Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login

"I have been very, very poor."

The key question, then, is whether you were _born and raised_ poor, or did you become poor in your later life. There is a ingrained mental barrier of hopelessness being born into poverty, especially in America where the cycle of poverty consumes communities and perpetuates all manner of things that are easily contested by people on the outside looking in, but is palpable to those trapped within it.

The difference, interestingly enough, can be found in a line in the song "Common People" by the English band Pulp, which follows the story of a rich girl who "slums it" with the poor narrator:

"But still you'll never get it right

cos when you're laid in bed at night

watching roaches climb the wall

if you just called your Dad, he could stop it all

You'll never live like common people"

I was born and raised poor. Like, picking cockroaches out of my cereal box poor. Like, magic block of cheese appearing on the doorstep poor. Like qualifying for free lunch at school poor. Like pink bicycle with sissy bar bought from the thrift shop and handed down from eldest daughter to two youngest sons poor (I broke the cycle of shame with black electrical and silver duct tape).

I never blamed my parents; they were immigrants fleeing an oppressive regime with nothing but a suitcase of hastily gathered clothes, papers, and photos. But, to say it's "just a thing that happens to you, like cancer" doesn't really speak to how stifling poverty can truly be.

My family pulled themselves out of the cycle, but millions don't. MOST don't. Getting out has less to do with "using your feet" and more like pulling an entire base of people out of a mindset that they can't succeed even if they tried their damndest. It's not only cultural, it's systemic.

"The only person that can stop you making choices is yourself.

Not always the case. My wife's family came to this country in 1978. Her father's job for the first five years was to mop the floors and clean toilets at schools, for which he was (legally) paid less than minimum wage because of his immigrant status. Then, the church that promised the family free admittance to their school in exchange for Dad's reduced salary rescinded it upon his offer to take ESL classes by day and cleaning the schools by night. So, he pulled them from that school and into public school, which, because of redistricting and rezoning, was among the poorest and most dangerous in their state. I guess it is about choices, but don't think there aren't people out there who disincentivize you from making them.

Hell, it wasn't that long ago that some people couldn't eat at the same counter equally as others. I mean, could you even make a clear-headed choice in that scenario?

Choices to pull oneself up from a cycle of poverty is as risky as entrepreneurship, perhaps even more so. If you fail at business, you have your firm footing of educational background and network of employees, peers, investors, and family to watch over you and give support. If you fail at pulling yourself from the ghetto, the next stop could be homelessness and the soup kitchen. And, if you have a family, they'll suffer doubly so.

It's almost never cut and dry.

Thank you for sharing that. I enjoyed reading it.

I think you misunderstood, however. Nothing is cut and dry. Did I say it was? When I say that you own your choices, I am not promising some kind of magic future if you just get Positive Mental Attitude. This is not a Tony Robbins seminar, and I am not trying to just throw out slogans. I believe most of your reply was based on this premise, and that was not the intent of my comment at all. I am also not trying to get into a "who's the poorest" contest. There are lots of ways these conversations can go off the rails.

As an example, and to specifically counter this idea of quick-fixes, I used the scenario of the person dying from cancer in the ditch. Will proper choices make them any less dead in a day's time? I seriously doubt it, and that's completely not the point.

Any life in any situation can be celebrated and you can use your mind to make choices about your attitudes. People in concentration camps awaiting death can be cheerful. Perhaps you would stop by the ditch an lecture the dying person on the futility of it all, how you knew many people who also died this way, and how painful it was. Perhaps you would go on about the pointlessness of action, and how tens of millions are in the same place and we must do something to begin " pulling an entire base of people out of a mindset" About how few ever make it out.

I would not do this. In fact, I would go so far as to say that those who do this to someone are not their friend.

"Perhaps you would stop by the ditch an lecture the dying person on the futility of it all, how you knew many people who also died this way, and how painful it was"

I happily pay my taxes, try to vote with my conscience for those engaged in healthcare reform, and contribute freely to causes to help prevent people dying of cancer in a ditch. It's not self-righteousness or soliciting thanks from poor, sick people or anything else that drives me to do that; it's my belief that we're more than just the successes we've made in this life -- the actions we've managed to perform to get a positive result. There is community outside of the self.

Sometimes people are frozen into a rut because they've never seen what it's like at the top (except for watching those that succeed in nearly impossible scenarios, like sports athletes or heiresses-turned-celebrities), and they likely never will. So, platitudes that "there is a there there" is cold comfort for them. Working hard and still not being able to pass the "first-month rent + last-month rent + security deposit + credit/background check" gauntlet put forth for anyone wanting to break that cycle is oppressive to the psyche.

And, before anyone in this thread ever decides to veer off into blaming "degenerate cultures", I'll cut it off at the pass and say there is about a nickel's worth of difference between being poor in W. Virginia and being poor in Harlem, NYC. It's the same down, with very little upside (aside from working for the mines or for the state, respectively). Makes the sentiment "been down so long, it looks like up to me" even more resonant.

I'm not trying to argue, but I believe you don't understand.

My point was that you seem very happy with explaining the systemic reasons for problems, even being very proud of your progressive social attitudes and willingness to pay taxes, but none of that money, explanation, or enlightenment does the actual poor one bit of lasting good. They deal with despair as a primary obstacle. Explaining sociology to them and the systemic nature of poverty does not help them despair less. In fact, and this is critical, for many it may have the effect of making their lives substantially worse. There's a very fine line between explaining a complex problem that you don't currently have the solution to and telling people their life is pointless. In fact they can look and sound like the same thing to an outside observer.

I have no qualm with you -- the things you have said are most likely true -- but there is a difference in talking about a thing from an external clinical standpoint and living the thing, as you know so well.

As a sidebar, why would you even mention that you weren't angry with your parents? It seemed such an odd thing to say. Why would anyone think of being angry with their parents for something like wealth?

I'm done here. Sorry to take the thread so far down. Just sounded like we were talking past each other. Thanks again for the conversation.

"none of that money, explanation, or enlightenment does the actual poor one bit of lasting good."

Tell that to Joe the Plumber, who went from growing up on welfare to being the everyman who just wants to run his own plumbing business if it weren't for a then-Presidential candidate taking his money. Ditto Sarah Palin and Craig T. Nelson (who once famously said on the Glenn Beck show, "I've been on food stamps and welfare, did anyone help me out? No!")

I figured you were a "supply-side" kinda guy, so we'll truly never see things eye-to-eye. Fair enough.

Just know that poor people actually _do_ want to know why they're poor, as that kind of sets expectations, pacing, and gives them some wiggle room to strategize solutions to their problem. State support helps them with essentials, education helps ameliorate their thinking, and charitable causes and people give them the helping hand to see through the hardship.

"There's a very fine line between explaining a complex problem that you don't currently have the solution to and telling people their life is pointless."

That's why you give them cold facts and then real solutions based on what you and others have experienced. If you don't want to talk publicly about success, you're essentially telling them, "I'm a millionaire and so can you!" and then leaving. In other words, show don't tell.

"Why would anyone think of being angry with their parents for something like wealth?"

I would be positively _ecstatic_ if I were born into a wealthy family. It would bring no end of awesome, warm feelings. I will never know what that feeling is like, unfortunately, as they were the poorest of immigrants. I was just implying that I didn't begrudge them being poor, as I still had a decent childhood, even in the ghetto.

Please don't put me in a box. You don't know me.

Yeah I think there is a deep infection here, but it has nothing to do with poverty. It begins with the idea that if you take social assistance then social assistance must be a good thing. Or that somehow you must support it. As you are demonstrating by your words, this isn't any good at all. For Joe, Sarah, you, or anybody else. This same logic holds that if you don't send your kids into the military, you can't support a war. One supposes that everybody must volunteer at the local fire station or go without emergency support, or that those who took a pencil in second grade must somehow support armed robbery as a way of life. Give a man a fish, and he must support government sanctioned fish distribution for his entire life. It's the one-size-fits-all, if-you-were-touched-by-it-you-must-endorse-it thinking. Not good. Not good for anybody. Let's move past such rhetorical nonsense.

Here's the thing: it's one thing to explain something that you understand and know how to fix. It's quite another to simply cite statistics and general correlations. There are a lot of folks who think that positive mental attitude can lift you out of poverty -- I am one of them. And there are folks that think it is mostly luck. (I also think luck has quite a bit to do with it as well) But I can guarantee you that anybody who thinks that life is pointless will never make it. I also observe that after trillions spent on LBJ's War on Poverty (one hopes it did not involve shooting poor people) we are no further along than when we started. So for all the bluster, we do not have the answer. We have a lot of complex ideas and theories, but we have no answer.

We do not know how to lift people out of poverty. We DO know that hopelessness and despair will prevent folks from succeeding. You can either sit around and dress up correlation as "giving them cold facts" or you can help with attitudes. That's just what every poor person with a poor education needs -- some rich college guy with a $50 vocabulary going on and on about how the system is against them and how they'll never make it.

When I was poor, I knew people like this. Oddly enough, many of them were college educated. It was always pointless, the system was always corrupt, the rich guys always got richer and the poor guys always got the shaft. It's mental disease masquerading as wisdom. Guys who felt that way are either still there, dead, or in prison. You can be in a hopeless situation and still have joy and hope. Unless you listen to some people.

Like I said, you sound more part of the problem than the solution.

"I've been on food stamps and welfare, did anyone help me out? No!"

Don't tell me he actually said that. That's just so deliberately idiotic.

Very well put. I lived a similar childhood, as did my 4 siblings, and its shocking that I am one of 2 to see my way out of the cloud of hopelessness. I would say its because of a connection to the hope in art and literature, in my case, that allowed me to see through the cloud, while sadly most of my siblings are still in the cycle.

Its sad that I am seen as almost a hero in my own neighborhood for owning my own business. I have tried to help everyone I know out of this thinking, but its truly difficult when you tell a person who has had nothing all of their life how easily it is to change that situation, and they see it as a wild fantasy.

Sometimes it really depends on which side of the imaginary lines your mother's womb happened to be when you were spilled out.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact