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FIRE isn’t for everyone: a long climb out of poverty

Last Updated on November 22, 2019 by Mr. FightToFIRE

Did you know that it can take you, on average, 4.5 generations before you go from a lower class income to a middle-class income?

When I talk about going FIRE at 40 – 45 I do this from a position of relative luxury. I’m able to live with my parents and save most of my high income towards that goal.

Most people that try to achieve FIRE have some leg up and will achieve it sooner than later. Maybe because of being able to work a high paying job or have just that something that allows them to cut costs. Some (within the FIRE-community) suggest anyone can do it as long as they earn enough money or spend less.
This sounds simple in theory but isn’t so easy in practice because of something called social class.

The low-income class

Let me clarify. Let us take my country Belgium. According to OECD, someone is in the low-income class in Belgium if the family income is less than € 19,295 gross.

Per month this gives us €19,295/12 = € 1607 gross income. Interesting to note is that the poverty line in Belgium is € 1,139 for an individual.
This tax year the majority of that salary falls under the 25% tax bracket. After taxes, you are left with roughly € 1205, but after tax breaks and other benefits, something like € 1400 net is likely; which is a very rough estimate, I know.

That’s the income part. When looking at expenses, it’s safe to assume not everyone can live with their parents in their 20’s, so you have to pay at least rent. When I take my already low expenses of € 600 and add simple housing such as an apartment at € 600 and other expenses (€150) that accompany living on your own, you end up with € 1400 – €1350 = €50 cash at best. It’s clear this doesn’t give you much leeway, if any at all. If you can save anything at all, you might have saved enough at your official retirement.

The problem is, that someone with such a low income can’t cut more costs because they already reached rock bottom. Here is where reality kicks in. The best way to get away from this would be to increase your income.

Overview of how many generations it takes to climb to middle class in different countries
It can take up to 11 generations before someone from a low-income household moves up to a middle-class household in his country. Denmark performs best with an average of 2 generations.

Climbing the social ladder

It’s hard to imagine, but breaking free from your low-income household takes time and even with hard work you don’t always see results.  This makes it arduous to reach FIRE. If you are part of a low-income household it can take generations to reach a middle-class income.

Basically, climbing up the social ladder is plain difficult. Even in Western democracies that boast all citizens have more or less equal opportunities. In Western industrialized countries, it takes an average of 4.5 generations to climb from the lowest income category to the group of middle-income earners.
France, with its slogan ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ is one of the worst pupils in the European classroom, highlighted by an OECD-report. Hungary, a country that was under communist rule 30 years ago, is doing even worse.

The United States, which boasts that ‘The American Dream’ is accessible to everyone, is not doing very well either. For someone born into a low-income family, it takes an average of 5 generations to climb up to the middle-income group.

In Belgium, it takes an average of 4 generations. This puts us in an extensive group of countries that are doing better than the OECD-average.

In Scandinavian countries, it is easier to climb the social ladder. Denmark can present the best report with 2 generations.

Did you know?

  • Lower-income class refers to households with income below 75% of the median national income
  • Middle-income class refers to households with income between 75% and 200% of the median national income
  • Upper-income class refers to households with income above 200% of the median national income

Source: OECD

No, not everyone can do it (in their generation)

When people tell me that you can make it with hard work and dedication, I give them a stern look and ask them to really think about what they are saying.

If you are not convinced by the OECD-report (and you understand Dutch) I highly recommend you take a look at the report “poor Flanders” and the post on its sequel “poor Flanders: 5 years later” to see what it means to live off of a low income.

Now, I realize these are averages, and there are always people who can do it within their generation. This goes the other way as well. There are families that are stuck for 10 or more generations even though it should be possible to break out in a generation or two.

And what about you, my dear reader, if you are part of a low-income household, do you wish to share your thoughts and struggles? Or are you from a middle-class household and are you facing difficulties as well? Maybe you find it idiotic and don’t believe you can’t make your own future if you just work hard enough.

Please leave a comment and share your thoughts!

Source: OECD

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. It’s difficult I think. I come from a solid middle-class family, where we had years of definitely upper/middle class income but also had years that were a little less. As a kid, I had all the opportunities I could wish for, and luckily, also the brains.

    Let’s face it, you can get opportunities, but our economic system rewards being more intelligent because you can then study and go on to take higher paying jobs.
    So while it’s definitely true that people from “lower” (don’t like that term) backgrounds can work themselves up by working hard, there’s a fair bit of luck involved as well.

    1. It’s true that you also need to have a good set of brains and the right mindset.
      I think that’s also partially why it’s so difficult if you come from a family with a lot less to go by. If your parents don’t have a basic understanding of various financial terms or knowledge about economics, in general, they might not think about stuff that could help them financially. As a result, you as a child never got to learn from your parents how to manage your life financially.
      If you only see your parents spent money on booze it’s not strange the kids will end up the same. Having financial issues usual stems from no decent education.
      If you do have the correct mindset through self-education because you understand it’s needed not to get into the same situation as your parents it’s possible to “break free”.

  2. Wow I haven’t seen this OECD Study before on income mobility. Very interesting.

    I am a strong believer that there is no luck and that if you want to be ‘lucky’ you have to work your butt off for it. Many envious people confuse luck with hard work. They see the fruits of the labour but not the work behind it – then they call it “being lucky”.

    I am a nomadic full-time immigrant. I love immigrating into a new place, making my luck there and move on. I have done that my entire adult life. It takes effort, perseverance, discipline, learning to make it in a new country.

    I think that is what made me successful in moving up social classes. In addition to some other forming experiences. There were times In my life I was sleeping on a towel, as I didn’t have a bed. There were times where I had to walk 20km one way to school (in worn out shoes) because I didn’t have the money for a train ticket that month.

    It’s a combination of those unlucky circumstances and my hard work that allowed me to end up working a career and independently achieve what only a fraction of people will ever achieve: going from practically broke and poor to millionaire. I jumped through a few hoops to move from low to high income earner.

    Coming back to your question the OECD figures and respective social class moving averages. If you work a little harder than the average you can beat the average. Work a lot harder than average and you smash the average result. It’s possible but as everything in life: it comes at a price.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Financial Gladiator! Really appreciate your comment.
      I understand what you are saying but to be fair, what else is there than luck when it comes to what family you are born into? Mind you I’m not saying it means your life is set in stone but there are certain things in life that can be contributed to basically being lucky or unlucky.
      While not financial in nature, getting cancer is also, at least partially, being unlucky. You might be able to control the chance you get it through a healthy lifestyle, you can never really eradicate the possibility. This is especially true as you grow older.

      So yes, luck isn’t the be-all-end-all reason for your financial future, but I definitely can see it as a factor that impacts how easy, hard or even impossible it is to get somewhere in life.

  3. Hi Mr Fight To FIRE,

    Very interesting article. I was not aware of such a study.

    I was born in a low-middle class income family in a non-developed country. Somehow, by studying and choosing (more a matter of lucky…) a good profession in terms of remuneration, I managed to climb one step into the income classes. I do believe that I’ll give to my kids a better starting point that I had.

    Not a surprise with the first ones into the list. A bad surprise was Germany being just ahead of Hungary in Europe.

    All the best on your journey to FIRE.


    1. Hey Odysseus, thanks for stopping by and contributing!
      Yep, Denmark being high isn’t really a surprise and honestly does show how good policy can have a positive impact on people’s lives.

  4. VICTORY!! As one of the smallest nations in europe, there’s nothing we danes love more than to be #1! 😛

    This report is indeed very interesting! I had never seen it before, so thank you 🙂

    I come from a pretty standard middle-class family in Denmark. We weren’t poor, but we definitely weren’t rich either (we drove old cars and our vacations was always camping trips when I was a kid. Not that I ever complained. It was fun.).

    My parents do not have university degrees, but my generation (the kids of my parents and their siblings) all have university degrees today, and I guess you can say that my generation has thus managed to make a significant jump in 2 generations, thus proving what the report states.

    This just goes to show you what one of the highest tax rates in the world will get you. Are you listening (reading) Americans? Socialism for the win! (I’m not a socialist, really – but I can’t deny the benefits of living in a socialistic country – and neither can you, if you read that report 😉 ).

    Thanks for sharing this, and good luck on your journey! 🙂

    1. Hey Nick, thanks for commenting and subscribing through bloglovin’!

      OECD does deliver good work and solid research you can trust especially if you read the whole research.
      It’s quite heavy but they do provide a summary and well, the image does show pretty well how various countries fare.

      Just like Odysseus, you are a good example of how the research works in real life.

  5. Thanks for the article!
    Social mobility has been a difficult topic for many years which comes up mostly in taxation discussions. I.e., should inheritance be taxed more aggressively vs. income? If you say yes, you basically agree to higher social mobility. This is simple mechanics of earning and passing on assets.
    The more tricky question is whether there is more than asset accumulation and inheritance. E.g., are there financial beliefs which are in the lower or middle classes which prevent upward mobility? Are there effects the upper class can benefit from to maintain its financially superior position?
    Would be curious to hear your perspective which I guess I have missed in the article!
    All the best
    Lukas – author my

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Mr. FightToFIRE

I'm the owner and the main writer of FightToFIRE, a personal finance blog focussing on Financial Independence and Retiring Early. During the regular working hours, I'm a developer for a major financial institution in Belgium. During my off-hours, I write. do some weight lifting and other stuff to keep me healthy and fit.

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