You will never amount to anything. You’re just a welfare kid.
These were the words spoken to demean me by those who were supposed to love me but instead subjected me to emotional abuse. When I was 6 years old I didn’t realize I was an aid to dependent child, or otherwise known as a “welfare kid” but I remember the feeling of loneliness, feeling different, set aside. I felt desperate and confused, but above all I felt hungry; my little stomach was empty and growling back at me.
I grew up in the land of the brave and not-so-free. The air was infused with discrimination, and poverty was the smog of its destruction. As a child, I knew little of this—the empty refrigerator in my family home had nothing to do with politics or race to my six-year-old self. Welfare was a status quo so omnipresent we rarely questioned it, but we did rise above it. You don’t need a gourmet meal if you know how to appreciate a perfectly delicious mayonnaise and sugar sandwich. You don’t need a room full of books if you have a playground and an epic imagination. I created my own wealth out of gratitude for what I had.
This is the first thing I learned about money: I didn’t deserve it.
This is the second thing I learned about money: abusive fathers can buy their guilt away with a fist full of cash.
This is the third thing I learned about money: the lack of it will spill all over everything until the dampness and the rot eat into your bones.
This is the fourth thing I learned about money: it clears a path towards freedom.
When I grew out of my childhood, poverty was still tangled in my kinky hair and stuck to my pores. I wanted to feel the air on my skin, and financial scarcity prevented that, so I kicked my hopelessness aside and emerged from the Seventies singing. Then I rushed out of the Eighties with enough wealth to give away, and the Nineties with enough knowledge and respect to guide others towards their own wealth. That’s my story if you like happy endings, but the truth of my journey from welfare to wealth is hidden in the in-betweens.
That’s where I lost and regained my faith over and over until I thought I might never be free. That’s when I found out that hope lies at the end of every rainbow, but despair will bury you beneath it given half the chance. Faith must be dug out of the soil, and to find it, all you need to do is make it to the other side of your fear.
The Beatles sang that money can’t buy you love, but it does buy you liberty and an impressive amount of serenity. It is, in a way, a doorway towards happiness. It might not carry you through that doorway, but it will create it, giving you the opportunity to walk into a new life. That doorway is built out of respect for money, and nothing develops that better than poverty.
In my life, I’ve experienced every kind of chaos, but at the end of abandonment, I found acceptance. At the end of abuse, I found recovery. At the end of grief, I found love. I’ve been every kind of person: a helper, a survivor, and a mother. Through all of those identities, one rose above everything: The worker. My determination and effort brought me the tertiary education I was too poor to afford. Recession? Why would that keep me back? Vietnam? Well, I could gain hope from the horror. The Black Student Movement? I could learn from that. African Americans were insisting on a better day, and so was I, so I became the first of seven siblings to graduate from college.
I’ve never accepted second best, so my first forays into work life were practice rounds that helped me to build a career that fulfilled me spiritually and financially. Career-related despair is easy enough to overcome. It’s when you find out marriage sometimes comes with bruises that it gets tough to hold on. Grief will sink its roots into your very soul, and bigotry will try to shame you until every bit of pride you’ve built evaporates.
I know darkness. I’ve been there. That’s why I can tell you that it can and does end. You will wake up one day aching to climb out of bed and begin the day. You will feel the shame of scarcity drop to your feet because money is a tool. Like all tools, it can’t do much for you unless you know how to wield it. Learning to put it to work requires you to simply look at your past honestly and directly. Every lesson about money is right there in your history just as it was in mine. It responds to every lack of confidence, every fear and insecurity. Once I’d found my own weaknesses and gained an education as a wealth advisor, I was able to make my finances responsive to my strengths instead.
I’ve lived several lives wrapped up in one. My younger self would never have believed it if I’d told her what she would one day become. I’ve traveled the world and I’ve eaten real Italian gelato, climbed the Eiffel Tower, and sat in the Sydney Opera House. I’ve lived through many of America’s worst years, and I’ve watched my country evolve and recover more times than I can count. My children have been there with me, and there have been times when I couldn’t bring them luxury, but I have used those moments to teach them gratitude just as my own mother taught it to me.
It’s never been easy to be black in the USA, and I’ve tolerated my share of racial slurs and hatred. I’ve been fired for my lack of white genes and lived through disability. My humiliation and broken body became yet another stair leading me upward. So I climbed and never stopped building more stairs.
Luck doesn’t buy us happiness or wealth. We all have to become our own revolutions. Robert Kennedy said that the United States was born in revolution and nurtured by struggle. So was I, and so must you. It’s in the midst of those struggles that you get the opportunity to rise up and tell the world you’re done with the past and ready to walk into a dazzling future.
I was broke but not broken, while not rich in finances I enriched the lives of others. While welfare helped me I helped the welfare of others. I learned how to turn the rubble of adversity into the building blocks for a wealthy fortress.