Angelina Pena: Everyone wins when we lift families out of poverty

If hard work were all that was necessary, we’d have almost no poverty.

A popular axiom is that if you’re down on your economic luck, all you need to do is pull yourself up by your bootstraps. The implication is that one’s economic fortunes are completely within his or her control. If this were true, we’d have almost no poverty.

The truth is more nuanced and complicated. Yes, personal responsibility and hard work are vital ingredients in climbing the socio-economic ladder. But so are externalities beyond one’s control. It’s extremely difficult to escape the clutches of poverty because those within its grip have limited tools, resources, and mentors to model the way.

Therapists might call this “genetic memory” — if your parents or grandparents suffer, you will tend to suffer in a comparable way.

I experienced these challenges in my life. My mother became our household’s sole breadwinner when my father left our family. I was 3 years old, and my mother was pregnant at the time. She wouldn’t take state or federal aid and insisted on forging her own path.

She became a nurse and did all she could to take care of us, but there was never enough to make ends meet even with our meager lifestyle. I remember her saying “I’m in the hole in my checkbook” all the time. She didn’t lack effort or desire. She simply lacked the tools, resources and mentors to find long-term stability.

As an adult, I found myself following in my mother’s footsteps. I’m a single parent and the primary provider for my family. Early in my real estate career, which affords uncapped income potential, I would routinely top out at the salary my mother made year after year. It was as if I was replaying the story I’d grown up seeing every day as a child in my own adult life.

Thankfully, an interested and capable mentor took me under his wing. He helped me broaden my toolset, acquire the resources I needed to navigate the industry and change my mindset from a scarcity to abundance mentality.

My whole life changed. I became a real estate broker and began expanding my business footprint. I went from commissions that kept me in the “middle tough” way of life I grew up in to eclipsing the income my mother typically made in the first half of every year. I’m on my way to financial independence and hope to break the cycle of poverty in my family.

My work ethic and resourcefulness play a role in my life story, but I couldn’t have changed my circumstances without the tools, resources and mental models I acquired from my mentor. Most families in poverty never find such a person to help them climb out of the slippery pit.

In Utah, we need to galvanize our efforts to bring tools, resources and mentors into the lives of families trying to escape poverty. Nationally, welfare benefits have a converted cash value of around $43,000 per family per year for programs recipients usually need indefinitely. Contrast that with the efforts of an organization like Circles Salt Lake (I serve on the board), which uses a community-based supportive model to help families reach financial stability for approximately $10,000 per family per year. Circles Salt Lake can leverage a large group of community volunteers, which helps keep the organizational operating costs much lower than what is typically spent by government agencies.

We need social safety needs. We also need more investment and community involvement in community-based programs that show impoverished families the way to a better, more sustainable economic future.

The altruistic motivations should be enough, but they’re not the only rationale. Utah’s perennial economic success is directly linked to high socio-economic mobility, according to research from Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. The more we can help families escape poverty, the better our overall economy will perform.

No one is an island. Poverty drags us all down, and the only way out is through community efforts. Let’s collaborate to give struggling families the tools, resources and mentors they desperately need.

Angelina Pena

Angelina Pena is a Utah real estate broker and president-elect of Circles Salt Lake, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing poverty through community support and mentorship of struggling individuals and families.