Good hearted people are often moved by the issue of poverty and if they can't find it in their neighborhood they will scour the world to find it and try to cure or alleviate it.
I find few subjects with the emotional....
I find few subjects with the emotional potence of poverty. While it doesn't work as much of a political issue in America, claiming millions go to bed hungry every night, doesn't seem to ruffle any feathers. Yet the deeply imbedded religious teachings that require attention to the poor is a powerful force for many and a subject of uneasiness for the rest. It remains a rite of passage for many wealthy children to serve the poor before going on to their upwardly mobile life.
First and least importantly we can look at the statistics. The government poverty measure is farcical. It is a fixed percentage of the population regardless of any reality and doesn't change from a period where many homes didn't have running water and bathrooms to a period when nearly everyone has them and also color television and air-conditioning. Farcical because it is a truism, like saying half of all people are below average (in intelligence, musical skill, sports ability, eyesight....etc).
The best estimate of poverty in America, using the U.S. government dollars of income measurement is that less than 6% of families fall into this definition. Since my estimate of the size of the underclass, the people who are deliberately outside our society, in jail and prison, is about half that number, I don't find it to be a high percentage, especially given the technical problem of counting people on the move and falling into categories that are statistical aberrations (drug dealers, illegals, people who live entirely on cash or off the grid).
Second and most importantly I have two experiences that give me a different perspective. I have been committed to simple living for most of my life. I know that I can live, and have lived, on a very low income for a long time. The word poverty is meaningless to me when connected to any income level. Poverty is not income related it is context related. Some people are happy with their art, their studies, their lives regardless of income, others are not ever satisfied, much less happy, regardless of income. Most of the time, the ones who want more income are right, their lives are not meaningful without money (and not meaningful with money).
I also spent three years building and operating a park in San Francisco on 6th and Minna St. for people who were, at the time, called Street People. By the time the park closed in 1981 the term Homeless had migrated from New York and replaced the term Street People.
I knew hundreds of street people, many of them on a first name personal basis, they knew me too. This group included many people who were heavy drinkers and winos, a few dangerous heroin addicts and several who regularly forgot to take their meds. What characterized this population, probably a good cross section of the American underclass is that they were under constant, unrelenting, incessant pressure to become part of society. Every day and in nearly every encounter with the normal world they were prodded to get sober, get a home, get a job, get straightened out.
Society simply never accepted their voluntary outcast status. They were under merciless pressure to fit in to normative society and they sure as hell didn't want to. They formed a strong community with enviable interpersonal bonds. They helped each other, they took care of each other in the most humane compassionate ways.
What they wanted was to be left alone, to be with their friends and to be safe.
We, the do-gooders who are driven by a passionate desire to eradicate poverty, have made their lives more difficult. We don't give them a place to sit, cook, sleep outside, wash, store their belongings and be in a city with its cornucopia of food and services. We keep moving them along, trying to fix them. We are merciless in our middleclass values, not merciful.
The park, which was merely a safe, clean place for Street People to
hang out, was loved my many and hated by even more. It was closed down
by the overwhelming and powerful forces of Protestant self-righteous
desire to reform the sinners.
So, from my experience, the word poverty is a loaded gun, demanding mercy from us but enforcing the demands of incessant social improvement on people who rarely want it.
Please, in response to this blog, don’t write about the poor people all over the world. I have worked in development in West Africa and all over India. I know those issues and if I get the nerve, (to offend nearly everyone) I’ll write about the third world some other time on this blog.