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The culture of Poor

Permanent Linkby wisconsin_cur on Mon Feb 15, 2010 8:26 am

A question was posed to me recently, "At what income level to you think that someone is 'making it' and at what point are they poor?"

This is a issue upon which I have some strong emotions stemming mostly from my biography. My parents were married at 18 and their path to their present level of success began with a newborn and one High School diploma between them. There was no seed money from their parents to get them started but there was an attitude and ethic worth more than the Hilton-family trust fund. For me anyway the nature of their beginings are neither a source for pride or shame. It is just what was. I do, however, take pride in the way they faced that beginning.

Between them they had an ability to get things done and make the best of what they had. In the late seventies and early eighties, when the unemployment level of my home county hovered around 20%, They worked hard, saved what they could, bought a house, went back to school and politely declined government programs for which they qualified but did not need. No doubt, some luck was involved but their greatest asset is that, though they were among the "working poor," they were not "poor."

I define "poor" in terms of attitude and values rather than income. Poor is an attitude common among those men, women and families who, regardless of income see only what they do not have or believe the financial challenges before them, often self-imposed, are insurmountable. A family can bring down $200,000 or more a year and be poor, and they will probably tell you as much without noting the irony of the statement. Surrounded by people who are spending more, acquiring more, running around the country more, the poor are obsessed with what they do not have and act against their long-term self-interest to acquire it. As debt accumulates the poor maintain the pursuit by either denying their problems or claiming those problems cannot be overcome. Both are delusions rooted in an inability to set aside the pathology of acquisition for other attitudes and habits which would address the problem. By believing they are poor they create the circumstances where they become poor.

The opposite of poor is not rich. It is an attitude of thankfulness that empowers a clear assessment and confrontation of financial obstacles. This attitude, again regardless of income, is focused upon the blessings that they have received and the resources available to them. It is fundamentally disinterested in what people have but the kind of people they are. It does not care if they are famous but asks if they are good. It is disinterested in their car but asks if they can work. It does not notice their clothes but it wonders if they are trust-worthy. This same rubrick is applied to the individual when looking in the mirror.

Living in a world populated by these values the mind is cleared to evaluate the scene and make the best of it, whatever it is. When someone who is poor experiences a windfall they blow it on some extravagance thinking "I deserve this!" and "the money will never make a difference to our financial problems anyway." Individuals and families whose head have been cleared by an attitude of thankfulness, are capable of seeing the windfall, no matter how small, as an opportunity for advancement. That opportunity may be exploited wisely or foolishly, it is still subject to a degree of luck and happen-stance but it is employed, to the best of their judgement, to better the material situation of the individual or family. Because what is valued the most, the content of character, is less influenced by the trappings of affluence, decisions have a better chance of being rooted in reality. A world view rooted in thankfulness is more likely to lead to sustainable success.

The culture of poor has spread across boundaries of economic class and geography over the decades since I was young. It is the single most disturbing trend in our country today because it undercuts our ability to confront every other problem; arguably it is the source of many if not all the other problems. The epidemiology of the attitude of poor defies quick fix or antidote. It will be a process of individual conversion and Darwinian elimination. The cultural problem is beyond the control of the individual, even the suits in Washington or New York; assuming that they themselves were first converted or replaced with something better. The solution to prevalence of the attitude of poor lies in our homes.

What we can do is not only exhibit the qualities of thrift, sobriety, honesty and thankfulness but we must also find a way to give voice to, to explain and promote those qualities. In times past those qualities were present in the songs sung on Saturday nights as well as Sunday mornings; songs made famous in the economic bust of the 19th century and taught to the children of the 1920's and 30's: Count your many blessings, There ain't no depression in heaven, Fame apart from God's approval, The sunny side of life, Dark and Stormy Weather, We are Climbing, I ain't got time, Elijah's God.

These and so many others were not escapist songs of the downtrodden, in fact many are quite dark. They do, however, serve us like archaeological remains, explain the why and how of the strength and attitude which built a thousand small towns and a hundred cities; lifted families out of poverty even at the cost of individual lives lost to toil: they express the attitude which built this land into what it is today. Those songs are the cultural remnants of the hope, thankfulness, and the respect accorded virtue that exemplified the values of the culture that created the cultural and physical capital we have been spending all these years. They represent the attitudes which will rebuild it whenever we decide to apply ourselves to that task.

It will not be enough to individually convert to an attitude of thankfulness but we must also adopt a culture of thankfulness; a culture that will be revealed in our songs, our entertainment, our art, our hobbies and pass times as well as our work. We will not return to the old songs but we will have to write songs like those. We can not recreate the past but we must learn from it. A culture and attitude of thankfulness will spread if we find ways to spread it with confidence and reject not only the attitude of poor but the cultural vectors which propagate it.

The attitude of poor is a cancer. Most of the other issues which plague us, from foreign entanglements and wars to the financial state at home, are merely symptoms. It is the cancer that will kill us. It is the cancer which must be brought into remission if we are to find healing. There is no quick fix ( the quick fix is just another delusion rooted in the attitude of poor) but a lot of work but honest work which will lead us to health. Work that begins in our families, our churches, our synagogues, our communities, our neighbourhoods and among friends; from there it can spread. The longer we wait, the longer and more costly the road to health will be.

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” J.R.R. Tolkien

Sevareid's Law: "The leading cause of problems is solutions."
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Re: The culture of Poor

Permanent Linkby bing on Mon Feb 15, 2010 8:50 am

very well written, WC. I work with a guy that is the epitome of "poor"; his paycheck is dunned for the back child support he never paid, the college loan he never paid, the useless electronic crap that he bought from the company and had auto-deducted from his pay. Then what cash he can get he puts in the lottery machine. He also started smoking again and has to buy cigarettes. (and of course complains constantly about how broke he is, blames the government for giving away his money to the undeserving....)

I came from a wealthy family, my mom was a doctor of radiology in the fifties and my dad was instrumental in computer development. She shot herself when I was six, my dad drank himself to death shortly there after. An alcoholic aunt adopted us children (3) for the trust fund; she blew through that in a few years. All three of us ended up living on the street by the time we were 17, I "straightened" up my life when I was 27.

Bing (my wife) grew up in poverty in Mindanao with nine brothers and sisters. They all managed to work their way through college, she's seen the dark side for sure.

We have a wonderful life and consider ourselves blessed, and are horrified by what people take for granted. Jay
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Re: The culture of Poor

Permanent Linkby FoolYap on Mon Feb 15, 2010 9:47 am

Very well-written indeed!

I think one key aspect of not falling into the "culture of poor" is having hope. Hope that you can save enough to buy that patch of ground, hope that your hard work on a job means that you can advance, etc. No hope means despair, and despair means paralysis. People who are surrounded by poor-thinking must find it very, very difficult to assemble the mental tools to ignore poor-thinking, and find a better way.

Another key aspect is having a good example of what can be done. I'm fortunate in that I also had a good example through my parents. We had very little money when I was a kid, and a very old & drafty house, but I never thought of us as "poor". My parents worked hard, saved what they could, and clearly had hope that their hard work would mean a better job (my dad was putting himself through night school while welding by day), a house that needed less maintenance to keep it from falling down, etc. Once again, your family is your most immediate and earliest exposure to or avoidance of poor-thinking, so those who have a good family example have an educational leg up on those who don't

If I hadn't had that example, or if my parents had been broken by despair (by, say, a Depression, or by mental illness), I don't know who I would be today, but one of the pillars I rest on would at least be weaker, if there at all.

For me, the most poisonous aspect of our modern American culture is how corporate earnings and profits promote the need to acquire stuff, all stuff, any stuff. Being thankful for what one has, doesn't sell what one doesn't have, and Madison Avenue is very very clever at pushing culture-of-poor thinking: What you "need" to have to "be successful" or "happy" or "sexy". I've tried to point this out to my children, and to promote a vast distrust of this commercial push to acquire, to varying degrees of success.

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Re: The culture of Poor

Permanent Linkby SpringCreek on Mon Feb 15, 2010 4:33 pm

Great statement. I have a similar story as the rest of you having been raised by a single dad and having a disabled mom. I think that may be where the core of the self-sufficiency ideals that we share, comes from. We are a product of our own hard times. I see a great shift in attitudes of young folks compared to when I was a kid a generation ago. I like to say that we are living in the age of entitlement. The unborn faces of this planet are in big trouble.
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