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Learn how to create opportunities for poor people to extricate themselves from poverty.


Raymond had been in and out of jail since he was 13. Jessie had for years had to choose at the end of the month, before the welfare check came, between buying milk for her kids and paying all of her rent; the milk always won.   Maureen had lived on the street, and had been an alcoholic for seventeen years. Felix had worked at menial jobs for less than minimum wage since he had sneaked across the border on his way from Guatemala to the promised land when he was 15. As the four  stood in their graduation robes, they had three things in common: they were all poor, they all had tears running down their faces, and they all felt that they could turn their lives around.

Raymond, Jessie, Maureen, and Felix were graduating from a comprehensive program designed to help participants overcome the barriers that kept them in poverty. They had learned how to fill out job applications, how to present themselves and interview for a job, and how to get along with co-workers - even difficult ones. Maureen and Jessie had earned GEDs (Raymond had already gotten his, during his third stint in jail), and Felix had become fluent in English. They all had learned to budget more carefully - Jessie had been paying her rent regularly, as well as keeping her kids nourished - and three were registered to vote. Felix was preparing for citizenship.

Just as important, they and their fellow participants had formed a bond. They spent time together, knew each others' families, cooked for one another, and shared child care. Raymond had already found a job with Maureen's uncle, who owned a plumbing supply business. Jessie's older daughter, who seemed to have a knack for drawing, had been accepted into an arts-focused charter school that Jessie had learned about from another participant. Felix had become good friends with one of the program volunteers, who was helping him think through how he wanted to continue his education.

For some people, the solution to poverty is simply a decent job. All they need, perhaps, is some help finding employment, and they're on their way to a better life. For others, it takes training and support, leading to the belief that they can control much of what happens in their lives. And for all, it helps to be connected to a network of other people; the wider the network, the greater the opportunities it offers.

This section is about how to provide opportunities for the poor to extricate themselves from poverty and the ills that often accompany it - uncomfortable and unsafe living conditions, crime, constant stress, preventable medical problems, family difficulties, depression, and isolation.

The word "poor" has all but disappeared from our vocabulary, at least in the U.S.  In many quarters, it has come to be viewed as insulting, and has been replaced by "low-income" or "disadvantaged."  As we explain below, people are poor, or become poor, for a variety of reasons, and they experience poverty in a number of different ways.  What they have in common, whether they live on the streets of Mumbai, in a Tanzanian village, or on a decaying and dangerous block in New York or London, is that they don't have enough money to maintain the general standard of living of their society as a whole.  Poor people in the U.S. may seem wealthy to poor people in much of the developing world, but the chances are that both feel a similar divide between themselves and the rest of their society.

We've decided to use "poor" in this section because it's the simplest and most direct term to describe the people we're concerned with - those who live in poverty and have difficulty finding a way out.  Whether poverty means "below the federal poverty line" or not knowing where - or when - you'll find your next bite of food, poor is the right word.

What are some of the causes of poverty?

To answer this question, we should start by asking another: Just who are the "poor?"  What do we mean when we use that term?

In fact, if we assume "poor" to mean living below the level of income needed to ensure basic needs - an adequate amount of nutritious food to gain and maintain good health at any age, intact clothing appropriate to the season, and shelter that is weather-tight, secure, and safe - then the poor are easily identified. They're the folks who simply don't have enough to keep themselves above water financially. In developed countries, they may be on welfare, live in subsidized or substandard housing, and be dependent on government assistance. In the developing world, they're often on the edge of starvation, have high rates of infant mortality and preventable disease (malaria, for example), may be homeless, and are usually the first to suffer when disaster strikes or times are bad. (A percentage of the poor in the developed world can be described in similar terms.)

In the U.S., the poor can fall into any of several categories, two of which really aren't relevant to the purpose of this section.  One of these is what we might call the intentionally poor, who have chosen, for philosophical or lifestyle reasons, to function with very little money in exchange for living in a particular way. The other group might be called the temporary poor. These are people, often recently-divorced women with children, who might have skills and credentials, but have lost a job, a supporting spouse, or some other form of support.  In most cases, they have the ability and the personal network to find jobs, further education, or other ways to solve what are usually temporary financial problems.

These folks may need support, since they're adjusting to a whole new way of living, but that support is usually temporary and either minimal or leading to further education.  The author was familiar, several years ago, with a program for "displaced housewives," women who were newly divorced or widowed and hadn't worked recently.  The program provided subsidies for courses and career counseling, after which most either went on to four-year institutions or found their way into decent jobs.

The poor that we're concerned with here are those who have no obvious way out of their situation. There are a number of reasons for this. None of them obtains for all those in poverty, but often at least one applies. Furthermore, they're usually interrelated: someone who has low-level skills may have difficulty finding work, which, in turn, may lead to substance use or crime, making it even harder to find work. Several factors often work together to keep people in poverty.

  • Lack of basic skills. Many people who live below the poverty line have problems with reading, writing, and/or math, or lack English proficiency. (While many immigrants to the U.S. come with excellent educational backgrounds, others are not literate in their native language, let alone in English.) This problem also leads to a lack of computer literacy and difficulty in learning new technical skills (because of the necessity to read and understand instructions and manuals, many of which are written at a fairly high level.)  It makes it virtually impossible to get and keep any but menial, low-wage jobs.
  • Lack of employment skills. This may mean both specific job skills beyond a strong back and the ability to sweep a floor, and also the kinds of generalized skills it takes to get and keep a job: getting up on time, making sure you have reliable transportation, treating others at work reasonably, following directions, etc.

One, or a combination of, these two can mire a family in the ranks of the "working poor."  One or both parents may have jobs, or, typically, more than one job, but still be unable to earn enough to emerge from poverty.  To make matters worse, because they're working at low-wage, menial jobs, they're unlikely to have health insurance, but are ineligible for Medicaid.  As a result, they can be working more than 40 hours a week, and still be only a medical emergency away from hunger or eviction.

At the current federal minimum wage in the U.S., a year's pay for a full-time job is under $11,000.00 a year.  The federal poverty level for a family of four - which is in itself probably a gross underestimate of what is really needed to provide adequately for basic needs - is just over $19,000.00.  The median family income in the U.S. is currently (2005/6) about $44,400.00.  About 7.5% of U.S. working families live below the official poverty line, and a total of 27.4% live below twice the poverty line, which is considered the definition of low-income.

  • Severe physical or intellectual disabilities. Many people with physical disabilities are more than able to thrive in the society, making their disabilities irrelevant because of the strength of their intellects and the force of their personalities. Others, however, are so severely disabled that they are unable to work, and are dependent on public assistance.  Those with intellectual difficulties - adults who function at the level of young children, for instance - are also generally dependent on parents or on public assistance. For those who are placed in caring group homes, the quality of life can be high. For those who have no such support and no outside resources, life can be grim.
  • Alcohol or drug dependency. The relationship here is not necessarily that poverty leads to addiction, but rather that addiction leads to poverty. There is probably little question that poor neighborhoods provide more opportunity to use drugs and alcohol early and often; but there is also little question that the purchase of drugs and alcohol drains resources, and that being drug- or alcohol-dependent makes it unlikely that someone will regularly show up to a job that pays reasonably well, or will maintain relationships and stay out of trouble.  (There are obviously exceptions to this generalization, but that doesn't mean it's not accurate in most cases.

To further complicate matters, substance users tend to lose their moral compass.  To feed their addiction, most will do whatever they can to get the drug they need, and their behavior when they're drunk or high may be offensive or violent.  The result is that whatever networks they might have had usually break down fairly quickly.  Family and friends will only put up with so much before they withdraw support.  Substance users often become homeless for just this reason - they no longer have any clean and sober connections that will give them a place to sleep.

A subset of this group is that formed by runaway and "emancipated" homeless adolescents who live on the street.  (If an adolescent is "emancipated," it generally means his parents have thrown him out and told him never to come back.  This happens to kids as young as 14 or 15, many of whom have no place to go.)  They form groups for protection, almost always become drug users, often sell their bodies in order to eat, and are among the hardest of the homeless to contact and serve, because they've learned that it's unsafe to trust anyone.

  • Mental health issues. When you think of the mentally ill poor, you may picture a homeless person who walks down the street talking to herself or fighting imaginary attackers.  Those people certainly exist - in fairly large numbers in some cities - but they aren't the only ones affected by mental health problems. Many are invisible - they act normally, but are unable to function because of depression, mood swing disorders, or the results of traumatic experiences. They may have the skills and/or education to lead a very different life, but they're unable to do so.

An example is the war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who sees a threat behind every lamppost. Less familiar, but just as powerful, is PTSD caused by domestic violence or the childhood experience of physical or sexual abuse.  Some people who've undergone these experiences are emotionally and psychologically affected to the point where they're unable to work or develop relationships.  Some of those who can function - and this is true for people with other types of conditions as well - may use addictive substances, particularly alcohol, as medication, because it turns off their conscious thoughts.  As a result, it may seem that their problem is alcoholism, when it's actually far more complex.

  • True hard luck. This is a growing concern, especially for middle class people who may be only one disaster away from poverty. An unexpected medical catastrophe (cancer, a near-fatal car accident), a lost job (or perhaps a lost trade - think about industrial and service jobs that have migrated to Asia), a divorce - any of these can bring expenses or losses that destroy an individual's or family's fragile financial structure.  Whatever the reason, it's possible for people to find themselves in a downward spiral that ends in poverty and isolation.
  • Culture of poverty. The phrase "culture of poverty" has been used to describe the world view of people whose families have been poor for generations. It's difficult to estimate how many of the poor are actually part of this culture, but it definitely exists, and the number who grow up in it is significant. These are people who are raised in poverty, and are never taught the values, attitudes, and habits of mind necessary to become self-sufficient in modern society, largely because their parents weren't taught them, either. They can end up in a cycle of early parenthood, lack of skills and credentials, lack of interest in or respect for education, and lack of belief that life could be any different for them or their children.  This cycle can be broken (and is broken more often than most people think), but it takes a change of world view, as well as support for that change and the opportunity to learn new skills and behavior.

This list applies specifically to adults, but a large number of the poor are in fact children.  Recent figures (2004) show that 17.8% of children in the U.S. live below the poverty line, as compared to 12.7% of the general population.  Fully a third of African-American children are poor, and nearly 29% of Hispanic children, while about 10% of white and Asian children fall into that category.

A majority of poor children live in single-parent families, and virtually all are affected by the same list of reasons for poverty that pertain to adults, because they live with those adults.  In addition, because they are poor, they tend to live in places that are less healthy, and more dangerous in terms of crime and the availability of harmful substances and opportunities.  They are more likely to attend substandard and unsafe schools, and there is little social support - even if such support exists within their families - for the kind of behavior and thinking that might lead out of poverty.

What do we mean by extending opportunities for the poor?

People in all of these circumstances can benefit from opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty. But what kinds of opportunities are necessary or most beneficial?  The answer to this question is complicated by the fact that the causes of poverty may be very different from its effects. Poverty itself is an economic condition: the poor simply don't have enough money to get by.  The reasons for that, however, as we've been discussing, may have to do with their world view, their psychology, their backgrounds, or with circumstances beyond their control.  As a result, while some of the opportunities we'll consider focus directly on the economic, others address the internal barriers that tend to keep poor people poor.


The obvious solution to poverty is to make sure that everyone has a job that pays enough to support her family. In many cases, it's actually that simple, and the task is to provide opportunities for employment.  In other cases, however, as implied above, people simply aren't ready for the kind of job they need. They may lack the skills to perform it, or they may lack the skills to hold any job reliably.  If so, they need the opportunity to gain those skills. Equally important, they should have the opportunity to  look at work life as a long-term process, and to try to plan for a career.

Thus, depending on the individual's needs, the opportunities here might include actual employment, employment training or retraining (learning a trade or specific job-related skills), job skills training (learning how to get and keep a job), and career planning.


There are really three ways education can act as an opportunity for the poor. The first is to counter a lack of basic skills or majority-language ability. The second is to prepare people for white-collar or professional jobs through post-secondary education.  The third, and perhaps most important, is the educational opportunity that can be offered to children, through the improvement of public schools in low-income neighborhoods and the offer of educational alternatives.

Life skills.

Managing money, keeping healthy, and participating in the community are only some of the areas that many poor people have difficulty with. Helping them learn these and other skills that will improve their lives can contribute greatly to their self-sufficiency.


Creating opportunities for the poor to improve their situations is all fine and good, but their basic survival needs still must be met while they gain skills and seek employment. Addressing hunger, through food banks, Food Stamps, and other programs; providing shelters, food, and other survival services to the homeless; and establishing programs where people can find decent used clothing, furniture for a recently-acquired apartment, protection from domestic abuse, free health services, child care, referrals to other services, and relief from isolation are all necessary even - or especially - while people are taking advantage of other opportunities to change their lives.

Poverty is a relative concept.  People see themselves, and the society sees them, as poor in relation to those in the society who are well off.  In developed countries, that usually means the difference between being able to provide only for basic needs and being able to afford at least a few luxuries.  Poor neighborhoods are often dangerous and unhealthy, but statistics say that most of their residents have jobs and own cars and TV sets.  In most cases, only those who are at rock bottom - homeless, jobless, and without prospects - are in danger of dying from poverty itself.

In developing countries, the poor may be a majority of the society, and their lives may be threatened daily by hunger, the elements, illness, violence, or environmental poisoning.  Most poor people in countries like the U.S., Canada, and Denmark would be considered well off in sub-Saharan Africa or south Asia.  There, survival can mean finding food that day, rather than finding the money to pay the rent.

Social connection.

Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and other works about social capital, has found that social connectedness is a better predictor than income of health, longevity, employment, and several other positive factors of life. Creating opportunities for the poor to expand social connections can improve their prospects of employment, support them through crises, and raise the general quality of their lives.

Social connection can come about through programs and initiatives that are run or sponsored by government agencies or community-based organizations, and they can also be generated by grass roots community groups of all kinds. Volunteer mentors, service clubs, businesses, even recreation and social organizations - all can contribute to forming the kinds of relationships that people need in order to feel supported and move economically and socially.

Opportunities for the poor don't just pop up out of nowhere.  They exist because of policy, funding, and the in-the-trenches gruntwork of community-based organizations, activists, and advocates.  Much of the real work of providing opportunities for the poor comes from advocacy, using relationships with legislators and local officials, with businesses, with government agency personnel, with funders, and with the media.  The emphasis in this section is on the types of programs that provide opportunities and how they can be used.  But without advocacy, no matter how well they're planned, many won't exist.

Why extend opportunities for the poor?

Extending opportunities to the poor has the overall goal of decreasing their number. If, as the New Testament quotes Jesus as saying, "the poor are always with us," why bother to try to change their state?  There are several ethical answers to that question, and an even larger number of practical ones.

Some of the ethical answers are that any civilized society worthy of the name has an obligation to its poorest members to help them improve their condition; that the ranks of the poor, in most developed countries, are constantly changing - many people don't spend their whole lives in poverty, and the more opportunities they have, the fewer their poverty-stricken years will be; and that virtually every major religion and philosophical framework advocates helping the poor.

The practical reasons are even more convincing.  Among them:

  • Decreasing poverty adds to the workforce.More people in the workforce means more possibilities for new business, as well as an increase in talent that may lead to greater productivity.
  • Fewer poor people reduces the tax burden on everyone. Every poor person who becomes a tax-paying worker reduces taxes twice over: she is now paying taxes into the system, and the system is no longer using taxes to support her.
  • Reducing poverty decreases medical costs. For a variety of reasons - ignorance of (or inability to afford) proper nutrition, lack of regular exercise, stress, environmental factors, lack of a regular physician, high-risk behavior - adults and children on the lowest rungs of the income ladder have more, and more severe, health problems than those higher up.  Furthermore, they most often seek treatment at hospital emergency rooms, which is both more expensive and less effective than maintaining a relationship with a primary care physician.
  • Decreasing poverty means increasing the number of consumers, and thereby strengthening the overall economy. The more people who are able to buy goods and services, the greater the benefit for business.  Businesses that make more money pay more taxes (at least if they're obeying the law), create more jobs, produce more goods and services, and - ideally - pay higher wages.

We know, we know - businesses aren't always fair to their employees or to consumers, many have accountants that find tax loopholes, they produce - and convince us to buy - all sorts of products we don't need, etc., etc.  All this is true, and the Community Tool Box is not endorsing trickle-down economics here. On the other hand, it is also true that when businesses are doing well and the economy is strong, everyone else generally does better, too.  There is more money in government accounts for programs and services that benefit the disadvantaged, there are more entry-level jobs for the previously unemployed and the just-graduated, and overall poverty rates often drop.  While unchecked consumerism - the "I win because I have more toys" philosophy - is not beneficial for an individual or a society, the ability to occasionally buy something you want makes you feel that you're not doing badly...and that is a good thing.

  • Adults rising out of poverty can break a generational cycle, and move out of the culture of poverty. Their children won't grow up poor, and will grow up in circumstances where they're likely to learn - from both their parents and their environment - the attitudes and behavior that will assure their own financial security, and that of their children.
  • Reducing poverty increases diversity in all sectors of society. While the majority of the poor in the U.S., in pure numbers, are white, populations of color and language minorities are represented in much higher percentages than whites in the poverty statistics. Providing opportunities for these folks to advance economically could change the character of the student population and the workforce at all levels, and change the character of race and ethnic relations for the better in the process.
  • Providing opportunities for the poor gives more people a stake in the society. If the American (or Canadian or European) Dream seems out of reach, then people don't have a reason to care about the society as a whole. Poor and low-income U.S. citizens vote in smaller percentages than their more affluent counterparts, and often don't see the society as belonging to them, or themselves as part of the society. This leads to alienation, particularly for the young, and can result in violence and other destructive and self-destructive behavior.

When people are part of the larger economy, when they work and socialize with people from all walks of life, they see the society in a different light. The more people can enjoy and fulfill the benefits and obligations of the society, the more ownership they feel, the more actively they participate, and the stronger a democracy becomes.

  • Providing opportunities for the poor increases equity. Equity - the fairness of a society in terms of most people either having what they need, or no one having a huge amount while others have nothing - is one of the factors identified by the World Health Organization as being necessary for a healthy community. It is, for instance, a better predictor of life expectancy (the greater the equity, the higher the life expectancy) than the affluence of the society - one of the reasons the U.S., the most affluent society in the world, ranks only 29th in longevity.
  • Providing opportunities for the poor can improve their and their children's lives. According to the Declaration of Independence, everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That pursuit implies offering the opportunity for it to all.  It's the right thing for a community to do, and can lead to a more equitable and humane society and a better quality of life for everyone.

This isn't just rhetoric.  In more equitable societies, there is less need for conflict and violence, and more of the society's resources can be directed toward actually improving the quality of life, rather than toward managing one crisis after another.

When would you extend opportunities for the poor?

As with most issues covered in the Community Tool Box, the push for opportunities ought to go on constantly. Opportunities can be provided at any time, but there are some particularly good times to make the effort to fund or establish programs or initiatives, or other types of opportunities. Use the material in those Tool Box chapters on advocacy (30-34) mentioned earlier, and take advantage of these opportunities:

  • When there's an election approaching. Policy makers are always much more interested in listening to constituents when their seats are on the line. They're much more likely to latch onto a "bold new initiative to combat poverty" if it improves their chances of election.
  • When a comprehensive new initiative is starting. If the community or a coalition of community based organizations is making an effort to address poverty, community development, homelessness - almost any social or economic issue - you can make a good argument for including opportunities for the poor in their plan.

Even environmental issues provide possibilities.  Income-eligible people could be trained for careers in green industries, for instance.  In rural areas in the developing world, area residents can be incorporated into employment in sustainable development or agriculture, or enlisted as game wardens or park rangers.  Some coffee marketers in the U.S. have trained poor coffee growers in Latin America in organic and ecologically responsible growing techniques, and pay fair-trade prices for their superior product.  It's important to think creatively, so you can generate opportunities for the poor in all kinds of situations.

  • When publicity about poverty or other issues opens doors to opportunity.  We have referred often in the Community Tool Box to the 1962 publication of Michael Harrington's The Other America: Poverty in the United States, which introduced the mass of Americans to the fact that dire poverty existed in their midst.  The publicity generated by the book led almost directly to President Lyndon Johnson's 1964 declaration of a War on Poverty, which resulted in a number of programs - many quite successful - designed to provide opportunities for the poor to gain skills and move up the economic ladder.

When the public is awakened in that way, it's crucial to follow up as quickly as possible: public memory is short, and public attention can quickly shift to another issue, or to the latest TV phenomenon.  As soon as you're aware of that kind of publicity, it's a good time to push it in your community, using local media and whatever other methods you can.  If you can use your window of opportunity well, you may be able to generate many opportunities for the poor.

The furor created by The Other America was particularly intense, but there have been other similar opportunities. An article in the New York Times Magazine, for example, introduced much of America to AIDS in the early 1980's.  Both of these publications generated attention from the public and, subsequently, from policy makers, who appropriated funds to address the issues raised.

  • When there's a crisis that people simply can't ignore. When homeless people are freezing to death on the streets, or when poor seniors are freezing to death in their apartments because they can't afford heat, the public and politicians start to pay attention. The same is true when street violence reaches battlefield proportions, or when teachers start noticing symptoms of malnutrition among their students. In situations like these, it's often possible to generate opportunities for the poor.

Who can extend opportunities for the poor?

Opportunities arise through programs. through offers from organizations or institutions, or through the work of community activists and volunteers. Many of these opportunities are initiated, or at least funded, by the federal, state, or local government, and some are actually offered directly by government agencies. Others come from community-based organizations, foundation funding initiatives, employers, and community institutions.

  • Government. The "who" here usually refers to legislators or executives who pass bills or create budget lines to set up and/or fund such activities as employment training, basic or advanced education, counseling, etc. ("Government" can include community colleges and state universities, as well as public school systems.)
  • Private funders. Foundations, corporate funds, and other private funders often fund programs and organizations that are aimed at providing opportunities for the poor.  Sometimes they decide, or can be convinced, to put large amounts of money into a specific initiative.

A notable exception to the general rule that foundations don't run programs is the approach of the Gates Foundation.  Bill and Melinda Gates themselves steer the foundation's initiative to eliminate preventable diseases in the developing world.  While they work through other existing organizations and institutions, they are very clear about what kinds of programs they want, where they want them to operate, and what they want them to do.

  • Community institutions. Private schools or colleges can provide financial aid and/or programs specifically for poor students, or specifically for poor adult students.

Faith communities and the churches they belong to often sponsor programs or services, sometimes very sophisticated and effective ones. Individuals within those communities may also provide jobs or other support. Service clubs (Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, Elks, etc.) often provide college scholarships for students in difficult circumstances, may also sponsor community-wide initiatives or projects, and, as individual members, provide internships and jobs.

  • Business. Employers and businesses may provide jobs or other services to those in poverty in the community or to low-wage workers. Banks, through the Community Reinvestment Act, may offer low-interest loans or other financial services to help the poor toward financial stability.
  • Human service or other non-profit or community-based organizations. These organizations often run the programs that the government or foundations pay for, and do the actual on-the-ground work to help people gain the skills, knowledge, and confidence necessary to take the steps that will bring them out of poverty. Some community-based organizations - survival centers, for example - may operate totally on volunteer help and community donations.
  • Grass roots or other community groups and community members. Networking, job offers, small loans, mentoring, child care, emergency help, advocacy with government agencies - all these and many other services and examples of social capital can often be found in the community. Some are the result of individual volunteer efforts, some are provided through service clubs or other social organizations, and some are directed specifically to providing the kinds of opportunities we've been discussing.  Healthy communities can often find the human resources to extend opportunities to the poor, even when financial resources aren't available.

How do you extend opportunities for the poor?

This section is not about helping the poor survive, as important as that is, but about helping them to leave poverty behind. The best remedy for poverty is to cease being poor, and it's the opportunities that will lead to that result that we're concerned with here. As the proverb says: "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime."

Opportunities are just that: you can't make people take advantage of them. You can, however, provide as much support as possible for taking advantage of them, and help people build connections and networks that will continue to support them. That initial support and the building of networks are, in fact, among the opportunities we'll consider in this part of the section.

There are three essential steps to extending opportunities for the poor. The first is to devise opportunities that respect the people they're aimed at, and are effective at helping them pull themselves out of poverty. The second is to make sure that those opportunities are provided. The first requires careful thought and planning, often with the participation of those who will benefit, and sensitivity to the realities and needs of those in poverty. The second is a matter of making sure that policy makes those opportunities possible through adequate funding and political sponsorship. The third step involves making sure that, once opportunities are available, the people who need them learn about and take advantage of them.

Although we separate opportunities into categories below - employment, education, etc. - that is not meant to imply that two or more of those categories can't be combined in a program or initiative.  In fact, the best and most effective opportunities of any sort often combine direct job training and/or education with life skills and support, creating a complete package.  Many employment training programs include education, and vice-versa.  Broad- ranging experiences can be successful in helping people to overcome poverty.

General guidelines for creating opportunities for the poor.

Regardless of what kind of opportunity you're hoping to provide, there are some principles that will help people respond to it, and that will make it more likely to have an effect.

  • Assess the needs of the population you're concerned with.  If most can't speak or read English, for instance, then an ESOL class may be the place to start, or that combined with job training in their native language. It's also important to understand that some people have other things to resolve before they're ready to seek employment or some other opportunities.  They may be wrestling with substance use, homelessness, domestic abuse, parenting needs (child care, out-of-control teens), or mental illness. They may need citizenship or a green card, or an understanding of basic economics (how to budget, how to open a bank account, how to avoid debt, how to be a smart buyer, how to save for the future, etc.)  Without resolving, or at least addressing issues like these, people may not be ready for the next step. Make sure that the opportunities you're offering are reasonable and appropriate for the people they're intended for.

It's important to have some idea of the nature of the community as well.  If you're offering employment training, it should be in areas where participants could conceivably get jobs when they complete the program or course.  Training someone for a dying industry, or for one that already has a surplus of job-seekers, is not likely to help him out of poverty.

  • Where possible, enlist the people you hope to benefit in the planning process. What do they see as the greatest benefit to them?  What do they know they need?  If you involve them in planning, they're both more likely to embrace the opportunity, and  more likely to gain from it.
  • Treat people with respect. Everyone is entitled to respect as a human being, regardless of income, education, or other factors. Furthermore, people in poverty are often not treated respectfully.  Approaching them as people with rich experiences and knowledge will help them see themselves as both worthy and capable of taking control of their lives.

A Certified Nurse's Aide training program in the Boston area proved remarkably successful: it had an attendance rate of nearly 100%, and a graduation rate to match, with most graduates finding employment almost immediately.  The difference between this and many other such programs is that the women - and they were all women - on welfare who participated were treated as professionals, with high expectations for their attendance, behavior, and work habits.  They were addressed not by their first names, but as Ms.---, and told from the beginning that their work could mean life or death for a patient.  The result was that they responded as professionals, both in class and out.

  • Devise opportunities that set clear and reachable goals, where participants can see and experience the changes they've made. The more progress people can see, the better they feel about themselves, and the more clearly they believe that they can change their circumstances.
  • Provide the emotional and psychological support necessary for people to change their way of thinking about the world and their place in it. One of the greatest barriers that many in poverty face is the inability to imagine that their lives could be any different.  They don't see themselves as capable of taking action, but only of being acted upon.   If they can start to believe that they can have an effect on their lives, they are much more apt to take steps toward change.
  • Provide the daily survival support necessary for people to make the transition to the next step. One of the main reasons for the failure of many "welfare-to-work" and other similar programs is that the state-subsidized logistical and physical support that people need in order to keep working - child care, transportation, medical insurance, rent subsidies - is cut off as soon as a participant gets a job.  If a child gets sick, a ride to work is unreliable, or trustworthy child care is too expensive, joblessness may be the result all too soon.  Supports should remain in place until alternatives are found, or until a participant reaches a wage level that should allow self-sufficiency.

By the same token, lack of these supports may be one reason that many working families remain mired in poverty as well.  They may sacrifice a potential income so that a spouse can stay home with children, or may be financially devastated by a medical calamity for which they're uninsured (low-wage jobs often come with no medical benefits).

  • Leave people enough time to make the change. Many poor people need only the opportunity in order to turn their lives around.  Others, as we've discussed, have to change their attitudes and world view before they can change their lives. That change in world view can take a while - after all, it means discarding a way of thinking that may be lifelong.  Change is never easy for anyone: the greater the risk it brings, the harder it is. The change we're talking about here is particularly difficult, and most people need time to make and adjust to it.  (By the same token, those offering the opportunity for change have to be persistent, and trust that, with time, participants will take what's offered.)

This is a particularly difficult issue for politicians - even those who understand it - to cope with.  Their necessity is almost always to get what looks like the most for the public's money, especially if election is near.  The idea of "wasting" money on programs that take a year or two instead of weeks is simply not one they're willing to entertain.  As a result, all too often money is actually wasted on programs that don't work because they don't last long enough to have an effect.

This situation is doubly damaging because the blame is invariably placed on participants or on the program itself, rather than on the fact that it was cut off too soon.  As a consequence, a program that might work has been discredited and is unlikely to be attempted again, and the poor are once again blamed for being poor, making future efforts to provide opportunities for them less likely.

Employment opportunities.

As discussed above, employment-related opportunities can span a range of possibilities, depending upon the previous history and experience of the folks they're intended for.

  • Pre-employment skills training. Those who haven't worked before, and haven't developed some of the skills, habits and attitudes necessary for successful employment, may need a training program that includes job-finding skills (resume writing; how to dress, present yourself, and respond to questions in a job interview); maintaining work relationships (getting along with co-workers and supervisors, conflict resolution); understanding basic employment responsibilities (getting to work on time, setting up or finding reliable transportation, informing employers when you're sick or there's an emergency, knowing what's appropriate to miss work for and what's not); and general employment information (how payroll usually works, what minimum wage is, payroll taxes, benefits, paying taxes, workers' and employers' rights, safety concerns).
  • Career counseling.  Where possible, career counseling can play a huge role in the success of employment opportunities. Helping people understand what their skills are, what they enjoy, what kinds of training they might need for a particular career path, and, often most important, what the possibilities are, can be tremendously helpful in devising or choosing a program or direction. Employment opportunities can have the result of marooning people in jobs that are not far above poverty level.  If people approach employment from the perspective of a lifelong career, rather than a job at a time, they are more likely to find jobs that they'll stay with, more likely to go on for more training or education, and more likely to continue to move up the employment ladder.
  • Employment training. Those who have a job history or a good understanding of the world of work, but have no skills, are more likely to benefit from training for an actual job. This may mean specific job training in a trade or career field - auto mechanics, Certified Nurse's Aide training, typing/word processing - or training in transferable skills, such as computer literacy, business management, or tool use.
  • Sheltered workshops. Employment in a protected environment for people with severe disabilities or developmental problems can help them feel valued as productive members of society and provide them with cash for personal needs.
  • Actual employment.  People who are ready for employment can benefit both from government-run or -funded programs that help them find jobs (state employment agencies, job banks, job development, etc.), or from employers who commit to hiring a certain number of people struggling with poverty (often welfare recipients or the formerly incarcerated), who may offer on-the-job training as well.  Other possibilities include internships, work with human service and other non-profit organizations, and help (loans, technical support, business courses) with self-employment or starting small businesses.

For high-functioning retarded adults or people with mental health issues, many businesses provide jobs with built-in mentoring and/or counseling.  The employers understand the kinds of problems these employees may have, and try to strike a balance between providing support and demanding that employees meet job expectations.  In many cases, these jobs mean the difference between the self-respect of being a productive member of society, and being treated (and feeling) like a throw-away.

  • Social entrepreneurship and micro-credit .  In developing countries, particularly in South Asia, a number of organizations, inspired by the pioneering work of Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, grant small, no-collateral loans to poor individuals or groups to develop small businesses. The loans generally come with membership in a borrower group, providing training in how to manage loans, the opportunity to share ideas about running small businesses, and mutual social support. Groups also create peer pressure to repay loans - members feel that if they default, they're letting down the group as well as themselves. This strategy has been extremely successful, with a very low default rate, and a high degree of success at pulling poor families into economic solvency.

Educational opportunities.

Education is often a key to overcoming poverty. Its great advantage is that it works generationally: parents who become concerned with their own education both inspire and encourage their children in that area, probably thereby affecting their yet-unborn grandchildren as well. Another plus for educational opportunity is that it can be pursued part-time while training for employment or working.

  • Basic education and ESOL. Some people who have difficulty with reading, writing, or math may have learning disabilities that have to be recognized and addressed.  Others may have simply had such difficulty in their lives as children (alcoholic or abusive families, illness, family crises, etc.) that school was simply never important enough to focus on.  Having the opportunity to learn as adults what they failed to learn as children - and to realize that they're not stupid - can change their lives. Recent - or not-so-recent - immigrants may have difficulty speaking, reading, or writing English, or may want to study for the citizenship exam.  Basic education or ESOL may also take place in a workplace context, either run and funded by the employer, or with the employer providing space and release time for employee/students, and funding provided from public sources.
  • Post-secondary education. That might be a certificate program in a particular area, or a two- or four-year college degree that will open doors to jobs that would otherwise be closed, and turn what might have been a life of financial dependency into one of financial and social contribution.
  • Education for the children of poverty. All too often, the schools available to the children of the poor are ill-maintained, understaffed, unsafe, and disrespectful to both children and parents.  If the schools that serve poor children have high standards and expectations, foster independent learning and creative and critical thinking, encourage parental involvement, support excellent and creative teaching, and maintain safe and nurturing environments, they can foster a love of learning and a level of academic competence that can propel those children to college and beyond.

In fact, we know how to turn schools around - in poor neighborhoods and any other neighborhoods as well. The information has existed for years, as the result of numerous studies and school-reform efforts. It is only because of sluggish and unimaginative educational bureaucracy, lack of will, and a disregard for the fate of poor children that has been demonstrated continually in the U.S. over the past 50 years or more, that schools in poor neighborhoods fail their students so miserably.  The issue here is not what to do, but how to get it done.  It's largely a matter of vigorous and continuous advocacy on both the local and national levels.

One statement of what has been demonstrated as effective is the Common Principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), an organization of schools around the country that adhere to an educational philosophy based on research about what works.  Founded by Ted Sizer, former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, CES rests on the fundamental principle that "the best school for the best is the best school for everyone."  The ten Common Principles are summarized as:

1.  Learning to use one's mind well.
2.  Depth over coverage (schools should teach essential skills in depth, rather than trying to cover all the bases and please everyone).
3.  School goals should apply to all students.
4.  Teaching and learning should be personalized as much as possible.
5.  Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach.
6.  Demonstration of mastery.
7.  A tone of decency and trust.
8.  Commitment to the entire school.
9.  Resource dedicated to teaching and learning.
10.  Democracy and equity.

The complete principles and more information are available on the CES website.

  • Vocational education. This branch of public education provides education for adolescents that points them toward specific careers in skilled trades and crafts, as well as some professions - carpentry and cabinet-making, auto mechanics, computer technology, culinary arts, etc. The opportunity to gain a marketable skill can mean economic security for children of poverty and their children.

Life skills.

These are the basic skills that help people keep their heads above water
financially, socially, and psychologically. The opportunity to learn these life skills can make a huge difference in the quality of their lives, even if their financial situation doesn't improve.  Life skills fall into a number of categories:

  • Economic literacy. This category includes budgeting, understanding the banking system, being a wise consumer (comparison shopping, for example, and knowing the value of paying more for a better product in certain circumstances), avoiding unreasonable debt (e.g., not using credit cards as if they didn't represent money), and analyzing the difference between necessities and luxuries.
  • Parenting and other family obligations. In the throes of day-to-day survival, it can be difficult to remember that children - and other family members - need attention as well as food and clothing.  This is hardly an issue unique to poor families, but it is often intensified by money worries. It can be relieved by the learning of some techniques for reading and responding to others' needs (and clearly stating your own), discipline, conflict resolution, and creating mutually enjoyable experiences.
  • Health information and healthy practices.  Many people, regardless of income, don't know what's healthy and what's not, how to provide good family nutrition, the signs of common physical problems (heart attack, stroke, pneumonia, etc.), and the actions they can take to keep themselves and their families healthy. Many low-income people, furthermore, don't have a personal physician, use the emergency room for routine problems, and don't know how to negotiate the health care system or advocate for themselves in health care situations.
  • General counseling. Having personal, family, employment, and other counseling available can greatly improve the chances that people will take advantage of, and successfully use the other opportunities you're providing.  Counselors - particularly in group situations - can help participants overcome years of feeling powerless, and can also stimulate critical thinking at a critical time.
  • Civic participation. People who grow up middle or upper class generally have experience participating in meetings, attending public forums, and contributing to the governance of organizations, clubs, school or church groups, or other bodies. People who grow up poor often don't have those experiences, and are convinced that their opinions - and their votes - don't matter.  Civic participation is for people in other circumstances. Learning about how government works, taking part in planning sessions and other meetings, and meeting policy makers can change both this attitude and their ability to make a difference.

It may sound disrespectful to characterize poor people as having problems with "life skills." After all, they wrestle daily with difficulties and problems that might overwhelm many who are more affluent and "successful." The fact remains, however, that many people aren't poor only because they have no money. There may be many reasons why they don't understand the money system well, for instance - some internal, some having to do with how they were raised, many residing in the society itself - but it is still true that that lack of understanding is a contributing factor to their poverty, and that it can be addressed. The same is true for other life skills.

Several years ago, Sondra Stein of the National Institute for Literacy published "Equipped for the Future," the results of a national survey of thousands of adult literacy learners. Asked why they wanted to learn to read and write better, they almost universally focused on three goals: improving their employment prospects and situations; becoming better parents and family members; and participating in their communities. These folks, the vast majority of them low-income, clearly saw life skills as keys to a better future.

  • Economic literacy. This category includes budgeting, understanding the banking system, being a wise consumer (comparison shopping, for example, and knowing the value of paying more for a better product in certain circumstances), avoiding unreasonable debt (e.g., not using credit cards as if they didn't represent money), and analyzing the difference between necessities and luxuries.
  • Parenting and other family obligations. In the throes of day-to-day survival, it can be difficult to remember that children - and other family members - need attention as well as food and clothing. This is hardly an issue unique to poor families, but it is often intensified by money worries. It can be relieved by the learning of some techniques for reading and responding to others' needs (and clearly stating your own), discipline, conflict resolution, and creating mutually enjoyable experiences.
  • Health information and healthy practices. Many people, regardless of income, don't know what's healthy and what's not, how to provide good family nutrition, the signs of common physical problems (heart attack, stroke, pneumonia, etc.), and the actions they can take to keep themselves and their families healthy. Many low-income people, furthermore, don't have a personal physician, use the emergency room for routine problems, and don't know how to negotiate the health care system or advocate for themselves in health care situations.
  • General counseling. Having personal, family, employment, and other counseling available can greatly improve the chances that people will take advantage of, and successfully use the other opportunities you're providing. Counselors - particularly in group situations - can help participants overcome years of feeling powerless, and can also stimulate critical thinking at a critical time.
  • Civic participation. People who grow up middle or upper class generally have experience participating in meetings, attending public forums, and contributing to the governance of organizations, clubs, school or church groups, or other bodies. People who grow up poor often don't have those experiences, and are convinced that their opinions - and their votes - don't matter. Civic participation is for people in other circumstances. Learning about how government works, taking part in planning sessions and other meetings, and meeting policy makers can change both this attitude and their ability to make a difference.

It is important to mention here the possibility of comprehensive programs, which may provide employment training, education, life skills, counseling, and other kinds of opportunities, based on the needs of the individuals enrolled. Not only do they provide multiple services, but - when they're properly implemented - these services support and reinforce one another, creating a whole program that's greater than the sum of its parts. (A program that provides both health and employment services, for instance, may allow for dental work that, in turn, helps a participant get a job.)

The program described in the introduction of this section addresses several different kinds of needs, including substance use treatment.  Many programs for the homeless offer medical and dental care as well as many of the above services.  The more ground a program can cover, the more likely participants are to get something out of it.

One specific comprehensive community initiative (CCI) that's been around for a while, but that has gotten a fair amount of recent media play, is the Harlem Children's Zone, led by Geoffrey Canada, which attempts not simply to provide services, but to reweave the entire community fabric.

(Although powerful, comprehensive programs are often very effective, they usually demand resources of money and personnel that may be hard to come by.  It may be more effective to do a limited number of things well than to try to do too much and do it badly.)

Other opportunities.

There are other ways in which an organization, business, government, or the society as a whole can offer opportunities for people to overcome poverty.

  • Affordable housing. Building affordable housing can take the pressure off paying far more than the recommended one-third of income for shelter, for example. (Statistics show that the lower your income, the greater the percentage of it that goes for housing, with the poorest people often paying up to 60% or more of their income in rent.)
  • Providing capital. As mentioned above, under the Community Reinvestment Act, banks may set aside a certain amount of money for low-interest, long-term mortgages or loans to help low-income people buy homes or start small businesses. The banks, or other organizations, might provide support for these endeavors in the forms of sweat-equity housing (people avoid all or most of the labor costs of building a house by providing their own labor), business management training, or business incubators (free or very low-rent facilities where small start-up businesses can locate, sharing clerical services and office equipment, until they are profitable enough to move on to their own spaces).
  • Preference for low-income applicants. Low-income people applying for jobs, low-interest mortgages or loans like those above, or other programs, may be given special consideration, or a certain number of, say, employment or Civil Service slots may be set aside for them. There is a long history in the U.S. of similar preference programs - veterans' preference, for example, or affirmative action - to reward certain groups or to make an unfair situation more equitable.

Creating social capital.

Social capital is the "wealth" of social relationships and trust, the foundations of social networks you can call on for help, support, companionship, information, and security. Connectedness can mean belonging to clubs and organizations, having a large extended family that also maintains connections to other families and individuals, or simply being part of a network of community or neighborhood relationships. Opportunities for building social networks can come from encouragement of social interaction in programs - with other participants, with volunteers, with staff members - from internships and job shadowing, from mentoring programs, or simply from introducing people to new situations.  Inviting business people, legislators, and others into classes and training groups to meet and talk to participants about what they do and can offer can also provide networking opportunities. The more sectors and individuals you can introduce people to, the better.

Becoming involved in community life (see "Civic participation" above) will invariably lead to becoming acquainted with other people - neighbors, community leaders, others with good community connections-who can in turn be helpful in providing or suggesting new economic opportunities. These types of contacts are often incidental and unplanned, but they can be powerful and significant nonetheless.

Furthermore, becoming socially connected in one's community - either through civic participation, or in other ways - increases the likelihood of obtaining social support in general. This support is tremendously important in helping someone whose esteem or skills or track record or all of the above may be shaky.  Support from neighbors, friends and acquaintances, other community members, even in small and apparently inconsequential ways, can be crucial in keeping struggling folks on course.

Make sure people know about the opportunities available.

In order to make sure that people take advantage of the opportunities that exist, they have to know about them, and to understand why they might be beneficial.  Many of the opportunities we've discussed involve some risk on participants' parts. They may feel that they can't learn basic or employment skills, and that entering an educational or training program just opens them up to more humiliation and failure.  You have to find the communication channels that will reach the population you're aiming at, fine-tune your message to calm their fears, and - more often than not - pull people in one at a time, with a personal approach. Once you reach critical mass - a certain number of participants who have been or feel they will be successful, and who will vouch for the opportunity you're providing - people will come.

Advocate, advocate, advocate.

More often than not, the most important part of offering opportunity to the poor is changing policy to make it happen and/or finding funding for it. There are five chapters of the Community Tool Box that focus on advocacy (Chapters 30-34), far too much material to rehash here. Be aware, however, that advocating for opportunities for the poor in whatever way is necessary, with legislators, local officials, the public, community organizations, and funders, is absolutely vital. No matter how well you plan programs, if you can't find the community and financial support for them, you might as well not have bothered.

Effective advocates for the poor don't take no for an answer. They keep at it until the opportunities they imagined are realized for all those who need them, until everyone actually has the opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, until poverty is a distant memory. And then keep at it still, or it will come right back. The goal is not only to reach a fair, equitable, and just society where everyone has what he needs, but to maintain it...forever.

In Summary

One general strategy for attacking poverty is to devise and provide opportunities for poor people to extricate themselves from it, and then ensure that those opportunities are used. Those opportunities - for employment training and employment, education, improving life skills, support for change and support in transition, and creating social networks and connectedness - can come from a number of sources. They benefit the community, as well as those they affect directly, both economically and socially.

Successful programs and initiatives are usually those that involve participants from the beginning, focus on their real needs, treat them with respect, and provide ongoing support. Regardless of the design and implementation of programs, however, no opportunities are likely to be available without powerful and persistent advocacy for them. The approach to policy makers, funders, and the public for support and resources is what will ultimately determine whether opportunities for the poor will exist or not.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

Brad Rourke (2006). Thriving Communities: Working together to move from poverty to prosperity for all. Pomfret, CT: Study Circles Resource Center.
A new interactive guide, specifically designed for study groups, to discuss and address this issue on a local community level. Downloadable from the publisher's website along with many of that Center's other publications.

ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (originally Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now). ACORN has worked on poverty eradication in various communities for several decades.

The Ashoka Foundation, an international organization that funds micro-lenders and others engaged in poverty eradication in the developing world

The Asian Development Bank, addressing poverty in Asia and the Pacific.

The Boston Foundation. Among this Foundation's many publications are a Community Building Curriculum, designed in large part to train community leaders how to organize their neighborhoods to help reduce poverty and maximize community opportunity.

The Center for Community Change, an organization that has fostered coalitions that, in turn, have been instrumental in establishing the Food Stamp program, the Community Reinvestment Act, and the preservation of affordable housing.  Some organizations that CCC has spawned that provide opportunities for the poor include:

The Curb-Cut Effect by Angela Glover Blackwell. Laws and programs designed to benefit vulnerable groups, such as the disabled or people of color, often end up benefiting all of society.

The Gates Foundation, wealthiest in the U.S., focuses largely on global health issues, but this can indirectly have a strong poverty-reduction impact in that healthier people are significantly more likely to engage in economic activity.

The Grameen Bank, the brainchild of Muhammad Yunus, originator of micro-credit. Makes small loans (as little as $10 to $25) to poor individuals and groups in Bangladesh.

The website of the Harlem Children's Zone, a comprehensive community initiative intended to reduce poverty and also promote overall community development in of some of Harlem's poorest neighborhoods.

The Opportunity International Network. Australia-based micro-credit lender, with training and mentoring for borrowers.

The website of the Poverty and Race Action Council, whose self-described purpose is "to link social science research to advocacy work in order to successfully address problems at the intersection of race and poverty."

SolvePoverty. Australian for-profit, originally affiliated with Opportunity International, that trains poor Southeast Asian youth for jobs in the computer industry.

Print Resources

Center for Community Change [no date given]. Getting Ahead: New approaches to generating jobs and opportunities for residents of low-income communities. Washington, DC: Author. A short how-to manual, with many examples, drawn from the work of this leading anti-poverty advocacy organization.

David K. (2004). The Working Poor: Invisible in America. New York, NY: Knopf. A detailed journalistic account of the working poor, and of how their situation might be bettered.

Ehrenreich, B. (2001). Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. New York, NY: Henry Holt. The author's insightful first-person experiences in working three different low-wage jobs.

Jonathan Kozol (1995). Amazing grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation. New York, NY: Crown Publishers. This case study of the Mott Haven area of the South Bronx (and a best seller) is one of Kozol's many works describing the effects of poverty on children.

Ken A. (1982). The Underclass. New York, NY: Vintage Books. Though by now an older book, Auletta's work is rich in illustrative detail and distinctive in describing the promises and pitfalls of job training programs as a method for emerging from poverty.

Lisbeth B. (1997). Common Purpose: Stengthening Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America. New York, NY: Doubleday. A comprehensive study by a leading scholar on the subject.

Meyer, A., Blake,L., Caine, H., & Williams P. (2000). On the Ground with Comprehensive Community Initiatives. Columbia, MD: The Enterprise Foundation. Many examples of such programs from across the country, and how they work in practice.

William J. (1996). When Work Disappears. The world of the new urban poor.  New York, NY: Knopf. Wilson's by-now classic exposition of the effects of the disappearance of industrial jobs from our central cities.