There’s a reason poor people are poor — they haven’t gotten the memo.
That is the belief of philanthropist and entrepreneur John Hope Bryant, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, a nonprofit aimed at empowering people with the tools of financial literacy.
Bryant will speak at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. His presentation is titled “How the Poor Can Save Capitalism: Delivering the Memo to a New Generation of Leaders.”
Bryant likened poor people never getting the “memo” of how free enterprise and capitalism work to someone going into school without any of the necessary tools or confidence to learn.
It doesn’t matter how smart they are — they will flunk because “you know you’re missing something. You know there’s something you should know that you don’t,” Bryant said. “That’s essentially what poverty is in the modern world.”
Bryant plans to redefine the long-held notion of what poverty means in his lecture, continuing with Week Two’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “With Economic Justice for All.”
He will also expand upon what it means to be poor in the U.S. today; poverty has a much broader definition than just a numerical amount of money, Bryant said.
“Fifty percent of all poverty is just low self-esteem,” he said. “It’s the inability to believe in yourself.”
A belief that he grew up poor and “personal guilt” inspired Bryant’s work. Because Bryant was raised in Compton in South Central Los Angeles, he assumed his family was poor. However, his mother told him she loved him every day of his life, and Bryant’s father owned a business for more than 50 years — inspiring Bryant to start a business when he was 10 and later equipping him with the necessary confidence to become financially successful. His childhood was filled with hope, lending him a sense of opportunity.
“I now realize there’s a big difference between being broke and being poor,” Bryant said, explaining “broke” is economic whereas “poor” is a state of mind.
Because Bryant got out of poverty, he assumed everyone else should be able to, too. His perspective shifted, however, after the Rodney King Riots of 1992. He thought the police officers who beat up King would go to jail, and when they were acquitted, it shook him.
“My life fell apart,” Bryant said. “My values fell apart. My faith in the American Dream fell apart. And I realized I had abandoned my own neighborhood.”
Bryant then founded Operation HOPE in 1992, and went on to advise the last three sitting U.S. presidents; he is now chairman of the Subcommittee on the Underserved and Community Empowerment for the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability. His work aims to empower poor people with bank accounts, confidence and the ability to understand the language of money, because without those tools, citizens are “economic slaves.”
To tackle the issue of unbanked and underbanked citizens is to send a message and suggest the country is now dealing with the new form of Jim Crow, Bryant said.
At the end of his book, How the Poor Can Save Capitalism: Rebuilding the Path to the Middle Class, Bryant outlines 20 solutions to remedy poverty — a “Marshall Plan for poor people.” It is the role both of the government and the individual to help people in poverty succeed, Bryant said.
“Government must create an enabling environment, an empowering environment, to prosper,” he said. “We’ve got to get off our butts and move.”
Bryant sees reason for hope, because those living under the poverty line did not learn the language of money and then make financial mistakes; rather, they never learned the language at all, so the prospect of educating them is promising.
“It’s not like poor people got the memo and screwed up,” Bryant said. “They never got the memo ever.”