If You Are Born Poor It’s Not Your Mistake, But If You Die Poor It’s Your Mistake

Bill Gates? Muriel Strode? Ella Wheeler Wilcox? Joey Adams? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, is one of the richest people in the world. A provocative remark about poverty has been ascribed to him:

If you are born poor it’s not your mistake but if you die poor it’s your mistake.

I have been unable to find a solid citation, and I am skeptical of this ascription. Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Bill Gates made this statement. His philanthropic endeavors via the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to reduce hunger and extreme poverty suggest that Gates is aware of the major obstacles facing people who are born into harsh circumstances.

In 1997 a strong match appeared in a message posted to the discussion system Usenet within the newsgroup news.newusers.questions. The statement appeared in a get-rich-quick chain-letter message which used the word “fault” instead of “mistake”. No attribution was specified. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT THAT YOU WERE BORN POOR…AND IF YOU DIE POOR, IT’S YOUR BIGGEST FAULT !!!!

The remark attributed to Gates appeared as a message in the Google Group CETAA67 by 2008, but no supporting citation was provided. The word “you’re” was written as “you”: 2

If you born poor, it’s not your mistake.
But if you die poor it’s your mistake
• Bill Gates

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A thematic match from the pen of Muriel Strode appeared in the 1903 work titled “Wind-Wafted Wild Flowers”. The phrase “wear rags” corresponds to enduring poverty: 3

I do not bemoan misfortune. To me there is no misfortune. I welcome whatever comes; I go out gladly to meet it.

It is no stigma to wear rags; the disgrace is in continuing to wear them.

Say not that this or that thing came to thwart you; it only came to test you.

In 1909 the poet and pioneering affirmational author Ella Wheeler Wilcox published an essay titled “To Achieve—Be Positive” which included a match for the expression although the phrasing differed: 4

Every day of my life I am realizing more and more the fact that man (not fate, chance, environment or circumstance) makes his own success or failure.

It is not, you will say, your fault that you were born in the depths of poverty, and not the worth of another which caused him to be born a prince.

Granted. But it depends upon yourself entirely whether you remain all your life in poverty, and it depends upon the prince entirely whether he becomes a man or merely remains a prince in name.

It is simply a matter of getting acquainted with your real self, and knowing how important is each thought, act, motion and attitude, whether mental or moral.

In 1953 a thematically related statement appeared in the “Petaluma Argus-Courier” in Petaluma, California: 5

Mrs. D. P. Bevil spoke of the wonderful opportunities in America for work and play. And one Dr. Long summed things up with this remark, “All men are created equal; but it is your own fault if you stay that way.”

In 1972 a compilation from a well-known comedian titled “Joey Adams’ Speaker’s Bible of Humor” included a funny variant remark: 6

It doesn’t matter if you’re born poor and you die poor—as long as you’re rich in between.

In 1997 and 2008 versions of the saying were posted to the Usenet discussion system as mentioned at the beginning of this article.

In conclusion, a similar remark about overcoming poverty was written by Ella Wheeler Wilcox in 1909. There is no substantive evidence linking Bill Gates to the modern expression that is often attributed to him.

(Great thanks to Rung Tira and an anonymous twitter user whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1997 February 21, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: news.newusers.questions, From: BentAyu @pc.jaring.my, Subject: DON’T DIE POOR…….read this !!! (Google Groups Search; Accessed August 5, 2018) link
  2. 2008 June 1, Google Groups discussion message, Group: CETAA67, From: Usha Mohan @yahoo.com, Subject: Fw: Thoughts for the day, Forwarded Email From: Deepak @mcdermott.com, Forwarded Date: 2008 May 28, Forwarded Subject: Fw: Thoughts for the day. (Google Groups Search; Accessed August 2, 2018) link
  3. 1903 August, The Open Court: Devoted to the Science of Religion, the Religion of Science, and the Extension of the Religious Parliament Idea, Volume 17, Number 8, Section: Miscellaneous, Wind-Wafted Wild Flowers by Muriel Strode, Start Page 505, Quote Page 505, The Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1909 December 21, The Times Dispatch, To Achieve—Be Positive by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Quote Page 7, Column 5, Richmond, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1953 May 8, Petaluma Argus-Courier, Mrs. Henry Ross Installed For 2nd Term As President Of PTA Council, Quote Page 2, Column 6, Petaluma, California. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1972, Joey Adams’ Speaker’s Bible of Humor by Joey Adams, Topic: Riches, Quote Page 268, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)