It’s interesting to note the dichotomy between the perceptions different groups have of America. People living in Asia perceive this country as a magical land of opportunity, where if you’re willing to work hard untold riches can be made.

Those living here, though, see a country struggling with the same old problems of poverty as they try to make ends meet, feed their families and put a roof over their heads. Elsewhere in the world, people line up at U.S. embassies everyday to plead for the opportunity to live and work here, but people living here rarely express appreciation for the economic opportunities afforded to them simply by their birth.

If you were to have conversations with just a few Americans, you would think that this country – despite having the largest economy and the best higher education system in the world – is no different from any other developed country. So why do poverty cycles still plague this land of opportunity?

Even taking into account the impact of economic policy, there is really no reason for the continued existence of poverty cycles in a country with such a strong economy and social mobility. On paper, pulling yourself out of the slums isn’t that hard. You simply have to go to school, do your homework, take up a part-time job, go to a decent college and pick your major wisely. There you have it. You are now be a 22-year-old college graduate with employable skills.

Yes, this path is arduous and tiring, especially if you’re from an under-privileged background. But it’s still a cinch compared to other countries, where schooling is extremely expensive, financial aid and scholarships are hard to come by, and college admissions are so fierce that high school students need to burn the midnight oil every night.

The problem here is with people not making use of the opportunities given to them. The kids who grow up in slums and most direly need to lift themselves out of poverty are sadly also the most likely to neglect school and waste their youth.

A few years ago, when I was volunteering at Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School, I met a girl who couldn’t grasp even the basic principles of math and showed no interest at all in trying. When I asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up, she coolly replied that she was going to be a dancer. I laughed, thinking that she was joking; I had never met anyone who had no plans of going to college and who intended to put all her eggs into one fragile basket. It was only a few seconds later that I realized she was dead serious.

As time went on, I realized that this was the mindset shared by a number of kids living in poverty. Everyone wants to be the next Eminem or LeBron James, and why not? American pop culture deifies singers, actors and athletes more than it does doctors, engineers and scientists. When was the last time you heard the rags-to-riches story of someone who rose out of the slums to become a math professor? Unfortunately, out of the millions of teenagers out there, only a handful can ever hope to secure a glamorous and well-paying job in the entertainment industry. Unless all the others focus on their education and develop employable skills, they will be doomed to perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

It is easy then to simply lay the responsibility on the shoulders of those in poverty themselves, but you can hardly blame an adolescent for not knowing how to best lead his life. Chances are they grew up in families where studying is seen more as a social stigma than as a pathway to success. The responsibility of ensuring the well-being of these youths falls on the mantle of the education system.

Starting from as early as grade school, there needs to be a much greater emphasis on instilling values and virtues like work ethic necessary to succeed in nearly every career. Charter schools have achieved great success by focusing extensively on developing such character traits. Students need to be taught that their best bet for financial success comes from college and a good education – not the NFL or Hollywood. Teachers must promote better role models like famous lawyers, doctors, scientists and businessmen who pulled themselves up out of poverty.

In this land of opportunity, poverty cycles are caused not by the lack of opportunities but by people not knowing how to take advantage of them.

Rajiv Prabhakar can be reached at

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