Why are poor people so generous?

2011-10-19 12:56

My mom once told me something I found fascinating, and at the time inexplicable. When she was a graduate student, she and her friends were, of course, poor. (Graduate students are.) They occasionally went out for dinner, and at the end of the meal, people would toss money in and there would end up being enough to pay for the meal and leave a respectable tip.

If you watch a bunch of executives doing a meal, though, they are… not like that. They fret over whether to leave 5% or 10% tip. They argue over whose drink was $4.95 and whose was $5.95. They worry endlessly that they might pay a penny more than their fair share.

This is not a trait limited to, say, money. It happens with emotional strength, with sanity, with anything that you could have a lot of or only a little of. One of my friends is living on the brink right now. We aren’t sure whether she’s becoming homeless today or tomorrow, among other things. But she is always there for her friends. And come to think of it, that’s true of a lot of the people I know who are barely hanging on themselves; they’re always ready to give what little they have to help other people that they think might need it more.

I can sort of understand this; it’s a survival trait if everyone is like that when everyone is poor. And I can sort of understand that people who have just made it to the lower edge of consistently having enough are afraid of giving more than they can afford.

What I don’t get is the people who are really rich, and who are still unlikely to give. I was talking to a friend of mine whose annual income is in the high four-figure range, and mentioned some crackpot scheme I had that I would totally pursue if I had $10M or so to blow on it, but then, I don’t actually know anyone with that kind of money. She commented that she knows someone with that kind of money.

This is incomprehensible to me.

Imagine, for a moment, that you have enough money that you could spend $10 million on a project and not be destitute. And now imagine that you have a friend who only has a place to live if she can find someone who’s willing to give her a really good deal on a room that’s near the public transit lines and a really cheep grocery store, and even then she has to plan ahead for a week or two if she wants to order pizza.

What’s wrong with this picture? I can’t imagine this state of affairs existing for any length of time. For crying out loud, if you have $10M lying around, and a friend who is in real danger of starving, wouldn’t it seem like maybe there would be something you could do about it?

I know I’m not in the best position to talk, given how many computers I own, but I at least help people out some.

Peter Seebach



  1. “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer”

    It’s considered part of life that the rich take from the poor but if the poor take from the rich? That’s a “crime” thats been about from centuries. This sort of thing dates back to medieval era’s as well. Sadly it’ll never change because life is just one big lottery.

    — Hardest · 2011-10-23 04:26 · #