children, rather than to societal issues. They reported coping with poverty in similar ways, such as receiving and giving assistance, imploring God’s help, and perseverance.

There were three main differences between the two groups: those who became rich had increased positive emotions and positive self-descriptions, abundant ambitions and interests indicating more self-reliance than reliance on others, and more frequently spoke of chance events, such as lucky encounters with people: role models or benefactors, awards, or scholarships, that provided access to education, career development, and opportunities to emigrate.

In essence, their unlikely discovery of a path to upward mobility occurred as the result of gratifying experiences that gave hope and allowed for increased positive emotions and self-worth, the license to dream and have aspirations, and being available for serendipity.