First Person: From Poverty to Success Thanks to Work Ethic and Public Education

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COMMENTARY | I grew up in poverty and made it into the one percent by the time I was 40. I haven't stayed there but am comfortably above the median.

My life wasn't easy at all. My parents split when I was four, and my brother and I went to live with my grandparents. Two years later, nine days before Christmas, my grandfather died. That meant my grandmother had to raise both of us. She had a job in a hospital and made perhaps $ 40 a week. This was 1957, and even then, it wasn't much money. The poverty guideline for a family of three was $2200 per year - so we were right there.

We were not on food stamps or welfare. My grandmother, who emigrated from Ireland in the 1920's, was way too private and proud to go on the dole. Instead, she worked her regular job at a local hospital and would sometimes work a second job on a Friday or Saturday night. At the time, I didn't appreciate it, but this was a woman who was in her sixties. One of the benefits of her working in the hospital was that any time I was sick, one of the doctors she knew would take care of it. I had some of the most expensive doctors making house calls to my tenement to treat a sore throat. How times have changed, but that also showed me that rich and accomplished people can care about helping the poor.

I don't remember being hungry but I know that we ate a lot of chicken wings, long before they were fashionable and adopted the name buffalo. They were cheap and affordable.

As a kid, I worked in grocery stores delivering groceries for tips, then at 14 in a local drycleaners, for a $1.15 an hour. I worked that job until I graduated high school and went to work full time.

What I did have going for me, aside from the work ethic, was intelligence. NYC had good public schools and programs for gifted students. Fortunately, I was one of them although I failed to apply myself and almost wasted the opportunities. I went to a specialized high school and barely graduated. I simply didn't have the maturity to apply myself and upon graduation went to work full time in a bank for $75 per week. However, I knew that I wanted to move up in the world so I went to college at night. My work at the bank became more interesting and I had the chance to become a currency trader. I was transferred overseas, and that is why it took 8 years to get my degree. While I was overseas, I was appointed an officer of the bank, possibly the youngest in there 200 year history.

Back in the 70s and 80s, if your salary equaled your age times a thousand, you were successful. I was making about five times my age. I was able to achieve that measure of success because there was a good educational system in place, I was raised in a home that emphasized working and, while poor by every measure, never really had a catastrophe.

That is why I believe that you have to differentiate between being "poor" and being lazy, and why a safety net should never make you so comfortable that you want to stay in there.

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