Bryan Caplan  

Escaping Poverty: Your Friendly Advice

A Bunch of Arguments in Favor ... Housing Bubble and Fraud...
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?

Responses from progressives, liberals, moderates, and left-libertarians are especially welcome.

COMMENTS (65 to date)
Frank Lantz writes:

Learn to program.

Arman writes:

Get a job. Spend your free time learning from the million free sources on the internet, or apply for college/trade school grants.

Answer: Don't commit any crimes.

Reasoning: The US (and to lesser extent other Anglosphere nations) will condemn you, potentially for life, to poverty for the slightest transgression. No drugs, no shoplifting, no fights, no petty crime of any kind, and almost just as importantly, do not associate with anyone who does any of the above.

Personal political classification: libertarian

Peter H writes:

1.) Become gainfully employed. At 15, you can get a job outside the home and should. It will give you something productive to do with your free time, and more importantly, give you money, which opens up more possibilities. Doesn't matter if it's McDonalds or something similarly low prestige or unpleasant.

2.) Moreso than college, your goal should be to establish your own household. Even if that means renting a room shortly after graduating high school. This can be done on a very meager income, though it will be difficult.

The reason for this is that most poor households, unless the parents are incredibly unusual, will be a much greater suck of time and money than self-householding. If our hypothetical teenager becomes a wage earner, her parents are likely to confiscate some or all of her earnings for household use. Further, they will use social pressure to do so after she turns 18. Even if not directly confiscatory, if the family has been continually impoverished, there's very likely quite a lot of money disfunction going on, and being present in that household will almost inevitably reel her into that disfunction.

3.) Read. A lot. Self help books are good places to look. She is not looking for an econ textbook, but concrete, simple advice and information about how to manage a bank account, how to budget for a household, and how to seek out career advancement. Calculating a discount rate isn't important; knowing to avoid your older brother's "no risk" investment in his pizza parlor is.

4.) Avoid the pressure to go directly to 4 yr residential college unless offered a full scholarship including room and board. Yes, you can get loans, but it's a disastrously bad idea to do so. If she has the academics to get a full free ride to a university within her ability range to graduate without too much difficulty, then she should do so. If she cannot, then she would be best served by taking one or two classes at a time at a local community college while working full time and maintaining the household mentioned above.

5.) Do not avoid using social programs out of pride, but do not attempt to defraud them. Using social programs such as food stamps as a safety net is fine. In a tough situation, she should seek every opportunity to support herself, and social programs may be a part of that. But ultimately, she needs to develop patterns that avoid being dependent upon them, so developing a pattern of working and employment being her primary (and as rapidly as practicably possible only) source of income is the path she needs to follow.

BZ writes:

Learn a marketable skill. Tell yourself every day that you are going out there to serve humanity (or some similar altruistic claim). Befriend a tradesman and offer to work for free to learn what he/she does. Ask your friends if you can work on their pipes or their sink. Do anything you can to learn how to do something that other people value. And when you can get away with it, go out and do it.

Once you start working, save-save-save. Live with friends and family at first until you can afford a car and possibly your own modest place. Keep your eyes open for more ways to build your personal capital. Getting a computer and learning to program isn't a bad idea!

Short answer: earn.

Richard writes:

The statistics on this question are so good that the answer is easy. He or she must do three things:

1. Finish high school.
2. Avoid prison.
3. Refrain from having children until married.

Do those three things and the odds of being poor are tiny.

Ivan writes:

1. Whether in happiness or sorrow, cultivate peace of mind.

2. Cultivate peace of mind. Grow your mind.

3. Avoid any activity, relationship or habit that distracts you from 1 and 2. Embrace all activities, friendships and habits that help you obtain 1 and 2.

4. Find good examples of people who have done 1 and 2, try to look at them in context, but cherish their virtues.

5. Trust yourself, develop and learn to develop self confidence. Learn self encouragement and self help. In the end, after the die is cast, it will ultimately depend on you and you alone.

Kevin Dick writes:

Don't worry about it. Twin studies show it's mostly genetic. So there's very little you can do.

I second the three things suggested by Richard.

I would then explain about comparative advantage and see if I could help generate some candidates for what his or hers might be. Then suggest he or she focus on pursuing and magnifying that advantage.

Ian writes:

I am a liberal: committed Democrat, not the least bit libertarian, a fan of Bryan's work, and I escaped serious poverty.

Richard's items are necessary but, in my own experience, insufficient:

1. Finish high school. 2. Avoid prison. 3. Refrain from having children until married.

But also...

4. Avoid marriage and children until you are a formed adult. Unless you are unusual, that won't happen until late 20's, or later. Grow up. Rich people take their time, for good reason; you should too.

5. Credentials are practical, attainable assets. A degree is realistic, and could be useful if carefully chosen. Go to college, and get a degree, if you can avoid debt. Since you're poor, it could happen.

6. Be careful about lifelong commitments, especially to skills and vocations that a) you really hate and b) no one will want in ten years.

7. Learn how to work HARD for the sake and pleasure of work. Learn to do it for your own happiness, not the happiness of people you think that you want to impress.

8. Become a skilled reader.

bob writes:

Take the actuarial exams and just say no to grad school.

Foobarista writes:

Finish high school. Participate in high-school sports to build discipline. Hit the books as hard as your intellect allows.

If you're stuck in a crappy inner-city school system, work hard to get into a decent charter school or better schools by living with a relative outside the area. "Crappy inner-city school" means classrooms are noisy, gangs rule the hallways, the student culture does not favor achievement, the administration is incompetent and probably corrupt, the teachers generally suck, and almost nobody goes to college.

If English (or whatever the main language is in the country of interest) isn't your native language, learn it and learn to be comfortable in the "prestige dialect" version of the language. (The "prestige dialect" bit applies even if you are a native speaker.)

Keep your nose clean. Getting involved with criminals and idiots at this point of life will likely destroy you permanently, even if your "early offenses" just get you into juvy.

Don't get pregnant or get girls pregnant.

If you're academically oriented, go straight to college - if you're "in poverty", getting scholarships should be easier. If you aren't, and still manage to get decent grades and stay away from idiots, you can join the military, or find a trade where you can start as an apprentice; many of these pay quite well if you're in them awhile.

john hare writes:

The advice here being very good, a prerequisite is escaping the victim mentality. No matter how well the advice here is used, people, including me, don't like doing business with or hiring people that whine about how tough it is to be them. (Them being poor, black, brown, female, sixth child, bipolar, etc) Learn to be a winner without bragging about it. We like winners. We don't like people that constantly go on about how smart, honest, dedicated, etc they are.

Charlie writes:

View all loans as an investment - that includes college, cars, houses, etc. Don't take loans that don't directly increase your earning potential, or decrease some set of other costs. Anything else, you should save for.

On college - consider the major and the opportunities that it creates, are those worth the costs? (Engineering, computer science - yes. English, psychology - not nearly as much) Plan accordingly.

Practical advice - don't forget birth control methods if engaging in sexual activity. Disease and babies are expensive and will hold you back. Put those off until you've established a career.

John Smith writes:

Study hard.


andy writes:

Learn to program.

First advice in the comments...first thing that occured to me before I opened the comments. I know people who don't have a college degree, yet have a very decent living being good programmers.

stuhlmann writes:

As mentioned by one person above, consider serving in the military for a few years - after you finish high school. This will give you an opportunity to learn a trade - driving a truck, auto mechanic, medic/EMT, or whatever. This will be a skill you can always fall back on. You can get educational benefits both during and after your enlistment. Plus if you are willing, you will learn self discipline and other life skills from sergeants, who will bend over backwards to teach and mentor someone who wants to learn. With the war in Iraq over and the one in Afghanistan winding down (we hope), the military is probably not offering the kinds of enlistment bonuses they were five years ago. Still if you show some restraint, you should be able to come out of the military with money saved for your next stage in life. Most of all, joining the military will remove you from your current environment and give you a chance to see some of the rest of the world. This will expand your horizons, help you to mature, and give you some perspective on what you want to do in life.

Jeff writes:

I recently had an opportunity to do this for about 30 kids (aged 11-15). We played the "trading game" (brown paper bags) and the message was simple: to escape poverty you have to bring something to the table that other people value.

The sponsor of the event told me that this was probably the first time these kids had heard that message.

Gene writes:

At 15 his/her resources are limiited and narrow in scope. Time to start building them one person at a time. A significant thing that is not costly to students is to start to build a relationship network way outside of their present one.

Find one or two or three teachers in their school they can spend time with before or after school. Go there everyday to talk, do work, or just sit there! It you show an involved teacher that you are there to make yourself better they will go to the ends of the earth to support you. This pays dividends for the student in the present and the future (help/advice now, recommendations or future connections from the teacher in the future).

We ALL know how important relationships and connections are to out own success, even if we might not admit it. I know from personal experience that these kids lack these relationships outside of their own neighborhoods.

Contrived mentorship programs where students are matched up with someone they dont know or is random in nature are not good in my opinion. It MUST be spontaneous and mutual.

Also, I suppose Bryan's theory of "Signalling" has already taken place if the kid has already sincerely asked the question posed---he/she is primed to make things better.

A 15 year old kid from a poor neighborhood has a hard time conceiving of the future benefits many of you have listed here. It is just not something they can reasonably envision.

This is not a romantic change the world by fiat way of answering this kids question but it is inexpensive and effective.

My two cents worth. Keep the change.

Joshua writes:

For poor women:
1. Don't drink or use drugs.
2. Get an IUD.
3. Guard your heart: don't fall for bad boys or anyone who doesn't share your goals.
4. Always be working: either in school or for money or on your own projects.
5. Develop physical strength and competence: lift weights and fix things yourself.
6. Develop recreational reading.

For poor men:
1. Don't drink or use drugs,
2. Always use condoms.
3. Always be working, in school or for money or on your own projects.
4. Rise above anger. Life is full of petty annoyances and deep and abiding insults, but responding to them will not help you achieve your goals. The best revenge is a life well-lived.
5. Read for fun.
6. Don't date anyone who doesn't share your goals.

mdb writes:

Funny how the comments are all about personal responsibility, even from the liberals (not used pejoratively); but I think that is where you are going with this question.

Good answers from all.

Specifically: Join the Air Force and try to get into the Contracting AFSC. After 6 years, don't re-enlist but join the federal workplace as a GS11-13 somewhere.

Generally. Don't associate with people who do not want to progress from poverty. Associate with people who do. Talk to those who you wish to be like.

Seb writes:

I think some minimum requirements are things like "finish high school", "don't get (anybody) pregnant (until you can afford a child etc)", and something like "stay in your first job for at least one year". Also, don't commit crimes.

Beyond that, I need to know more about the person :) What sort of difficulties do they anticipate (perhaps they struggle with low self esteem or depression or something that would need addressing), what are their interests, what are their ambitions...

Kevin writes:

Coming from a poor background myself, I think the biggest ones would be...

1) Don't accept your future poverty as a given.

2) Set reasonable, concrete goals for yourself.

3) Think everything through.

Probably (3) is the greatest hurdle to escaping poverty, based on all those who have failed to do so that I've met. So many of the major set-backs (e.g., having one or multiple kids unintentionally, making large/imprudent purchases, etc) I've seen are reported to have 'just happened'. They weren't cases of making mistakes with incomplete information or being the victim of bad luck, but simply thoughtlessness. If you don't feel like you're presently capable of thinking things through well enough to improve your circumstances, find someone more successful than yourself and automatically ask their opinion on even moderately important decisions. Alternatively, just wait 72 hours before making any new, non-discretionary purchases to see if they still feel like a good idea.

Vangel writes:

Find a job. Work hard to learn how to be better at a particular skill. Continue learning but don't let school get in the way of getting a proper education. Be rational and don't let emotion dominate your decisions. Be aware that there are many things that you do not know.

daubery writes:

This is a hard thing to answer, because it depends on things that aren't so obvious.

First, as far as getting education and skills, this is great if you can. If you are intelligent enough to try to go to a top university or study engineering or be a computer programmer then do so. There are many mechanisms in place to allow this to happen despite financial problems. The latter in particular can be self-taught for free. The main problem is working hard, probably often self-directed, while surrounded by people who whom this is either not an option or nor considered desirable to start with.

But most people who are born in poverty and become upper middle class, or were always part of the upper middle class, overestimate how easy this is, just because they are especially suited to it. Only 5% of people can be the top 5% of students in the country (or whatever), and taking a random student the odds are strongly against him being one of them. If you don't know anyone who simply isn't capable of becoming a professional programmer despite any level of work then you are living in a bubble.

If you are poor because of something outside your control like having a low IQ, then what I would say is to lower expectations, or rather, acquire non-monetary goals, and avoid self-destruction. People on low wages still live decently. They can afford food, shelter, TV, books, internet - I'm sure anyone who has lived as a doctoral student can see this, with comparably low salaries bought for hard work. The most pleasure in life comes from raising a family, and that isn't dependent on money past a fairly low level (note, that doesn't mean your children need lots more stuff than you had).

The main reason most people end up in a really bad position is some bad decision - crime, addiction, etc. So you must avoid these like the plague even though you will likely be exposed to them frequently and know many people who consider them normal.

I tweeted this to you as well--it's a bit longer than fits in the comments section:

Escaping Poverty

Kevin L writes:

Someone came close to my advice, but not quite:

Find a successful, trustworthy adult who is willing to befriend you and shadow them. Get into their professional and social circles by being conscientious and respectful.

RPLong writes:

A lot of pretty good advice here. It basically highlights what I see as the most important piece of advice:

Take time to meet successful people whom you admire, and spend as much time picking their brains as possible. There are as many paths to success as there are successful people. But as a kid, it's hard to see what your path is unless you're able to meet some successful people and have good conversations with them.

Be as outgoing as possible, but never ask for more than advice. Just meet them and befriend them. "If you surround yourself with good people, good things will happen to you."

Examples would be:

* University professors. In general, I have found them to be friendly, EXTREMELY helpful, and broadly knowledgable. They will steer you toward college, but as Caplan demonstrates, they will not necessarily do so.

* Do you have a part-time job? Schedule a 15-minute meeting with your manager and ask him/her for advice getting to where they are. Again, I have found such folks to be extremely helpful/knowledgable.

* Local business owners. You can usually find these folks at churches, career fairs, community events, coffee shops, etc.

John Strong writes:

Get married.

It's not a guarantee, obviously, but the statistical evidence suggests that it makes a critical difference in what matters most - attitude & motivation.

Daniel Levine writes:

Are we doing political affiliations? I'm a couple shuffles to the right of outright Marxist, probably.

I guess I'd mostly echo daubrey, above.

Here's what I'd say (well, relevant to this exercise. I'd be a better person if what I actually said were, "let's concretely figure out what I can do to help *you*"):

Most of the advice above is good, as far as it goes.

It's probably going to be hard to follow a lot of it, unfairly hard. Unfortunately, you can't get too hung up on that. If you don't exercise the superhuman resistance to social pressures that people who are all like, 'get a job! Finish HS! It's so easy!' want you to, *I* won't blame you, but you'll probably still be poor.

Don't ignore the unfairness, but use it as best you can to keep going if you're having trouble at things that people keep telling you 'should' be easy, rather than as a way to justify giving up. I know, I know, I'm giving you the same psychologically unrealistic advice I just complained about, but unfortunately this part isn't going to be fair, either. Keep Brother Ali's sage words in mind: 'You're [gosh darn] right they made it like this, but I ain't trying to wait for the day that they might fix it.'

You may have to distance yourself from family and friends in a way that makes you uncomfortable, or that could arguably be immoral. That's going to be your call. Unfortunately, it's not for nothing that becoming wealthy and being a good person have traditionally been considered opposing goals. They're at least not the same thing. Keep an eye on *why* you want to get out of poverty. Maybe it'll help you with this, but it'll definitely help you later.

Take any condescending advice from people like me, who didn't grow up in poverty, with a grain of salt. Go talk to the people who actually made it out. The system isn't fair and they'll know better how to game it.

If you do end up wealthy, or at least not-poor, congrats! Try not to be obnoxious to other people struggling to do what you did. Ask yourself what you should do now.

Glen Smth writes:

Mostly avoid the negatives like jail. Do not buy anything that does not generate an income, is needed to maintain that income or reduces your costs. Live like a pauper so even if you become a high income earner, you can make a huge profit (income less costs arising from living) which you can use to become wealthy. Figure out how you can generate a non-labor based income stream as soon as possible but use that non-labor income stream to re-invest in that non-labor stream at least until it surpasses your labor-based income stream. Avoid career fields where there is a surplus of talent.

OneEyedMan writes:

I really like the core advice given by Richard and others about school, jail, jobs, and sex. Still, it seems more strategic than tactical. I assume there are many people who say at 15 that they want to graduate high school, stay out of trouble and avoid having any kids for a while and yet fail to achieve their stated goals.

So what would I tell them to help them achieve their goals?

Avoiding social situations with alcohol would shape both your social circle and your risk taking.

Getting a part-time job of any sort but ideally in a trade or office is something that any 15-17 year old could do. This may not be work for all households because I think it can imperil familial government benefits but you could try regular volunteer work aimed at the same purpose (habitat for humanity instead part time construction work) meeting future employers and developing skills and discipline.

Reading for pleasure in any area that interests you would also be decent advice. Many workers never read for pleasure and it hinders their work performance because they have trouble with reading tasks due to insufficient practice.

Chris H writes:

Some good advice here, but one I didn't see that I think can be important.

Get internships.

Ideally paid ones, but don't get too hung up on that at first. Internships give you three vitally important things, experience, connections, and signals to future employers.

Getting a job is great, but it's often more difficult to get something where someone has to go out on a limb and start paying you. Start with a few internships while you're in school (or immediately after if you have to) and that offers a way in to most career fields.

(Oh and this advice from an anarcho-capitalist)

Maximum Liberty writes:

I hate to say this, but some of the advice above really depends on the 15-year-old's raw intellect. I think everyone overestimates their own intelligence. So, if I was giving advice, I would tell her or him to build a mentorship relationship with someone that could be honest about her or his abilities, then ask: "Do you think I have the intellect needed to succeed in a hard major in college?" If the answer is no, then avoid college and look for a job that allows advancement through hard word and reliance on doing what you did before. If the answer is yes, then find the best college you can attend for free, research the incomes of people graduating with various majors, and choose a well-compensated major that interests you.


MikeDC writes:

@ Ian and others:
3. Refrain from having children until married.
But also...

4. Avoid marriage and children until you are a formed adult. Unless you are unusual, that won't happen until late 20's, or later. Grow up. Rich people take their time, for good reason; you should too.

No, get married ASAP!

Separate the issues of marriage and children! Considered individually, a poor person should get married sooner and have children later.

If you're the sort of person who can already finish school, avoid prison, and refrain from having children, find a like-minded person to marry.

If you continue to delay kids, being married almost guarantees you escape poverty. You likely get two incomes, and you likely cut a whole lot of expenses (housing and utilities being the most obvious) compared to two people living independently.

Mike W writes:

Stay out of trouble and graduate high school. Then go into the is the largest most meritocratic corporation in the US with abundant training and travel opportunities and a support structure and personal code you will need to shake off the effects of "the hood". It will get you out of your environment and that will be the most beneficial move you can make. Also, lose any attitude you've into the program and you'll benefit more and faster.

mobile writes:

Delay gratification and save money.

Most of us want to be rich because we like consumption, but it is consumption -- living at or beyond your means -- that will derail you from accumulating wealth.

Sure you'll come across rich people who seem to satisfy their every whim all the time. What you don't see is the sacrifices and effort (some of) those people made when they were not so well off. Another thing you don't see are the "millionaires next door" -- the frugal and financially secure among you who don't necessarily fit your notion of what a rich person looks like.

Rohan writes:

Learn how to control your spending and how to spend wisely.

The temptation to splurge will be great once you get a job, but spending all you earn (or worse, more than you earn) will never pull you up.

At the same time, you can't really live like a monk, so you have to learn how to spend, not just how to save. What is worth buying, and what is not worth buying? When is it a good idea to buy the expensive item for durability, and when it is better to buy the cheap item.

Mark Bahner writes:
This will give you an opportunity to learn a trade - driving a truck, auto mechanic,

If a 15 year-old learns to drive a truck, he or she should expect to be out of a job by age 45, because in 30 years virtually all trucks will be entirely computer-driven.

Similarly, in 30 years, the number of automobiles owned in the U.S. will have declined by......ummm....80 percent from current levels, since people will not need to own cars, if a computer-driven car picks them up to take them where they need to go.

Computer programming seems good.

Mike Lorenz writes:

Get a job, utilize free/cheap education, stay out of jail are all good pieces of advice. There is, however a great informal way to move up the ladder if you have the self-control, motivation, and work ethic necessary.

That is, ask successful people for help. I came from a poor family and throughout my career, I have never found a successful person I respected who would not take the time (even though they are very busy) to sit down with me and answer a bunch of questions I had about how they got successful. Successful people actually love to help folks who: a) recognize their success as something positive and b) are willing to work hard.

Once you have success and professional accomplishment, helping someone else who is deserving do the same is highly rewarding. I have started to have folks ask me for advice which I freely give along with my time and would do more of if asked by someone who I thought was serious - and I still seek out the advice of those more successful than myself. It takes a little humility to be in your 30s and ask another adult for advice, but it is just plain smart. In your teens or 20s, it is essential.

Foobarista writes:

One other point: look like a serious person. Wear clothes that fit, stick to boring when it comes to hair, leave the body art in areas that can be covered, and leave the nose-ring at home when looking for jobs. If you look "difficult", nobody will care about your "inner qualities".

Ian writes:

Mike W writes:

Then go into the is the largest most meritocratic corporation in the US with abundant training and travel opportunities and a support structure and personal code you will need to shake off the effects of "the hood".

Interesting and plausible advice, but....

Funny story: I was desperately poor growing up. I saw my father once over a twelve year period, and that one time, he suggested the same thing. I deeply resented the advice and would never have considered it, solely because I hated him and the advice came from him.

He said, "The military can help guys like you and me." My only thought was, "I am so unlike guys like you, it would make your head spin, if your head was capable of it."

I never regretted AVOIDING his advice. Had I done it, I would have forever resented the sense of my poverty dictating the choices in my life.

For the wrong person, my sense is that the military is a terrible choice. If we lived in a culture with universal service, I suspect I would have felt differently.

Joe Farrell writes:

Don't be closed-minded like Caplan. Take opinions from people of any political stripe. You never know where wisdom might come from.

Philo writes:

Try to assess your talents, to figure out how you are likeliest to make a well remunerated contribution to society. In doing this, talk to your teachers (and perhaps older family members and friends of the family, clergy, etc.) about your strengths (and weaknesses). Also assess your preferences; you’ll have a lot easier time of it if your career involves doing things you enjoy, or at least do not hate. After all, *escaping poverty* is not your *only* goal, though admittedly you must simply suppress certain tendencies, such as the desire to *party hard*. Formulate a plan of life—not necessarily extremely specific—and then act on it diligently (though, as suggested above, not *quite* “single-mindedly*). Save prudently rather than spending freely.

If you are sufficiently focused, you should be pretty confident of achieving your goal.

Thomas Sewell writes:

My top 10 ways to deal with starting out in poverty:
1. Get down to your local welfare office and get on every program you can. If you live close to a State border, there may be opportunities in the other State as well. Also, make sure you get subsidized housing as quickly as possible.
2. Hook up with as many boyfriend/girlfriends as you can. Make sure you are the financial guardian of whatever kids result. See #1, they pay more for more kids. Try to ensure someone else watches them most of the time. Older kids and subsidized daycare is good for this.
3. Use drugs, alcohol and TV to forget about any problems you might have. You can also do #2 above. You'll be amazed at how good it will be for creating a relaxed attitude about life.
4. Don't ever, ever, let anyone 'Diss you. Kill them if necessary to ensure their respect.
5. Drop out of school, it's no fun and a waste of time when society is stacked against you anyway. One exception is that if you can enroll in some sort of college and get big grants and loans, then drop just drop out and never pay it back. That's the best way to go. Don't ever learn anything on your own. It's not your job, they're aren't paying you for that and they can't force you to learn.
6. Always do whatever makes you the happiest in that moment. Don't worry about the future, it'll take care of itself.
7. If you ever lack for a place to stay or something to eat, just rob someplace. If you get away with it, great you have cash again, if not, you'll at least get a place to stay, something to eat, medical care, etc... Also, I hear identity theft is a growing field, but you may need someone to hook you up with that. Use contacts made in prison.
8. If you absolutely must get a job for some reason (like a parole requirement, See #4 and #7 above), join a local political club or a union of some sort. That way you can coast without much effort and not get fired. Show up as little as possible, making maximum use of your allowed sick days, excuses, etc... As a bonus, after a while you can get yourself laid off and collect unemployment on top of your welfare benefits.
9. Avoid association with a church or any other community group. Those people are just killjoys that will start telling you what to do and what not to do. Get in, get the benefits they owe you, get out. They have no right to talk to you if you don't want them to.
10. Run up as many debts as possible, then just declare bankruptcy as frequently as legally allowed. Don't worry about if you can't pay anything back, they got rid of debtors prison a long time ago. Now all they can do is ruin your credit rating. It's not like they can garnish your welfare payments or your black market and criminal proceeds.

Oh wait, I may have misunderstood. You didn't want to know what people do to stay in poverty? You want to know what they should do if they want to get out of it instead? Then just go ahead and reverse all of the above. Maybe throw in some hard work and all the other suggestions on this thread as well.

Lee Kelly writes:

Don't listen to all these commenters. The cycle of poverty will continue until we overthrow our capitalist overlords. Our thoughts and actions are determined by our socio-economic class. However much "advice" these people give you, you will be unable to put it to use because of systemic repression. Until your behaviours, customs, and norms are accepted as an equal but different way of life, nothing will change. End of story.

Why should someone be condemned to low salary or welfare programs just because they are impulsive, self-destructive, and stupid? Any one of us might have been that person if we were born into the socio-economic class that determines what we think and do--there but for the grace of God go I! Do we really want a society that punishes such people by compounding one injustice upon another? I say never!

Kevin writes:

All of this is great advice, but I don't think it goes quite far enough.

Finishing HS, going to college, getting married, avoiding having children until you are stable, staying out of trouble and getting a job is a good start, but, only in very few instances will doing these things alone make you wealthy. There is a reason people say that a "job" stands for "Just Over Broke."

You have to learn to budget your money, spend less than you take in, spend what you do, wisely, and learn to invest your money properly. Start with a 401(k) or IRA, invest it in a stock index fund, and keep putting money in there every month until you retire.

But even that is not enough. There are two more things you need to do that are critical.

First, in today's economy, most people have to worry about losing a job, being downsized or otherwise changing careers, perhaps multiple times in their lives. Our economy is changing and will continue to change rapidly in the coming years.

Since you can no longer count on lifelong employment, you must focus on lifelong employability--in other words, always be improving yourself and your skills so that when the inevitable job losses occur, your chances of being able to jump right back into the work force increase.

Secondly, and probably most importantly, learn how to invest in things that bring you passive income. Real estate and automated businesses like car washes and storage facilities are good examples. You don't want to be in a situation where you lose a job suddenly, through no fault of your own, and then realize you don't have the money to make your mortgage payment next month.

The other thing I would mention is that, the rich don't work for money. They work for the skills they'll learn and the connections they'll make; or they work to build a successful business or the money they need to invest in things that continue to pay them without their having to work for it.

True wealth is when you can quit your job and survive indefinitely, because your investments take care of all your bills and then some.

Does all this sound like a lot of hard work? Yup. Can you do it? Absolutely. Take a long-time perspective of your life. There are very few true "overnight" successes. For most people, it takes years, and even decades to get there. Most people have to develop the discipline and mindset to be able to do some of these things. It isn't easy, but it can be done.

There are so many resources available online and through a thing called a "library" out there to help people. You only have to do a little digging. Find a mentor. Find someone who is where you want to be, and ask if you can interview them about how they did it. Most people, I bet, have never even bothered to ask. They'll probably be thrilled that you did!

Finally, the greatest thing I've ever done for myself is to make the decision to open my mind and learn what I could about achieving my goals. It is easier today to learn what you need to learn than ever before, but making that first step is crucial.

ChevalierdeJohnstone writes:

Join any church, synagogue, or non-Salafi mosque.

Attend services regularly and obey the commandments of the religion.

Doing so will guarantee that you are not poor, though it does not mean you will become rich or even comfortably well-off.

This is not to say that atheists or those of other religions can't achieve the same results, but "an it harm none, do as thou wilt" is not restrictive enough to prevent self-defeating behavior: it requires some other restrictive code. Hindus of the Brahmin caste and other members of the upper castes of caste-based religions do have the necessary restrictions, but these people are already not poor in a first world economy.

For best results become Mormon. You will be guaranteed a job and welfare independent of any government institutions. (I am not LDS.)

Floccina writes:

Work hard a school to get valuable credentials. If you succeed at getting valuable credentials or not show up to work every day, work hard and save a large part of your income and invest it in a low expense Vanguard fund like VTI.
An alternative to getting valuable credentials is to do what immigrant often do when their credentials are lacking, buy a business and run it very tight spending little on consumption but rather spend on capital.

Acad Ronin writes:

Stay in HS and off drugs, study hard, and after work work at McD's or other fastfood outlet, and do what it takes to keep the job. At the least, you will learn teamwork, service, organization, punctuality, and the like. At best, you could rise to CEO - it's been done at McDs. When you graduate HS, consider enlisting, for all the reasons others have suggested above. Again, you could make general - it isn't easy but it's been done. If you are smart, you could get into the service academy and get a BSc at government expense. Stay in and get an MBA, at government expense. Stay military or go corporate. Alternatively, after the military, go to college and become a professor like Tom Sowell.

londenio writes:

Move to Finland or Norway

Rick Weber writes:

Find out what people want and provide it for them. Learn how to program and learn how to sell. Then save up, keep an eye out for opportunity, and when you see your chance start a business. And be humble.

gappy writes:

First of all, I think that just asking this question dramatically increases one's chances to exit poverty. Wanting to exit poverty and seeking advice on it doesn't magically puts one in a condition of financial comfort, but it's a prerequisite.

My advice comes not from first-person experience, but from friendship in high school with classmates who were poor, and from knowledge of students who are poor. Also, it goes without saying that I take current society as it is, not as it should be.

1. Get a mentor. A professor you admire. A neighbor you like and who likes you, who has an good job and a stable family. A relative. A mere acquaintance from a volunteer program. It must be someone who somewhat cares about you, and who's willing to spend a few hours per month answering your questions, giving concrete advice, be a sounding board, and most of all, show you what is possible. I once participated in an "engineering week" for a middle school in the Bronx. Out of 300 students, only 2 children had a parent with a degree in engineering. Only a few more knew what engineering was.

2. Try to set a specific goal at a time, and achieve it. Examples: Learn to write, and read books to get there. Or improve in math to the point of getting into an advanced class.

3. No matter how hard is the situation, finish high school as well as as you can.

4. If you have access to computers (including public computers), and if you have available time, take advantage of free online books and courses. If that's not your thing, find a place where you can be an apprentice, even unpaid. Some place where you can exercise your curiosity and learn something.

5. Stay out of trouble. I.e., don't go along with kids who make trouble. If that's the only group available, choose solitude and fly as low as you can.

5a. Specifically, don't give in to easy sex and drugs. This is the hardest thing, but it is possible. It is the only thing in this list you can achieve by not doing something. It's the ultimate exercise in delayed gratification. P.S.: wanking is allowed, of course.

Having navigated high school with decent grades and having avoided the biggest sources of risk, you can decide whether to learn a trade or pursue college based on the opportunities at hand. Beyond this, it's hard to generalize. Few really poor students go to Ivy League schools (and those who do are the subjects of fairy tale TV miniseries). But quite a few get into top-tier and second-tier public school (e.g., UC system or Cal State campuses). Trade school is another option. A disciplined, competent contractor can definitely earn solid middle-class wages.

Personal political classification: left libertarian. I believe that the essence of classical liberalism is autonomy (=self-rule), and that for the least well-off this is achieved through freedom of choice and cash transfers and better educational opportunities. I favor a small state, but also taxation necessary to achieve these goals.

libfree writes:

Learn to work hard

Peter writes:

[Comment removed for crude language. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. --Econlib Ed.]

Brad D writes:

I like Richard's three. Valuable advice.

Find your passion and follow your heart. Don't set "getting wealthy" as your #1 goal, as the lure of riches may lead you astray.

Find your purpose and plow into it. The money will follow.


Will writes:

So aside from some good advice given above (don't commit crimes being especially important)- I would add- be willing to relocate.

A poor 15 year old is likely to be in a rural area, and the best advice is GET TO A CITY. If you can, get to cities like Austin or Houston with relatively low costs of living, solid job growth, etc. Find a job waiting tables, and once you have experience transition to the fanciest restaurant you can find- you'll make an ok living on tips, certainly above poverty.

Liam McDonald writes:

I am looking at all of these posts and they are fairly general statistics. Finish school, stay out of prison, work hard, etc...
You could just as easily say "Be white, male and intelligent" and be just as accurate. But none of these things are, unto themselves, helpful because (IMHO) poverty is a frame of mind.
I think the most important thing is to be disciplined, diligent and patient. I have been very poor while digging myself deeper into debt and have also seen this in others and there is a strange thing that occurs on a regular basis. I will use my own case as an example.
First, I was not diligent as to where the money went. Complete lack of visibility. Yes I knew how much rent was and my phone bills but it is the small purchases that kill you. As long as there was gas in the tank I would not think anything about driving 10 miles round trip to visit a friend but over the course of a year that adds up. As does buying that morning coffee or making a short long distance call. The incidentals pile up quickly.
When I would get my tax return every year it meant splurge time! I had been scraping by all year! Didn’t I deserve to go out for dinner just once? Hey that TV is on sale! Deferment of immediate enjoyment was not foremost in my mind. And my first wife was not helpful because she was just like me when it came to spending. It was only after we had separated that I sat down and started my long journey to solvency.
Second was to be around people who could mentor me. Managers, teachers, clergy, instructors all have something unique to offer and a different perspective. These were people who showed me there was another way to live and money was not the top concern. Plus they helped me connect with other people that could help me further down the road.
So while the other suggestions are great ideas they are not hard and fast rules that will really help you rise from poverty.

For what its worth I am an agnostic, Libertarian with a diploma in Music Theatre who has a very sucessful sales career while residing in Singapore

JVA writes:

Become jewish.
I'm 90% serious.

Thomas Boyle writes:

The advice on getting married young is tricky. Yes, in ideal circumstances it might cut short-term expenses (unless there's a baby, as there usually is), but...

First, a poor young person with bourgeois values may have trouble meeting other poor young people with bourgeois values. The danger is that the poor young person who wants to improve their lot will wind up married to someone who thinks "improved lot" sounds good - but isn't committed to the required discipline. That spouse simply becomes a discipline-destroyer and overspender who can't just be left behind. The odds of encountering the right sort of person improve later, after the striver is older and no longer poor.

Second, getting married to save costs is a very nasty sort of leverage (in the financial sense). It is what options traders call "selling volatility" or, more colorfully, "picking up pennies in front of a steamroller". The success of people who "get married and stay married" is well and good, but the outcome for those who get caught by the steamroller isn't so great. Family law is structured in a very peculiar way: the more the striver contributes relative to his/her spouse, the more (s)he is in debt to the spouse. If the spouse is a spender and/or slacker, every pay increase the striver gets will simply increase the present value of their potential spousal support obligation. And, not only does the spender eat into savings during the marriage, (s)he will also get half of whatever is left, up front, before the spousal support payments (often worth a large multiple of the life savings so far) begin. The result is that the striver's potential net worth, if the spouse should "pull the red handle", becomes more and more negative, the more the striver strives! Similarly, if the striver tries to get rid of a demotivating, high-spending spouse. In practice, this strangely twisted legal system is much more likely to take effect if the striver is the husband; but it shouldn't be ignored by striver women, either.

I'd suggest a different approach to achieving lower expenses. Find a roommate with the right values - someone a little farther along the path, and from a similar background. Someone with a trade could be a good choice, or a college student - but the "college-is-for-partying" crowd should be avoided. If the roommate turns out to have poor values, it's easy enough to get a new one - no divorce required.

Moderate libertarian.

David S writes:

One I didn't see above, but would strongly recommend:


If you are poor, you are extremely likely to be living in the heart of a city. You are likely surrounded by bad influences, and danger. If you don't move, you will have to embrace that to survive.

You do not have anything of value, so moving will not cost you anything. You will need a new form of life, so try to arrange for a safety net to be in place when you get there.

Specific guidance:

1) Join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They have a very impressive welfare program, and will help you get what you need to improve yourself. (Actual belief is not required)

2) Move away from any large cities.

If you are in a small town, you will be able to get the personalized attention you likely need. Cities only amplify what you have.

Steve writes:
McArdle nails why all this advice is extremely difficult for teens in poverty to follow.

Walter Thomas writes:

In my own opinion, there is no way to completely avoid poverty, except to be born exceptionally lucky, and that ship has long since sailed if the kid asks you at 15 or so. I have met former millionaires that just didn’t have luck and I have met rags-to-riches individuals that were the complete opposite. I honestly don’t think there is a way to know how you can or will be successful in life. I’ve always just chalked it up to luck of the draw.
Although I loathe admitting it, the fastest and easiest way that I can think of to avoid poverty, not hardship, without simply being born so lucky is to be put in jail. You would have little to no commodities or conveniences and your life and health would be at constant risk, but you would be guaranteed a place to sleep, food to eat, and you don’t have to pay for any of it. Of course, we already know that this system simply doesn’t work. For one, someone has to pay for it, so it’s not like everyone can just go steal a car and park it in a police station when times get tough. I’m just saying that’s the easiest way for one single individual to not have to worry about poverty. The sad truth is that the easiest way to survive in a corrupt and immoral world is to become corrupt and immoral. At least, that's how I see it.

J writes:

Get involved in activities with middle class boys and girls of your age. Example: Left wing political movement, church and religion (any), theater, music, serious sport (like swimming), school, etc. If you are able to hang on for a while, you will be like them. Gently, cut all contacts with poor people.

Genevieve writes:

When you are in high school join some sort of activity where people miss you if you are absent. I think this is especially true in large high schools. It's important to have a group in high school that cares about you and wants you to succeed.

Some groups that I have seen help students are junior ROTC, special housing repair and construction classes, culinary classes, etc. I think it is especially useful if the classes also prepare you for adulthood. However, some students find what they need in choir, sports or drama.

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