Many books have addressed the “bottom of the pyramid” in developing countries like India – how big companies can tap the cumulative spending power of the impoverished masses. 

But John Hope Bryant, founder and CEO nonprofit Operation HOPE, believes there is a tidal wave of economic potential waiting to be unleashed in the back streets of America. 

The problem is that poverty has been treated as a purely financial problem that can be solved with charity or savvy policies, when it’s really a deeper issue woven into personal aspirations and the social fabric of communities. 

“If I give a homeless man a million dollars, he’ll be broke in six months. Success is a culture. Failure is also a culture,” Mr. Bryant told Global Atlanta

Global financial recovery and the role of the poor in capitalism are to be discussed at the Operation Hope Global Financial Dignity Summit on Nov. 13-14 in Atlanta, an event whose guest list testifies to the breadth of Mr. Bryant’s global connections. 

Deputy central bankers from BrazilMorocco and Nigeria will take the stage, along with Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and Hasan Aljabri, CEO of SEDCO Capital in Saudi Arabia, among a variety of other local and international politicians, athletes and CEOs. 

Mr. Bryant, whose organization is active in Atlanta, touts a common-sense approach to poverty reduction, a riff on the “teach a man to fish” axiom.

Rather than casting the poor as lazy or ignorant, society should be looking for ways to redirect their latent talents and connect them with opportunity. 

“They’re not to be pitied. If you are a single mother raising two children with too much month at the end of your money, and somehow you make it in this country making something like $22,000 per year, you deserve a Nobel Prize yourself; you’re a financial genius,” said Mr. Bryant, whose book “How the Poor Can Save Capitalism” will be published in May. 

And what about the neighborhood drug dealer? He may be immoral, but he’s far from stupid, Mr. Bryant said. His shady business involves import/export, finance, wholesale and marketing. Imagine what he could do with the right intentions and resources.  

“You’re not talking about dumb people; you’re talking about misdirected people with no business role models,” he said. 

That’s where Operation Hope comes in, focusing on mentorship and financial literacy programs targeting the urban poor. During last year’s summit, the organization opened a center for financial dignity at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue

It’s part of an effort to fix a dichotomy that exists in Atlanta. While the city is a vibrant center for African American business, but it’s also the fifth most unbanked city in the U.S., with the black community disproportionately bearing the burden of missed opportunity. 

That’s one reason Operation Hope plans to open 1,000 HOPE Inside kiosks at banks, grocery stores and other locations around the country. These staffed booths aim to boost credit scores to above 670, giving budding entrepreneurs access to capital while expanding banks’ pools of solid loans. 

“Nothing changes your life more – other than love or God – than moving your credit score,” Mr. Bryant said. 

But before financial behaviors can be affected, people must change their mindsets from a short-term motivator – fear – to a more productive and sustainable one: dreams. 

“My job is to connect the ladder from ‘OK, I’m stabilized,’ to empowered and aspirational,” he said. “That’s the real gap in the world.”

Can the Poor Save Global Capitalism?

Mr. Bryant sees the global financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath was a wake-up call for regimes around the world. Its message: capitalism has to be inclusive. 

The results of disenfranchisement speak for themselves, Mr. Bryant told Global Atlanta in an interview. 

Lack of opportunity among educated young people was the spark that ignited the Arab Spring. Places like Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia have realized that job growth is key to staving off unrest. China faces simmering discontent because its market-based reforms have spurred growth without its civil society keeping pace. Africa continues to receive aid when what it really needs is a tax base, Mr. Bryant said.

Programs like UNICEF are needed, but ascribing dignity requires seeing people not as victims but as sources of vitality.

And even if you don’t feel that “financial literacy is the new civil rights issue,” as Mr. Bryant does, he argues that dealing with poverty has a practical benefit even for the coldest of capitalists: the poor will eventually become customers. 

Last month, Operation HOPE one of the founders of Global Dignity, helped organize Global Dignity Day, connecting a network of schools and organizations online and in person in more than 50 countries. The goal? Using a universally accepted idea – dignity – as the foundation for teaching young people about their self-worth and potential to change the world, Mr. Bryant said.

“The most dangerous person in the world is a person with no hope.” 

For the full summit agenda, click here

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...