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.

About Joanne


  1. Two words:

    Delayed gratification

  2. Crimson Wife says:

    Luck helps, but persistence matters more. When life shuts a door in your face, do you sit around playing the victim? Or do you find a way to open a window?

  3. It’s also helpful to use libraries (and librarians), museums, public buildings and any local place of cultural, historical or literary interest; those are ways to increase general knowledge (cultural literacy), which will be of significant help in college – and most are free. Particularly in the inner cities, schools/teachers apparently do not tend to take advantage of such opportunities or recommend them to motivated students. The lack of the cultural literacy possessed by his classmates was specifically mentioned by a Georgetown U freshman, who had graduated from a “good” DC charter school, in the letter he wrote to the WaPo. Given the DC area resources and the Metro system, that’s really unacceptable practice.

    I would also add, for those in the URM categories who are AA candidates; don’t attend a college where you are not likely to succeed. The SAT gap between blacks and whites/Asians at UT-Austin, according to Fisher documents, is over 300 points. I’ve seen gaps as high as 467 reported in some studies of elite colleges. Anyone who starts out that far behind is being set up for trouble; failing, dropping out or dropping into a very soft major that is not likely to pay off after graduation. Many years ago, I read a column in a DC paper, by a black columnist, who said that he had told his daughter (son?) that he would not allow her to consider any college where she was not within 1 SD of the white/Asian freshman mean SAT. He wanted her challenged but not overwhelmed. It’s good advice for anyone, except that whites/Asians won’t be admitted with that kind of gap.

  4. I would add that, especially for those not prepared for a 4-year college (defined by SAT/ACT scores; in many schools staff are not allowed to suggest that a student is not prepared for college-level work), the military is a great option. Any branch will teach the habits and behaviors that enable success in school, employment and life and offer great mentoring (senior petty officers, chiefs, sergeants) and educational opportunities. The Air Force and the Navy have the widest variety of technical options, many of which transfer directly to civilian life. Being able to work as a mechanic, lab tech or admin assistant during post-military schooling is a big advantage, as is the funding for college. Also, most military bases offer online or in-person CC classes. As a veteran, and wife of a military retiree, I’ve seen this work for huge numbers of young people.

    • Or, for those prepared for college, check into ROTC or other college programs that will help with cost and give valuable experience after graduation. It worked for me!

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    There’s poor, and there’s poor being raised in a disfunctional culture.
    Need two separate sets of advice here.

  6. The military has weight and PT standards, so a 15yo has time to make sure he/she is not overweight and is fit. It is better to choose a sport favored by the academically ambitious (avoid FB, BB), like swimming, cross-country or soccer, so good habits can be reinforced. Also, for the academically strong, the service academies are a great deal.

  7. “Jorge probably was lucky in his parents. They taught him that he wasn’t a victim of forces beyond his control.”

    Did you meet them, or are you guessing?

  8. Stacy in NJ says:

    Having grown up as a welfare dependent, trailer park residing child of a mother whose boyfriends were typically ex-cons who became a member of the (cough, cough) 1%, I feel qualified to comment.

    1. There is no such thing as luck. It’s all on you.
    2. Set a goal.
    2. Always stay away from scum-bags, even those in your own family.
    3. Learn early how to identify scum-bags.
    4. Bad things are going to happen to you. Shake it off. Don’t let them define you but don’t wallow either.
    5. Work harder than nearly everyone else.
    6. Trust but verify – always.
    7. Enjoy life but don’t do stupid sh*t.

    • Stacy, I agree with everything but number one. Of course there’s such a thing as luck. That said, numbers two through seven can overcome a lot of bad luck.

  9. Read. Read everything. Get better at reading. Read to learn. Read to live. Read.

  10. telling someone to disconnect from their family if they don’t serve your goals is kind of a big request at 15…”no, i won’t pick my father up from work at 2am” or “no, i won’t help my nephew and niece” what if you want to? what if that’s the only time or fulfillment that you gain from your family all day….just can’t swallow that one..just because family members might need to your help doesn’t mean that they are dysfunctional or unsupportive. yikes.

  11. Overindulgence in alcohol and bad decisions/stupid behavior go hand in hand. Stay sober. Even worse for drugs. If you must have sex (and in the dark ages before the Pill, most unmarrieds didn’t have it or have it often), ALWAYS use condoms. If female, get an IUD or implant and also insist on condom use. For both, restrict sexual activity to partners who share your goals.

  12. ‘What can I do to escape poverty?’

    Kids don’t ask this. They shouldn’t, and adults should stop them. They should ask about how to become a success; how to reach their potential or realize their dreams. They need to be able to have dreams other than how to escape poverty. Escaping poverty is a low, statistical goal that comes from adults, not an individual one that comes from kids. This question really bothers me. While it’s good to teach kids to deal with reality, the goal should be to provide pathways that don’t require an immense source of internal drive and self-control. That it can be done may be good to know, but it’s not a solution. That some people can do it is not an answer. And if you have that kind of drive, the goal should be much, much higher than getting out of poverty or being thrilled to get into a community college.

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

    This is hard to do when many educational systems don’t separate students or prevent you from going to the school of your choice because of fairness or what might happen to those left behind. There are already enough forces that fight against you even if you have individual initiative.

    A beter question would ask what schools can do to make it easier for students with drive and motivation to achieve individual success. Unfortunately, schools define success as a rising tide that floats all students to a minimal level out of poverty. Their goal is to increase the percentage of kids who meet low proficiency cutoffs on state tests. It’s not to maximize individual educational opportunity.

    One can’t stress individual initiative and then claim that it’s an unfair advantage. One can’t stress individual initiative if the educational system ignores you if you get over a minimal proficiency cutoff. Being a top student in a poor school is not not enough. What will initiative get you when many adults are thrilled if you just get out of poverty or get to the community college level? Kids have to watch out for the low expectations of adults.

    Education should be about individuals, not statistics. Low expectations based on statistics should not limit individual students. I see it happen all of the time.

    • North of 49th says:

      I’m with the previous poster in being skeptical that kids would often phrase the issue as “How can I escape poverty?” and agreei we should support them as individuals to identify their goals and dreams and teach them how to work towards those. Instead of a lot of “don’t do this, don’t do that,” provide other options and emphasize the positive choices that will get them where they want to go.

      Of course there are lots of differences between our schools (and social values) and those in the U.S., and although we unfortunately have a pretty high child poverty rate, we are apparently more successful in facilitating social mobility so that those who start out in poverty don’t necessarily end up there.

      I’m in my fourth high-poverty urban school, and we do a lot to encourage our students to think big — we bring in successful people from a variety of fields and backgrounds as speakers and guest artists and so on who share their own stories and passions and get the students thinking of options they had never heard of before; we make an effort to encourage kids to read (and teachers to use as read-alouds) inspiring stories of people who overcame obstacles to achieve their goals, we get parents involved by having family-friendly events to promote storytelling, mathematics, creative arts …all kinds of stuff.

      A program that has been very successful with high school students and getting them not only ready for post-secondary but helping them through the transition and providing mentoring and various kinds of support is this one:

      It’s not a government or school system program, it started out funded by donors and local businesses and now gets some corporate funding and some government grants but is still mostly donor-supported. I don’t see why it could not be replicated in the U.S. (you guys have all kinds of foundations and stuff that we don’t).

      For the specifics of the program components, check here:

      and at the bottom, you can click on the details about mentoring, advocacy, tutoring, etc. The results have been very positive.

      I’m not involved myself (it’s a secondary level initiative) but have had opportunity to meet, observe and get to know lots of the students and mentors who are involved, as my k-8 school is a site they use several evenings weekly for tutoring and events. It’s a community-based program and located in very high-needs neighbourhoods (my k-8 school is a very low-income one with many refugees, new arrivals and people with a variety of challenges, virtually all visble minority.)

      Teachers and school personnel may encourage students to check out the Pathways program, but the initiative to get involved comes from the kids and their families, and it has a contract component. The program also includes people who support both the student and the family to help solve problems along the way (we know that kids drop out or abandon college plans because they feel they need to earn money to support theri family or because of family crises of various kinds).

      Is there anything like this in the U.S.? There must be but I haven’t heard about it and I do keep up on U.S. education news fiarly well.(taught there for a while).

      • “we bring in successful people from a variety of fields and backgrounds as speakers and guest artists and so on who share their own stories and passions and get the students thinking of options they had never heard of before.”

        Schools have to go beyond the inspiration and motivation meme. You can’t just bring in a computer expert to excite kids about becoming a computer graphics or game designer. (I’ve been one of those people.) You have to provide the day-to-day structure that ensures mastery of the basics in math. You have to push things that are not fun. You can’t rely on natural ability and motivation. My son is a sponge for knowledge but I had to force the issue of mastery. The school just spiraled through the material and assumed that the process would work by definition. It doesn’t.

        • Especially at the ES level, it’s all about fun; I’m really beginning to think that many of today’s ES teachers are still fixated onto the stage of their childhood where they “played school”; lots of artsy-crafty, touchy-feely stuff, lots of games, no academic content and none of the serious work it takes to master the fundamentals of the academics. Needless to say, this attitudes was/is encouraged, not remediated, in ed schools. Unfortunately, it’s spread into MS, too. Combined with the feel-good, who-cares-about-results push for heterogeneous grouping/diversity and mainstreaming, we have arrived at the point where teachers are not responsible for teaching anything, admins aren’t even responsible for enforcing discipline and no one is responsible for kids learning anything. Just push them along until it’s too late and then blame lack of “engagement” or poverty.

        • North of 49th says:

          Agreed, you need to do both. In our community, students often have no idea of the options open to them, so the inspiration/motivation element is necessary but not sufficient. We also have a sequential, rather than spiral, math curriculum, and have time allocated in every elementary math class daily for mastery of the basic math facts and operations. Timetabling can be a challenge but we try to group students by their instructional level so that they can progress at the optimum rate.

          I think in less-advantaged communities we need to have a longer instructional day, and provide more opportunities for math (and other) mastery practice. We don’t expect parents to do this, although I’m told that in middle-class and upper-class schools parents are expected to provide drill and practice in the basics, or pay others to do it. Not possible for us. Some students need a lot more practice than others, and instructional time is inadequate to that task for some. We have lunch and after-school tutoring groups, math club –which is more for enrichment than basics — and we have don’t seem to have the “fun fun fun” orientation that I infer is widespread from many posters here.

          I don’t see the artsy “priojects,” colouring activities and groupy stuff that many describe. The kids seem to be quite engaged in their work, but they do see it as WORK, not play, and take pride in doing it well.