Sat | Jul 21, 2018

Affluenza vs ‘povertitis’ (Part 2)

Published:Monday | January 18, 2016 | 12:00 AM

In June 2013, wealthy, drunk 16-year-old Ethan Couch sped through his residential Texas community doing about 70mph (110kph). He lost control, sideswiped a parked vehicle, ploughed into and killed four people standing on the sidewalk - youth pastor Brian Jennings, Hollie and Shelby Boyles (a mother and daughter, respectively), and 24-year-old Breanna Mitchell. Another victim was permanently paralysed and eight others were injured.

But Couch only received 10 years' probation and time in rehab because his high-priced medico-legal team made him plead guilty and convinced the judge that the poor little rich kid didn't know right from wrong. They explained that his actions were the product of affluenza.

It doesn't take parents to tell children not to drive drunk. In this information age, certainly, Couch must have seen warnings not to drink and drive. But, the judge believed that hogwash and let him off with a kiss on the cheek (I won't specify which cheek).

People are easily influenced by power and riches. Such individuals tend to get more respect and better treatment. On the other hand, the poor nobodies tend to be dealt with harshly, sometimes with an iron fist - as if they are not salvageable and must be kept in line. If wealthy Couch could explain away his illegal acts, why can't the poor explain away theirs?

I thought, why not have a word to help explain the actions of someone who was marred by poverty? 'Povertitis' is the combination of 'poverty' (the state of being impoverished, destitute, deprived) and '-itis' (indicative of being inflamed, excited to anger, tumultuous).




Being poor is an inflammatory disease affecting the individual and, eventually, society. Poverty has devastating, lifelong ramifications. In general, poor children tend to end up as poor adults and the cycle is continued from one generation to the next. The risk of personal and vicarious exposure to physical, mental and sexual abuse, abandonment and childhood labour is much higher among poor than among rich children.

Poor mothers, poor nutrition in the womb, poor nutrition outside the womb, poor parenting, poor social environment, poor mental development, poor schools, poor schooling, poor family life, poor ethics, poor attitudes, poor socialisation, poor self-control, poor choices, poor employment, poor health care and poor outcomes are all very likely, though not preordained.

If the argument of deficient moral insight is going to be used by the rich, it should be extended to the poor. If being affluent screws up one's morals, being poor does far worse and should be accepted as a mitigating circumstance. Being poor and acting outside the law should carry far more leniency than being rich and breaking the law. The opportunities for education and a moral upbringing are far more possible when people are rich.

Poverty alone is not an excuse for criminality. However, it's a significant contributing factor. Most criminals are from poor backgrounds; most teenage mothers are poor; most school dropouts are poor; most drug users are poor; most of the people used by politicians are poor. Poverty is a stressful, high-risk, high-morbidity and high-mortality disease.

The scientific opinion is that "emerging research in neuroscience and developmental psychology suggests that poverty early in a child's life may be particularly harmful because the astonishingly rapid development of young children's brains leaves them sensitive (and vulnerable) to environmental conditions".

If a rich man steals, he should be held more accountable for his crime than a poor man because he has a significant social and moral advantage. However, because of prejudicial psychological programming and the inability to afford expensive legal teams, the opposite often occurs.

Povertitis causes physical, psychological and emotional pain. Violence occurs when we don't know what to do with our pain. We must treat poverty like a disease or perpetually fight crime. This is one of the many reasons why I cannot support capital punishment. Innocent or not, at the end of our rope, there will only be young, dark-skinned, Afro-Caribbean males. There will never be fair-skinned, Caucasian-looking or affluent persons dangling there.

- Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to and