Poverty Is Not So Bad

OK, OK, I admit it. I wrote that title just so I could hear the howls of protest.

But the truth is that it’s pretty hard to define “poverty”. It means different things in different places and at different times. In the 1930s you were not poor if you weren’t vaccinated for polio because it didn’t exist, but you are now. And you may not agree with what I think are the truly unacceptable elements of poverty.

Income is an important determinant, but a more important one is the conditions that bring the common benefits of the period to all. For example, failing to protect all children with the vaccines available today is not only poverty, but is a type of apartheid. To me a certain minimal level of income is more like a sine qua non. If you don’t have that level of income, you are prevented from a decent life, but better income doesn’t necessarily mean you have one.

Poverty means different things
in different places and times.
Being above the poverty line
doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t poor.

Many of those limiting conditions are cultural. What difference does income make if you are in danger of being shot walking out your front door on the way to work? What difference does your parents’ income make if you go to a school where the most significant student activity is avoiding learning anything of importance, and taking homework home could earn you an ambush?

Education. Learning. Knowledge. Know-how. These are the things that mark a person who not only is not poor, but is rich in the ways that money does not touch. It is not how one earns a living that is the most important factor. It is how good a citizen you are, how responsible you are to your family. Poor people are perfectly capable of pondering their political-economic situation and discussing it with logic and intelligence.

While an expensive education no doubt gives one a broader perspective and more background information, there are plenty of supposedly college educated people whose discussion of culture or politics may be shallow compared to a person with less formal education, but who wants to know what’s really going on. Someone who thinks and reads for herself, in other words.

While there are plenty of adults in the world who have little or no formal education, because it simply wasn’t available to them, the real poverty-stricken are those who had a free education until adulthood, but actively avoided benefiting from it. There are cultures in the US that actively suppress anything that might tell others that you actually know something important.

The real poverty-stricken had a free education,
but avoided benefiting from it.

One of them is in the red-dirt South. Young men, rarely women, ride around in pickup trucks, which seems to be their main goal in life. There are guns in the rack, and empty beer cans in the truck bed. Now and then they shoot at road signs, which are peppered with bullet holes all over the deep south. They may run moonshine, or drugs. If you should ask an important question of such types, you are likely to get a blank stare, because they are not even aware of the problems that affect them every day of their lives, let alone that they are the problem.

Urban African-Americans and Latinos face a different challenge that too often results in the same sort of utterly misplaced priorities. Criminal gangs (and all gangs are criminal) can make life dangerous for any urban kid. It’s very difficult for parents to remove their child from danger if they are threatened by gangsters, or of being hit by a stray bullet, because that requires more money than just being above the poverty line.

But the more serious outcome arrives with a kid who succumbs and joins the gang. He (almost always a he) learns to carry a weapon. He will be responsible for committing crime for the sake of the gang. He may be required to murder a member of another gang. He is likely to die in his mid-twenties. But, worst of all, his mind, his entire life, is wasted on the inconsequential, and he becomes emotionally and intellectually stricken with deep poverty he can never completely defeat even if he does survive.

The common thing linking these groups of mostly young men, besides guns, is their mental self-mutilation. They have purposely made themselves stupid, and doomed to a life without useful skills. They could all get a job pushing a broom, maybe, but many won’t have the self-discipline to keep it, let alone take it upon themselves to improve their intellectual life.

These groups of mostly young men
have mental self-mutilation in common.

Without doubt, the one thing that separates the educated from the dysfunctional impoverished is reading. It is tragic to find a high school kid who has never read a book, who in fact reads virtually nothing, and doesn’t even learn anything of importance from TV. Who considers reading a waste of his important time. In fact, he cannot read, in spite of years of opportunity.

To me, this is shocking and tragic, because this kid’s attitude will probably last forever, and he has purposely become an ignoramus whose life will be dragged down by other things than his native intelligence, things outside his control.

I know of travelers who have visited and become friends with people in deepest poverty in various parts of the world. They report that the very poor people they came to know led a rich life nonetheless. They had family, they had love, they had music, they had humor, they had culture and spirituality, and because of these their lives were rich, even in the absence of many of the blessings that only money can buy.

This is why I say it is not entirely the level of income that makes a person rich or poor. It is these other things that make life worth living, and they can be absent even with adequate income.

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  1. I tend to agree with your post. I took an African Studies course in college that was taught by a man from Kenya. When he left his country, he was surprised to find out many people thought his Kenyan life was poverty stricken and sad. He had a large and happy family in Kenya. They did not have indoor plumbing, but they did not see this as a hardship. They had enough food to eat and an opportunity to go to school. All his family valued education and they succeeded in various life pursuits. An excess of consumer goods won’t bring you happiness. Having your basic needs met along with good family/community ties works better.

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