Editor’s note: Philanthropist and entrepreneur Brian Hamilton is the founder of Inmates to Entrepreneurs, a North Carolina-based organization that helps people who were incarcerated start their own businesses and overcome poverty. His work is featured weekly on the ABC Show, “Free Enterprise.” He is also the founder of Sageworks, where he developed an artificial intelligence platform used to help millions of small businesses understand their financial information.
RALEIGH – When I was about seven years old, my mother asked me to walk down to the grocery store, which was about a football field from our house. I remember walking in the store and grabbing a handful of items and then going to the cash register. As I held out my hand, which contained a pocketful of coins, the cashier looked down in disgust. Among the pocket change were several food stamps. I was too young then to understand this reaction, but the shame of poverty is something you never forget.
Last week, it was announced that Apple is moving to the Triangle and creating 3,000 jobs and that the average pay for each job will not be less than $187,000 a year. This strikes me as good news, but it does make me think. In North Carolina, our rate of illiteracy is 14% – 14 of 100 people cannot read or write. Our rate of poverty is 13.6%. Twenty years ago, it was 13.1%. If you live in Wake County, your average household income is $80,591. Yet, if you drive an hour out to Henderson, your average household income is $30,145.
How could it be that a child born, not just in the same country but in the same state, would suffer such disadvantage at birth compared to their peers? Some would say we have progressed, and I would agree if we were far out West or in the deep South. But, in a state that is growing tremendously with great resources, this data and our report card is, well, awful.
In our country, there are thoughts that bind us. One of the most important ones is that no matter who your parents are or who your ancestors were, no matter the color of your skin, no matter your current station, you can elevate yourself. This is embedded into even popular culture. Of course, we fall short, but we all agree on the principle or the goal. If you look at other countries, you realize how different and precious this is. Other countries can attempt to claim this virtue, but really it remains exclusively an American construct. The reason is that America alone was born as an accidental experiment where we proved that your ability is tied to you and only you, not to some genetic lineage transferred from generation to generation. The byproduct for us as a people is hope: hope that we can control our own destiny. We love Gatsby because he embodies this ideal.
So, does the promise of America still hold true? In 1964, the poverty rate in the United States was 19 percent. Since January of last year, it has been about 16 percent. Again, not much movement. Some reading this will say that the standard of living has improved, and they are right, but the standard of living has improved because of the positive effects of the capitalist system and technology. For example, even the poorest among us often have access to things that the poor in other countries don’t have- cars, television sets, phones, etc. But, we also remember the argument that Michael Harrington (who was a devoted socialist) made in his seminal work, “The Other America,” that poverty is a social disease, not an economic one. It affects, not just your economic situation, but other things such as your level of healthcare, your education, the amount of violence in your neighborhood, and, probably most important, the way you view yourself. Harrington’s thesis remains true today. Poverty rips dignity from the people who live in it.
And we know that poverty is sticky. In the United States, for every 100 people who are born poor, about 4 will achieve wealth by the time they die. Are the other 96 kids 100 percent responsible for their outcomes at birth? Of course not. So, the truth is that it is near impossible to rise out of poverty if you are born poor.
Two “blind enemies”
There are two blind enemies in the battle to eliminate poverty. First, there are those who act as if poverty is not even a problem. These are the people who think we have, more or less, a level playing field. Consequently, the issue is moot for them. It is that simple- you don’t need to fix something that isn’t broken.
Second, there are those who want to solve poverty by handing things out. At root, their proposals demonstrate that they think poor people don’t have the ability to lift themselves. Otherwise, why would they propose giving people money and things for work not performed or value not created? At root, these people are arrogant and patronizing to the poor. They also forget that people don’t value things they don’t work for. They live in the self-satisfied full confidence that they are helping when they are actually probably cementing the problem in.
So, the question becomes how can people rise up – what do we do? Left alone to the politicians, the problem of poverty is not likely to change much at all. They are so mired in their own dogma they cannot solve problems that require real thought… and action.
I look to history. The way every group has risen is through ownership. People need to own things- homes and businesses as a start. There is a class of people who don’t own anything- even their furniture. The solution to this is teaching people, especially at an early age, how to own things and create wealth for themselves. Also, there is a moral imperative to guarantee kids an equal start in education as well.
Nobody argues against people doing for themselves, but we cannot ignore that the odds are so stacked against the poorest among us. This requires an entirely different approach to poverty and education than the ones we have used for almost 100 years. The stark difference between the people living in the inner cities and rural areas as compared to those of us living in the ‘burbs in North Carolina is unjust. And, it is not inevitable.