Reader Request 2007 #5: Out of Poverty

Castiron asks:

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.

95 Comments on “Reader Request 2007 #5: Out of Poverty”

  1. Most excellent.

    If I may make a suggestion, you might want to make a linky from this to “Being Poor” and vice versa.

    And if I may offer commentary on #3, I think it’s worth noting that every successful person did it in part by getting help, generally in multiple ways big and small, whether they recognize that or not. There is no such thing as an entirely “self-made man” (or woman).

    Which is not to say that it ain’t also about stubbornness and sweat on the part of the individual, ’cause it sure as hell is. But nobody does it on totally their own. Nobody. The only question is whether they’re aware of the help, and whether they have the grace to be grateful for it.

  2. Yep: it’s this kind of stuff that keeps me reading through the occasional (perceived) excesses of hyperbole, for example. Thanks, monsieur Scalzi.

    I might note in passing that much of this fits with my own experience – so cliched as to be passe*, really – that funding e.g. education is more effective than funding food. This is not quite the Modest Needs approach (although they’re really succeeding of late in their own way, which is nice to be a part of), but it does seem to provide some helpful focus.

    [*OK. How do I get the correct accented e in an HTML text box, anyone?]

  3. This is fabulous John. Do you mind if I print it out and send it to a family member?

    (She doesn’t have a computer at the moment.)

  4. Well said, John. If I may be so bold, it’s also speaks to what I believe it means to be an American, in the classic, follow the American Dream, way.

  5. Huh. What bugs me about this?

    Its not that what you say is necessarily wrong or bad, its just that it is a very priviliged white male American way of looking at poverty. You are starting from a place where so much entitlement is assumed, even for someone in poverty. Say this to a disabled minority, or someone living in the third world, and it all seems a bit trite.

    That said, I think what you say is fine for probably a majority of poor white men in America. And that’s fair, because it sounds like that is the lens you are looking through with your own experience.

  6. Anonymous:

    I think it’s implicit when I’m talking about poverty I’m talking about the American variant of it, because I am, after all, here in the US (although I suspect the Canadian and Western Europeans variants of poverty are not that much different, health care excepted). I’m not going to bother qualifying that what is applicable to an American in poverty is not necessarily applicable to a poor Bangladeshi, or whomever. I give my readers credit for that amount of intelligence.

    I disagree that this is not applicable to people who are not white males. Speaking from personal experience, I know quite a few people who are not white males who have followed this same sort of advice to come out of poverty. I think it’s useful generally, here in the US. I concede of course that there my be particular individuals for whom it will not apply, but I’m not worried about hitting every possible variant, just offering what I feel is the most generally useful advice.

  7. Well said John,

    I teach 8th grade science in South Central LA, and many of your points ring true for the challenges my students face. Part of what I do is try to get my students to see education as an opportunity and not just an obligation. There is some rough stuff out there, far more than most people may realize.



  8. 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.

    I think you’re being unfair here, John. As you note, college often provides “the implicit task and time management training that comes from attending classes on a schedule.” These are hugely important habits to acquire, and acquiring them is no small feat. (By my reckoning, they’re important enough for you to devote 3 of the 5 points above to them.) Dinging HR-types for using a strongly correlated candidacy signal which is largely under the control of the prospective employee is kind of like dinging an editor for rejecting submissions due to misspelled cover letters.

  9. Anonymous, John nowhere said “And if you don’t follow this advice to the letter, can’t, or something goes wrong, you suck and you deserve every minute of your poverty!” So, not quite sure where you are getting the white-American-male fixation.

  10. Gerrymander:

    I’m not saying it doesn’t make sense from the HR point of view. I’m saying it sucks for the people who are all the things a position needs, excepting a college degree. They don’t even get a chance to show they’re capable of doing the job.

  11. Dinging HR-types for using a strongly correlated candidacy signal

    Oh, c’mon. It’s not a candidacy signal, it’s a filter. If’ you are an HR person inundated with 100x applicants for x jobs, a qualification that is at least theoretically related to the job, AND that cuts down on the pool, is a Good Thing. HR person doesn’t have to then look at all the no-B.A. resumes and say “Okay, does THIS person have these particular skills?” They may well–but it’s much faster to simply raise the bar, and toss out everything under it.

  12. Gerrymander says, “Dinging HR-types for using a strongly correlated candidacy signal which is largely under the control of the prospective employee …”

    I’d like to respectfully disagree that this is “largely” under the control of the employee. The employee is the one who has to work to get the degree, yes. But a college education also involves access to time and money that a lot of people won’t have available in one lump, especially early in life. If you’re middle-class and have a family that can support your college education, great; if you manage to find, qualify for, and fill out reams of paperwork for a scholarship, great. But there are a lot of perfectly capable people for whom this isn’t a true.

  13. Sorry, last line should read “isn’t true,” not “isn’t a true.” Must get more caffeine …

  14. I graduated from college last year. Given a choice of working with the people I graduated with or someone who had been in the real world for four years, I’d take the real world almost every time.
    How often is it ‘a college degree’ rather than ‘a degree pertaining to the job’? Any degree, no matter how irrelevant, will get you past the BA filter. If it’s being used legitimately, someone with no degree but lots of pertinent experience will get through. That doesn’t happen all the time.

  15. I’d add one more tiny piece of advice:
    Always be aware that Modest Needs ( is there when you have that “a bad alternator … [or] unexpectedly large electric bill”. They can help you through that kind of pothole.

  16. Since the original person was asking what concrete things they could do to help, I’d like to add a suggestion. One huge barrier to additional education in low-income families with children is childcare. If you know a struggling single mother, or a low-income family where the parents are patching together multiple crappy jobs to make ends meet, and you have the option of offering free or at-cost childcare while they attend night school, that is likely to make a huge difference.

    I’m not saying anyone is obligated to do this, or that people who don’t ever babysit are bad people, or even that every single mother is going to take you up on it. Just — if you want to help someone in a bad situation, offering to keep their children safe while they do what they need to do will often help a LOT.

  17. The statement that a college degree serves as a signal of time-management skills is, to me, a crock. Being one of the working poor, particularly if one has children, teaches far better time management skills than any college could ever hope to.

    …And as for ignorance, I think it’s pretty simple. The people who piss on the poor don’t know what it means to be poor, and resent being put in a position where they need to care about such things for even a split-second.

    Factor in the sense of entitlement gotten from a belief that one has gained the grace of God, and the results are pretty ugly.

    I will remain baffled until the day I die over the fact that (Christian) churches (in the United States) too often manage to softpedal the virtues of compassion and social justice exemplified by their avowed Savior.

  18. John said in point #2 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.

    Unfortunately, too many people think exactly that – and pick the worst possible methods to try to get out and continue the downward cycle. Last year, a local high school reported that 13% of the female student body was pregnant at the beginning of the school year. This caused an uproar and made the national news – until someone else pointed out that that’s lower than the national average. But some – not all, of course, because there’s always Twu Luvvv – sought to get pregnant to “keep her man” or to “get on welfare and away from Mom” or to justify their existence by bringing a child into the world to love.

    These are the girls who are getting an education. What they aren’t getting is a set of morals that complement education that teaches our consciences and informs our ethics.

    What do you think?

  19. The importance of an education can’t be underestimated. Senator Jim Webb is pushing for a return to the WW2 type GI bill instead of the tricky one in use today. So many of our “volunteer” soldiers join because of economic reasons, especially rural Americans. But if this Webb proposal ever see light of day and is approved these soldiers will return home and help rebuild a faltering middle-class.

    The GI Bill after WW2 helped millions of returning soldiers go to college, many of them who would not have had an opportunity otherwise and this huge growth of educated men and women changed the country. We need a new push now more than ever, as we’re falling behind India and China in education, and new GI bill is just one answer, we must educate our people or this country will go down the tube in a generation or two.

    Other thoughts: I don’t know that an English degree helps a writer much, though it sure helps get a job if your book doesn’t sell. A number of the working writers I know around here have English degrees, but most of us seem to think the degree didn’t make much difference in term of selling work. I freelance, make an decent living, but I don’t teach. I’ve taught at a couple of writing workshops, but found it was not my cup of tea.

    The most important thing I learned in college was to keep a copy of Strunk and White around. I was already a voracious reader, but being around a University certainly introduced me to ideas and books I wouldn’t have ran into nearly as quickly. My best success money-wise has been with screenwriting and I never took a screenwriting course. I did have to educate myself on the form. I did that with a Syd Field book and by watching good movies while reading the script. I also was lucky enough to sell my second script, which put me around people who knew more than I did and those people helped me a lot.

    I was a working musician in my first life, but I wasn’t playing in an orchestra. I chose the amp turned up to 11 route. I didn’t study music and still play by ear, though I’ve taught myself enough about reading to communicate with college-educated musicians. Luckily, with the advances in music software, I can orchestrate some fairly complex music scores without reading.

    I’m in a unique situation in this, and most of the film composers I know in LA do have a music degree, and I might point out that John Williams scored Star Wars and I score documentaries that end up on PBS or LINK TV.

    What about the rest of you? There’s a pile of successful writers on this list. I’d be curious to see how many of them studied writing in college and if so, did it help your career?

  20. These are the girls who are getting an education.

    They’re not really getting an education, if they think that early pregnancy and romance gives them better odds than a formal educational program, are they?

    Why do you think this has anything do with “morals”, other than as code for Those Sluts Deserve To Live In Poverty? (Since you don’t seem much concerned about the morals of the guys knocking them up, or about the burdens of early fatherhood on a man’s career.)

  21. John: OK. Fair point.

    Lisa: I never said anything about one lump of time and/or money. I concur that obtaining a degree can be hard to accomplish. However, I disagree that obtaining some kind of college degree is outside of a poor person’s control. The time and task management skills I’ve emphasized begin with completing forms for admission, funding and so on — and that’s true for almost everyone. There are a lot of successive hurdles, which is why a degree is a good signalling mechanism.

  22. As mentioned above, this is a Useful companion piece to your noteworthy “Being Poor” entry which has been widely cited.

    One thing I would note is that part of getting an education is, surprisingly, getting an education. I’ve seen far too many students make it through the high school graduation and into the college classrooms who somehow Just Don’t Know Anything. Somehow they are getting a free ride on a system that values showcasing success by touting how many of its graduates go through the pipeline.

    So take your courses seriously and crack open the books and see what they have to offer. Trying to explain to engineers why it is important that some of their college credits aren’t “directly” connected to the widgets and designs of their future. Sigh. I regularly see students cut classes, read newspapers in class and otherwise try to figure out how to cheat their way around studying.

    And then there are students like one I had, severely debilitated, who sent apologetic e-mails whenever their problems flared up and they couldn’t make it to class. Or the ones with sick children and broken alternators. And the ones trying to make it to class when their boss “demands” they work overtime…

    Oops, overstayed the parking meter on this soapbox. Sorry, I’ll leave quietly…

    Dr. Phil

  23. I’d like to add another to your list of things needed to get out of poverty – humility.
    I’m sure thats going to get some people in an uproar, but hang with me for a second. Having gone through a high school where over half the students lived below the poverty line, then serving a mission for my church, I have talked with a ton of people who are considered by our standards to be poor. The most common denominator among them is pride. They are not willing to go out and get that part-time job at McDonald’s, or the job cleaning an office at 1 in the morning. They think it is below them. But if they aren’t willing to get a job – any job – then there is no way for them to move up. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and work a crappy job for a couple of years until a break comes – your manager promotes you, you find someone willing to help you get a better job, etc. As I’ve heard said, the Lord can’t guide a parked car.
    Now, I’m not saying this is something that everyone who is poor is struggling with. I know many many people who live below the poverty line who work 2 or 3 times as hard as my parents do. For them, its good to follow Scalzi’s advice. But there are too many who are convinced they are better than the menial jobs, and refuse to work until they find a job that pays them 30k with benefits. And that’s a shame.

  24. Gerrymander: I certainly didn’t mean to imply that you said getting a college degree was entirely outside a poor person’s control; I apologize if I gave you that impression. I think it was the choice of the phrase “largely under the control of the prospective employee” that pinged my radar.

    I’m just imagining someone who was working a low-paying job and struggling to pay for night school going being compared to someone who had college paid for in a hiring situation, and being told, “Well, your situation is largely under your own control, and you don’t have a degree.” To me, the person working their way through school is working a lot harder to take control than the person who didn’t have to pay for his or her own education.

    (Note: Not to knock the work ethic of folks who didn’t have to pay for school at all–just to say that control is easier to have when you have fewer challenges to overcome.)

  25. Don’t presume that my lack of mention of the fathers means they’re excused from responsibility here. They are not. My point was about teenage mothers, not fathers.

    Why do I think that education has to do with morals? Because at some point, a choice must be made – to rob the old lady or not. To have sex and risk pregnancy or not. To cheat or not. Do not those decisions usually come from a moral and/or a ethical training?

    If the point is to get rich, why not steal?

  26. No time (nor probably the interest of anyone else) to say everything that comes to mind so let me settle on a couple points:

    1. “What has changed about Krissy? Not her intelligence, her competence or her abilities.”

    Unless Krissy mirrored Greg Oden’s schedule I doubt this is true. Unless one takes highly specific technical or scientific courses that are directly correllated to specific employment the value of college may lie largely in the broadening of intellectual horizons, improvement in both written and oral communication skills, and practice in analyzing, forming opinions from the facts, and defending that opinion. Those are not minor skills and they will be of value to Krissy and her employer, if not in the current job, at least after the promotions she so richly deserves.

    2. Having occasionally been among the “genteel poor” as a kid I will never make moral assumptions about those who are poor now. I sold 4 years of my life to the USMC to be able to go to college which turned out to include, much to my chagrin, a year or so of people I didn’t know attempting to do me great physical harm. However in my current incarnation I volunteer at the local legal clinic and there is an endless line of people suffering from various legal problems. At least 75 percent of those problems do NOT arise from predatory lenders, evil landlords, uncaring bureaucracies, or the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They normally arise from a series of dumb decisions that would be dumb for anyone from Bill Gates to a squeegee man. Dope over rent, near term thrill over long term goal, punch in the snoot over dialogue, it goes on and on.

    The fatal attitude is that “there is nothing I can do to better myself so f**k it.” and I see it far too often. I’ve seen the folks with the attitude of determination and dogged commitment too, and I try to pile on with any help I can give when I do but John’s advice is most often going to fall on paths, rocky places, or among thorns and not on good soil.

    Once people are mired in the culture of the poor it takes remarkable effort, assistance and luck to escape the pathologies that lurk there. As a society we have to figure out a way to break the cycle and keep the next generation out of that culture so that they are intellectually, morally, and emotionally able to shop from the full menu of choices.

  27. Hey, remember John’s point about people reading the snarky part of Calvinism?

    My point was about teenage mothers, not fathers.

    Yes. My point was that you only bothered to make a point about teenage mothers, and suggested that the whole Twu Wuv n’ Babies think was a unilateral choice that only impacts the mother.

    (Odd that you think the choice to have sex is analogous to robbing an old lady or cheating on a test, especially since the uproar seems to be about teen motherhood.)

    Those decisions, as you present them, are about a lack of education rather than morals. “If I have a baby now, it will severely cripple my ability to get an education and earn lots of money, and relying on my boyfriend’s promises is risky” is a calculation that both the moral and immoral can make.

  28. Re H.R. departments and B.A.’s: John, your example of Krissy is spot-on, and I would compare it to the example of my mother, who’s been more or less the Best Employee Ever in every job she’s ever held, but who’s been limited mostly to clerical work because she “only” has a high school diploma.

    The counterpoint is provided by Joel Spolsky, doyen of coders, when he talks about his screening process for hiring programmers. He only looks for candidates who have earned hard degrees from top schools – a math degree from Yale, a physics degree from Carnegie Mellon – specifically because it marks these people out as (a) smart enough to pass *somebody else’s* tough screening process, and (b) survivors who stuck out even the boring or frustrating parts of school to finish their degrees. Setting aside the class/money aspects of paying to go to Yale, I think the broader lesson applies when counseling someone who’s trying to get out of poverty: Even if *you* think it’s silly to require a college degree, *employers* don’t think it’s silly to require a college degree . . . and a good employer paying a tidy salary is usually a key accomplice in the journey out of poverty. It’s just as you say, John: “In perfect world this wouldn’t be done. This is not that world.”

  29. what you’re speaking of in (1)
    is getting a credential, not an education.
    (this doesn’t make it a bad idea.)

    “I won’t pretend that they might fail”
    probably also isn’t what you meant to say.

  30. Having been poor, and just barely not poor now, still climbing out, the best piece of advice I would give someone is stay away from credit.

    Even getting an education can put you seriously in debt. Not that it can’t be worth it, but the mistake I see being made is trying to live the American dream on credit cards while NOT paying off your student loans. I know people who can’t/won’t hold a steady job because they get garnished for student loans they never paid back.

    As long as you are making minimum payments they own you.

  31. Mythago, I’m as far from Calvinism as can be, and I’m not trying to be judgmental nor snarky. I picked one of one billion choices that may have extreme consequences. Why do you judge me based only on that?

    My selection of moral choices was to show a range, not equality, but I’m thinking that maybe you’re just unhappy that I’m talking about morals at all and nothing I say is going to allow us to have a conversation that won’t include red herrings about what I have and have not included.

  32. Nick, I’ve heard that the single most important and effective piece of legislation that Congress ever enacted was the GI Bill. It has been the way that most of our fathers/brothers/children got their college education (prior to the changes about who is and is not eligible.)

    My father and uncle both got through school on the GI bill. As a result, their 5 of their 7 kids have gotten college degrees, several post-grad. That I don’t live in poverty is directly related the the GI bill.

    I agree with you that a new GI bill is a good thing. That being said, I couldn’t imagine until right now that Jim Webb and I would agree on anything. lol

  33. My selection of moral choices was to show a range, not equality

    Your selection included mugging old ladies and cheating on tests. I’m giving you credit for being intelligent, and therefore assume there is some reason you picked, for example, a vicious crime rather than something morally neutral but dumb (e.g. dropping out of school).

    You focused in on pregnant-and-impoverished high school girls, suggested that they clearly had education so their problem was a lack of “morals”, and then asked “What do you think?”

    Since you did ask, I think that your assumptions are faulty; you assume that, first of all, merely being in high school is “having education”–although John’s post was pretty clear that by education he meant credentials beyond the very basics of a high school diploma or GED. (Credentials a high school student doesn’t have yet, obviously.) You also assumed that the problem with these girls is that they do want to get out of poverty, but pick a stupid way (early single motherhood) to do so–and that the cause of this stupidity is a lack of “morals.”

  34. I’d like to agree with Naomi above, about babysitting as a concrete way to help.

    The concrete suggestion I’ll make is helping people by giving them rides to or from work. Having a car when you are poor is very difficult, and having a reliable car is even harder. And if you lose your job because you can’t get to work because of a bad alternator, problems are snowballing.

    And public transportation is often not available 24 hours a day, for people working evening or overnight shifts.

    This doesn’t have to mean that you take them everywhere, every day. Even knowing that they can occasionally call you for a ride if they get in a bind can help a lot.

    And I’m speaking from experience here; I’ve given a lot of rides like this to friends over the years.

    (I’ve also mused that one of the problems with moving to a strange city is that you lose any network of friends and relatives who will help you with this sort of thing. But I digress.)

  35. Poverty is a complex issue that is not resolved in sound bites (despite what politicians and certain advocates claim).
    What has gone undefined in this thread is education. It sounds like most people are assuming it is some type of secondary education at a college. I would expand what is included in the scope of education to include, for example, trade apprenticeships.

  36. Rich:

    I think trade apprenticeships are entirely valid, yes. I will say that I think having a BA gives more options simply because, as someone noted above, it’s not what you have the BA in but the fact that you have one that seems to matter these days.

  37. John, thanks for another excellent piece. I agree with pretty much all of what you said. Speaking from the experience of someone who went from being part of the working poor to being advanced degreed, and as someone who helps the poor and homeless find work, some extra thoughts:

    You need both a degree and an education. I see many individuals who have been credentialed with a degree, but who did not necessarily pursue the education that equipped them with the habits and skills that allow them to keep a job and excel.

    Attitude matters an incredible amount. It is the soft skill that employers key to first. A positive attitude can smooth over lack of experience or skills, especially if an applicant says, “Hey, I can learn what you need me to, and I would be excited to learn it!”

    One of the biggest things our culture could do is to provide better community support and mentorship for individuals trying to work out of poverty. A lot of people who suffer emotional, physical, and economic trauma do give up after a while, and say “Fuck it”. That’s when I see people become mentally ill, and start using substances to manage their feelings. If each person volunteered a couple hours a week to try and mentor a struggling individual, especially teens, I think we would see better outcomes.

    John, I would be interested, did you have an important mentor type relationship as you made your way out of poverty?

  38. Todd Stull:

    “John, I would be interested, did you have an important mentor type relationship as you made your way out of poverty?”

    I had excellent teachers good friends who were adults, yes. Not mentors per se, but people who were invested in me doing well.

  39. I think questioning of the “morals” of the teenage poor and pregnant is specious at best and insulting and classist at worst.

    Teenagers everywhere have sex and are frequently fairly stupid about it. More affluent teens usualy have much better access to and education about birth control. Unfortunately for teenage girls, teenage boys are notoriously obstinate about using condoms. If the girl doesn’t have insurance or a way of getting transportation to a gynecologist then she probably isn’t going to be able to get or even afford birth control pills.

    Leaving aside ethical questions about the procedure and just looking at it as a factor in teenage motherhood, once a teenage girl gets pregnant the poorer she is the less likely she is to have an abortion. This is due to both the expense of the procedure and the lack of providers in poor areas. Nowadays many urban areas can be hundreds of miles from a provider. For the poor abortion is often just simply not an option anymore. If you’re rich, however, it’s much easier to arrange for a visit to a private OB/GYN who will quietly “take care of the problem.”

    My wife went to a fairly affluent high school which was among the highest in rate of pregnancy, but among the lowest in motherhood since it also had one of the highest rates of teenage abortion. The school system was also well funded enough to provide daycare for their students who did have children.

  40. I think both sides of the teen pregnancy debate are missing the point of the post. John’s point was that if people are poor, they need to consciously do things to be not poor. In the case of girls, that means “don’t become a single mother.” (The corresponding problem for boys is “don’t get a criminal record.”)

    It’s unfortunate that girls are burdened with more responsibility to avoid getting pregnant, but that’s a biological problem.

    I will point out that I have a cousin with two kids from two different men but no husband. However, she has a degree and lives close to her parents, so she’s not poor.

  41. John, this is great advice. The hardest part for me is the tug between taking responsibility and getting help. For years I worked in a Legal Services office. My most frustrating moments were when someone looked at me and said, “I’m entitled to help. So where is it?”, and my answer, much too often, had to be, “No. You’re not legally entitled to X (getting your furniture moved/your rent being paid/that bill reduced).” Sometimes (rarely, thank goodness)I was tempted to tell them about responsibility–help doesn’t mean all is done for you. Help doesn’t happen every time. But I never did say that–it was the wrong place and the wrong time for the folks coming into our offices to hear that.

  42. Thanks John. You, and all the commenters, have sent many ideas racing around my little brain. Maybe I can contribute, once they slow down.

  43. Good post, John.

    In regards to teenage pregnancy–There’s a fair amount of evidence that among teenage girls who choose to get pregnant, for a lot of them it’s a marker of adulthood when other markers of adulthood are harder to obtain.

    If college or getting a job are completely off the radar screen of available possibilities–as is sometimes the case in economically depressed neighborhoods–if you have a child, at least you have something to say that you’re a grown-up.

    I think a lot of these kids are kids who don’t see a lot of possibilities for themselves, no matter what they do. And that’s what needs to be changed.

  44. I think both sides of the teen pregnancy debate are missing the point of the post. John’s point was that if people are poor, they need to consciously do things to be not poor. In the case of girls, that means “don’t become a single mother.”

    Chris, I’m not sure which debate you’re talking about, because nobody HERE has argued that teenage girls trying to get out of poverty are probably not going to help their situations through motherhood. The argument here was over Cassie’s assertion that these pregnant girls were obviously edumacated, and that wasn’t helping, so clearly they needed a good helping of morals.

  45. Cassie, actually, I would argue that it is the morals that are getting the girls into these problems. Many parts of our society have as a moral teaching (or mores) that a girl isn’t a woman until she has a baby (the analog to boys is they aren’t a man until they’ve had sex). There are also many who believe that any woman who hasn’t had a child is worthless (no matter how accomplished, just witness th esubtle discrimination of older couples who don’t have children and the amazing amount of money spent by some of those who can’t have the natural to obtain them). So, I would argue, it’s a preponderance of morality that causes these girls to get pregnant, not a lack of morality.

  46. Stop drinking, stop doing drugs, start working harder, live within your means.

    Oh…but that’s EVIL to say that. That’s insensative.

  47. “5. Filter Out the Stupid and the Ignorant.”

    I found this helped me the most. Of course, I also amused myself by taunting the stupid and the ignorant because… Well, John, you’re a movie critic. You know movies ain’t been cheap since Reagan’s first term.

  48. Excellent post.

    I want to commend you on point #3 because folks often miss it.

    There is a lot of help out there; it can be mindboggling the kind of help that you can get for many (although not all) of your problems.

    I work in a legal clinic in Ontario. I mostly help people in poverty by getting them the various social welfare benefits that they deserve; about 90% of my clients are disabled who are not recongnized as such. Working with a legal clinic I am aware of the myriad of services available (often free) to people who need various types of help.

    I also have a friend who is coming out of a bad abusive marriage and is still suffering the effects. Because of this she has been poor and is slowly getting herself out of poverty. She would not have been able to survive or get herself out of poverty if it weren’t for the help of her friends and family.

    There is help out there; no-one should be shy about trying to get it.


  49. Cassie, Jim Webb’s a very complex man, not easily defined even though he’s a Democrat. I’d like to see more Democrats like him. He’s tough and thoughful, a good 2nd Amendment man. At the same time he has some very strong opinions about the class system in this country. I don’t know if you’re left or right, but Webb’s politics suits me very well. Plus any officer who’ll step up take a grenade for his radio operator is OK in my book. Air Force officers would have walked over my wounded body to get to the officer’s club in time for happy hour. Of course that was a different time. Now the Air Force Academy has found God, I’m sure they’re all just swell. :)

  50. I agree with almost everything John said.

    Jim (my husband, some of you out there know him) grew up on welfare when his father deserted the family. Jim’s mother was a high school drop-out as was his father. He was the oldest of three children.

    Jim and one brother have college degrees (Jim had an academic scholarship and his brother got one from financial need). They both have very good jobs. The third brother is a talented chef who is also doing very well. So the educational issue, for us, is of primary importance. And the necessity of a financial safety net for the people who are in desperate straights.

    Welfare will never be a dirty word for me, because I have to wonder what would have happened to Jim’s family without it.

    I’m also have the opinion that, after education, not having too many children is also critically important. I think this is related to education and common sense. I don’t want to “blame women” for this, because NOT having children is NOT just a woman’s issue. It’s also an issue for responsible men.

    Sadly, in many cultures, neither men nor women are sexually responsible.

  51. #5 is particularly true, and was for me the hardest part to deal with. I couldn’t understand for the longest time why people who were my friends suddenly resented me so much.

    Now it just makes me sad.

  52. An actual example, if I may.A woman of my acquaintance had a chance to run away and join a carnival, which many people dream of but few do. She met a guy who seemed to be really nice, and married him. Before long, she had 4 kids and caught hubby diddling one of them. She kicked him out on his butt, leaving her with no job, barely a HS education, and 4 kids under 12. She lived on inadequate welfare while she decided her options, then found ways to work at whatever was available while going to college part time. She dragged herself and her family up out of poverty, by taking responsibility (as you pointed out) and by not giving up. She now works as a graphic designer at a company that respects her as a person and as an artist, and pays her nicely.

  53. Might I also say, at the risk of getting smacked down, but hey, I’m poor, I live in it, I know. It’s very very important as well, for people who are poor to realize that they owe it to themselves and their family to try. Try to do better, dream for better work for better. I know a lot of people, far too many, who have the attitude that the world owes them because they had a poor childhood/are raising three kids/got into trouble as a teen and got a record or bad credit or whatever. Come to think of it, this isn’t a poor thing. Far too many people now days believe they are owed nice stuff or a certain style of living. People have a very low border to what work they feel they need to do to get what they want.
    In general people really, truly need to how to work hard. Not necessarily physically.
    We (more specifically poor people) need to be taught what we have to do, no bs on how hard it is, and just like in writing we need to see the easy way out as the path that’s going to keep us poor.
    Poor people absolutely need help, but I think more help needs to be given to people who are trying rather than people who are having kids just to get them on disability (Don’t tell me those people don’t exist. I know them. Yes, I do know however that they aren’t typical.) I think we need to see more help with decent housing, child care and medical help.
    My personal case is that I am unable to get a job because I have a special needs son. This forces us live off one income. I’ve tried at home work (mostly a scam) babysitting (imagine that, some people think the promise of money pays the bills) and family members as baby sitters (a child crying for six hours straight is not good for anyone), but nothing has worked out. However we have managed to buy a house (with no help! I’m so proud, we really lucked out and found a house being foreclosed on going for about half what it was worth), we pay all our bills (okay, so we don’t have a car, but…) we make due. It’s a hard life making due. If I’d pop out another kid we’d qualify for food stamps, and WIC and probably a few other things. But we know we can’t afford it.
    I know it’s real hard to tell who is who sometimes, but helping people who refuse to get a job (not can’t, refuse) because they’d lose their check, or people who only work 20 hrs a week because they have loyalty to a job that is cutting their hours (and of course, because programs are paying for their food, their rent and their kid’s clothes already)… helping people who aren’t trying, who are just holding out their hands doesn’t help anyone.

  54. The possession of a college degree is no guarantee of competence. When I was a young engineer working on the Apollo program, one of my colleagues was quite fond of reminding everyone daily that he had been on the Dean’s List at his school. However, he was completely unable to do any analyses that were not exactly like jobs he had previously been shown in detail how to do. Since almost all of our work involved the behavior of cryogenic fluids in zero gee or microgravity, in those days there were no text books or even research papers available to provide crib notes. Some of our best engineers were “B” or even “C” students who grasped the art of engineering, and how to create valid math models that let them apply existing equations to completely new situations and derive answers that worked.

    Having said this, I have found that the presence or absence of a degree can often be useful information in evaluating a large number of prospective employees, when used in conjunction with other factors and not applied blindly. In my eyes, one of the things that a degree says about a prospective new hire is that – if the degree is relevant to the job in question – it means that this individual has already been exposed to a variety and breadth of knowledge that might take many years of experience to acquire. For an engineer it helps that person understand how and why his or her work is affected by the work of others and how and why his or her work will affect the work of others. (This assumes that this person has really learned the underlying concepts, and did not just slide through school via rote memorization – which would not be possible if the exams were written well.)

    Where I find the most fault with placing value on a degree is when it is done blindly – which unfortunately seems to be the norm with HR departments, in my experience. In my eyes, the degree can be useful in helping to decide whether or not to hire someone. Once that person is in the door and providing you with direct, real world performance on which to judge them, I consider the degree to be irrelevant. Unfortunately, as John illustrated with the story about his wife, the HR departments at companies often consider a check mark on a criteria form to be preferable to actually thinking about the specific situation.

    To illustrate this – about 25 years ago I had an older engineer transfer into my group that had not had a promotion in five years because HR continually vetoed it. The reason – he was from Eastern Germany, and HR could not obtain confirmation of his degree since the school was behind the Iron Curtain. According to HR, he had reached the highest position possible without a degree, and since they could not confirm the degree, he could not be promoted. A year later, when my attempt to promote him was also rejected, I called a meeting with our HR rep and the first-level HR manager to discuss the subject with them.

    Our discussion started off politely enough, but after about 10 minutes I gave up on attempting to reason with these brain-dead dweebs. I slammed my fist on the conference table and literally shouted at them, “I don’t give a flying f**k if he never graduated from grammar school! He’s the best d*mn Materials Engineer I have, and he deserves this promotion, regardless of what your f**king standard criteria forms say! If you can’t pull your heads out of your a**es and think for a change, I’ll take this up the food chain past you. If I have to do so, I’ll go all the way to the CEO of the corporation!” (A Fortune 50 company, BTW). My reputation was such that they knew this was not an idle threat, and the HR manager immediately said that they would “study” the HR policies to see how to make the promotion happen – which it did within two weeks. This meeting should never have been necessary, but the unfortunate reality is that it represents a scenario that is all too common.

    Like it or not – it is definitely to your advantage to have a degree if you want to get ahead. It does not guarantee anything, but it can be a big help.

    With best wishes,
    – Tom –

  55. *reads through the other comments* Hmm, Alex had a point. Maybe it’s not just entitlement, but pride. Sometimes you do have the work the job you can get. My sister doesn’t get this and quits at the least little thing (meaning she has a string of 1-3 month long jobs) or only goes for the high paying stuff because anything else is beneath her. Unfortunately that policy has my hubby stuck in a job with a schedule that while regular also leaves him no time to both go to school and sleep. He’s applied to go to thrid shift, so that he has a better schedule and no pay cut, but has been denied twice now. His boss really likes him, and that, while nice, is keeping him stuck where he is.
    But a job that pays is much better than no job at all.

  56. The value, for me, in an educational degree is it shows that someone can stick to a plan. That’s one of the things I look for. But the primary reason I don’t hire most people is that they don’t dress for the job. The next reason is that they aren’t polite.

    I work at a motel, if people come to me and ask for an application and aren’t at least in a polo shirt and good slacks/skirt their application will go nowhere. I want to see that they can look like someone my guests would want to see.

    And then there are those that are just plain rude. ‘Give me ap.’ is not acceptable. Asking the desk clerk out on a date along with the request for an application is not acceptable. In other words if you’re not finding a job it may be you. It’s the take responsibility – say getting a degree or looking at how you’re applying – that’s important.

    I will and have worked with people who have less skills, but I look for polite and appropriately dressed as they come into the motel to fill out the application.

  57. The five points are good, and make a lot of sense in terms of what factors might contribute to poverty, but can anyone really see themselves approaching the poor people of their neighbourhood, doling out John’s suggested advice, and not receiving a well-deserved slap in the face for being so patronising?

  58. Madeline,

    You have to earn the right first to talk to people. Once you’ve proven that you’re not just patronizing them, then advice might be given if there’s truly love and respect between each other.

    But I think John’s essay should be required reading for middle school and high school students. High school may be too late… 5th grade may or may not be able to read it, but the information has to be planted deep and early.

  59. I have to say, there is one very important point missing from your road map.

    Get Lucky.

    For everyperson who succeeds in pulling themself out of poverty by working hard and doing everything possible, there are ten who still work hard and do everything possible, but don’t get lucky.

    Luck is a huge factor, I don’t think many people appreciate how huge a factor it is.

  60. Madeline Kelly:

    Cassie said it: This isn’t something you’d say cold to some random poor person. It’s something you’d say to people you know and whose trust you’ve earned, or after you earned some amount of credibility.


    As someone who has had incredible luck myself, I would agree luck has something to do with it. However, the adage “luck favors the prepared” is quite relevant here. Someone who is motivating themselves to do better will take better advantage of a lucky opportunity than someone who is not.

  61. Rhiannon_S: I would chime in with what John said about luck favoring the prepared, and point out that this isn’t just a clever adage from Pasteur — it’s also borne out by psychological research. See this 2003 article from Fast Company:

    How to Make Your Own Luck

    “After conducting thousands of interviews and hundreds of experiments, [psychologist Richard] Wiseman now claims that he’s cracked the code. Luck isn’t due to kismet, karma, or coincidence, he says. Instead, lucky folks — without even knowing it — think and behave in ways that create good fortune in their lives.”

    Which brings us back to *mindset* or attitude. I know very talented people with plenty of good credentials who don’t ever find opportunities for themselves (in careers, in romance, etc.) because they don’t “think lucky”. I know other folks who have only a small modicum of experience, or only a narrow range of skills — yet they do great because they fly into life with gusto and *assume* that something’s going to break right for them somewhere. Now, it’s hard to fly into life with gusto when you’re poor. But those who embrace the challenge stand a much better chance of getting where they want to go. Those who don’t or won’t or can’t embrace it . . . well, how do you keep your eyes open for lucky breaks if you’ve convinced yourself you’ll *never* get one?

  62. Tim: Thanks for the great link. I could see myself, my husband and my kids in this article very clearly. This will make interesting dinner conversation tonight.

    Rhiannon_S: do you mean luck or opportunity?

  63. I agree luck favours the prepared and you can do a lot to make it much more likely you get lucky, but at the end of the day there is still a lot of sheer random chance involved. Maybe luck is the wrong term, but if random chance doesn’t turn yourway, then no matter how prepared you are there is still a limited amount to what you can do.

  64. I did alot of shit work when I was in my 20s ,warehouse work ,delivery truck driver.Little pay,no respect etc.At some time I realized that unless I did something it wasn’t going to change.I went back to school and got a degree in Nursing.I’m not rich but the pay is better.It was not easy going to school ,I worked part time at minimum wage.I literally could not afford a newspaper or the price of public transportation.I walked damn it.
    The moral if there is one is that I work with a lot people who realized the same thing They are African ,Indian ,all corners of the world.None of us had it easy.

  65. Maybe luck is the wrong term, but if random chance doesn’t turn yourway, then no matter how prepared you are there is still a limited amount to what you can do.

    Yeah. Not all of us can be Oprah; when she said to Robert Reich that she didn’t believe in luck I couldn’t believe my ears. Hell, her talent and intelligence are functions of probability, as are her being raised in post-1964 America. Luck sure as hell plays a factor, and two kids with the same innate abilities and similar backgrounds could both follow Scalzi’s advice to the letter, and one could end up at 65 as a retired government clerk and the other one as a retired CEO. Or one of them could end up dead in Iraq at twenty-five. Or shot at a street corner. Or dying during childbirth.

    Scalzi’s advice isn’t a magic bullet. It’s reducing the probability of you becoming poor.

    But I second the “avoid credit cards as much as possible” suggestion–I work for a bankruptcy firm, and most of the bankruptcies I work on are caused by credit card debt. I’m boggled by the fact that it’s easier to get a credit card than a checking account. Being poor means paying your bankruptcy lawyer by money order.

  66. Anonymous,

    Many third world countries have problems of their own making that keep them poor. Look at Africa, for example. How many of those societies are actually willing to give up tribal associations for national ones? To move to the rule of law versus the rule of tribal elders and/or the jungle? There is no security or liberty in such places, which makes the environment inherently toxic to business development, leading to missed opportunities for the community to pull itself up by the boot straps.
    What gets me about these countries is that they are given a free pass when they elect authoritarian, thuggish demagogues. Why are scum like Mugabe tolerated, rather than literally **hated** with a passion for what they do to the third world poor by raping and pillaging their own?

    Many of the people of these countries are to blame because they allow their own jingoistic nationalism to trump what is best for them. Latin America is notorious for this. Any El Presidente Supremo who comes in, bashing the Yanqui imperialists seems to get instant support. It doesn’t matter that he is a violent, illiberal, swine who should be hung from the nearest tree before he can set his country back another decade on the road to being a productive nation.

    It must be a sign of the way that dialectical thinking has become the norm in political circles because today it is nearly impossible to point out objectively that many third world countries, collectively, visit their problems on themselves through their choice of leadership and policies. You say that, well, the conversation flips back to America, but that doesn’t solve anything that is affecting the poor in other nations.

  67. Ooh, and one more suggestion:

    Learn selective escapism. That is, find cheap and harmless ways to escape your current situation for a few hours, whether it be through reading, TV, music, laughing at BaconCat, discount cinema (regular movie prices are insane), safe sex (read: protected from disease and pregnancy with a person who doesn’t physically or mentally abuse you), communing with whatever nature’s nearby, dancing (at clubs with low /no cover), free yoga classes, crafts, thrift shopping, and when all else fails, small doses of sugar and/or alcohol (if not medically counterindicated). If you find comfort in religion, good for you–but don’t give a tenth of your income to the church for the pastor’s new Mercedes.

    Avoid retail therapy you can’t afford, illegal drugs, tobacco (that stuff will kill you), binge drinking, unsafe sex, gambling, and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Stupid”.

    Poverty sucks. Expecting someone to forgo all pleasures to get themselves out of poverty is stupid, and cheap pleasures are key in keeping yourself from going into despair.

    And on a more day-to-day level of “How To Live Without Digging Yourself Into Debt”, may I recommend “Help Us Help Ourselves” or “HUHO” on

  68. MikeT: A counterpoint on Mugabe from yesterday’s New York Times:

    An Endgame in Zimbabwe That Mugabe May Yet Win

    Money quote:

    “He [Mugabe] presides over a nation crushed by inflation of about 1,700 percent a year. People revile him, his party grasps for a way to force him from office, and even his southern African neighbors, long his enablers, are meeting with him in Tanzania this week, hoping to ease him into retirement, many analysts say.”

    So, Mugabe *is* hated. But because of a large set of historical factors, it makes sense for an anonymous former official from the Zimbabwean government to say: “Everyone wants him to go. In the party everyone wants him to be gone. But who will stand against him? He is too powerful. . . . You put my name in your newspaper and I am dead. That is how powerful he is.”

  69. Maureen, along with your comments, I’d suggest Habitat for Humanity, either as a volunteer or as a family applying to purchase a home. The success stories I’ve seen in my local community top almost every other agency combined.

  70. Thanks for saying something that needs to be said over and over again until the smug privileged get it through their heads: the poorer you are, the harder it is to move forward, and you have to be smarter and tougher and work longer hours than the very people looking down on you.

    But here’s the flip side that makes it all worth it: it gets easier the further up you go. Seriously.

    I went (incrementally) from long hours, second shifts, hard physical labor, and crap work (literally, at that one job where I had to take the boss’s dog for walks and clean up after it) to my current cushy office job with benefits, paid vacation, sick leave, and free food on a regular basis. The work is half as hard as it used to be, and I’m getting paid twice as much. The most amazing change getting near the top is that I’m *respected* after a decade of employers treating me and my co-workers like inmates, indentured servants, or children.

    So, yeah, the climb sucks like nothing else, but it’s worth it. And people don’t understand that being poor is like being in an abusive relationship: so much of your energy is spent on just surviving that there’s little left to devote to getting out.

    (Worked hard, lived cheap, studied in the off time, and was very lucky to have it all pay off. Thank you god, universe, or whatever’s out there.)

  71. Oh, Scalzi! You’re doing it again! Another monster poverty-related thread. And this time I don’t have time to read it right now.

    BTW, I lost the link to the original one. Can you post it here?

  72. What gets me about these countries is that they are given a free pass when they elect authoritarian, thuggish demagogues.

    “These countries” being the US, from your description.

    What makes you think those are free, fair, open elections where thuggish demagogues are willing to risk their fate on the whim of the people? And that the alternatives presented were better?

    It’s comforting to think that those suffering people in Darfur just brought it on themselves with their own stupidity. It’s also bullshit.

  73. Good stuff. And here’s one practical suggestion for poor people who have gotten their life in order enough to start making the climb up out of poverty. See if you can get an individual development account. It’s a matched savings account for low-income people, which provides an extra incentive save and comes with financial education classes and other supports. Check out the Center for Enterprise Development at

  74. Good stuff. And here’s one practical suggestion for poor people who have gotten their life in order enough to start making the climb up out of poverty. See if you can get an individual development account. It’s a matched savings account for low-income people, which provides an extra incentive save and comes with financial education classes and other supports. Check out the Center for Enterprise Development at

  75. Started poor, not poor anymore. If someone cared to ask me what I did, the number one thing would be: Live below your means. If all you can do is save a nickel a day in a jar, do it. Do not spend all you make. Ever. Your whole mindset changes when you know you have money in the bank. Sounds silly, but it’s true. (Don’t keep money in jars, especially in high-crime neighborhoods. Put it in the bank.)

    If you can’t do that, then you need to cut things out until you can. You will never get out of poverty if you spend more than you make.

    Then it depends on why you’re poor. If you’re ‘in debt’ poor, it’s much harder than ‘just don’t make much’ poor. The only debt to take on is something that’s going to make you richer in the long run (schooling and mortgage are the big ones).

    If you can do things that leverage the money you have (gardening, buying a vehicle that can also be used to haul stuff for a side job, learning how to maintain your own items rather than paying to have them fixed, etc.), that helps. The old Tightwad Gazette books address this nicely.

    If you’re in debt and you’re making your payments, pay extra on the highest interest rate debt. When that’s paid off, take what you were paying on that one and pay that much extra on the next highest interest rate debt, until all your debt is gone. Do not rack up more debt. If you’re not making your payments, see a debt consolidation place.

    It takes a long time to get out of poverty, but it’s worth it.

  76. Anonymous March 30, 2007 12:01 PM said:

    “Its not that what you say is necessarily wrong or bad, its just that it is a very priviliged white male American way of looking at poverty. You are starting from a place where so much entitlement is assumed, even for someone in poverty. Say this to a disabled minority, or someone living in the third world, and it all seems a bit trite.”

    Speaking as someone who does actually live in the third world, I can say with confidence that the advice John gives is not trite, nor is it restricted to a “priviliged white male American way of looking at things”, even if that is where it comes from.

    I’d also point out that using a label like ‘third world’ to mean ‘Sub-Saharan Africa and Darfur in particular’ is kind of misleading. :-)

  77. While I have never been poor myself, I have spent a lot of time working/volunteering with social services/poor people in capacities from the Salvation Army to the Texas welfare system. The one piece of pratical advice I have that i have not seen mentioned here: learn to use a computer.

    If you are managing to read this blog, you probably already have this covered. But if you do not know the basics of computers (how to save a document, send an email, etc.) many employers will not give you the time of day for even entry level positions. A lot of major employers only accept applications via computer even if the job has nothing to do with computers.

    If you are in high school or younger you can often sign up for elective computer courses at school (unfortunately these skills are often not required learning for all students). If you are older your local library, job training facility, or other community group probably offers classes. Also learn to type.

    These skills can be learned by most people and can open up a lot of new opportunities.

  78. Where to begin? I started out poor, and had some lucky breaks that lead to a professional degree. I think education was pivotal for me, along with not finding hard manual labor “beneath” me. I think education is also pivotal on a national basis (GI Bill). While studying Russian in the Soviet Union, we were reminded frequently of Lenin’s “Uchit’sya, uchit’sya, uchit’sya”- “study, study, study.” The Soviets were brutal, murderous and dehumanizing, but managed to bring a nation of mostly medieval peasants into the industrialized age through valuing education.

    I’d also second the ideas of avoiding credit and living within one’s means. After college, I got caught in the credit spider web, and it took me years to cut myself loose.

    And as to the causes of Third World poverty, you don’t have to go any farther than Detroit, Chicago or DC to see the caustic effects of tribalism in politics leading to shattered social, economic, and political development.

  79. Someone upthread mentioned humility, specifically the humility that enables someone to take any job they can get rather than haughtily declaring that they’d rather starve than work at the McDonald’s.

    I’d like to add that the other side to that coin is respect. The rest of society needs to stop treating McDonald’s workers with scorn, and respect them instead. Pride wouldn’t keep a poor person from applying for the job if the job were better respected in this society.

    This doesn’t let those who are poor off the hook–sometimes you have to take the job and deal with the scorn. But it would make it easier, wouldn’t it, if consumers didn’t treat McDonald’s workers (or cab drivers, or janitors, etc) like dirt.

    There’s another subject to be touched on, here. That of accepting help where offered. The homeless shelter here in Boulder, Colorado, is one of the best I have ever encountered. No religious tests or exercises, responsibility expected of each resident, programs for helping residents become self-sufficient, all the good stuff. Nevertheless, there are people who would rather starve and freeze than accept a couple meals and a night out of the cold at the shelter (not to mention a place to receive mail and an address to put on job applications). Part of that is pride, but again, pride wouldn’t be so much of a problem if society hadn’t reinforced the shamefull stigma. If there weren’t people out there blabbing about “irresponsibly deadbeats getting a free ride at the flophouse” (to paraphrase the quote that disinclined me to vote for the Libertarian running for City Council some years ago), there’d be less pride-swallowing necessary before a person checked in for the night.

    So, there is something every single one of us can do to help the poor accept the help offered them, and that is treat EVERYONE with respect. The person asking you if you want fries with that. The person who shows up Friday evenings to empty the trash bins at your office. The people riding the SKIP bus to the north end of the line on a winter evening in Boulder, Colorado.

    Being poor needs to stop being seen as a reason, in and of itself, for being ashamed. Until that happens, it will always be difficult for a poor person to do things that make their poverty obvious to the casual observer. Taking a job at the McDonald’s is one of those things. Some people need to get over their pride and take that job anyway, but we need to recognize how hard that really can be–and how unnecessarily hard the privileged make it.

  80. I do wonder a little about the grand social utility of the advice he gives concerning education. Not that it isn’t true–it’s absolutely correct that education will open doors.

    But I wonder how much of that effect is zero-sum. To the extent that the purpose of education is just to get a credential so you can get a job that would otherwise go to somebody else, it doesn’t help alleviate poverty in general to tell everyone to become more educated. Getting a degree as a pure credential is just a way that you can get a leg up while pushing everybody else down. If everybody got the degree, it would no longer serve as a differentiating mark and it would stop working.

    On the other hand, I believe very much in promoting education in order to produce more educated citizens–when there are more educated workers, consumers and voters running society, it helps everybody. So that’s not zero-sum.

    So there’s a sort of Prisoner’s Dilemma-ish paradox here, that for the individual, pursuing credentials helps a lot, but for society as a whole we need to stress the importance of learning itself. Fortunately the goals aren’t entirely opposed, though I knew some grade-grubbers in school for whom they might as well have been.

  81. on a more practical note, you could send them toward organizations that help people break out of the cycle of poverty, like the one i link to above.