The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, September 16, 2005

More on the Poor...

The following was written in reply to another reader, not to my position.  However, with that caveat, I decided to address it as if it were...
The poor *ARE* doing what you keep preaching. They try to pull themselves up. It's insulting to treat them as if they were doing something wrong, and you have the magical ticket to get them out, if only they'd just listen."
No, they're note.  Being born poor obviously has vastly harder challenges than being born middle class.  And yet, remember something:  "The poor are always with us." as Christ said.  Why?  At least partially because the definition of poverty can be very strange in America.  In some rural parts of America, and some of the most broken inner-city areas, there literally are no services, little clean water, and little hope in the REAL sense of poverty if you have ever traveled to Central America, Africa or Asia, or some war-torn zone of Europe.  But the official Federal Income Poverty levels ran  as such in 2000:


     •     One person, under 65 years On $8,959
     •     One person, 65 years and over On $8,259
     •     Two people, householder under 65 years, including one child under 18 years on $11,869
     •     Four people, including two children under 18 years on $17,463"

And the thought of what happens to people WAY under these levels is horrific.   But to say they are struggling, trying, working hard, breaking themselves on the rack...whatever you want to ONE thing.  To suggest that they are doing what I suggest is quite another.
Remember, I started this life poor.  My mother crammed me with "Think and Grow Rich"-style books and tapes.  I did years of research, not studying how rich people thought, but HOW POOR PEOPLE WHO GOT RICH thought.  Do you grasp the specificity?  Blacks, whites, single mothers, whatever.  It obsessed me.  What the hell was it that allowed SOME people to escape poverty, while others remained behind?  Obviously, there is nothing that can guarantee you will make it out--any more than there is anything that will 100% guarantee you will lose weight, or get fit, or live happily ever after.  But success leaves clues. 
If after reading hundreds of life stories, interviews and essays by the formerly poor, I cross-referenced it with what rich people said, and successful people said.  Cross-referencing that with books like "think and Grow Rich" and "Psycho-Cybernetics" I realized that the basic principles that worked for middle-class folks also worked for poor people, and had been refereed to in sacred texts around the world since the beginning of time.  Here are a bunch of different ways of saying the same thing:

1) As a man thinketh, so he is.
2) First Came the word.
3) Where attention goes, energy flows, and results show
4) What you can conceive and believe, you can achieve
5) You need two things to succeed: well defined written goals, and plans for their accomplishment, and a mind closed tightly to fear and doubt.
Looking at the Hero's Journey, which I consider to be the world's combined wisdom about the course of life, you get the following (and this seems to be utterly pan-cultural):
1) Hero confronted with challenge.  "I am poor.  I wish to be rich."
2) Rejects the challenge.  (I cannot.  Everyone around me says its impossible.  I'm black.  I'm old.  I'm uneducated.  I am afraid."
3)  Accepts the challenge ("my pain is too great.   The goal is too sweet.  I must do something")
4) The road of trials.  (Education.  The Army.  Starting at the bottom of a job.  Starting a business. Failing over and over again.)
5) Allies and powers.  (Teachers.  Role models (other formerly poor people who have succeeded), sharpening my mind.  Learning the skills my parents couldn't teach me.  Developing the attitude: IF ONE OTHER PERSON COULD MAKE IT OUT OF THIS GHETTO/POVERTY/SLUM, I CAN TOO!  You have to model the behaviors and attitudes of those who have succeeded)
6)  Confront evil, and fail.  Falling flat on his face.  Losing everything.
7) Dark Night of the Soul.  ("I can't.  They were right.  It's hopeless.")
8) Leap of Faith (often a husband or wife gives one strength to  go on.  Or a church.  Or friends. Or a teacher. Or mentor.  Or simply summoning strength from within to pick yourself up, and try again.)
9) Confront evil, and succeed.  IF they have clear goals, IF they have modeled the behavior of those who have succeeded, IF they have the faith to pick themselves up, try over and over and over again despite the laughter and mocking and distractions, if they continually try new things to reach their goals, then they maximize their chance of winning.  But they must stay the course.)
10) The student becomes the teacher.  I have lost count of the number of formerly poor men and women who lecture and write and preach and teach and mentor.  There are countless thousands of them. 
And do you know what each and every one of them hears?  "It's impossible.  I tried.  It's different for you.  The white man keeps us down. I'm too old.  I don't' have an education..."
and they look out at the sea of faces, and once in a while they see a man or woman who locks eyes with them, and says, silently, "Yes.  I hear you.  I am tired of the pain.  I admit I have been, not foolish, but ignorant.  I will follow you."
And that person begins their own journey.
Don't tell me that poor people do what I'm saying, because most MIDDLE CLASS people don't.  The most specific, consistent gaps in their behaviors are:
1) Well defined, written goals and plans for their accomplishment
2) Finding role models who have made it out of poverty (available on the Internet, in libraries, in used paperback bookstores, often on television)
3) The ability to take action despite the Drunken Monkey chattering to them, saying its not possible.
And the #1 failure I've seen?  The lack of well-defined, written goals.  Yes, the government needs to reach down and help, by my way of thinking.  But as soon as the stomachs are full, the principles by which countless thousands of poor people have lifted themselves up should be taught.  The idea that "poor people can't help themselves" falls apart when you study those who have.  The only honest thing you can say is that "it is harder for poor people, or black people, or X people, to help themselves."  Yes.  It is.  Life is hard.  And  you can either rail against that, and protest it, and sink into a miasma of despair...or you can study the lives of those who started humbly and fought their way up, and resolve by all the strength in you that you will follow their example.
That was my choice.  What's yours?

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