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From Poverty to Middle Class

in 10 years: How to do it
By Laura Dawn Lewis

Several months ago we received a letter at Couples Company from a woman in her thirties with three children, frustrated by her husband’s salary and lack of career advancement.  In it she told us he has held the same job for 12 years and makes $8.35 an hour. 

Tired of being poor and disgusted with her husband, she was convinced that moving to San Francisco was the only solution. Her assumption is that her relatives, average middle class people will take care of them. She states she’d very much like to be closer to them.  In her mind the entire transition would only take about 6-months for her husband to find a high paying job and all of the family's problems would be solved.

She wasn’t happy with our advice.  We suggested she consider the reality of her present situation and that moving would not solve her problems; moving at this stage given the information she provided would likely increase her strife. We did state her goal is obtainable if she plans first and then takes steps toward accomplishing it.  This made her considerably unhappy.  Her request was for a prepackaged solution and agreement with her direction, not dissention and additional responsibility.

The advice seekers dilemma is quite common.  The more challenging our economy becomes, the more people flee from small towns to cities in search of better employment and a better life.  Given this we decided to take this question and explore it further.

Our objective at Couples Company is to help people achieve their goals, not enable them to live in fantasy.  This article describes in-depth the factors we considered in our advice seeker's situation and how we came to our conclusion. This article has three parts, all based upon the information and situation of our writer.  First we'll explain the reality of job prospects and living conditions people in our advice seeker's situation will face moving from a small town to one of this country's major cities.  Second, we'll present the action plan, the solution to getting out of poverty and achieving middle class within 10-years.  Finally, we'll tie it up with a few success stories and some tough love coaching. We hope this information will help you to focus on the solution rather than the obstacles.  If you are currently looking to move out of poverty into middle class, what we are presenting will get you there.  All you need is the courage and the tenacity to do it.

The Reality of Major City Living:

If you're tied of small town living and thinking your chances are better in a major city, you may be right.  However, the skills that allow you to make a living in a small town may force you further down the economic ladder in a major metro.  Let's look at our advice seeker's situation.

Several items are implied by her story.  First he husband is not risk taker.  If he were, he would not stay in a low paying job for twelve years, never receive a promotion and do nothing to change the situation.  Moving would be extremely traumatic to him, and her resentment would increase as his job prospects in a new area decrease.  This is a psychological issue and in some ways an intrinsic personality trait; there’s nothing wrong with not liking risk unless the fear of it keeps you from being happy.

His salary also implies another reality.  His work is a commodity.  Commodities go for the lowest bid in major cities because there is an abundance of people with these skills.  Given no advanced education, special skills or ambition, the family would be forced to fight against the the immigrant population, legal and illegal, similarly skilled for the same low paying jobs. He will receive the same salary he’s earning in a small town; the difference is his cost of living will increase 200% to 300%.  This cost of living increase means the $8.35 per hour he is living on in a small town will have the same buying power in the big city as current earnings of $2.76 to $4.17 per hour in his small town.  Figure out what he can afford at this reduced rate where he currently lives and this will be his lifestyle in a major city.

How do immigrants make it on this? Immigrant families have an edge over American citizens.  Not only do they have a community that will help them, they will live with 2-5 families in the same home.  Most small town American’s won’t do this or cannot do this. 

For our writer the problem is her husband’s pay sentences his family to the ghetto since a month’s salary or the maximum unemployment benefits won’t even pay the rent in most California communities. Outside of Honolulu, The Bay Area jockeys with New York City as the most expensive place to live in the United States.  Her dream of a better life rested upon moving rather than strategy, and a naiveté about the true dynamics of large city.  

Big City Consideration #1

New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC and Chicago are the power centers of the United States.  These five cities draw the best and the brightest in the world. Competition is fierce.  The carnage of failed dreams and substandard skills is littered up and down the corridors of back alleys, tenements and section-8 housing. But you can succeed by becoming one of the best and brightest and following their example.

What the best and the brightest do is cut their teeth in smaller cities first, gaining the experience, education and network before hitting the majors.  They experience success and a few failures before taking on the career challenges of a lifetime.  The best and the brightest prepare to do battle; they do not wander into it. Even with all of these things going for them, education, network and experience many will fail within 5-years and return to smaller cities.  Large cities are the jungle and it is survival of the fittest. 

The Hiring Myth

Many large companies in these major cities with entry-level positions like filing, mailroom and receptionist will not hire anyone without a bachelors degree (or someone who is at least very close to achieving one), even if you have experience in the position. Nearly every multi-national advertising agency, financial services and consulting group has this policy in Los Angeles. This is because they want people they can promote, not those limited by their skills, business savvy and ambition.  They see their employees as investments and only want the best and the brightest, even in these lowly positions.

On a personal note: I don't have an MBA.  I have a Bachelor of Science in Marketing, a certificate in Industrial Purchasing and dual Associates in Education and Management in addition to six years of executive education through seminars, workshops and retreats.  Not having a graduate degree has hurt me in Los Angeles where MBA's are common. I've lost freelance gigs because I don't have a MBA.  I've been declined funding for Couples Company because I don't have a MBA.  I've been disqualified from consideration on the East Coast because I didn't go to an Ivy League School.  Yes, this makes me angry.  Yes, it is not fair.  Unfortunately it is reality and even though I've accomplished everything a graduate student learns, on paper before those whom do not know my work or me, I am disqualified. 

The simple hard to swallow truth is this. People in power have MBA's, BS's and BA's and they hire people like themselves.  The exception to this is when through your network you cultivate these relationships and people learn to respect you for your work and achievements.  The other exception is if you are over 45.  This is because for those born prior to 1956, a two year degree accomplished what a 4 year degree does today.

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