A study out of Harvard University focusing on tax credits and other tax expenditures has caused 24/7 Wall St. to declare that America has 10 cities where the poor just can’t get rich. Among the reasons that economic upward mobility is so minimal in these cities: horrible public education (leading to high dropout rates) and being raised in single-mother households. What these cities share is an economic segregation: two distinct classes of people, with virtually nothing in common.
However, it seems not only bold but disingenuous to say that there “are cities where the poor cannot get rich.” Is it tough? Yes. Is it impossible? Of course not. In A Field Guide to the Hero’s Journey, entrepreneur Jeff Sandefer tells how he made his first job work for him. It wasn’t glamorous.
As a teenager, my father wisely insisted that I work summers as a laborer in the oil fields, under an unrelenting West Texas sun. I hated what seemed like meaningless manual labor…[b]ut most of all I hated the relentless heat…To me, heaven was the inside of an air-conditioned pickup truck, the spot reserved for a foreman…But as I went on with my sweaty work, longing to sit in that position of air-conditioned power, I began to notice things. First, I noticed that all the heavy equipment lying around wasn’t needed for the light painting and clean-up work that occupied most of our time, but was nonetheless charged to customers. Then I noticed that my fellow laborers, paid by the hour, had little incentive do anything other than shirk work and wait for quitting time to come. So I formed a plan…I partnered with my best friend and we convinced our high school football coaches to go to work for us. They contributed the use of their pickup trucks to haul painting equipment, and we agreed to pay them by the job, not the hour. They, in turn, hired their football players to work for them, and paid them the same way. My job became finding customers and overseeing the work. My partner handled the operations. The hourly workers painted a large metal storage tank in three days. Our crews arrived at dawn, painted until dark, and could finish three tanks a day—a ninefold-productivity gain. I was seventeen that summer, and my best friend and I made $100,000.
Another person that comes to mind is Dr. Ben Carsons, recently-retired professor of pediatric neurosurgery at John Hopkins. While he ended up as a respected and highly-skilled professional at a prestigious teaching hospital, he certainly wasn’t born with the proverbial silver spoon in mouth. Raised by Sonya, divorced mother with a third grade education in Detroit, Carsons grew up under challenging circumstances.
The family was very poor, and to make ends meet Sonya sometimes took on two or three jobs at a time in order to provide for her boys. Most of the jobs she had were as a domestic servant. There were occasions when her boys wouldn’t see her for days at a time, because she would go to work at 5:00 a.m. and come home around 11:00 p.m., going from one job to the next.
Carson’s mother was frugal with the family’s finances, cleaning and patching clothes from the Goodwill in order to dress the boys. The family would also go to local farmers and offer to pick corn or other vegetables in exchange for a portion of the yield. She would then can the produce for the kids’ meals. Her actions, and the way she managed the family, proved to be a tremendous influence on Ben and Curtis.
His mother also had a strict regimen for her sons: limited television and lots of reading with books from the public library.
In the 24/7 Wall St. article, two of the worst cities for upward mobility are in Mississippi, the state that has “the highest rate of poverty segregation in the United States.” Yet one of the richest women in the world, Oprah Winfrey, was born there. Like Carsons, she was raised in poverty, born to unmarried teen parents.
None of this is to say that the children and families of Albany, Georgia or Wilson, North Carolina do not face huge obstacles. Nor is it to say that poverty is easy to overcome. But why say it’s impossible? What good does it do to reinforce the idea that if you’re poor, you’re stuck? Clearly, there are huge problems to tackle in education, family cohesiveness, availability of jobs, and other entrenched issues that make the rise out of poverty difficult. And not every child living in poverty in America is going to grow up to be Ben Carsons or Oprah Winfrey. But they can certainly grow up to be a computer technician, a hair stylist, an attorney, a small business owner, an accountant. PovertyCure’s Michael Matheson Miller puts it this way:
What if instead of asking how we can alleviate poverty, we asked, “How do people..create prosperity for their families and their communities?” This sounds like a simple shift, but it can transform the way we think about poverty and the poorest among us because it takes the focus off ourselves and puts it where it belongs. People in need are not objects of our charity, they are subjects, and should be seen as the protagonists of their own development. Changing the question helps lead to an inter-subjective relationship.
24/7 Wall St. declares that we have cities among us where one cannot rise from poverty. What they fail to take into account is something that Sandefer, Carsons, Winfrey and countless others know: human beings are capable of greatness and that a determined spirit, made in God’s image, can create hope, jobs, wealth and new lives. There are no places in God’s creation where one cannot change one’s life.