Friday, August 12, 2011

Poverty in America

There is a lot of talk out there right now about what government should or shouldn't do for the poor in the US. Let's take a moment and see what are the things that we can all agree to be true. #1 Being poor in the US is not like being poor in New Delhi. Being poor in New Delhi (or really most anywhere in the world outside of the US) sucks way worse than being poor here in the US. #2 It sucks when you don't have as much money as you would like. It isn't that people want to collect pictures of old dead dudes. It's because money represents choices. More money equals more choices. Less money equals less choices. Agreed?

Now, a couple of weeks ago, the Heritage Foundation published an article about poverty in America relying heavily on Census Bureau statistics. In this article, they spent a lot of time highlighting point #1 from above. Of the poor in America, most have a roof over their head, running water and flush toilets, and basic cooking amenities. Is this the description of a lavish lifestyle? No. But it isn't the description of the poor in other countries where thousands live in horrid conditions with no potable water, a piece of cardboard or (if they're lucky) corrugated tin for a roof, and they cook what little they can find to eat over a dung fire. The Heritage Foundation is simply pointing out that for all the media caterwauling on the subject, the poor in America do, for the most part at least, have many of their most basic needs met and a little bit more.

Last week, the Center for American Progress responded to the article by the Heritage Foundation with a straw man argument about how selling their refrigerator and microwave would not raise enough money to feed a family more than a few meals. Well...duh. That's not the point. And that's a big part of the problem in this discussion.

Before I go further, let's pause and discuss "poor" versus "broke." "Broke" means that you have no money. "Poor" is about your thinking. There have been times in my life when I was broke, but I have never considered myself poor. Even though I had no money, I understood what it would take to change that situation and was willing to do the work.

How does the distinction between poor and broke apply to this national discussion about poverty in America? When people in this country experience a cash shortage, the government steps in to make up the shortfall but does not do anything to correct people's thinking. In essence, they are keeping people poor - and causing generational poverty. (The current spending habits of the federal government demonstrate why this is....they can not teach what they do not understand themselves.)

Every single day, I see people who are poor, and it breaks my heart. Why? It is not because they do not have the resources already available to them. It's because they have the means to improve their situation but are blind to the solutions. The choices that they are making are what keeps them poor, and the government handouts take just enough of an anesthetic to keep them numb to their plight. The following examples are not to condemn the choices that people make. It is to express the reality that is out there and how those choices are keeping them poor.
  •  I went to deliver some basic cooking food supplies to a family who expressed that they did not have enough money to buy these basic groceries. As I walked to the kitchen counter to put the things down, I had to go past the TV that was playing a cable TV show. (The most basic and inexpensive cable package in Green Bay is about $40/mo. and does not include that channel.) The price that they were paying was almost twice the cost of the groceries that I was delivering. Based on the conversations that I have on a daily basis with people who are poor, the majority of them do have cable.
  • One of our local thrift stores has a voucher program where the Red Cross and other such organizations can refer people who have no furniture in their apartment/house to get a few basic items like a bed, dresser, table and chairs for free. These aren't junk either....they're what they normally sell at their store. When I worked at one of those referring organizations, we would frequently have people turn down the voucher furniture because it wasn't nice enough for them.
  • Every day at work, I see people on food stamps who are smoking 1-2 packs of cigarettes a day. Neither of those things in themselves are offensive to me, but the combination is. Our number one selling brand of cigarettes are about $7.50 a pack. A pack a day smoker will spend about $225 per month on cigarettes. Many of our customers easily smoke double that. (The "cheap" cigarette brand is about a dollar a pack less, so it will only cost about $200/mo. for a pack a day habit.) 
  • We also see a lot of people on food stamps who buy come in and buy one or two 4 packs of beer per day. Beer is a lot less expensive than cigarettes at about $3 for each 4 pack. That's still $90-$180 per month being spent on beer.
  • Lottery tickets. I see the reports on sales versus winnings. The lottery is a voluntary tax on stupid. There is a reason that I have gotten a property tax credit every year for the last 7 years. If you want to play some scratch offs because it's fun. Fine there are worse vices....just don't leave the scratchings on my counter. If you enjoy spending a buck here and there because you like daydreaming about what you'd do if you win.'s less expensive than going to a movie. If you can't afford to buy your own food, not fine. 
  • One of our regulars (who smokes, drinks, is unemployed and not looking for work, is on food stamps because of her 3 kids under 5, and who's baby daddy just got out of prison), was complaining that $15 at McDonalds didn't go very far to feed her kids lunch. Now, nothing against McD's...but $15 will feed 3 small kids lunch of PB&J with fresh fruit and a glass of Kool-aid....for a week. Maybe not the most exciting meals, but they're fed and it's healthy.
  • Prepaid cellphones are very popular and frequently run about $50-$60 per month. Yes, a phone number is a basic prerequisite for getting a job. A cell phone is not. A land line can cost as little as $15 per month, and the initial cost of the phone is in the $1-$15 range depending on if you get it used or new.
Ok, pause again. I want to take a moment to point out that all of the examples that I have given are of people who are poor. Not just broke. There are a lot of people who are broke who don't do any of these things. They have been hit hard by economic realities and are facing very real struggles. Their "safe secure" job may have disappeared suddenly, and they are barely keeping their heads above water. They may need to turn to organizations like Paul's Pantry (which has never and will never taken a penny from any government funding) here in Green Bay. (Lots of communities have food banks to help people who have no ability to pay for their food. Most, admittedly, do not come close to what Paul's Pantry is able to do, but they are a huge help to folks in need.) My heart goes out to them in their pain. This is not a permanent condition for them though. They have been knocked down but will get up, brush themselves off, and go about doing the work to make things better for themselves and their children. They will learn from what happened and guard against it happening again while teaching their children valuable lessons about how to succeed in life.

Un-pause. What these folks need is not more money from the government. It's not expansion of entitlement programs or new ones. They don't need "the rich" (aka, those who are working to provide goods and services to people) to pay more money in taxes. What they need is help to change how they think. There are places and groups out there who try to do just that. I've visited two shelters in Green Bay who have education as the core of their outreach. They have drug and alcohol counseling available, work with people on developing basic job skills as well as helping with how to apply and interview for jobs, and teach about budgeting and how to live within your financial means.

It seems to me that when it comes to results in actually helping people up out of poverty, churches and private charities have a far better success rate than the government. I don't have empirical evidence or studies to support that.....just my personal observation. I see churches and charities healing lives, and I see government programs growing generational dependence.

Just my two cents.

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