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Yvahn Martin Headshot

The High Cost of Opportunity

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"... while we need safety nets, the focus should be instead on creating opportunity -- and, still more difficult, on creating an environment that leads people to seize opportunities."
- Nick Kristof, "Profiting From A Child's Illiteracy"

When discussing poverty and the distribution of wealth, two views typically emerge. Conservatives, fond of both Randian self-accreditation and those proverbial bootstraps we're all supposed to use as leverage, tend to hold the single individual responsible for their own destiny, regardless of where they started. Liberals, fond of blaming the system and clinging to the "entitlement programs" that seek to alleviate the stresses of said system, are more likely to forgive the personal missteps that often hold individuals in poverty. So it was refreshing to read textbook-liberal Nick Kristof turn a critical eye to a welfare program's unfortunate misuse. However, the quote above struck me as worthy of inquiry. How, indeed, do we create an environment that leads people to seize the opportunities that we will ensure are there?

The definition of an opportunity is a favorable juncture of circumstances and a good chance for advancement or progress. People who are born wealthy have access to the best doctors and educators in the world, and are nurtured by not only tutors but by family members whose business ventures and financial savvy are constantly accessible. At the opposite end of the spectrum, people who are born poor often have working parents with less time and resources to give, poor health, and are raised by themselves or the television. The only proven route for the poor to the hallowed middle class is for poor individuals to seize positive opportunities -- the most accessible of which are education and jobs -- to build their skills and resources and avoid the negative, short-term opportunities (i.e. using drugs, committing crimes) that will prevent growth. But how will they know how to recognize said opportunities and in turn teach their children if no one taught them? How will they maintain their resolve to stay a difficult course that leads to success when life's inevitable challenges present themselves?

Conservatives want to privatize the solutions, which only works if you have the money to pay, the whole problem with which is that poor people don't. If my tax dollars are being invested in a necessary social safety net, the goals of said safety net should not only be to meet urgent needs but to provide a plan to help individuals exit the system. We need to eradicate the "case worker"/paper-pusher mentality (starting out by paying higher wages to our service providers) and invest in more life coaches, career advisors, teachers, childcare professionals and financial advisors. Create programs that make the outcome of a healthy family the product the agency is responsible for, not just the child in isolation. Government as a whole should not escape the scrutiny of accountability, and can benefit from more influence from the business community: not lobbying to maintain tax loopholes and other corporate-personhood benefits, but cooperation to help spur process improvement, trim bloated bureaucracies and create a better product in service of the American people.

Poor parents need to be educated first of their own opportunities to earn money and build wealth through setting goals and being disciplined enough to budget, prioritize and maintain legal employment -- skills they may be learning or trying out for the first time. They become empowered by choosing a path of action to follow and achieving the goals they themselves set to pursue. Only then can they do the same for their children. If the system of incentives we've provided to alleviate urgent physical needs is counterproductive and keeps families in a generational cycle of poverty, let's create new incentives such as guaranteed access to physical benefits (e.g. free metro cards, cell phones, gym memberships) when parents in the programs gain employment, meet savings goals, attend counseling, keep the kids in school and achieve goals of their own. Develop a long-term follow up system with resources people can access in the months after leaving assistance programs when things might get hairy.

A recent report by the Center for an Urban Future laments the lack of "low-income" entrepreneurs in New York City. The entire premise of the report is strange to me, the concept that our most vulnerable populations should be responsible for creating opportunities for employment. The very definition of poverty is to be lacking the money to cover the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and healthcare. If you can't do that, how can you choose to spend money to start a business when it will ultimately mean yet more physical sacrifice, possibly at the expense of your health, sanity, and what little stability one might have? The risks inherent in entrepreneurship are such that the poor frankly cannot afford it, evident in the questionable success of micro-lending programs worldwide. These pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps perspectives are short-sighted products of the privileged, relieving governments and policymakers of the responsibility to abandon austerity measures and private interests and invest in the types of WPA-style projects that created the American middle class in the first place.

No taxpaying American should go without food, shelter and access to medicine for simply failing to succeed in the game of life. Success is laudable and learned through trial, error, and perseverance; but an opportunity is only a chance at success, not a guarantee. Our approach to poverty and raising people out of it should be encapsulated within the larger strategy of reducing global waste; reusing and repurposing infrastructure to create green economy jobs and sustainable, affordable housing; and re-investing money currently used to build prison and war infrastructure into schools and programs that will break the cycles of poverty. Only then will we be able to provide good chances for advancement and progress, not just to kids, but to their parents as well.