Escaping Poverty

Bryan Caplan asks: “Suppose a 15-year-old from a poor family in the First World asked you an earnest question: ‘What can I do to escape poverty?’ How would you answer?”

I doubt he wants an answer from a teacher/test prep instructor/tutor, but what the heck:

Caplan doesn’t indicate the cognitive ability or race of the poor 15-year-old. Strangely enough, it doesn’t matter too much until the last few steps in the process. So here’s what I’d tell the kid:

  1. Cut your family loose. I don’t mean you have to abandon them, or hate them, but their needs are secondary to yours. If they’re making demands, you have to say “No”. All the time. No, you can’t stay home to babysit because your little sister is sick. No, you can’t go pick your father up at work at 2 in the morning. No, you can’t drop your niece and nephew off at school and be late to class. No, you can’t miss a morning of school to drive your mother to the utility company to help her tell a sob story that gets the power turned back on until she has money to pay the bills. No, you can’t work extra shifts just because the family’s broke. No, you can’t lose an entire weekend to visiting your dad/brother/sister/grandfather in jail. I don’t care if your parents are bums or hardworking joes. They made their lives, and if you want a chance of getting out and making your family’s life better, you don’t get sucked in by their problems. If your parents share your goals, then they’re already making this happen. Otherwise, they are millstones round your neck.

  2. If you live in a city or suburb: within a ten mile radius of your school, there are fifteen to twenty organizations dedicated to helping at risk youth. You are at risk. Go check them out and pick the best one. If your school has an AVID program, sign up for that. There is a bunch of do-gooder money funding a whole host of programs that will give you, for free, everything you need to prepare for college. They will give you daily snacks, mentors, tutoring support, monitoring, care, test prep, college visits, free college admissions tests, and anything else you need. All you have to do is show up. Reporters will periodically feature one of these organizations as if they are unique or their services are rare and surprising. They are neither. Counsellors may not even know of their existence. You must find these places. If you live in a rural area, I can’t be as helpful here, but I suspect your school will be much more knowledgeable about existing support than suburban and urban schools are, and may even be more involved in coordinating these programs. So start with your school. Ask your church. Consult the phone book. If you end up having to do without this support, be certain that it wasn’t out there waiting for you to show up. And worst case, every single fee you can think of has a waiver form and you will certainly qualify.

  3. Stay away from anyone your age who doesn’t share your goals.

  4. Stay away from anything illegal: drugs, boosting cars, sex with anyone outside the approved age range, whatever. I’ve lived a clean life; I have no idea what the temptations are. Avoid. If you ignore this advice, memorize these words: “I WANT A LAWYER. NOW.” While screwing up on this point is dangerous, it’s not necessarily fatal. I know a Hispanic kid who graduated from high school while in jail (boosting cars); he then went to a junior college and graduated as valedictorian and went to Columbia. No, I’m not making this up. I tutored him for his SATS when he was in his second year of community college. Yes, he’s an exception.

  5. Don’t get pregnant. Don’t get anyone pregnant. Don’t pretend that you aren’t your own worst enemy if you ignore this advice. I have no happy anecdotes for this rule. Jail has less of an opportunity cost than a kid.

  6. Get good grades. Most teachers grade on effort, not ability. Use this if you need to, which means you can get good grades simply by doing your homework and making the teacher happy. If you get a teacher who grades on ability, take the opportunity as a valuable benchmark. Are you doing well? Your abilities are strong. Are you in danger of failing? Buckle down and take the opportunity to improve to the best of your capabilities. That opportunity will be worth the grade hit. Grades are an area in which your mentoring organization can help. A lot. They are designed around helping you get good grades. Use them.

  7. Don’t believe the people who tell you that you need X years of math or Y years of English to get to college. Race determines your transcript and test requirements. If you’re white or Asian, then you need an impressive transcript and decent test scores, no matter how poor you are. If you’re black or Hispanic, you’ve got a decent shot at the best schools in the country if you have SAT scores of 550 or higher per section, and a decent GPA (say 3.0 or higher). Blacks and Hispanics who can read, write, calculate at a second-year algebra level, and care enough about school to have a 3.0 GPA are an exceptionally rare commodity (about 10% of blacks, 20% of Hispanics).

    But what if you can’t hit that ability mark? What if you aren’t very intellectual, work hard but don’t do very well on tests, can’t score above 500 on any section of the SAT, despite all your test prep? All is not lost. Whatever you do, don’t lie to yourself about your abilities, and don’t let anyone else lie to you. If you are a low income black or Hispanic kid, many people are uninterested in your actual abilities. You are a statistic they can use to brag about their commitment to diversity. That’s fine. Use their self-interest to your advantage. But if you can’t break 500 on any section of the SAT, then college is going to present a considerable challenge. Don’t compound that challenge by choosing a college where your degree would be a case of overt fraud. Start thinking in terms of training, not academics. Find the best jobs you can, and build good working relationships. Put more priority on acquiring basic skills, and find the classes that will help you do that. Tap into your support group mentioned above, tell them your goals. This doesn’t mean college isn’t an option, but it’s important to keep your goals realistic. If you are a low income white or Asian kid with little interest or ability in academics, no one will lie to you, and no one is interested in helping you because you represent the wrong sort of diversity. However, the advice remains the same. And for all races, if your skills aren’t too low, don’t forget the military.

    Remember that colleges only use grades for admission. Once you’re in, they give you placement tests and grades don’t matter at all. This is great news for high ability kids who screwed around in high school; bad news for low ability kids who worked hard. Remediation has derailed a number of dreams. Be prepared, know what to expect, and minimize your need for it by taking advantage of every minute of your free high school education. And remember: no matter how bad your school is, it has teachers there who can teach motivated kids. Be one of the kids and find those teachers.

  8. Do not overpay for college. Set your goals based on the advice I’ve given here, as well as the advice of those you trust. Get a job to offset expenses. To the extent possible, find jobs that look good on a resume. A secretarial job looks better than a stint at Subway; a tutoring job looks better than a custodial one. Bank your money; if it’s at all possible to accept an unpaid internship that looks good on a resume, you want the option. If you’re studying for a trade, learn everything you can about the job opportunities: from your college, from seminars, from employers in the field. Try to know what you can expect and what sort of positions you want. But if you don’t know what you want, then don’t drift. Find a job, even if it’s not perfect, and see what happens.

If you’ve managed to achieve everything up to that point, you will have escaped poverty. How and by how much are yet to be determined, but you’re on your way.

It’s too easy to say “Get a good support system, go to school, don’t get knocked up or locked up, go to college.” All are optimal, most are necessary, but they sure aren’t sufficient if you don’t understand the game and jump through the right hoops. I’ve tried here to point out some hoops. Good luck.

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39 responses to “Escaping Poverty

  • The Active Intellect

    Interesting. In my personal opinion, there is one surefire way to success: build and maintain self confidence. Without this, not too much will be accomplished… Good ideas though.

    • Hattie

      I have to correct that:

      Self confidence in *addition* to what ER is recommending. I’ve met, and I went to school with, far too many people who were almost cartoonishly self confident, but lacked the ability, work ethic, common sense, self control and support network they needed to get ahead in life.

      Having the self confidence to not let your family become a millstone, to get the help you need, to stay away from illegal activities, is definitely necessary. But it’s not the “one surefire way to success”, because it’s useless, or downright dangerous, without so much else. The only people who say otherwise are the people who already had those support networks, abilities, self discipline etc., and simply needed something to push them over the finishing line.

    • AllanF

      Pimps are supremely self-confident.

      And, well, I suppose they’ve escaped poverty.

    • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse

      Hmmm, seems blacks have the highest levels of self esteem which must be why they do so well.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Dude, good stuff here. Only one quibble: If they are able to read and comprehend your post, they’re probably above average already.

    • educationrealist

      Glad you liked it.

      I wrote this for people who might want to help kids more than the kids themselves.

      That said, I’ve given some version of this speech to low income kids, some of them smart, some of them just hardworking. One of the girls I had for two years (alg and geo), an absolute darling, hard worker (in the school voc-ed program), who took my advice about her senior year classes, and then came to me about a choice: she wanted to be a dental hygienist, but the local cc had a waiting list of 2 years. The Heald school would take her right away, but cost $10K per year for an 18 month program, or $15K. SHe could get a loan, but was it worth it?

      I had no answers for her, but helped her think about the pros and cons of each. She’d have to refuse to help her father, she’d have to work weekends to start to pay off the loan, OR she could work more hours while getting basic ed at community college, but would she lose focus or give up? She knew kids who’d been waiting years and hadn’t gotten in.

      This is not a super-star smart girl, but one of great character and average intelligence. She’d been listening to my various rants about taking on too much debt for college, though, and came to me to discuss her dilemma. So I don’t think above average intellect is essential to understanding what pitfalls there are in getting out of poverty. She was in a mentor organization as well, and they were giving her good feedback–a bit more full-speed ahead than me, but nothing too unforgiveable.

  • superdestroyer

    If you do go to college, major in something that leads to a career in a normally distributed career field such as nursing or accounting. Do not try to compete with the smart kids in a log-normally distributed career field such as going to law school, being a journalist, or trying to be a college professor.

    Also major in something that can get a job such as a pharmacist instead of trying to compete in something like movies or publishing that are limited to a few cities in the U.S.

  • silberstreak

    The poor fifteen-year-old who possesses the good sense to act on the author’s advice, or who at least possesses the smarts sufficient to act on it, is not in need of it.

    Whereas the sort of fifteen-year-old who might benefit from such advice, is usually too dull to make heads or tails of it, much less to act on it.

    In our day and place, poverty of means–material poverty–poses little or no obstacle to getting on in the world.

    It is rather poverty of intelligence–little capacity for learning or understanding, along with poor judgment–that dooms so many to a life at the bottom.

    And no program or extra help or special privilege can overcome that: at some point, a man has got to be able to perform.

    • Benjamin David Steele

      “The poor fifteen-year-old who possesses the good sense to act on the author’s advice, or who at least possesses the smarts sufficient to act on it, is not in need of it.”

      Good point. Also, the fifteen-year-olds who do have sucess tend to be those who aren’t poor. If you are a well off fifteen-year-old, you can mess your life up over and over yet still get second chances, third chances, fourth chances, fifth chances, and on and on. Having wealth, privilege and social capital trumps all else.

  • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse

    If you want to get out of poverty and you have the ability to go to college, arrange to be born in a country where they experimented with making college free.

    That’s what I did.

    It’s no longer free there, so I did a pretty good job on the arrangements.

    If you want to avoid poverty, arrange to be born to intelligent parents who are not in poverty. That’s what my offspring did. No college debt for them.

  • krs

    This article is a fantastic summary and plan of action. Unfortunately, here’s what they’ll take away from reading it:

    Educationrealist: “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah ‘hoops. Good luck.'”

    Kid: “Got it. When are basketball tryouts?”

  • Bill

    This is good but too college-centered. Tradesmen and technicians are not poor. The cable guy is not poor.

    For this kind of job, the two skills a poor kid probably needs to work on most are, first, showing up every day and on time every day, and, second, being able to handle having an obnoxious boss or obnoxious coworkers. That is, handling them without resorting to violence, yelling, wrecking, quitting, or refusing to work. Woody Allen was right that 80% of life is just showing up. However, the other 20% is not telling your boss what an asshole he is. This is especially important when he is, in fact, an asshole.

    • educationrealist

      I think if you didn’t see that in the piece, you didn’t read. It’s definitely not too college centered.

      • Bill

        Where is it? There is general life (i.e. non-vocational) advice in points 1,3,4,5. The rest is about grades, tutoring, and which college to go to. Where it touches on career path, it is almost exclusively college-centric.

      • educationrealist

        Apart from the military, the advice to go for career rather than academic training? Can’t think of any.

      • Anthony

        Bill’s advice is important enough to have been a numbered point. The biggest problem most employers have with employees in low-skill jobs is tardiness and absenteeism. It’s not specifically trade-centered – showing up on time and not telling the teacher she’s an asshole are important skills for getting through high school and college.

  • Truth

    Good article, some of the self-pity (they hate poor white and Asian kids, blah, blah) was a little distracting. But the time spent and information was highly helpful.

    • educationrealist

      I said nothing of anyone hating poor white and Asian kids. You might want to read more closely.

      • Truth

        ” If you are a low income white or Asian kid with little interest or ability in academics, no one will lie to you, and no one is interested in helping you because you represent the wrong sort of diversity.”

        You forgot #9:

        9) Life is unfair, except it, realized it, and focus on what you have to offer, not on why it is unfair to you. Nothing keeps more people in poverty than this.

  • Eric D

    A couple points Truth:

    1. I think you are missing a nuance here: The author of this article never said (although I believe you inferred) that no one (probably more like almost no one, but I would say that is within the margin of error) wanting to give an extra boost to poor white and Asian kids was because people hated them. If you are not aware that most folks in the fields of American academia will make an extra effort to help certain groups, then you may have been living outside the U.S. for the last 40 years or so.

    2. In your second sentence, I believe the word you were looking for was “accept” not “except.”

    • Truth

      No, I meant “expect” as in “it is inevitable.” I did however, mean to write “realize” instead of “realized”: You see Education Realist, I needed your advice, I’m a dumb guy who spent too much time in school!

      And lots of people in America are there to help anyone who is in dire straights, that is their raison d’etre if I may, yes there are more “state sponsored” programs of the sort if you are a minority, but if you look for help, it is there.

  • Michael

    I actually do know an exception to #5: a guy who, in spite of getting a girl pregnant, managed to go to a good college (CO School of Mines, not for the faint of heart) and become an engineer. Mind, I don’t know if his or her family was poor to begin with, what kind of help the families provided (probably a lot) or how much time and money he was able to contribute to the upbringing. I do know he didn’t abandon them altogether as, by the time I knew him, he had a second son by the same woman and was active in both sons’ lives.

  • Cornelius

    #1 is the most important. I grew up in a housing project in the South Bronx, and I would never have been able to escape from that environment if I didn’t distance myself from my family members.

    I have a PhD in physics and now make pretty good money working in consulting, so I’m one of those rare American success stories. I would not have been able to achieve this if I didn’t move away from my family and integrate myself into middle class American society. Work ethic is practically nonexistent among my family members, and probably nonexistent among most families in which poverty is endemic.

    • educationrealist

      That is why I put it first. Glad you got out.

    • Jack

      Seconded. My mother was dirt-poor and uneducated even by the standards of the old country. The smartest decision I ever made was going into the military to get away from my neighborhood and all the family dysfunction I grew up with. And when I ended up at Harvard, the only other person I knew there who came from a similar background had had the same experience–what got her there, more than anything else, was isolating herself from her family.

      It’s tragic, but necessary.

      Also, Ava9:
      I certainly grew up with that “family first” ethic, but it’s always been directed primarily toward the hypothetical family I aspire to have some day. There’s a lesson there for people who work with kids from strongly familistic cultures: that ethic can sometimes be harnessed to enahance their striving rather than undermine it.

  • Ava9

    The problem with number 1, at least for Hispanic / Latino kids, is that it goes directly against a mantra they have been brought up with since the cradle: family first. Any kid who takes this attitude risks being viewed as a selfish traitor by his family, which is a hard saddle to buck for most teens. Not that it isn’t good advice.

    I have seen the same mentality in successful Italian Americans who live in Florida (where I live.) Many of them moved far away from their interfering, buttinsky NY and NJ families, where no relative, no matter how distant, hesitates to contribute her two cents, to live drama-free lives of contentment and personal satisfaction amidst the palms. Interestingly enough, Cornelius, most of them are scientists, as well.

  • Rast

    I liked how the first reply on Kaplan’s post was “Learn to program.”.

    Right, go learn something that only 5% of the population (less for NAMs) is able to learn. Might as well tell a kid, “be born into a rich family instead”

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  • momof4

    As a veteran and wife of a military retiree, I can attest to the value attached to the military. It’s a ready-made community with a strong focus on the habits and behaviors that enable success in any area and it provides outstanding training, mentoring and educational opportunities. It has been a path to success for millions of poor kids of all types and stripes. And, as pointed out in other comments, it is an automatic way out of non-supportive or dysfunctional families and/or communities. It’s much easier to stick to the habits and behaviors that enable success if you are surrounding by those with the same goals. In addition, many military specialties have direct civilian equivalents, so future part-time jobs while going to college can be well-paid and, often, a step toward the end goal. (Navy corpsman to nursing assistant/LPN to RN to nurse anesthetist or practitioner, for ex. )

    That’s not always true on college campuses, where plenty of kids are messing up their lives and the lives of their friends, by drinking, drugs, laziness, useless majors, large debt etc. The veterans on campus are usually another category entirely and it’s not an accident.

  • professorRev

    Your advice is spot on. I have taught and advised college students for the past 25 years and have said very similar things to them. Your first point: get rid of user-family members is so important, yet so hard for many youngsters to hear. Thank you for stating this point so clearly, bluntly and unapologetically. It is absolutely the key to moving on to the next excellent pieces of advice that you give. For any young readers who are dreaming of escaping poverty: trust this advice; it is true.

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  • Desta Batson

    Omg! Thank you! I feel like I already escaped.. Thank you so much.

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  • Benjamin David Steele

    One failing with this list is the following. What makes for a successful individual when magnified on the large scale makes for a dysfunctional society. That is how we got to have all the problems we have today.

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