A simple definition of poverty is a lack of basic resources that leads to insecurity about the future. In her classic book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Dr. Ruby Payne lists 8 resources people in poverty lack. Resource #3 is a lack of mental resources.
Mental resources refers to the mental abilities and acquired skills needed to deal with daily life. These mental skills and abilities include (but are not limited to) being able to effectively communicate with others, reading, writing, and computing. Mental resources involve being able to process information and use it in daily life. Without these resources a person has a difficult time accessing the help they need and even communicating the help they actually need.
For example, imagine you have befriended a 30 year old man who has never held a steady, livable wage job. He never graduated from high school and still lacks his GED. He also has a felony on his record. You build a relationship with him and through your network of friends and associates land him an interview for decent, entry-level job. You are convinced this is the break he needs. You set the appointment up, coach your new friend before the interview, and even offer to give him a ride to the interview. The day of the interview your friend does not show up and you are unable to find him or contact him. You are aggravated, mad, and confused. You took a chance and he let you down. The stereotype of a person in poverty being lazy and unwilling to work seems more real than ever.
You thought a job with more money would lift someone out of poverty without realizing that a lack of mental resources is just as strong in keeping a person in poverty as a lack of financial resources.
It is quite possible that your friend is functionally illiterate. He has been able to fake his inability to read around you, but he knows he will not be able to adequately fill out a simple job application. He would rather not get the job than admit he can’t read. Your friend is also consumed with fear. He knows he does not have the resources necessarily to process the strange surroundings he will find himself in. Years (possibly generations) of poverty have beat him down. He talks a good game about wanting to “better himself” but he really has no idea what “bettering himself” means and what “bettering himself” looks like. Instead of facing his fears and asking for help, he goes into seclusion for a few days. He also knows he will probably never hear from you again. If he does hear from you, he assumes you will lecture him about his perceived laziness. Thus, as much as you want to contact him, he wants to avoid you. This lack of mental resources makes it difficult for him to understand the world you live in and you to understand his world. And so the cycle of poverty continues.