I was just a kid coming to grips with the fact that I had to really put together some serious career thinking and preparing to make a living on my own when President Lyndon Baines Johnson launched his major initiative of the 1960s, the War on Poverty. At that time the story was that around 15 percent of Americans were living in poverty. This week, nearly fifty years later, the Census Bureau issued the latest poverty numbers and what a surprise, about 15 percent of us are living in poverty in this decade. This confirms my long-held suspicion that the legislative army in Washington was either firing blanks in that war or aiming their guns at the wrong target.
President Johnson's "War on Poverty," was an initiative that aimed to eliminate poverty in America for good by taking aim at its causes as well as its effects. He pushed an unprecedented amount of antipoverty legislation through Congress, most notably the Economic Opportunity Act, which called for a number of new programs, including Head Start, VISTA, and the Community Action Program. The declared intent of these programs was to help poor people help themselves. Other notable acts included the Food Stamp program, Medicare, and Medicaid. Since we have matching poverty numbers from 1965 and 2013, there must have been many missing strategies and tactics in that war.
I believe that a real escape from the box labeled poverty requires several fundamentals and they all involve entrepreneurial thinking. First, you need a solid belief in your number one product, which is yourself! Next, you should have a simple education on how the marketplace really works. Then you need to be determined to develop your skills to a rewarding level. And finally, never listen to anyone who tries to convince you that a life of poverty is your destiny.
I grew up having a hand shake relationship with poverty. As one of four children guided by both parents, we were living in a public housing project in Niagara Falls, New York, during my formative years. We didn't have a car or even a telephone. A backyard clothesline is how the laundry got dried and a lot of that clothing came from the closest thrift shop. Like millions of other people around the world, I had the choice of remaining on a poverty path or to have a mind open to alternatives. One of my schoolmates lived in a big house with a pool and I wondered how his family accomplished that. When I asked his father about how he made a living he said he was a scrap metal dealer. The next question was how do you make money Mr. Silbergeld? The answer was "I buy for one and sell for two." That was a great ah-ha moment for me as to how a previously poor, linguistically challenged immigrant now lived a much better life than the average American. So I absorbed the lesson and began delivering newspapers for the Niagara Falls Gazette while attending middle school.
In my current 20-year mission of helping people think like entrepreneurs, I've come to believe that the answer is not socialism, it's not welfare, it's not just compassion and it's not the redistribution of wealth. It's not higher taxes and slogan driven legislation that bring people out of poverty. It is applied capitalism that can move people up the self-worth and economic ladder toward their dreams of a better life.
I grew up believing that the most effective antidote to entrenched poverty was education. I don't mean the education that leads to advanced academic degrees, but the kind of self knowledge that encourages people to stretch and grow beyond their perceived limits. I want to help the children from households steeped in poverty thinking to expand their horizons. What do we have to do for those souls to begin seeing their true and greater potential? The old biblical tenet of teaching people to fish rather than giving them a steady stream of fish supplied by a government agency applies here. I don't believe that we can eradicate poverty by helping people remain in that unfortunate socioeconomic state with a slogan and a check.
We have gone so far down the road of teaching risk avoidance that we now have generations of people who don't really know what it takes to succeed in reaching their dreams. By the way, having a multi-million-dollar house on the hill and a seven-digit income isn't everyone's dream nor is it a true definition of success. You get to compose your own personal definition of success but it will take some risks to get there. The playwright Neil Simon said, "If no one ever took risks, Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor."
Not everyone is an entrepreneur but everyone can benefit from learning to think like one. That means creating value to put into the marketplace and receive your just rewards. Whether you are offering your personal services, your brainpower or a useful product, creating value can scrub poverty from your life. We've all heard the term "Poverty Pimp" referring to people who make their reputation and living by screaming about rampant poverty without creating any mechanisms to teach the underclass how to escape that trap. Those households living below the poverty line form the basis of their business and without them they'd have to find a new line of work. Did those legislators who signed off on "War on Poverty" legislation nearly fifty years ago really have a plan to drive a stake into the heart of the root causes of poverty? The wily old French Premier Charles de Gaulle, who reigned around the same time as President Johnson, said, "In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant." So here we are today with a widening income gap in America and poverty levels that mimic those of generations ago while politicians shamelessly ask how it happened.
In America, which was built on capitalist principles, we are told by politicians and some economists that economic growth would be higher and poverty rates lower if only the government would spend bigger on a list of special programs and/or the Fed would print even more money. But what if the difficulty lies elsewhere, in problems that no amount of fiscal or monetary stimulus can overcome? For me, nearly five decades with no measurable change for the better indicates a structural problem. Learning to escape the poverty label is hard work and it can take a lot longer than election cycles.
The guiding strategy of my war on poverty is to teach people to think like a small business owner even if you are working a minimum wage job or living in your car. My tactic is to use all media to guide and support those who want to take personal responsibility in building their life far above the numbers that define the poverty line. After all, it is the men and women who operate small and medium enterprises that are the key to job creation. Many have come from disadvantaged circumstances and the jobs they create will help others to rise. There is something wonderfully satisfying about occupying a place in life where the buck stops, having the confidence and resources to make your own decisions. How wonderfully proud a person can be when they have wrapped their arms around a dream, working day and night to move it forward. These people are showing us how to wage a real war on poverty.