7 Reasons Why People Are Poor Long-Term in America

Poverty and wealth usually aren't accidents in America

Being poor is not shameful, something to be embarrassed about, or even ALL BAD. I’ve been poor myself and I’ve even written a column called, “5 Life Advantages You Acquire From Experiencing Poverty” (incidentally, if you are poor, I’ve also written a column called “How To Stop Being Poor” that’s worth a read). One of the biggest problems with poverty in America is that we’ve started treating it like some unhappy accident of birth instead of something created by people’s actions. Yes, if you live in Rwanda or Tajikistan, you may do everything right long-term and still end up poor because they’re extraordinarily poor countries, but that’s not the case in America. If you’re not physically or mentally disabled, are in good health, and aren’t content to be poor, then you’re doing something wrong if you’re mired in poverty long-term. What is it? It’s almost always going to fall into one of these categories:

1) You’re young: If you’re not struggling to make money when you’re young, you probably have rare skills, excellent contacts, an Ivy League degree, or you’re just lucky. However, for the most part, you can’t expect a 22-year-old with no experience who just got hired in their starter McJob to be raking in the bucks. You’re not supposed to have what mom and dad do at 62 when you’re 22. That’s just how the world works. The good news is, if this is where you are, you may not have to do anything other than keep working and building experience for a few years to climb out of poverty.

2) You don’t want to work regularly: Some people think they’re too good for certain jobs. Others aren’t willing to step up and temporarily work a 2nd job to build a nest egg. Others want a $20 an hour job but have a $3 per hour work ethic. Some just don’t want to work at all. In my early twenties, when I was non-coincidentally poor, I was in the habit of getting a lousy job, working there for as long as I could stand it, and then quitting without necessarily having another job lined up. As you might imagine, that wreaked havoc on my bank account. Even at minimum wage, you can make just over $15,000 per year (the government considers a single person poor if they make less than $12,784). Can you get roommates, eat Ramen, and scrape by on that? Absolutely. Next thing you know, you get a raise, you make a little overtime, and you might be in a position to save a little money. Work a little longer and that experience allows you to get a better job that gets you into the lower middle class and you can keep climbing from there… but all of that is predicated on working. If you don’t get on that bottom rung of the ladder, you’re going to have trouble getting any higher.

3) You’ve made poor life choices: It almost seems unfair, but yes, you can make mistakes that will have ramifications for decades, if not for a lifetime. You do hard time in jail, get hooked on crack, become an alcoholic, don’t learn to read, get a face tattoo, decide not to get medical insurance and have expensive health problems, or go $160,000 in debt to get a women’s studies degree from an expensive private college – it goes on and on. Life is not a video game where you can just start over if you screw up. The good news is you’ll typically hear warnings about the really bad mistakes that can ruin your life over and over again, so none of them is going to hit you by surprise. There’s not going to be a time when you’re like, “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that becoming a Crip, selling drugs, and using crack could have a detrimental impact on my future? If only I had known!” The bad news is that the mountain that has to be climbed is higher for people who blow it early, but there are still plenty of them that are determined enough to make it out of poverty anyway.

4) You’re pumping out kids with no way to support them: People used to look at kids as their retirement plan. When they got too old to work, they’d be relying on their kids to run the farm and make sure they had something to eat. Those days are over in the West.

Can you do everything right and simply have so many kids that you’re poor? Absolutely. Is that a bad thing? Should you be ashamed of that? If you’re not suckling at the government teat and you’re raising them right, being poor may be a sacrifice worth making for you. That goes double if you’re in a rural area, where it’s cheaper to raise your kids, and where they will probably grow up in a healthier environment.

5) You can’t control your spending: I once knew a woman with no kids who made $80,000 a year and was always complaining that she was broke. How could that be? Simple. She spent WAY TOO MUCH money. If she had handled her money differently, not only would she not FEEL poor (you’re certainly not actually poor making 80k), but she would also have probably been setting aside 20k per year before taxes. You can be broke at any income level if you don’t control your expenses. There are a lot of people that aren’t “poor” in any meaningful sense, they just have no idea how to budget. They have a new car that they’re making payments on. Their house payment is way too expensive. They got a brand-new iPhone. They’re spending $150 per month on Starbucks coffee and another $200 eating out at lunch every day. People tell themselves that they “deserve” that. The truth is you “deserve” what you can afford. If you SHOULD BE making enough money to live on, but feel poor, start basing your expenses on what you can afford, not what you want, and things will start to straighten out.

6) You live in the wrong place: If you live somewhere like Manhattan or San Francisco, you probably need to make $100,000 per year to be functionally lower middle-class. In other words, if you can’t get a high-powered job, you’re probably going to be much better off financially in a cheaper rural area than an expensive city. Getting beyond that, a lot of people over the years have given Kevin Williamson sh*t about a column he wrote in 2016. Honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with the tone, but the line everyone quotes is this one:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap.

The reality is that there are some cities, rural areas, and dying factory towns where the job market is really bad and it’s unlikely to ever come back. If you live in those places, I hate to tell you, but you may need to move. Keep in mind that I’m not telling you to do anything I haven’t done. At one point in my late twenties, I was barely making ends meet in Charlotte, then I moved to Alexandria, Virginia (next to D.C.) and nearly doubled my salary overnight. Can you do that? If you’re living in one of these job deserts and moving to a much better market, yes, it’s entirely possible. I’m not saying it’s fun or easy, but you might do the right thing for decades in some factory town where the factory closed down and not get rewarded for it. Someone in that position would economically probably be better off saving up their money, stuffing anything they want to keep in a duffel bag, and getting a bus ticket to someplace else where they have friends and family that will let them crash on their sofa for a month or two while they find a job. Does that sound uncertain and difficult? Absolutely, but what’s the alternative? Staying in a dying area that has nothing to offer you but poverty, despair, an oxycontin addiction, and welfare? At a certain point, if you have a child to support or just get tired of eating Ramen Noodles, you have to go where the jobs are.

7) You haven’t built any skills: In a job, the rarer and more valuable your skills are, the more you get paid. That’s why a unique talent like Tom Brady gets paid much more than a 2nd-grade teacher, who gets paid much more than a fast-food worker. It’s also why the push for a higher minimum wage (or for that matter, having a minimum wage) is completely misguided. We shouldn’t push businesses to pay people more than they’re worth, which will lock some people out of getting a job at all; we should push people to improve their skills. That will make them worth more money to any employer and make it more likely that they can keep and hold a job. So, people have to ask themselves about what they bring to the table for an employer. Do they have a college degree in a useful field? Do they have a good attitude, work hard, show up early and leave late? Have they learned HTML? Have they interned somewhere that gave them valuable experience? Have they managed before? Do they know how to drive a forklift, are they an amazing cook, or can they fix a car? Can they do a good job cleaning a house, do repairs, or do lawn care? There are an awful lot of skills that people are happily willing to pay for, but if you don’t bring anything other than being a warm body to the table, you may not even be worth the minimum wage.

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