When I came to America I was 17. Once I turned 18 I ran away from my family. My father was a brute, and in America I didn't have to accept him as my lord and master past age 18.
Of course, I had nothing at all to my name. I did manage to sneak into the house late one night and take some of my clothes, but those were very few. I was really poor, but I was finally free, not only of the political system of the country where I grew up, Hungary, but also of my tyrannical father. Nothing else but free! And that was a lot!
First I went to the Salvation Army, but it wasn't what I was hoping for. So I approached a friend and borrowed $75 for a couple of weeks’ room rent. The place was not much more than a closet, but it had a bed and a sink and I was glad of it all.
I went out and got a job, too, although I was also attending high school and, as a new arrival, had problems with English.
Still, I got a job as a short-order cook, preparing salads in what now would be considered a fast-food restaurant. A few weeks later I got a better job, in a swankier restaurant, as a busboy. That didn't last long since they served liquor and I was too young to serve. I got fired.
So then I found another job — as a draftsman at Carrier Air Conditioning. I had some talent drawing and it came in handy there. This was an actual half-time job and allowed me to continue with school.
Slowly but surely I saved a few bucks, even established credit with some stores, which later served me well with my credit rating. On and on I went, two steps ahead, one behind, more or less.
Now I could continue with this, but there are millions of such stories, involving folks who are poor and then got less poor and in time joined what is dismissively called the middle class — as if people permanently belonged in those artificial classes conceived of by political theorists of one kind or another.
Suffice it to say that by way of some effort, persistence, prudence and luck I eventually stopped being poor, got some savings together, started a family, bought a home and another and then another, each a bit better than the one before. And my jobs, too, improved because I persisted in going to school and in time earned several degrees.
My purpose in telling this story is to point out that poor people aren't crippled. They lack resources other than their resolve and tenacity, but those are not negligible by a long shot. If you are alert to opportunities, if you are diligent, if you don't get all dejected by being surrounded with wealth that you lack, etc., you can pull yourself out of your poverty. And in some cases, you can even become immensely wealthy; it often depends on you, although a bit of luck helps.
So very many social theorists and commentators have a view of human beings whereby they are all stuck, petrified, frozen in their economic situations and unable to extricate themselves. So they become “the poor,” a category of humanity like “the bald” or “the tall.”
This conception of human beings leads to the widespread belief that unless some great force, such as the all-powerful and wise government, comes around to shake things up, the poor will remain poor forever.
However, as the economist Thomas Sowell has reported, most American poor remain poor for about four to five years and then stop being poor. And if there is a free market for them to navigate economically, matters are even more favorable — the poverty of the poor lasts for an even shorter period.
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at: TMachan@link.freedom.com