Reader Request 2007 #5: Out of Poverty
What advice would you give to someone who wants to help folks who are poor (either specific individuals they know, or poor people in their community in general) become not-poor?
Well, Castiron, if you can’t give them good jobs with good wages and excellent benefits — which would be helpful — then what I would suggest is that you give them some practical advice; a roadmap, as it were, for charting their own course out of poverty. As this happens, this is something I have experience with, having grown up rather poor, and being not poor now. Here’s what I would recommend you’d say, because this is what I would say, based on my own experience and the experiences of others I have known personally.
1. Get an education. This is the single most important thing you can do to get out of poverty. I’m not going to trot out all the statistics that show how much more you can make with a college degree than you can without one; I assume people know this already. But let me offer to personal anecdotes to bolster what I’m saying. The first is to note that I am the only one in my immediate family (mother, sister, brother) to get a college degree — indeed, if I remember correctly, I’m the only one to have finished high school, although others in my family have GEDs. I make more a year than all the rest of my immediate family combined. I’m not smarter than anyone else in my family, nor more virtuous or a better human being, or whatever. But that degree got me a good first job, which in turn opened other doors.
The second anecdote involves my wife — who to be sure is not in poverty, but bear with me. When Krissy and I met, she had her high school diploma and that was it. Anyone who knows me knows I think my wife is smarter, more sensible and better organized than I am, because she is — I have met very few people who are as flat-out competent as my wife. But because she had only a high school diploma, she was locked into a series of jobs that were, to put it mildly, wildly below her abilities, and wildly below what should have been earning. It didn’t matter that she was clearly capable enough and intelligent enough for other jobs; those jobs weren’t open to her because employers listed a college diploma as a criterion. Fortunately, her current employer recognized her brains and paid for her to complete her college education, so they could put her in a job that required a BA. Now she has a quite nice job with a perfectly good salary. What has changed about Krissy? Not her intelligence, her competence or her abilities. What’s changed is now she has a piece of parchment that says “bachelor of arts” on it.
It sucks that by and large smart, capable people are locked out of good jobs because some HR dweeb has decided to use a college degree as a filtering device. In perfect world this wouldn’t be done. This is not that world. Getting a college degree does not assure one will lift out of poverty — I know lots of starving post-grads — but does mean one’s options are much wider. Poverty in the United States is very often about a lack of options, and a lack of good choices. Giving one’s self the ability to have more options in one’s life matters. Beyond the simple fact of the college degree, the process of education can offer other useful things — placement services, access to internships, the implicit task and time management training that comes from attending classes on a schedule, etc — all of which will come in handy in the real world. But at the end of the day it’s really simple. Education provides options.
People who are poor, and who are adults, are often reluctant to go back to school because they’re worried they don’t have the time or that their school skills are so rusty that they’ll fail right out of the box. I won’t pretend that it won’t take time; I won’t pretend that they might fail. Speaking from watching the experience of others, going back to school as an adult can be a painfully slow and aggravating experience because you have to fit it in to the rest of your life. But it will make a difference. If you’re poor and young, you do (hopefully) have the advantage of not having all of the responsibilities of life pressing down on you all the time.
Yes, there are people who have done well without college or even high school diplomas; allow me to point at my own fiction editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, an autodidact of the first order and one of the smartest people I know. Allow me also to point out that for every PNH, there are 1,000 people who find their path to a financially remunerative career flatly blocked by a “B.A. required” notation on the want ad. We all want to be the statistical outlier; most of us, by definition, will be in the middle of the bell curve.
2. Take responsibility. One of the more odious bits of ignorance that come from those who loathe the poor merely for being poor is the idea that they are solely responsible for their poverty. This is exhibited by an almost childlike misapprehension of the facts of the world. This is not becoming in people who ostensibly have more than two neurons to rub together, so I’ll spend no more time discussing all the ways that this model of poverty is absolutely and contemptuously ridiculous.
However, what these folks are correct about is that attitude matters. If one is not willing to look at one’s poverty and say “I deserve better than this,” then the chances of emerging from poverty are very slim indeed. I think at some point someone who is in the straits of poverty and who wants to leave them stops looking at why they are poor, and starts looking to solve their poverty problem, and keeps clear in their mind the idea that they are working to leave poverty behind. You have to want it, basically — and you have to want it enough to actively do something about it.
This is what I mean by “take responsibility” — not taking responsibility for one’s poverty (although if you were an active participant in your being poor, you should be aware of that reality), but taking responsibility for getting out of it. You have to be the prime mover in your own life because generally speaking other people are too damn busy with their own lives to be actively working on yours. People often can help you and will help you, and when that offer is given you should take it (more on that later), but fundamentally you should work on the assumption that you’re the only one who cares if you walk out of poverty.
It’s going to take work, and it’s going to take time, and it’s going to be full of disappointments, slips, falls and backtracking. But you have to keep taking responsibility for your own life, and your own path out of poverty.
3. Get help. Taking responsibility for one’s emergence from poverty and knowing you have to be the shaper of your own life should not equate to a “I don’t need anything from anybody” attitude. Surprise! You do need help — as much help as you can get. When people offer you help, take it. If they don’t offer their help, ask for it (maybe they don’t know you need help, after all). If there are programs — charitable or governmental — that can help you, use them, and somewhere in the back of your mind promise to pay forward that help when you’re able. If you’re not using every tool that is useful and available to you in your climb out of poverty, you’re just handicapping yourself, and that’s stupid, because the path out of poverty is difficult enough as it is. Your pride should be invested in getting out of the hole, not in declaring that you did it alone.
As an addendum, I’d also suggest using your judgment to know what’s help and what’s someone preying on you. I say this specifically regarding things like check advance stores and other businesses that suggest they’re offering you a leg up while working on the back end to keep you mired in poverty. Being poor doesn’t mean you don’t have a brain. You’ve got one. Use it.
4. Learn patience. Anything is possible. But when you’re poor everything takes longer. The degree that takes a middle-class 18-year old four years to get could take you ten years at night school. Your plans will be thwarted by a bad alternator, an unreliable babysitter, an unexpectedly large electric bill, a fractured wrist and always by the fact that you don’t have the money that allows other people to consider potholes what you see as a sinkhole that will rob you of your forward momentum. It is not easy to stop being poor, which is something people who are not poor seem to have a genuinely difficult time understanding. It’s an uphill walk, and a bunch of crap is rushing downhill at you. You will avoid some of this crap, if you’re smart. You will almost certainly not avoid it all. And some of what you won’t avoid is going to carry you quite a distance back down the hill.
You need to understand this now, because in the thick of it it’ll be easy to say the effort isn’t worth it. Trust me, it is, and you will recognize this when you get up the hill. In the meantime, learn patience. This won’t be easy; it sure as hell wasn’t easy for me (and still isn’t). But it helps.
5. Filter Out the Stupid and the Ignorant. There are people — lots of them — who assume that poverty is a marker for low intelligence, bad work ethic and questionable moral character, and generally assume that if you’re poor, you deserve to be. Your poverty serves to makes them feel good, because if you’re poor for these reasons, then the fact they’re not means they must be smart, industrious and virtuous. It’s like these people read only the snarky parts of Calvinism. At their least malicious, these folks are merely contemptuous of the poor; at their most malicious they are actively engaged in hurting the poor.
To deal with the latter, vote them out of office and don’t use their products. To deal with the former, the best thing to do is pity them that their worldview is hateful and petty and vile, and that they are simply not smart enough to differentiate between money and virtue. And once you’ve pitied them, stop thinking about them. You’re unlikely to get them to change their mind, and any time you spend on the effort is time better spent helping yourself.
Likewise, there are some among the poor who resent when someone chooses to make the effort to lift themselves up out of poverty — folks who feel that trying to do better for yourself implicitly suggests that you are better than them, not realizing that what you do isn’t a referendum on their lives. You’re unlikely to get them to change their minds, either. Pity them that they don’t recognize that they are responsible for their own self-image, and then once again stop thinking about them.
What you can feel good about is the fact that outside these two groups of people there is a group of other people who recognize that pulling one’s self out of poverty is an act of grace in itself, and who will encourage you and welcome your efforts and help you if they can. There are more of these people than you might suspect. Remember that they are there when you’re confronted by someone who, for whatever reason, seems invested in the idea of seeing you fail.
This is my advice.