Bryant: Being poor is a state of mind

Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Chairman and CEO of Operation Hope John Hope Bryant gives the Interfaith Lecture about economics and capitalism Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy.

John Hope Bryant is successful because he had what few others in his hometown of Compton, California, had: a positive role model.

A man came to speak to his class when he was 9 years old. The man wore a suit, something no one did in his neighborhood. He was white, but all Bryant saw when he looked at him was green — the color of money. The man said that he was a banker who financed entrepreneurs.

The man in the suit became a symbol of wealth and success, and even though Bryant didn’t know what an entrepreneur was yet, he knew that he wanted to be one.

The man in the suit gave Bryant hope.

Hope was one of the topics Bryant spoke about at the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy Thursday. Addressing the issue of poverty in America with his speech titled “How the Poor Can Save Capitalism: Delivering the Memo to a New Generation of Leaders,” Bryant said the majority of poor people are poor because they were never taught how to be rich. They never learned the skills necessary to dig themselves out of poverty.

There’s hope because if we teach poor people the skills they’re lacking — if we give them the memo, Bryant said — they can learn to rise above poverty.

“It’s not like we got the memo and we screwed it up,” he said. “We never got it. That should make you optimistic.”

The man in the suit inspired Bryant to start his own business.

A $40 investment from his mother and the belief that he could sell better candies than the other candy stores in his neighborhood turned Bryant into an entrepreneur at the age of 10. He strategized and set up shop in a seemingly better location than the competition. With a business of kids walking en route to and from school, Bryant was soon making $300 a week.

He got the memo, and he taught himself how to make money.

Since then, Bryant has went on to become the chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, a nonprofit helping empowering America’s poor and spread tools of financial literacy.

“There’s a language to money.  There’s a language to free enterprise and capitalism,” he said, and although the poor missed out, “It’s passed down almost in the DNA of people who actually understand wealth.”

It’s time to change that.

Bryant is implementing an idea that was originally conceived by President Abraham Lincoln, and then attempted again by Martin Luther King Jr.

After freeing the slaves, Bryant said Lincoln’s biggest concern was signing the Freedmen’s Bureau Act in March of 1865, an act of legislation that would start a bank for freed slaves and educate them on money and the free enterprise system. The initiative lost traction after Lincoln’s assassination and the bank eventually failed.

A little more than a hundred years later, King started to organize the Poor People’s Campaign to put the issue of poverty on the forefront of the public’s and the government’s radar. He was killed before he could organize the first march.

No other major initiatives to attack poverty have occurred since then, until now, Bryant said.

Now, he said, we need to change the way we think about poverty and start educating ourselves. There’s a fundamental difference between being broke and being poor.

Being broke is an unfortunate economic situation; you don’t have enough money, but it can be overcome.

Being poor has become more of an attitude, or way of being, than a financial status.

“To be poor is a disabling frame of mind and a depressed condition of your spirit. And you must vow never, ever, ever to be poor again,” he said.

Bryant went on to explain that poor people don’t love or respect themselves, and don’t think that they have a purpose. They don’t have hope.

“Everything you’ve been told about poverty in the last 50 years is wrong,” Bryant said. “Half of all poverty is lack of belief in yourself. It’s just low self-esteem.”

America is a nation of entrepreneurs and small business, he said. We need to give the poor hope in the form of financial tools and role models.

Bryant stressed that knowledge is capital. With it, the poor can learn to do things such as raise their credit scores, take out responsible loans and start making their own wealth.