Walking the Tightrope

I was really affected by this story about Travonn Barnett, a young man working for $10 an hour as a security guard and struggling deeply with his money. When you figure up the numbers, he’s walking a financial tightrope every day. Here’s his reality:

His weekly checks range from $189 to $308, after taxes and depending on his schedule, giving him an annual salary of about $15,000, if he works every week of the year.

After paying the $675 monthly rent on the two-bedroom apartment in East Baltimore that he shares with his girlfriend, Latisha; their daughter, gurgling 5-month old Tra’mia; Latisha’s mother, who provides child care; and an assortment of nieces and nephews who stay with them sporadically, there’s not much left. Latisha pitches in with her $8-an-hour job at Royal Farms, a local convenience store, but lately the company has been cutting her hours.

Let’s look at the reality of Travonn’s situation. He brings home $1,000 per month. His rent is $675 per month. This leaves $325 for everything else – food, utilities, clothing, transportation, and so on. (His girlfriend is providing some income, but it’s a lesser amount.)

It’s not just Travonn, either. Millions of people are in similar situations.

The path out of poverty and near-poverty is an extremely difficult one. Often, people struggling at the low end of the income scale are lacking in terms of marketable skills with which to earn more pay, so a major jump in income is difficult. If you’re single, you have the advantage of being able to take the time to learn those skills, but if you have dependents, you’re relegated to learning those skills in your spare time once earning money for basic needs and performing basic household and parenting tasks is finished. It is a hard road.

It’s really easy for someone to go through his situation and pull out things that could be done more efficiently.

Could he find a smaller, cheaper apartment? Sure, but in Baltimore, you’re probably going to struggle to shave much off of that rental amount.

Maybe he could work more? A part time job at minimum wage for 20 hours a week would bring in another $600 a month, but this leaves him working somewhere around 60 hours a week.

Maybe he could move? There are likely areas with a lower cost of living where he could still earn a comparable wage.

What about food? Given his low income level, he could find and utilize a local food bank to reduce the family’s food costs.

Here’s the problem: no matter how many money suggestions that we might give to this young man, it’s not going to solve the fundamental problem. He can certainly make things easier with better choices, but ho matter how you slice it, he’s still trying to squeeze a living out of a very limited amount of money.

In order to build a better life, Travonn has to start making better financial choices in almost every aspect of his life and stick to those choices like glue for a long period of time. He has to use his spare time to build marketable skills, too – likely in a community college or trade school setting. This isn’t a process that can be finished in a month. It takes years.

Poverty is an extremely difficult problem to solve. As a society, we’re nowhere close to solving it. Every potential solution has a lot of drawbacks as well. In the end, we have a lot of programs out there to help people struggling to just get by, but in order for someone to change their situation, that person have to be self-disciplined.

A person cannot permanently change their situation without self-discipline. You have to be willing to consistently make difficult choices, and that’s hard. It doesn’t matter what your situation is like or what you hope to improve, you can’t improve it sustainably without self-discipline.

What makes it even harder is the sense that, when you’re struggling, you’re already exhibiting self-discipline and you’re not getting anywhere. If that’s the case, you need to look at the broader pieces of your situation. Maybe you need to move to another part of the country. Maybe you need to sack your pride and start using public and charitable resources. Maybe you need to rely on a friend for a little while to help you carry that weight.

I could offer thousands of specific tactics for anyone in a situation like this young man, but in the end, self-discipline is the only one that matters. You have to choose the hard option over and over and over again for your life to change. Without that choice, all of the assistance in the world won’t help you improve your situation.

I wish I had a magic solution to the poverty question. I don’t. All I know is that every time I’ve witnessed anyone make a major lasting change in their life, sustained self-discipline was at the heart of that change. If you have self-discipline, you’ll push yourself to find the other answers that you need.

It takes great discipline to walk the tightrope and make it to the other side.

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