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5 ways to give your child the American Dream — by a woman who grew up on food stamps

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 4/21/2017 Quentin Fottrell
Read together — often — as a family, and other tips the young mom received after asking for help on Reddit to put her 5-year-old on track for success.© Provided by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Read together — often — as a family, and other tips the young mom received after asking for help on Reddit to put her 5-year-old on track for success.

This week, nearly 1,000 Reddit users offered advice to a wife and mother who has battled to overcome generations of poverty.

This woman set the social-media site Reddit alight after posting her story about growing up in poverty and how she made sure that her own family would have a better chance at the American Dream. “Many of my cousins have been to prison, or live in trailers in the same dead-end town we grew up in,” she wrote. “No one has a steady job, or a career to speak of. My mom did the best she could as a single parent, always working two or three jobs. I was never given any advice on how to plan for a life, career, college, etc., and so I took some classes but still don’t have a degree (in my 30s), [and] neither does my husband.”

Her child is 5 years old. So she asked the Reddit community: “What do I need to do to NOW to help him become the first person in our family get a college degree? Seems like everyone else is successful by this point in our lives and we’re still struggling. I don’t want him to have to struggle so hard just to get by. How can I help my child get out of the lower class?” Middle- and upper-class people “have access to lots of information and resources that I didn’t have growing up,” she wrote. “What are those things?” The first thing she did that others can learn from, financial experts say, is ask for help. But she has also taken other steps so far to give her child a better life.

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Secondly, she and her husband have moved away from the “dead-end town” to live in a bigger city. They picked their current (undisclosed) location based on its being home to the best public school system in the area, though it’s only rated about a 5 out of 10, she said. Thirdly, they keep a family budget. Fourthly, they have at least attempted to establish an emergency fund, although she has found this difficult. (They’re not alone. Most Americans struggle to build one.) And, lastly, they cut ties with people from their past who were a bad influence on her family.

Moving was a smart move. Research shows that economic segregation and neighborhoods also play a role in preventing multiple generations of lower-income people from achieving the American dream, which generally consists of doing significantly better than the previous generation. Inequality between the wealthiest and poorest American neighborhoods grew most substantially in the largest commuting zones between 1990 and 2010, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Urban Institute. Some areas have effectively created gated communities through public zoning, it said.

Ultimately, the Reddit thread shows this woman is not alone. Children raised in low-income American families will likely also have low incomes as adults, while children raised in high-income families can anticipate a much bigger jump in income, according to a 2015 report — “Economic Mobility in the United States” — produced by researchers at Stanford University. It was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit public-policy organization. People raised in middle-class families will earn close to double what children from lower-income families earn in adulthood.

This woman has made a good start — and here’s a look at five more replies she received:

1. Read together and often as a family.

“Read with her. Answer all her questions. Never brush it off. Never tell your kid you don’t know. Tell her ‘let’s figure it out’ and get her passionate and excited about learning and finding answers and researching and thinking of new and important questions. Teach her to think.” (Recent research suggests parents who have bad money habits are likely to pass them on to their children. Some 98% of children whose parents had at least three types of savings — retirement savings, emergency funds and college savings, for example — said they had money saved, according to a study by the asset-management firm T. Rowe Price.)

2. Go to places that don’t cost money.

“When my kids were younger we’d read a book, and then do an activity that went along with the book,” another Reddit user wrote. “None of the activities were fancy or expensive. A few of them were road trips and we’d stay in cheap Hotwire motels, but tons were day trips. We read ‘Misty of Chincoteague’ and then we drove to Chincoteague, Va. We read ‘My Side of the Mountain’ and went camping. We read ‘Kavick the Wolf Dog’ and went to a wolf preserve. We read ‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’ and went to an art museum.” (More Americans, particularly minorities, have been camping in recent years and exploring U.S. national parks.)

3. Discuss news events of the day.

Studies show that children from lower-income homes are not only read to less but have fewer discussions, another Reddit user wrote. “These homes have parents who only give commands rather than have discussions. Less discussion and less reading lead to smaller vocabularies.” Indeed, a 2003 research paper published by educators Betty Hart and Todd Risley in the American Federation of Teachers’ quarterly journal, American Educator, estimated there is a 30 million–word gap between the wealthiest and poorest families by the time children reach 3 years of age.

4. Visit a library at least once a week.

“I grew up as a poor immigrant whose parents only have high-school diplomas, yet I’m doing very well with an engineering degree from a top-tier university,” another response read. “Moving to a solid public school in your area is so important. During weekends and school vacations, my mom took us to the public library at least once a week to [borrow] books, movies and music. Honestly, it was the main source of entertainment for most of my childhood.” Visitors to public libraries have remained relatively steady over the last half-decade, according to a 2016 report by the Pew Research Center.

5. Start saving small amounts and build credit.

Other Reddit users who had professional parents also weighed in with advice. “I grew up middle class with an accountant for a mom and had an allowance as a kid,” one such Reddit user wrote. “I also had a savings account that my parents opened for me, and a debit card once I turned 13. All of these steps have helped me get to having a $50,000 net worth at 24. Obviously growing up financially stable and having my college paid for by my parents really helped.” (Indeed, experts say a capacity to save only $5 or $10 a month may be discouraging, or even seem completely worthless, but that’s not necessarily the case.)

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