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Martin Luther King, Jr., on poverty

“It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

-A lesser known quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., but one of my favorites. He recognized and understood that poverty was a condition of the society not a condition of the person. To tell a person they ought to be able to succeed, without looking at the external factors that are keeping them down, is misleading, a “cruel jest” in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. The reality is that moving out of poverty, especially generational poverty, is difficult. A person is more likely to fall in to poverty than move out of it, despite their attempt to work themselves out of it.

The point that Martin Luther King, Jr. makes in this quote is that we must recognize the fallacy in believing a person can make it on their own, especially a person who has so little to work with in the first place. No one succeeds alone. I would argue that in every “rags to riches” or “self-made business man” story that you hear, there was someone in their life that helped make it happen, whether it was a mentor or someone who inspired them or motivated them, they did not just “make it” in isolation.

This enduring belief-that people can just pull themselves up out of poverty- is the very thing that perpetuates judgment and continues the myth that people in poverty are to blame for being in poverty. Martin Luther King, Jr. refers to it as a “jest,” a joke, referring to the obvious- that one thing cannot be done without the other.

The United Way of Southeast Missouri shares in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s recognition that people in poverty are not equipped to move themselves out of poverty on their own. Within our Income Focus Area, not only do we support efforts to increase financial stability in individuals and families, but we also work diligently to break down the myths and stereotypes of people living in poverty so that we can begin to focus instead on breaking down those barriers that are keeping people down. One way that we do this is through Poverty 101 in which we discuss the history of poverty, causes, and current national and local facts. Attendees also explore their own attitudes, beliefs, and values about poverty and the people who live in it. Interested in attending Poverty 101?, email Melissa Stickel at

I’ll end with another great Martin Luther King, Jr. quote for you to ponder on:

“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

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