5 Ideas You Need to Rise From Poverty to the Middle Class
Getting ahead requires leaving some things behind.
January 29, 2013 - 9:00 am
It was like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy emerges from the grey remains of her dislocated home into an exotic world of color. That was how I felt at twelve years of age upon my arrival in Minnesota.
Home up to that point had been the dank flat malaise of inner-ring suburban Detroit. In many ways, the Motor City evoked Dorothy’s Kansas. Everything was built on the grid system, many right angles, old houses of stone and brick. It was tangibly dull, colors muted by wear and grime. Winters were especially bleak. An amalgam of overcast, endless concrete and dirt-ridden snow drowned the world in grey. By comparison, the big skies and rolling hills of the Mississippi valley seemed a storybook paradise.
That first trip to Minnesota was made in order to spend time with my father. He had been maintaining an apartment in the Twin Cities while starting a new position with Northwest Airlines. We were to scout out potential homes in anticipation of transplanting the rest of the family, my mother and two sisters. It was perhaps the most visceral manifestation of upward mobility in our family’s history, chasing opportunity across the country.
It was the culmination of my father’s economic journey, which had its beginnings in poverty. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about my father’s childhood aside from the scraps I’ve managed to glean from remarks thrown here and there. I know enough, however, to understand that my father’s rise to the middle class beat the odds — which were stacked against him from the start.
Many years later, I continue to benefit from the choices Dad made. Now the father of my own young family, I stand atop his shoulders looking to grab the next rung. From that position, I realize that some of the essential concepts my father applied are still relevant to me today. As I seek to renew the momentum my father achieved, I reflect upon where he began and how he got to where he did. There are valuable lessons there.
First, it’s important to understand the goal. When we consider the quest for upward mobility, what is our measure of success? In a 2011 piece for Time magazine, assistant managing editor Rana Foroohar makes a crucial distinction:
You can argue about what kind of mobility really matters. Many conservatives, for example, would be inclined to focus on absolute mobility, which means the extent to which people are better off than their parents were at the same age. That’s a measure that focuses mostly on how much economic growth has occurred, and by that measure, the U.S. does fine. Two-thirds of 40-year-old Americans live in households with larger incomes, adjusted for inflation, than their parents had at the same age (though the gains are smaller than they were in the previous generation).
But just as we don’t feel grateful to have indoor plumbing or multichannel digital cable television, we don’t necessarily feel grateful that we earn more than our parents did. That’s because we don’t peg ourselves to our parents; we peg ourselves to the Joneses. Behavioral economics tells us that our sense of well-being is tied not to the past but to how we are doing compared with our peers. Relative mobility matters. By that standard, we aren’t doing very well at all. Having the right parents increases your chances of ending up middle to upper middle class by a factor of three or four.
It’s a mistake to take for granted the notion that “relative mobility matters” without asking why. As we consider some ideas for rising from poverty to the middle class, it will become apparent that improving our individual quality of life is a superior consideration to how our wealth compares with that of others.
Authors who advocate government action in order to address income inequality and upward mobility are fond of their statistics. An example from Foroohar:
The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project has found that if you were born in 1970 in the bottom one-fifth of the socioeconomic spectrum in the U.S., you had only about a 17% chance of making it into the upper two-fifths.
Such figures are meant to inform a social diagnostic which too often prescribes more subsidy of the poor. However, that prescription takes a dim view of the human condition and fails to account for how 17% of children born in 1970 beat the odds and rose from the bottom one-fifth of the spectrum to the upper two-fifths. It wasn’t chance, as the figure cited out of context suggests. It wasn’t the mechanical effect of flipping society’s bureaucratic levers. There is no magic formula of government action which propels people from one class to another.
The key to upward mobility, to improving the quality of life, is the acceptance and application of certain ideas. At first glance, they may seem overly simplistic or blatantly obvious. Yet so few actually implement them that it is worth our time to review them. To that end, here are 5 ideas you need in order to rise from poverty to the middle class.
5) Understand Value and How to Create It
In spite of the descending order, these ideas are presented from the most foundational. If readers do not understand value and how to create it, the rest of this list will do them little good.
Let’s be honest. Upward mobility is a euphemism for making more money. There is no shame in that, and we shouldn’t gloss it over. Contrary to the cliché, money can buy happiness. While maintenance of long-term happiness requires more than money, try staying happy without it.
Consider why money is essential to happiness. All living things act to stay alive and improve life’s quality, to survive and thrive. That which we act to obtain and keep is the essence of value. Plants value sunlight, minerals, carbon dioxide, and water. They act, albeit slowly, to obtain those values. Animals likewise seek after the necessities and comforts of life. Man, the rational animal, is unique in his ability to transcend instinct and conceive of new values which did not previously exist. A sharper, lighter spear; a stronger, tighter basket; a way to harness fire or travel over water — such inventions and innovations are values which build upon one another to enable a quality of life theretofore unimaginable.
Since none of us are born innately aware of how to produce the many conceived values enhancing our lives, we come to benefit from them through trade. Can’t make a spear to save your life, but crank out gathering baskets by the dozen? You’ve got a trade. Money is our medium of exchange, something easily portable and generally expected to hold its value. In short, money is the stand-in for any conceivable value we may obtain through trade.
Understanding this helps us dispense with the sophomoric notion that money is the root of all evil, or that we ought to shy away from accumulating it or apologize for having it. It is through the production of value that we “make money.” Dad was right when he said it doesn’t grow on trees. Nevertheless, it can grow if properly cultivated. By identifying what value we are adept at creating, we position ourselves to take the first step toward rising from poverty, earning an income.
Granted, if you are poor, it may be that the value you are capable of producing does not command much in the market. Even so, the most menial of productive tasks can be the seed from which upward mobility springs, provided you embrace the rest of our presented ideas.
4) Untether from Your Class
The tidbits I picked up about my father’s childhood were usually overheard during my parents’ arguments. A recurring theme of their marital discord was my father’s tendency to provide monetarily for his brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews. It frustrated my mother to see him dispense handouts from his earned and limited income to subsidize the irresponsible behavior of extended family members.
I was too young to understand the dynamic at the time. In retrospect, I believe my father was acting upon a sense of guilt endemic of the class into which he was born. Rather than celebrate my father’s upward mobility or congratulate him on his earned success, his family resented him and regarded him with a “who do you think you are” attitude. Accepting this unearned guilt as somehow legitimate, my father regularly paid penance for his success by sacrificing to our extended family.
It demonstrated a limitation in my father’s ability to untether from his class, to disregard the expectations, traditions, assumptions, and dictates of family, friends, and neighbors. That’s not to say my father did not transcend cultural limitations. Indeed, the success he met with could not have been possible otherwise.
Had he listened to his family while growing up, he would have believed himself as inferior as he was treated. As a black man raised in the civil rights era, he also could have believed himself a victim of society. Although he never completely shook these influences, he did overcome them through sheer force of stubborn, persistent will.
His rise was nothing glamorous. He started fueling airplanes for Butler Aviation, a company eventually acquired by Republic Airlines which was in turn acquired by Northwest. He earned his way into a position as a stock clerk and, seeing that he required education to advance further, began taking night school courses to become an airplane mechanic. For two years, I never saw him. He went to school in the evening, worked overnight, and slept during the day. The effort bore him an opportunity to move to Northwest’s main hub in Minneapolis, where he earned far more than before.
Such steady, long-term self-improvement made my father an anomaly among his family and class. The New York Times’ Jason DeParle notes the stagnation typical of poverty:
Even by measures of relative mobility, Middle America remains fluid. About 36 percent of Americans raised in the middle fifth move up as adults, while 23 percent stay on the same rung and 41 percent move down, according to Pew research. The “stickiness” appears at the top and bottom, as affluent families transmit their advantages and poor families stay trapped.
Such stickiness is best explained by the ideas which are transmitted from one generation to the next. If you think someone is keeping you down, it becomes an excuse to stay there. More insidious is the policing of class which takes place among peers. A starving artist is respected until he makes it big, then he’s demeaned as a sellout. Much of the hatred directed at Sarah Palin was no doubt fueled by the animosity of women in her demographic range who resented the aspiration to high office while raising a family and looking good doing it. There is an unwritten rule, “Thou shalt not make the rest of us look bad.” Those who transcend their class always break that rule. If you seek upward mobility, you must be comfortable being persecuted for it.
3) Live Within Your Means
My mother never had any money. She was always “a little short.” She regularly overdrew her checking account. It got to the point where she developed a peculiar relationship with her bank’s managers. They knew her on a first name basis, knew she was pretty harmless if frustratingly intractable, and frequently forgave her fees out of pity.
Mom had this trick she’d play every month — her little gamble. She received a fixed income from Social Security disability and was always flat broke several days before her next deposit arrived. She knew that if she wrote out a check to the grocery store, or any other business, that it could take as long as three days to clear her account. So she would routinely start spending her money three days before it was in the bank. Then she’d keep spending until it was gone.
Needless to say, having such a poor financial role model coupled with a complete lack of economic education through public school set me up for some pretty horrific decisions as an adult. I remember receiving my first paycheck from my first job and thinking only of what I could immediately go out and buy with that amount of money. That was bad enough. The catalyst for true disaster was applying the same attitude toward credit.
While most of my class was heading off to college, I went straight into the workforce and got an apartment with a co-worker who was no more responsible than I. We were both moving out of our parents’ homes and focused primarily on what kind of social opportunities that freedom presented. When pre-approved credit offers started pouring it — as they tend to when you’re young and dumb — I saw it as free money. Why wait to furnish our new bachelor pad? Why wait for a dream home-theater setup? Why say no to the best stuff now? I have no greater regret than those early financial decisions, the consequences of which haunt me to this day.
I remember the moment I first realized how ridiculous consumer credit could be. I had purchased a computer on credit several years prior and had mindlessly sent in my minimum payments month after month. One day, about the time the computer became obsolete, it occurred to me that I should be pretty close to paying it off. When my next statement arrived, I took the highly unusual step of looking at it and discovered that I had indeed paid an amount far surpassing the original principal… and still owed an amount equal to the original principal. I was shocked! How was such a thing possible? How could I still owe when I had already paid more than the original purchase was worth? It seemed somehow unfair that I could owe so much, after having paid so much, and all for something I could no longer use.
This was the manner of my economic education — the school of ignorant screw-ups. Had I known at the start of my adulthood what I know now, I could have positioned myself to be much better off.
Unable to change the past, I now focus upon the present and the future. I resolve to not only live within my means, but to put my savings to work through investment and teach my sons the financial lessons which no one bothered to teach me.
A 2009 study by the Pew Economic Mobility Project indicates that the choice to save improves the odds of generational prosperity:
Children of low-saving (i.e., below median), low-income parents are significantly less likely to be upwardly mobile than children of high-saving, low-income parents.
Seventy-one percent of children born to high-saving, low-income parents move up from the bottom income quartile over a generation, compared to only 50 percent of children of low-saving, low-income parents.
It should go without saying. Yet it doesn’t. Live within your means.
2) Live Intentionally
This one is increasingly difficult in our modern world. Distractions and time wasters lurk as close as your smartphone and summon with the persistence of an always-on internet connection. Hours can disappear, utterly wasted, if we fail to keep time in check.
On any given day, I commonly forget why I logged into Facebook. Maybe it was to check the status of an event. Maybe it was to continue a conversation. Maybe it was to post a link or upload a photo. Whatever the original intent, random notifications, tailored ads, or pop-up chats frequently derail my train of thought. What? An hour has gone by? How did that happen? Regardless, I’m never getting it back.
On the spectrum of sexy, “time management” falls somewhere between estate planning and bed pans. Yet the ability and willingness to effectively direct our attention can have a profound effect upon our physical, mental, and financial well-being.
We commonly say that we are busy, that we do not have time, or that there aren’t enough hours in the day. However, we more likely have plenty of time that we choose to prioritize in habitual ways. While there is certainly nothing wrong with routine, an occasional evaluation of how our time is spent and why is extremely healthy.
Without intention, without an agenda for the day, time can easily sift through our fingers as we drift aimlessly down a path of least resistance. Such days are sometimes necessary, and take on the intentional purpose of rest and relaxation. However, life should not be an endless string of such days. Proverbs 10:4 puts it simply:
A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.
Laziness might be defined by a lack of intention, living life by luck and lottery. Most of us have a respectable work ethic in certain contexts. We do our job while on the clock. We take care of our children. We maintain our home. Yet, too often that ethic goes unapplied to the overall direction of our life. We plug away, living from check to check, enjoying feast and riding out famine, waiting for our proverbial ship to come in. Foroohar identifies the problem:
The mythology of the American Dream has made it difficult to start a serious conversation about how to create more opportunity in our society, since many of us still believe that our mobility is the result of our elbow grease and nothing more.
The author goes on to make a case for government activism. However, spending tax dollars to subsidize poverty will not end it. Elbow grease commands respect. However, it must be the right work for the right purpose managed in the right way. Hard work applied to an unproductive process is an unconscionable waste.
It is not enough to pat ourselves on the back for a particular job well done. We have to make sure the fruit of our labor is managed toward a larger goal. Otherwise, we can expect perpetual check to check living.
1) Seek Advice from Successful People
It’s not enough to untether from your class. If you want to grab the next rung, you need to acquire the habits of successful people. If you are poor, or at any point less than where you would like to be, this means accepting the uncomfortable truth that your friends, family, and neighbors are probably not the people you want to take advice from. After all, if they had insight into the secrets of success, they wouldn’t be your socioeconomic peers.
Does that mean you have to crash country clubs and rub elbows with big investors and CEOs? By all means, if you can acquire a rich friend willing to mentor you, do so. Otherwise, start reading books.
Read books. Do not just read blog posts and articles. One of the first things I’ll often do before stumbling into a debate with someone is ask, “So what books most inform your views on this subject?” If they admit to not being well-read — and they usually do — then you win the debate by default.
There’s a reason why people write books. Certain ideas and arguments require a volume to properly convey. This is especially true when introducing new concepts like those which separate wealth creators from wealth consumers.
Public education does not convey essential economic concepts such as what value is and how to create it. Nor does it effectively teach how money works or how to best manage it. Instead, public education is mandated from the top down to mold “world citizens” who will be pliantly managed from cradle to grave.
I remember graduating from high school and spending the next few years experiencing a nagging sense of abandonment. For 18 years, between the structure of home, the structure of religion, and the structure of public education, I had been told where to go and what to do without ever being trained how to think. Graduation was a kind of banishment into an unexplained wild. Taking the educational scraps you are given is not enough. Truly valuable learning must be sought.
My reading list includes the Rich Dad, Poor Dad series, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, What I Didn’t Learn in School But Wish I Had by Jamie McIntyre, and The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason. Each address the attitudes and mindsets which separate the wealthy from everyone else. In their own way, these books are like having a rich friend willing to mentor you. Best of all, books are cheap. You can even benefit from them for free if you visit a library.
When advocates of government activism bemoan the rarity of upward mobility, they are informed by a distaste for income inequality. They regard the fact that some people earn more money than others as evidence of some undefined corruption in the system.
In truth, upward mobility is unusual because it requires breaking from the familiar. From poverty to the middle class, one must learn how to make money. From the middle class to abundant wealth, one must learn to manage money. In either case, moving up requires the initiative to seek skills and develop habits uncommon to one’s class. Put another way, in a free market, poverty is a choice. So too is success.
Related at PJ Lifestyle on rising up from poverty:
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