Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.
There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want, merely because you think it would be good for him.
–Robert A. Heinlein
For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.
— Matthew 26:11
One of the interesting things that happens to me when viewing memes on the internet is a certain sense of dichotomy: I know exactly what reaction I am expected to have to the meme; and I know the reaction I actually have. Sometimes they are close. Way too often, being the perverse person that I am, they are far distant.
Such was my reaction to the first quote above. My reaction is to be afraid of what actions people are going to take to resolve this problem. Do-gooders who weren’t the cause of this problem — oh no, it is someone else’s fault — but they are going to be the ones to resolve it. So they are going to enforce the type of tyranny that the second quote envisions.
Through the best of intentions, people decide what government should do for people, or what should be done for people, to resolve the issue, whether poverty or something else. Then the law of unintended consequences intervenes and the result is actually something quite different.
Slavery and Apartheid were both limiting factors: they constrained people’s actions, and coerced them into modes of action. Similarly there are systems out there that constrain people and prevent their economic mobility, that encourage the perpetuation of poverty. Removing those constraints in the same way that the constraints of slavery and Apartheid were removed would be a good thing.
But it is the positive actions, things that set up new constraining structures, that I fear, and that I see have created unintended side effects that perpetuate and increase the poverty they are intended to remove, or increase the dependence of the poor upon the programs intended to remove poverty.
You cannot force a person out of poverty. You cannot force a person to do what you think is right for them. You can try, but way to often the result is resistance to your efforts. Quite often the poor do not want your help.
And what does it mean to be poor? What is the definition of poverty? I turned to Merriam-Webster Online to get a baseline definition:
noun, often attributive \ˈpä-vər-tē\
: the state of being poor
: a lack of something
a : the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions
b : renunciation as a member of a religious order of the right as an individual to own property
a : debility due to malnutrition
b : lack of fertility
As you can see by these definitions, the definition of poverty can move, based on socially acceptable amounts of possessions. For example, a person in poverty today might have cable TV and a cell phone — something even the richest did not have in 1965. So Christ was correct (quote #3 above), you do have the poor with you always. There will always be a disparity of wealth.
Sometimes, by the definition above, poverty can even be a positive thing: People in religious orders can purposefully take a vow of poverty and renounce personal material goods for the benefit of the spiritual well-being and the material and spiritual well-being of others.
We need to be careful about a great many things when trying to assist “the less fortunate”. For one thing, thinking of them as “the poor” or “the less fortunate” already creates a condescending attitude in our dealings, and throws our motivation into question. If we are doing it to be good, or to feel good about ourselves, or because we know what is best for them, beware for our motivation is wrong.
Now if we are doing something to lend someone a hand, to help them pull themselves out of a tough situation so they can set themselves on the road to improvement, that is a different story.
Too many organizations and governmental programs have encouraged the behaviors that keep people in poverty. We make it comfortable for people to live in poverty. Let’s face it, most people listed as living in poverty in the USA would count as wealthy if they lived in most of the developing nations around the world today.
People in poverty shouldn’t be comfortable — at least, they shouldn’t be comfortable because of something we or the government are doing to keep them where they are. If someone wants to live a simple life, one defined as poverty by others, they should be allowed to, if they can do it on their own.
I think of the below quotes from the movie Holiday Inn:
Linda Mason: My father was a lot like you, just a man with a family. Never amounted to much, didn’t care. But as long as he was alive, we always had plenty to eat and clothes to keep us warm.
Jim Hardy: Were you happy?
Linda Mason: Yes.
Jim Hardy: Then your father was a very successful man.
Today’s statements and statistics on poverty robs the Mr. Mason of fictional movie existence, and all the true-life people in similar circumstances, of respect and pride.
There is nothing wrong with being poor — unless you are there because you are lazy and don’t care, living off of others when you could take care of yourself.
There is nothing wrong with being poor — unless you are there because of injustice in the social structure. And no, by that last statement, I don’t mean what the people who printed the meme want me to mean.
Yes, if there are legal and social structures that prevent people from using their own efforts to advance themselves, such limits should be removed. But legal and social structures that keep you in poverty because it is more comfortable to stay there than to advance yourself, those are the true injustices facing Americans today. They keep people dependent upon the programs, and create a constituency that self perpetuates the program rather than truly eliminating poverty.