Aspiration Failure and Poverty


Carr Stuart et al. (2003) pointed out that: “As the poor lose their values, they no longer believe in themselves or in the world. They go through a process of even more accented divestment of power and citizenship, which could be characterized as Nihilism”. The lack of hope and aspirations are a typical characteristic of the personality of the poor population. Though aspiration is a psychological concept, empirical evidence shows that poverty analysis stays incomplete if it fails to account for the aspirations of the poor and to examine the obstacles they face in achieving these aspirations.

Aspiration seems to be associated with poverty and well-being, however, the relationship is complicated. On the one hand, the capacity to aspire can itself help poor people to improve their conditions, as it can strengthen the poor to battle against poverty. On the other hand, poverty itself leads to a failure of aspirations, as it crushes dreams, or at least the process of attaining dreams’ thus leading to a self-perpetuating trap. That means if an individual believes that she has little ability to impact her well-being, then she would have inadequate incentives to explore pathways into better well-being. She would have little motivation to allocate resources (including cognitive ones) to modify her beliefs and perceptions. Then how does aspiration failure connect with poverty and well-being?

To know the answer, let’s examine an empirical evidence of Egypt by Solava Ibrahim. The capability approach was chosen to analyze the poor’s aspirations. By articulating the poor’s aspired capabilities, policy-makers can pinpoint the areas where the poor suffer from capability deficits and consequently design policies that help the poor to achieve them. The research was conducted with a detailed well-being questionnaire (92 open-ended questions) which contains two key questions that can articulate the aspirations of the poor: “What are the three most important things that you wished to achieve in life but couldn’t?” and “Why couldn’t you achieve them?”. Using this methodology, this research explored the unfulfilled capabilities, which is important to examine the failure of aspirations, and revealed that poverty will prevent the poor from achieving their aspired capabilities, thus results in aspiration failures in multiple facets of life. For example, the lack of job connections and job opportunities makes the poor cannot find a job or receive unequal treatments in job interviews. Those who succeeded in finding a job still suffered from the failure to fulfill their aspirations, due to job insecurity and terrible working conditions. Consequently, they will believe that they either cannot find a job at all or cannot get a desirable job, just to escape from poverty.

Low educational attainment, high educational expenses, and health problems are among the main causes for educational aspiration failure. In many cases, the respondents could not continue their studies or ended up studying areas they do not desire due to their low school performance, especially when they had to work while studying. The high cost of schooling is another factor that discouraged poor families from investing in education for their children, given their limited income. Respondents who suffered from health problems, or from the death of their main income generator, had to let go their educational aspirations to provide for themselves and their families. For women, educational aspiration failure exists, mainly due to their parents’ refusal to educate them, or due to their marriage, which usually resulted in them dropping out of school. In rural areas, the limited access and low quality of educational services also discouraged the poor from acquiring their aspired education.

Moreover, the poor suffer from aspirations failure in housing, marriage, living conditions, asset accumulation and starting a business due to the lack of income. Due to their financial poverty, the poor cannot afford the desired place to live. For men, they cannot have marriages due to the high marital expenses; for women, they will be forced into marriages with partners they do not desire, which usually end in unhappy marriages or domestic violence. Also, the lack of funding and micro-credit schemes makes it challenging for the poor to start their own business and to find business partners. These failed aspirations lead to a ‘downward’ spiral when one frustration leads to another. Consequently, the poor will believe that they can do nothing to have a better life and the cycle of poverty continues.

The poor’s aspiration failure not only nurtures their feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness but also affects their children’s capabilities. The poor reluctantly had to send their children to work at an early age because of their limited income and sometimes the disbelief in education as a long-term investment. This will have a negative impact on children’s academic performance which results in their failure to use their education to secure better jobs or to improve their living conditions. Nina Guyon and Elise Huillery (2014) provided another perspective on this problem by showing that students from low social background tend to limit their ambition because of the limitation of the options set in mind, fear of peers’ sanction and underestimation of their own academic proficiency. Therefore, one can conclude that the aspiration failure of the poor can lead to the aspiration failure of their children – intergenerational transmission of aspiration failures. In the end, if the children cannot overcome these aspiration failures, they will not escape the poverty trap and change their lives.

To sum up, one can conclude that aspiration failure has a two-sided causal relationship with poverty. On the one hand, poverty with substandard well-being prevents the poor from achieving their aspired capabilities, which causes aspiration failure. On the other hand, aspiration failure causes the poor to lose faith in their ability to improve their lives, results in a poverty trap and/or an intergenerational transmission of poverty. The road to zero poverty will be long and hard, but it can be navigated if, first and foremost institutions not only provide financial support to score highly in economic indicators but also tries to research more about the poor’s aspirations then redirect the funds and efforts to help the poor achieve their aspirations. This can be a good starting point for people-centered poverty eradication policies to help the poor reach a better life.


Carr, S. C.; Sloan, T. S. (2003). Poverty and Psychology: From Global Perspective to Local Practice. Springer US.

Guyon N., Huillery E. (2014). The Aspiration-Poverty Trap: Why do Students from Low
Social Background Limit their Ambition? Evidence from France. Available at:

Ibrahim, S. (2011). Poverty, Aspirations and Well-Being: Afraid to Aspire and Unable to Reach a Better Life – Voices from Egypt. Brooks World Poverty Institute Working Paper No. 141. Available at SSRN:

World Bank Group. (2015). World Development Report 2015 : Mind, Society, and Behavior. Washington, DC: World Bank. Available at:

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