The path out of poverty

A 15-year-old from a poor U.S. family asks you, “What can I do to escape poverty?”  How would you answer? Bryan Caplan poses the question on EconLog. A number of readers suggest: graduate from high school, stay out of jail, don’t get pregnant (or get someone pregnant).

Education Realist agrees with “don’t get knocked up or locked up,” but adds more advice.

First, don’t let your family’s needs drag you down.

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.

Stay away from people who don’t share your goals. This is a tough one for kids who grow up in lousy neighborhoods, but it’s critical. Your brother, cousin or best friend from elementary school can get you arrested (or shot).

It’s not enough to graduate from high school: Find a mentoring program that helps at-risk youth prepare for college. There’s a lot of support out there. Ask your teachers for help. Work hard to improve your grades.

If you’ve worked hard and still aren’t doing well, “start thinking in terms of training, not academics,” Ed Realist advises.

Whatever you do, don’t lie to yourself about your abilities, and don’t let anyone else lie to you. . . .  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.

Finally, “do not overpay for college.”

Years ago, I volunteered to help sort donated books for a Christmas giveaway at a library in a mostly Hispanic community. Eighth-grade tutors were supposed to be helping, but only Jorge showed up. The library had hired middle schoolers to tutor elementary students. Despite the pay, most tutors were unreliable, said the librarian. But “Jorge always shows up,” she said with pride. Even when the bus didn’t show up at the middle school, Jorge found a way to get to the library.

I worked with Jorge for a few hours. He made sensible suggestions on which books would be appropriate for which age groups. He was as useful as any of the adults.

Jorge must be in his early to mid-20′s now. I’d guess that he’s earned a college degree. I’m certain that he’s working. He may not earn much yet, but he will not live in poverty. In addition to Education Realist’s advice, I’d add: It’s your life. Show up.

Matt Miller thinks poor kids are buffeted by gale force winds (it’s a Hurricane Sandy metaphor) beyond their control and would get more help if we all realized that everything is determined by luck, including the propensity to work hard. Jorge probably was lucky in his parents. They taught him that he wasn’t a victim of forces beyond his control.

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