Many years ago, in upstate New York, there was a lady who was caught in a fierce snow storm that produced conditions called a "whiteout." That's when the snow is falling so thick that all you can see in is sheer white. This lady wandered around in the storm, struggling to get home, but there was no way for her to know where home was.

Eventually she collapsed and died something like 50 feet from her home that she could not see.

All too often that image comes back to me when I see so many people in poverty wandering off in all directions, often not very far from a way out of their poverty, but, like the lady in the snow, unable to see the way.

Some years ago, a dear friend took it upon himself to try to educate a young nephew from a poor and troubled home, taking the lad into his and his wife's own home, and paying for him to go to a private school. The boy was quite bright, but he had problems that took up a lot of the time and money of my friend, who had a very demanding job, and could ill afford the time or money that he was spending.

Eventually, after some years, the young fellow came to him and said that he wanted to go back home. He could handle the school work where he was, but found it both unsatisfying and unnecessary. He said frankly that he thought he could make it through life without that education, living by his wits, hustling in one way or another.

Disappointing and even shocking as that story was, it was not unique.

But a couple of years ago, a friend in Chicago told me about a success story, where the young man was now in college, but only after lots of complications that had made it seem unlikely.

Unlike the lady lost in a snow storm, who with better luck might have stumbled into her home, many young people in poverty today not only do not seem to know the way, but have many people leading them in other directions.

Some of these other people are fellow youngsters with little understanding of a wider world and a short-time horizon that seldom extends beyond the pleasures or excitement of the moment. And, by the time experience in the world gives them some real knowledge, it may be too late.

Where there is no father in the home, as too often is the case, adolescent boys may choose as models irresponsible people in the world of entertainment, or even in the world of crime.

Then there are the messiahs with a message. The most popular of these messages seems to be that all your problems are due to other people -- people who the messiahs will help fight, in exchange for your loyalty, your money or your votes. Then there are the well-intentioned people who imagine that they are helping when they promote the idea that the problems of young people in poverty are caused by other people, rather than the lack of knowledge and skills that could be acquired, if they put their minds to it.

Some of the well-meaning people think that promoting young people's "self-esteem" and being "non-judgmental" is the way to go. Some even make excuses for them, either explicitly or implicitly, by using such words as "troubled youths" or "at risk" young people. They do this even when the youths are trouble for others, and a risk for those who encounter them, but are having a great time themselves raising hell.

There are no magic solutions. Common sense, common decency, work and honesty are about all I can come up with. These things are not fancy or new or politically correct. But they have a better track record than much that we are doing today.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University