First-World Poverty Solved in Four Words

(or: What we should be talking about)

If you’ve read the first two articles and are jumping back in, you’ll need to backtrack slightly. I’ve added some content to the bottom of the last post. So if you’re coming back for #3, start here.


Thus far, we have covered:

Section 1: Introductions: who I am and why I care about this.

Section 2:
What we are talking about when we talk about poverty, including:

– A handy flowchart diagram of the current poverty dialogue
Point #1: “Poor people aren’t motivated” is the start, not the end, of the conversation.
– Point #2: Poverty is not about money.
– Point #3: Wealth is about resources, momentum and options.
– Point #4: Poverty is not one thing.
     – Point #4.1: There is more than one kind of poverty.
     – Point #4.2: There is more than one kind of poor person.
– Point #5: Despite how it looks sometimes, most people care about poverty.

Which brings us to section 3: what we should be talking about when we talk about poverty. In this episode, I’ll present “The Moderator’s Official 4-Word Solution to Poverty.”

In the internet response to this series, I’ve heard the following points raised. In this post, I’ll attempt to address them.

  • People are afraid of poverty: both that it might happen to them personally and/or as a society, and just generally the existential plight of it all.
  • Whoever is speaking is not qualified to talk about poverty, either because they aren’t poor, or because they are and they’re too pissed off to know how to start.

Numb and Number

Every time I see an article about poverty, it’s followed by a number. Numbers are an incredibly useful neurological convenience. They are a way of compressing truth into one single, universal icon, which transcends language and culture. But, as such, they are “low bandwidth”, in that they can’t carry much information.

Poverty is not money, but we reduce it to money for a reason. We don’t talk about the real big-picture poverty because basically we aren’t smart enough. Humans can’t hold the whole thing in our heads. And, we can’t do much about that. Computers help, but not nearly enough. We are nowhere near to understanding the large-scale systems of poverty.

So, to keep from going nuts, we fall back on numbers. Numbers are the lens through which the World of Wealth conceives of the poor. It is the tiniest aperture that can be opened between “us” and “them,” the keyhole through which the wealthy peer at the chaotic shit show on the other side of the door. With one number, comes one poverty. Under the poverty line? You are poor. Over it? You are not. But on the other side of that numeric keyhole are a hundred thousand poverties. Their situations, their worlds, their outlooks, are entirely different. And they need different kinds of help. That is why your attempts never really do anything. You are looking for one single way to help big groups of people. It does not exist.

The only way you can help poor people is to stop lumping us together.

Q: But didn’t you just say that was basically cognitively impossible, like, three paragraphs ago?

A: Good point! Yes, I did say something that was almost, but not quite, just like that. I said it was impossible to imagine the whole of poverty at once.

Q: Well at that point you’re basically talking about a custom solution for every single poor person. Which is also impossible. Nobody could design a solution that detailed. So isn’t acknowledging that, basically the same as admitting defeat?

A: Yes, that is what I’m talking about, and no, it isn’t admitting defeat. There is an answer. It’s free and everybody can do it. And I am going to tell it to you….

Right now.


The solution to first world poverty in four words, is:

Drumroll please…

a poor person.

Yes, that is it, folks. That’s the solution to poverty. To solve poverty, you must personally know a poor person. Perfectly-tailored solutions for every individual poor person: you get to know them, and as time passes, you find different ways to help them. Problem solved.

The remarkable thing about this statement – the only thing about it, really – is that it isn’t obvious. To demonstrate, let’s break it down into its two component parts.


I mean each and every wealthy person. I do not mean just the self-selecting social workers who are paid – and not paid much, by the way – to know poor people for you.

I mean actually, personally, deeply know a poor person and let them know you, for multiple continuous years. Not encounter them during charity work. Not listen to their talks and read their books. Not say hi to them in the halls at work. Not attend their political rallies. Not donate to them.

I mean yes, obviously, do those things, they add value to the world. But even if we all get together and decide to all of us do those things way, way harder, it won’t make a visible dent in poverty. It just won’t.

…a poor person

I don’t mean “someone who makes way less money than you do,” nor “someone going through a rough patch right now.” I mean someone with so many fewer resources than you have, that you’re almost sure that if left to their own devices, they will never, ever get out and have what they need.

I’m mean you have to know someone who is so bad off, that their poverty physically upsets you. To solve poverty, you must not only know that person, but you must invest in them and become a part of their lives.

Am I blowing your mind, here?

If so… think about that.

You remember my three case studies above (A, B and C)? We talked about how they’d each respond if you flew over them in a helicopter and air-dropped money. It usually doesn’t work. The secret is to land the helicopter.

You remember my metaphor of the wealthy and poor on either side of a door, peering at each other through a keyhole made of numbers? I’m saying stop rolling up dollar bills and pushing them through the keyhole. I’m saying open the door.

Stop trying to act in bulk. We are not smart enough. In geek language: The poverty conversation has reached a point of entropy. The anti-entropic force will not be a lightning bolt, but a million simultaneous sparks. Stop trying to zoom out further. Zoom in.

Not policy. Not charity. Actual human contact. It’s free. It’s 100% achievable. It is, literally, a custom solution for every single poor person. This should be nothing, right?

Well, for some reason, it isn’t “nothing.” If it were nothing, we’d be doing it by now. But we aren’t.

There are very few bridges in the social network diagram mapping Poverty World to the World of Wealth. There are very few synapses connecting these lobes of the global brain. The ones that are there, are massively overtaxed and screaming under the load. The Peace Studies majors living full time in slums. The teachers who go into the public school system and emerge 5 years later, 20 years older. The notorious free clinic doctors who work 16 hours a day and make nothing. These are the social bridges: the desperately-strained saints and martyrs to our failure to know how to speak to one another. This is the tiny handful of heroic folks who make a kamikaze dash through the door and wind up embedded on the other side, entrenched in Poverty World, slowly letting it take over their entire lives and thoughts, and getting fewer and fewer invites to World of Wealth parties.

Point #6: The solution to first world poverty is to know a poor person.

I know this from experience. It took a personal investment of 5 World of Wealth citizens to bring me, personally, all the way out of poverty. They’re people who I met along the way, who I hit it off with, who happened to have a socio-economic status at least five levels above mine. I’ve met a lot of people in that tier, but these folks were different. Specifically, they weren’t scared off by the fact that I was in a desperate situation, and would be in one for a long time. We saw something in one another, and we decided mutually to invest in each other.

I think of them as friend-mentors – “friend-tors,” how about. They didn’t let me move into their houses or shower me with money. They simply talked to me. They hung out. Sure, they’d buy me dinner once in a while, or help out now and then with a random medical bill. But mostly, they spent many hours helping me troubleshoot my broken rudder (meaning, to help me find better options). In return, if I may say so myself, I spiced up their lives a hell of a lot. I hate to say it, but poor people are way funnier than wealthy people, and we throw better parties. When we are happy, we are so very alive. Ever been to one of our churches? It’s a whooole different scene. 

We help you wealthy folks remember that life matters & the stakes are real. We take so much pleasure from the things you’ve gotten so used to. Poor people are holding a live wire, and when you get close to us, we wake you up.

And, yes. It makes a huge difference for the poor person, too. Without my five friend-tors, I would not now be speaking at conferences, or spending my (entire) winter vacation blogging about poverty. What I’d be doing instead, is being dead. I’d actually be dead three times by now, if I count them, in three different ways. I’m not exaggerating. You know who you are, guys.

Thank you.

So, to put it mildly: I, the Moderator of Will Someone Please Address, recommend this method.

To move the needle on poverty, and just generally to be complete and well-rounded human beings, poor people and wealthy people must physically know one another. The problem is not that the poor are poor. The problem is that the poor are outsiders. The only way to help an outsider, is to let them inside. Touch the untouchables. Make them a part of your lives.

Just that easy. And just that hard.

Point #7: Human beings don’t just think with our brains; we also think with our guts.

Poverty is old. And some of the reactions we have to it are old, like, animal old. The parts of you that want to kill, possess, eat, and mate. They’re raw and real and they are in no way pretty. So, it’d be much more polite of me if I didn’t bring them up. And yet I’m totally going to. FYI, if you like that kind of thing, then you’re going to love this blog.  : D

I shall now endeavor to take you on a brief journey through the spooky-yet-whimsical M. Night. Shyamalan movie that is the deep human unconscious. Let’s hold hands and make it quick. In this segment, we will cover:

– Four awkward things about communicating with poor people
– Five pointers for communicating with wealthy people
– Five ways to maintain a good friend-torship relationship across lines

To the WoW: Four awkward things about talking to poor people

1. Poor people give the wealthy a case of the screaming heebie-jeebies.

The emotional brain, the animal brain, operates on instincts that are by definition preverbal. They are “scents” – nuance we collect through our many, many subtle social senses like empathy, micro-expressions, body language perception, and even physical scent. People can literally smell each other’s emotions, and they’re contagious (Huffington Post write-up). Both literally and figuratively, we can smell poverty on people. Every blood-level instinct we have says to move away from it.

You remember my metaphor of wealth as being in a boat with a rudder (options) and a motor (motion). Well, there are shades of grey to wealth, too. The wealthier you are, the more your boat is like a yacht, and the bigger it is, the more status you have with other wealthy people. If it gets big enough, you join a metaphorical yacht club and everyone stands around in their Members Only jackets admiring how your yacht has a bigger motor (motion) and better turning radius (options). This means that the wealthy pride themselves on, and gain social standing from, their ability to access options and avoid hardship.

That’s what wealth culture is all about: skipping merrily away from the great sea monsters of this mortal coil, e.g.: pain, death, fear, violence, loss, shame, chaos, loneliness, etc. The flip side of that is that if you do that all the time, you never get used to those things. They are huge, mysterious phantoms, slithering ominously through the abyss. For us, they’re not “mysterious phantoms.” For us, they are “weekday mornings.”

So if you want to know a poor person, you’ve got to do the thing you never intentionally do. You’ve got to steer towards the smell of pain & misfortunate. You must disengage the ship’s autopilot. Crazy? No. Pain does not literally mean “stay away.” Pain is neither good nor bad, it simply is. Humans feel pain. It’s a symptom us not getting what we need. Pain is normal. For everyone. And it is way, way more normal for people with no resources.

“Avoid pain and failure” is in our programming. Which is fine. Until it means “avoid an entire class of people.”

You cannot both simultaneously friend-tor a poor person, and shield your eyes from the dark side of life. Even if you could, frankly, you shouldn’t. In appropriate doses, seeing real hardship is good for you. Being too sheltered makes people soft and irrelevant. If you don’t remember what poverty tastes like, get out your teaspoon now and then and have a little taste of the abyss. There’s nothing impossible or dangerous about doing it. It’s just extremely counterintuitive.


When you reach out and make contact with a poor person’s life, you will get your hands dirty. Don’t resist that. Go towards it. Ask poor people about what it’s like to be poor. When you find out, don’t ostracize them because of it. Quit with the “Outcast, Unclean” subtext. Remember that impoverished people don’t have control over their environments, and that means they’re one step closer to the primordial soup. Be ready to repeatedly face sexuality, passion, sickness and cruelty. Don’t change the subject. Don’t make up and, like, crazily insist upon some easy solution in order to make yourself feel better. Learn to become ok with things not being ok. You must be strong about this. If you can’t be ok with things not being ok, you will never genuinely know a poor person. That’s what poverty is.

2. Poor people want money from you, and if you don’t give it to them, you kinda get the feeling they hate you.

WoW, I put it to you that you are not that excited about giving poor people money, and there’s a perfectly valid reason for that. You don’t want to give it, because it doesn’t work. You see that. There is no point in giving $500 to that poor bastard on the street corner. It won’t get him out. You know it. You already know in your bones that money can’t fix poverty.

How do I know you know this? I know it because if it worked, you would do it. Giving money is the only thing anyone really suggests you do, so it’s all you can think of, and then you feel like a jerk for not wanting to do it. You care about that guy. I’ve seen the look on your face. You’re horrified by your own powerlessness. If you could genuinely help him by giving him $500, you would.

Poor people are also duped by this “poverty is money” social fiction, so they really, really want you to give them some. They want help a lot, so they ask for money. A lot. It’s awkward and it won’t fix anything, so in the end you move back from them so they’ll stop.

3. Poor people want to scream at you about how shitty it is to be poor.

Poor people are always like “DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND HOW MUCH POVERTY SUCKS, LET ME TELL YOU AGAIN” and then you’re like: Holy crap your intensity is…. Intense, but I still have no idea how to help you. And then poor people are like all “IF YOU CARED AT ALL YOU WOULD DO SOMETHING, YOU RAGING ASSHOLES,” and then you’re all Aaaa.

It’s a lot of raw emotion to deal with, especially when you’re not sure you can actually help, no matter what you do.

The thing is, you can help, just by sticking around. Even when you get uncomfortable. If you want your friend-tor to simmer down before talking to you about something, you know what? Just say so. It’s good practice for us anyway.

4. Poor people seem to make a lot of bad decisions, so it’s hard to know who to champion.

Yes, that’s true. When you have no options (rudder), you choose from what’s in front of you. The choice isn’t usually ideal. If it were, you’d be someone with options, and then you wouldn’t be poor. Watching that from a distance, it might look like the person is crazy. Furthermore, it might look like they’re not even trying very hard. As one of our WSPA members reminded me, boats also leak. The whole time you’re trying to pilot that hoopdie boat, you’re also bailing water out. From a distance, it might look like they’re just sitting here.

So, close the distance. That’s all there is to it.

To the PoW: Five pointers for communicating with wealthy people

Ok, World of Poverty: I’m going to say some things to you that will sound totally insane. They are insane. They are in fact almost impossible for you. But if you can do them, you’ll have 10x more success communicating with the wealthy. This is one of those impossible things that’s worth doing. If you communicate successfully, there is a much higher chance they’ll invest in you.

1. Stop screaming at them.

You know how it seems like nobody wants to hear what you’re saying? Well, I’ve been there. I’ve tried the literary device of screaming at people quite a bit myself, and as much as I hate to say it, it’s not working for us. It does nothing but freak them out, break their hearts, and turn their heads away.

This is because the wealthy don’t live all day long with screaming people and emotions, like you do. As I said earlier, poor people are used to a lot of tough shit that the wealthy never really deal with. They’ve had lots of societal training you haven’t had, it’s true. But if you work it right, you can get some of that. You, however. You have something they will never have. I’ve heard military basic training referred to as “stress inoculation.” It trains you to be ready to handle chaos, emotion, & the desperate situations of a battle. As a poor person, you are getting that training. So, if and when you get out, you have some powerful tools in your belt. You’ve been taught to hold yourself strong, to fight for what you want, to constantly create solutions out of nothing. Imagine having that ability in a world where life usually works for you, instead of against you. As silly as it sounds: it’s a superpower in their world. I really mean it. And it doesn’t go away when you get here, either. On this side, for you, it’s aaaaall moon gravity.


WoW lives don’t usually feature screaming. So don’t scream at them. When you scream, they panic. We need them not to panic. We need them to think. We need them period, man. I’m here to tell you: yes, they’re softer creatures than we are. Being a softer creature is something we resent and long for. But they’re good people. They truly do want to help us. They just don’t know what to do.

So simmer down, a lot, before talking about what you and your community need. Scream, if you must, but do it in a different room. It isn’t easy, but, I’ve gotta tell ya. It’s been working really well for me.

2. Never ask for money.

I realize this sounds insane.

They have money. You need money. You have a wealthy friend, therefore it is insane to not ask for money. But you need so much more than money. So. So much more. Don’t be fooled by that keyhole view. This is not about money. This is about human contact. You need a real, living, breathing human being to stay in your life, learn your situation, and commit to you. They will teach you so much – about how to open doors, gain credibility & gracefully navigate the weird culture of wealth. They’ll show you what you’re good at and help you get better at it. They’ll show your skills off to other people. They’ll open your eyes to options you didn’t realize were right in front of you. You can’t buy that shit.

For whatever reason, asking your wealthy friend for money breaks the relationship. It isn’t because they don’t want to help you. You need that connection alive. Don’t reduce the relationship to money. It is so much more.

3. Forgive yourself and hold yourself accountable at the same time.

The secret shame of the impoverished is that most of us hate what poverty has made of us. When you don’t have options, you choose from what’s in front of you. Sometimes, all the options are bad. And once in a while, you have to live with sacrificing your pride or your standards, or sinking below your moral threshold. You do things you would not do.

Being poor doesn’t make you a good person and it doesn’t make you a bad person. What it does do, is cause you temporary brain damage. I am not exaggerating. Here is a forty-minute podcast by This American Life that presents a lot of easily-intelligible research about what poverty does to your ability to think and behave the way you want to. Everyone should know this information. If you are really poor, you, specifically, need to know about this. Consider listening to it even though it’s really long. When I first heard it, I shed tears.

Poor people: keep your head up. You might say to yourself: I’m better than this. And you’re right. You are. You’re smarter, you’re more together, you are kinder than life allows you to be. You will come out of poverty with physical debt, and probably moral debt. You do what you do. But you are not that bad choice. You are a human being. Hold your head up. You are not broken. Show ‘em all.

People will believe what you think about yourself, if you think it with conviction. I don’t know why. But it’s scary powerful. So if you don’t want them to give up on you, don’t you give up on you, either.

4. Be patient.

One of the things that sucks about severe poverty is that it hampers your ability to track time. The acute stress response (fight or flight mode) is about dealing with whatever bullshit is being served up right now. There is no past or future for you. There is just this endless oily wrestle with the now; sometimes it goes down, but it never stays down. Time is one of the great, awesome languages of the wealthy. They literally perceive it differently. They can imagine how long it takes to get out of poverty, but you can’t. You can’t hold it in your brain. So have faith, and have patience.

Patience? Patience is insane. You are not ok today, and you have no control over anything, so how will you be ok tomorrow? It’s absurd. But still: do it. It’s impossible. But do it. Your job is to eat impossible for breakfast.

5. Get back up.

If you’re cutting your psychological losses and you can only save one thing, the rudder or the motor: save the motor.

When your friend-tor sees you for who you are, and chooses to invest in you, look them in the eye. You might fuck up in front of them. That happens. Hold your head up and try again. They don’t need you to be perfect. They just need you to throw yourself in and try, over and over again. Nobody can do this for you. They can only help you do it.

The only thing you have to do to get out, is try again. And again. No matter how bad it gets, and no matter how many times you fail. Try again. I know life is totally overwhelmingly complicated. But when it comes all the way down to the dirty old ground, you only have to remember one thing:

When you try something new,
you always fall down.
When you fall down, get back up
and learn something

If you’re not falling down, you’re not moving. Fall down, get back up, and learn.

There are no guarantees. It takes a very long time. And I’m not going to lie to you. It sucks. If you want out, there is no easy. But it is a whole hell of a lot easier if you’ve got some friends.

So when the WoW come to your door, try to meet them halfway. They’re weird. And possibly insane. I do get that. But let them be who they are. Who knows? Maybe they’ll even return the favor.

Five ways to maintain a good friend-torship relationship across lines

So you’re sold, and now you want to do this. How?

For the WoW:

    • Initiate. This relationship starts with you. We both know we can’t approach you for this. You must come to us.
    • When choosing someone to friend-tor, pick someone who still has a motor. The stronger the better. They won’t have a rudder; they have no resources. They may look like they’re spinning in circles. But damn it, they’re doing it hard.
    • Pace yourself. This isn’t something you can do in an hour or a month. It takes many years. So take it slow. Don’t just jump out of your fabulous boat into the water with a knife in your teeth and start wrestling sea monsters. Do the work, then go home, so you can come back again later. Have boundaries.

For the PoW:

    • Don’t just take just any friend-tor. This is important. Choose a friend-tor who is happy and who doesn’t want anything from you but your friendship. They should be surrounded by friends and family who trust them. They should introduce you to more people like them, and help you get oriented when they do so. Not least of all, you should like them. Pick someone who makes your life easier instead of harder. If they cause you drama or try to exploit you, cut ‘em loose.

For everybody:

    • Actually have fun together. Friend-torship works because you like each other. Go see a movie. Meet each other’s friends. Hang out at the PoW person’s house once in a while, even if the WoW’s is way better. Go to PoW parties (no, seriously, do). And, WoW – take ‘em to dinner once in a while. Someplace nice.

All of which actually sounds kind of nice, doesn’t it? It is nice. It’s not easy, it’s often quite challenging for both sides. Challenge is good for people.

So ok… let’s say we tried that. What would happen…. If that worked? What if that actually helped a bunch of poor people come up into the World of Wealth?

That, in our next installment.

I’m going offline for a couple of days. I’m calling a 2-day chill period before launching the branch.



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