Surprisingly, the Solution to Poverty Doesn't Involve Money
(If only it was as simple as choosing the street to walk or live on)
During one of my runs through graduate school, one of the courses I took was about poverty in America. The information read in class was all very scholarly type of information that looked at the problem from the outsider perspective, and the reading list included one book of someone who decided to “live poor” as part of her investigative reporting concerning the process of being poor. What struck me as being most odd about the course was that everyone in the class had a conception of what poverty meant, and almost always it was from an observer’s perspective, not someone who grew up with the very nature of what being poor might mean. There always seemed to be a “let’s compare it with Africa” or some other intellectual method of explaining poverty, and then we would analyze the many socialist methods to “fix” the problem. I think I walked away from that course more frustrated about understanding poverty than when I went into it.
You see, I was born dirt poor. I mean really poor. My family had little to no education. My dad took off when I was too young to ever remember him because we were a “burden” to him. My mother, with an incomplete middle school education, tried to function as a buffer between starvation and death for her kids, and she was too proud to ever consider taking any type of financial assistance from the government. When we had access to a stable apartment, it was usually overrun with cockroaches, and very rarely did we have enough food to sustain even one of us during difficult periods. Clothing usually came from what the Salvation Army couldn’t sell for ridiculously low prices. The apartment building where I lived most of my childhood was heroin-addict central, and strangely enough I remember this fondly because some of the most bizarre conversations I ever had with other people my age were with people who were so far gone that seemed to make a lot more sense than I probably ever will.
What changed for me was that some grammar school teacher discovered I had a strange methodology of writing and felt there was something there that needed further cajoling. I started winning a bunch of awards for young writers, which eventually put me into another demographic of students that teachers watched out for rather than ignored. Because of this, I read more than I ever would have, and I studied a lot more than I ever would have, even if it meant having to do most of my work at a school library or the public library — which often threw me out because I looked “homeless” rather than “scholarly.” I was nominated by my congressman for West Point not because I was the best choice, but because I stood in front of the selection committee and lectured them for calling me into a “review board” for the Naval Academy when they had already decided on someone other than me. My congressman called me back the next day after I stormed out and offered me West Point instead.
If anything, I got lucky. That’s it.
This brings me back to my gripe, and that is on the situation of poverty itself. Way too often we talk around the issue, often blaming those in poverty itself, or we talk about great plans to get people out of poverty. But I’ll tell you what the real problem is: Few in poverty ever believe even getting out of it is possible. Shortly after I left the Army, I decided to travel the country to get a better idea of what makes this country tick. I had enough money to get me through about a year of nonstop traveling, so it should not be surprising that after the second year, I was running out of money. I ended up in San Francisco. It was there that I decided I had to get back to the real world again, and for a period of about six months, I found myself living a very lousy, poor experience. It took me about that long to get a real job and start moving out of flop houses to real, sustained living again.
But one thing that hit me during this time was that there are some really bad people who prey on those who are part of the poor demographic. An example: I went into a convenience store on a downtown corner, and I decided to buy a small jug of milk that had a price tag of 99 cents. When I got to the cashier, he looked on this chart that was printed on his counter and then said, “that will be $1.34.” I almost paid it and then asked him what the 35 cents was for. He said tax. I then realized that even in the Socialist Republic of San Francisco, sales tax was not 35 percent. I told him this. His response was the one I grew to remember well when I was a child; he threw me out of his store.
(Usually, I make jokes with my pictures, but I have a hard time coming up with anything funny here.)
So here is where I tell you what I think the real problem of poverty really is. To begin with, I have many degrees now, and I have numerous other skills that will probably get me a job no matter how bad things ever get. But I was born into poverty, and I see everything from the mindset of the poor. One of the hardest things to do is to realize that when I wake up tomorrow, I’m not going to be forced from my home and required to fend for myself on the streets. Other people take this for granted; I fear it constantly, even without merit. A social program that targets someone who lives with the mindset of this type of poor person only tends to alleviate immediate poverty needs but does little to change the belief of the person that things are ever really going to get better. Whereas someone from a stable background may see a savings account as an investment, the person of poverty will more likely see this as “emergency cash” for when things go bad. I know that’s how I see any type of savings I ever make, and it will probably be that way even after my first or second million.
To truly understand how to combat poverty, it is necessary to understand how someone born into this lifestyle sees life. It is usually day-to-day living, which rarely does anything to combat poverty. To truly defeat poverty, it is necessary to defeat that concept of thinking, which is difficult, at best, considering that I truly understand it, am highly educated about it, and I have yet to defeat it myself.