Everything you need to know to climb out of poverty, from a former poor person

OPINION: John Hawkins


I’ve been poor.

Bouncing a check for a $20 pizza poor. Sleeping in an elevator for a night when I was out of town poor because I couldn’t afford to pay for a 1/4 share of a cheap room and was too proud to take charity poor. Living on a bag of potatoes and 33 cent burritos because I had $10 to eat for a week poor. Wearing shirts with holes in them, borrowing money and getting angry about $2 bank fees poor.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Today, I do what I want to do. I went to New York City for my birthday this year because I thought it would be fun. When I had a good friend that showed me a picture of a horrible bed she was sleeping on with springs poking out of it, I bought her another one and had it delivered to her house. If I don’t like an employer these days, I just leave because I like to work, but I don’t have to work for anyone I don’t want to work for. I wouldn’t classify myself as rich, but I’m sure as hell not poor anymore either.

It did take a while for me to slowly but surely pull myself out of that level of poverty though.

Some of that is natural because unless you are part of a family-owned business, have the right connections, or are going into a particularly lucrative profession, you probably aren’t going to make a lot of money in your first McJob out of college. Do you know what I was doing in my first job with a psychology degree and a minor in communications? Working as a Wal-Mart portrait studio photographer. I worked several crummy jobs like that as I saved up a nest egg. Most people will have to go that route. Unless you are very good or very lucky, you are not going to have the same things your successful parents had after a lifetime of work at 60 when you’re 25-years-old and that’s okay.

Beyond that, what I did do right early on was trying not to make a life-altering mistake. Like what you may ask?

Like going to jail. Getting on drugs or becoming an alcoholic. Getting a girl pregnant out of wedlock. Going deep into debt. Skipping health insurance. At the time, I thought of it as avoiding a big mistake, but there is actually a much-discussed formula for avoiding poverty that covers a lot of those same things and works for 98% of people.

Let politicians, schoolteachers, and administrators, community leaders, ministers, and parents drill into children the message that in a free society, they enter adulthood with three major responsibilities: at least finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children. Our research shows that of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2 percent are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class (defined as earning around $55,000 or more per year).

These are important things to drill into young adults because as people who’ve done it can tell you after you run the Titanic into the iceberg, your options get limited in a hurry. Once you are in that situation, some people will tell you the only way to fix them is with all the government help you can grab.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, government cheese sucks, government housing is crime-ridden, and dealing with bureaucrats to get your welfare check is not only miserable, but it also tends to keep you poor because it transfers the responsibility to someone else to fix your problem – and guess what? Despite all the rhetoric you hear to the contrary, the government doesn’t care if you live or die. In fact, if you’re poor, they’d generally prefer that you did die for economic reasons.  The only reason politicians talk about how much they care about poor people is that they think it may sucker you into voting for them.

If you’ve already made some type of big mistake that puts you in a huge financial hole, I genuinely hate to tell you this, but you’re going to have to work harder, work smarter, and live cheaper than other people to make up for it. That is a long, hard road to go down because even if you are working overtime or are one of the 4.9% of Americans that has a second job, you may always still feel like you’re behind in the game because of something that happened a long time ago that you can’t change.

Getting beyond that, we deservedly mock the press for the “learn to code” articles they spew out at every person that loses a job, but I will say that learning new skills, in general, may save you one day if you lose your job. That doesn’t necessarily mean going back to school either. There are an awful lot of people where I live making surprisingly large amounts of money doing everything from cleaning houses to carpentry work. Of course, that’s not possible everywhere because costs can dramatically escalate (see Manhattan and San Francisco) or jobs are can shift over time. If you’re in a small town (or even a big city – see Detroit) that relies on factory jobs that go away, chances are you’re either going to end up on the dole or you’re going to barely eke out a living. If you are in that situation, the best thing to do is to move where the cost of living is cheaper and there are jobs to be had. That is definitely not always easy, but I’ve done it before and so have a lot of other people.

Last but not least, one of the things I emphasized in my book, “101 Things All Young Adults Should Know,” is that expenses tend to rise to meet people’s income.  For example, I have a single friend that makes $80,000 a year in a fairly inexpensive part of the United States and every time I run into her, she’s always complaining that she’s flat broke. That blows me away, but then I remember that Mike Tyson made 700 million dollars and still went bankrupt.

The reality is that you can be broke at any income level.

If you shouldn’t be broke but you are, the first things to look at is your house and car. Unless you are flipping it or renting it out, a house is a big expense, not an asset and I don’t care what anyone tells you, you don’t need to impress anybody with your car.

Beyond that, there are a lot of expenses that can add up.

A $5 Starbucks coffee for breakfast and an $8 lunch every weekday? That’s $3,380 per year. Are you buying a new Apple phone every year? Do you have cable TV? Do your kids have the newest game system and are you buying new $55 games every month? The lie we tell ourselves is that EVERYBODY does those things… except they don’t. I don’t go to Starbucks, I use a pay-by-the-minute Tracfone instead of an iPhone, I don’t have cable TV and I’ve never bought a $55 game in my life. That’s not unusual either. You don’t have to keep up with the Instagram crowd, you just have to please yourself and your family and you would be surprised at how many things and services you can be perfectly happy without. Alternately, you might want to add up some of those numbers and ask yourself how you’d feel with that money in the bank instead of in the pockets of PlayStation or Apple. Banking even a few thousand dollars for the first time can be a life-changing experience and really saving up some dough over time may mean that you get to retire one day instead of working until you die.

As Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you.” That is true yet, there is no shame in being poor.

Moreover, in a great country like America, even if you are poor right now, you don’t have to STAY poor. The way out of poverty usually isn’t easy, it isn’t fun, and it can take a while, but the overwhelming majority of people can do it if given enough time. The best thing we can do for people in that situation as a culture is to create conditions that make it easier for them to pull themselves out of poverty and to encourage people to do just that instead of waiting the rest of their lives for an incompetent government that will never do it for them.

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BizPac Review.


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John Hawkins


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