No one deserves to be born into poverty. In a perfect world, we're all given the same amount of money in the game that is life. Unfortunately, the real world isn't as fair or logical as a board game. And as disappointing as it may be, over the years we come to find that life is more like Mouse Trap than Monopoly.
Much like Mouse Trap, life can cage us in different ways -- but the biggest cage of all is debt.
Debt keeps us shackled to disadvantage. Sadly, lacking money often means lacking security in life: The impoverished are more vulnerable to abuse, mental illness and dangerous situations that harm brain development.
But no matter how deep your debt is, you can know that you have more knowledge and experience than people whose toes have never touched poverty's swell.
I know all too well what it's like to have a lack of money break you down. Since the age of 10, I’ve lived in places that have not exactly been legal. I’ve known what it’s like to not have any windows to look out or stoves to cook on. And for two years, I shared a room with my father that was smaller than a prison cell.
An upbringing like this stays with you. It wasn't easy, but I was somehow able to surface again stronger and smarter than ever. Because as Maya Angelou once said, "I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it."
Empty pockets don't equal empty minds. In fact, I've found that people who grew up with little are often the ones who have gained the most from what life has to offer.
Over time, life might dim the lights on the dreams of people who can barely afford the electrical bill. But with the skills they learned while struggling, these same people overcome anything with all of the lessons money can't buy.
You learn how to shape-shift.
Dave Chappelle has performed hilarious skits in which he pretends to be a white anchorman. He embodies the mannerisms of a completely different person. And because of the ways you've tried to fit in, you do this sort of thing in real life.
You learn how to tone down your accent when necessary or to make your voice more Anglo-Saxon on command. It’s not right or fair, but it’s society -- at least for now.
Maybe you can help change it once you are in power. But until then, you force yourself to become a cultural chameleon.
You’ve learned who you can tell certain things -- and who you can't. You have a different vocabulary with everybody you encounter. You also know how to dress up in suits during the workweek and switch back to to joggers and a Snapback on Saturdays.
You develop an open mind.
Difficult times have trained you to think on your feet. When you’ve lived in rough neighborhoods or encountered dangerous situations, improvisation becomes your superpower.
If your spaghetti strap rips, for example, you know that a hair tie will keep it together until you can buy a new shirt. You’ve been trained to use your head instead of your wallet. You’ve been trained to survive.
While the privileged tend to lose it when their path derails, you've gained the bravery to pave your own path.
You learn how to treat and respect everyone.
When you grow up with nothing, you encounter people from all walks of life. And you learn to treat them with the respect you wish people would show you.
You may have been exposed to the world of exclusivity and silver spoons. You've probably seen images of the high life on TV shows and movies, and you’ve probably babysat for socialites to help pay off your mortgage. And you respect people who live so luxuriously.
But on your way to babysit in that rich person's apartment building, you might cross paths with the doorman. And while everyone else rushes in and out of the door, you stop to respect and acknowledge him.
You stop to ask him how his day is going because you can relate to his struggle. Because even if you have just been paid $20 an hour for babysitting, a part of you will always be that doorman.
To you, a garbage man might as well be a CEO. Both have families, feelings and bills to pay. There is no difference between the two, and you treat them the same.
You learn street smarts and book smarts.
On top of your usual classes, you learn from your city. You learn where to avoid and where to go. You learn what's safe and what's not.
Unlike people who can afford cab rides, you are used to having strangers intrude on your comfort zone. You've had strangers fall asleep on your shoulder, crazy people whisper things in your ear and other people's tears fall in your lap.
Being thrust into strangers' close quarters makes you immune to almost everything. You don't fear people.
Since you’ve been overly exposed to strangers, you can approach anyone without hesitation. To your benefit, speaking to people has made you bold about finding solutions to your problems and questions.
You learn how to read people.
Just like a deaf person learns to read lips, poverty allows you to read souls.
Because you've been raised in diverse communities and encountered language barriers, you probably haven't been able to understand everyone. But being constantly around others teaches you to see inside people even if they never open their mouths.
Accents, dialects and languages take a back seat to body language.
You know how different communities work from the inside out.
If your parents were absent during your childhood due to long work hours (or any other reason), you probably spent a lot of time with friends’ families. And in doing so, you grew to understand how different cultures function -- and you gained a million different families in the process.
When your friends' parents made them go to tutoring after school, you tagged along. When your friends’ parents made you real, home-cooked meals, you learned about the delicacies of different cultures.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. The families who contributed to your safety, well-being and development were that village for you.
You learn to make the most out of what you have.
You learn how to make things last, whether it's a bar of soap or a box of mac and cheese. You've learned how to use your resources to the fullest and spend your money wisely.
From this, you master skills like budgeting, planning and rationing.
You learn to appreciate every little thing, both given and earned.
Once you finally make it in life, you can afford better food and a better lifestyle. But you still remember your roots -- and how you used to count your quarters to get something off the Dollar Menu.
Those memories stay with you. You never allow yourself to become spoiled by your newly-gained riches. You only become further nourished by them.