The Power of Poverty

…And How to Break a Destructive Cycle

I’ve been reading a couple of books lately that have helped to shed some light on the cycle of generational poverty and why it is so hard for some people to break free. 

Hand to Mouth – Living in Bootstrap America, by Linda Tirado, is a firsthand account of what it’s like to be working poor in modern America.  Tirado and her partner have both worked multiple low wage jobs in the service industry while raising two daughters, paid rent on crappy apartments and navigated life without the safety net of health insurance or long-term savings. 

Tightrope – Americans Reaching for Hope, by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, is a journalistic expose on the lives of the working poor across cultural landscapes from white blue-collar neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest to black inner city neighborhoods on the East Coast.  Kristoff and WuDunn bring their considerable journalistic chops to tell heart breaking stories of loss and despair, hope and promise from the wealthiest country on earth. 

Both books have reminded me of why I got into this business in the first place. 

I’ve made no secret of the fact that back in 2005 I declared personal bankruptcy.  My current career path has been greatly influenced by my experiences on the other side of wealth.  I know what I’m talking about when it comes to getting out of debt and building investments.  It’s been 16 years now but, in some ways, it feels like only yesterday. 

What both Tirado and Kristoff & WuDunn describe is how an upwardly mobile society stalled in its’ march toward greater equity and economic prosperity and then started moving backwards.  Today, America “boasts” the largest level of wealth inequity in history and race relations which held so much promise under presidents Kennedy and Johnson have fallen to levels not seen since the days of Jim Crow.

I am not a social activist, or an economist but what I’ve learned from reading these two books is that poverty is a big problem and that taking personal responsibility alone is not going to be enough to break a generational cycle fed by low wages, limited opportunities, paternalistic government policies, drugs, and despair. 

These books have also brought up memories and emotions that I would prefer to have kept buried. 

Poverty has a way of getting inside of you and effecting the way you look at yourself.  While most social scientist tell us that the amount of time other people spend noticing what we do is far less than we think it doesn’t change how we feel about ourselves in the moment. 

When you are the only person in your social group that hasn’t bought a new pair of shoes in 3 years, you think everyone notices.  When you chip your tooth and can’t afford to get it fixed, when you drive your car for nine months between oil changes and keep driving after your registration has expired, when you are intentionally late to meet for drinks so that you only have to buy one, most people won’t notice, but you notice, and it gets inside of you. (I’ve personally done all those things)

Pretty soon you start avoiding situations altogether where people might expect you to spend money.  Your social connections suffer and with them, your mental health.  At that point poverty starts to look and feel like an illness and a pattern of self-destructive behavior emerges that helps perpetuate the cycle.  Poverty leads to low self-esteem, followed by depression and anxiety, often ending in some form of addiction and denial.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way victim blaming.  Remember, I’ve done and felt all these things that I am describing.  Not everyone’s experience will be the same, but for me this is how it happened.  The roadmap for me, in hindsight was unmistakable; Low Self-Esteem, led to Depression and ended in various forms of Self-Destruction.    

So how did I turn it around?

I got mad. 

When I was finally forced to take a long hard look at where my behavior had led me, I drew a line in the sand and said, “No more!”. 

No more paying bills late, no more credit cards, no more personal loans, and no more frivolous spending.  I cut back to the bare bones and sold so much stuff on Kijiji the cat went into hiding because she thought she was next. 

I followed a snowball method to clear my debts and when that was done, I turned around and focused the amount that I had been using to service what I owed and started building assets.  I opened an emergency fund and built up 3 months of my expenses, then a retirement account.  Now when I want to buy something outside of the budget, I save for it and pay cash. 

I grew up upper middle class.  My father was a corporate director at a non-profit.  I know the value of money and how to get by, but I still fell into poverty due do some poor choices and bad luck.  I struggled my way out by making better choices and doing the work.  Many others, as described in these books I’ve been reading, become generationally poor due to systemic racism and other societal ills that serve to make the lower runs of the ladder very slippery.  I’m not better than anyone, I was just lucky enough to recognize the path I was on before it was too late. 

If you want to learn more about my journey from bankruptcy and the path back, reach out today, let’s talk. 


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