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Having No Money Does Not Mean You’re Poor

There's a proverb about sailing on the notoriously shallow Chesapeake Bay, "If you haven't run aground at least once, either you're not sailing or you're lying." And so in every life, if you have never found yourself wondering where you're going to get the money to meet your financial obligations, either you're not responsible for yourself or you're lying. However, even if you only had a nickel in your pocket, we wouldn't necessarily say you were poor.

There's a difference between simply being 'broke' and being 'poor.' Almost every one of us has been broke at some point in our lives. Sometimes it was an intentional choice, like subsisting on a part time job while going to school. Sometimes it's just bad luck or the consequence of bad choices. Life sometimes has its downs and we adjust; that's broke. But, when we give up trying to better ourselves, that's poor. And lack of money isn't the defining factor of poverty.

The difference between broke and poor is not a new concept. We've known for ages that if someone doesn't work toward something themselves they don't value it. The "greatest generation," who lived through the Depression and went on to win the second World War tried to give their kids everything they had to work hard for themselves. But they couldn't 'give' them the values and stamina that made their success possible. That was the difference between the war against Hitler and the "War on Poverty."

Just look at the housing projects to see what happens to something given to someone who has the poverty mindset. We've seen the same cycle with many lottery winners or rock stars; suddenly they're rich but, within a short time they're bankrupt. Remember that old adage, you can take the boy out of the country but you can't take the country out of the boy. The same holds true for the poverty mindset. We can't just throw money at poor people or the poor countries of the world, or even a poor cousin and expect them to suddenly have the motivation to make something of themselves.

Dr. Ruby Payne has written a great book for educators, "A Framework for Understanding Poverty." In it she lists eight resources a person must draw on to abolish poverty or the 'poor' attitude. Money is only one of them; the others are emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, support systems, relationship/role models. The eighth, and most interesting, factor is Knowledge of Hidden Rules. She explains that in each class there are unspoken rules of conduct and behavior. To escape the poverty mindset, new rules must be adopted.

So what are the implications for our national welfare system and the global welfare system? That just giving money away doesn't eliminate poverty; that we're actually creating more poverty by down-playing or distorting the other seven resources a person needs to become self-sufficient.

Of course we can't 'give' anyone emotional stability or mental clarity. All we can do is expect it, and reward it. Failure will provide its own corrective stimulus — if we don't intervene with a misguided 'compassion' that attempts to 'protects' people from learning the error of their ways. As a society, we must demand that people accept the consequences of their own actions. We can expect that people must learn the difference between right and wrong. We can't take all the evil influences and bad people out of the world, but we can expect that people learn to recognize them for what they are and reject them, for their own benefit.

We all have a role to play to by our expectations, as expressed in law. The so-called compassion that makes pets out of welfare recipients has to be reexamined. If we are to survive as a society, we must expect the best from people. Money alone won't solve the poverty problem.

Published: February 27, 2010

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