I grew up in the years during and immediately after World War Two. My Dad farmed his own small (rented) place, and occasionally worked for others to make all the ends meet. My Mom cooked, washed, cleaned, raised a vegetable garden and occasionally went to the fields to help when Dad needed her. I know a lot about being poor but “poverty” has always been pretty much an unfamiliar concept. I wore some hand-me-downs, but they were always clean. We ate simply (mostly food of our own raising), but I never went hungry.
I never felt culturally deprived though our first indoor plumbing came the year I was a sophomore in high school, followed a few years later by a clunky Emerson black and white TV. We went to the movies in town every couple of months, and I read virtually every book in the house and a lot more from the school and public library by the age of fourteen or so. I shared a room with a sibling, but we each had our own (second-hand) bed complete with handmade quilts.
The family car was a rusty 1939 Ford that Dad could overhaul under the big cottonwood tree by the granary with little more than a pair of pliers and a crescent wrench. I learned to drive a tractor by the age of ten, and thereafter regularly helped with the mowing, cultivating, etc. I helped with the milking and other barnyard chores every evening (rarely in the morning, since Dad wouldn’t wake me that early – he said kids shouldn’t have to get up with the chickens.
Virtually every other kid I knew had, if not exactly the same experience, at least some very similar permutation of it. Thing is, none of us found this in any way unusual. That was life in the rural area of my childhood.
Said all that to say this: I have, rightly or wrongly, always been deeply suspicious of political pontifications about “poverty”. I grew up among people who usually had no cash money in their pockets for days and weeks at a time … folks who would chuckle sardonically at the profligacy of actually painting a barn, or spending good money for store-bought bread or milk … yet none, absolutely none, of those people would have been comfortable with being classified as below some government-devised artificial poverty level.
And so it was with a degree of interest and appreciation that I came across a recent essay on Forbes’ website by John Goodman that asks some very important questions about what constitutes “poverty” and, importantly, whether it is a condition originating from plain old bad luck, or is it due to something else, something pernicious and deep-seated in our modern American socio-political system.
“Is being born really a matter of luck? Doesn’t that take willful activity on the part of two parents? And is the inability of parents to support their children really a matter of luck? Or is it the result of bad habits and undisciplined behavior? Let’s grant that some people do have bad luck. But bad luck usually strikes randomly. Absent hurricanes and tornados, we don’t expect misfortune to befall entire neighborhoods ― to say nothing of entire cities.”
He goes on to note that though we have spent something like $15 trillion dollars fighting poverty, the current poverty rate is higher that when we began in 1965! He says:
“… the welfare state is not relieving poverty. It is creating it.
If there has been a War on Poverty, poverty won.
Is it not obvious that we are subsidizing and enabling a way of life? To put it bluntly, we are paying young women to have children out of wedlock. We are paying them to be unemployed. And we are paying them to remain poor.”
Goodman states finally that rational public policy would seem to dictate that, rather than continue to throw (obviously ineffective) money at the problems, we begin to ask hard questions like what can we do, for example, to see that ”fewer children are born to alcoholic mothers who don’t read to them or encourage their mental development?” This is of course, only one example out of a whole universe of specific questions that need to be raised if we are ever going to begin to solve the intractable problem of enculturated poverty, participated in willingly and unapologetically by millions and millions of our citizens.
Goodman makes several other excellent points. Be sure to read the entire article here.