The Poor and the Rest of us

I recently read “The rich and the rest of us” by Tavis and Smiley, which was recommended to me by a friend. I have just finished reading it, and while I agree with their findings, I heartily disagree with their conclusions.

Let me explain: The book begins by tracking poverty over time, since records of such things were kept, in the last century. It looks at the rates of poverty, particularly in regards to the political winds of the time.

It goes on to point out that there is more than one type of “poor”. They make the valid distinction between “the homeless poor”, “the old poor” (the classical view of the lazy, work-shy git who does not want to work, and wants to be kept by the state), and “the new poor”, those who have lost jobs, mostly in manufacturing and production. To quote Steve Jobs: “Those jobs have gone overseas, and are not coming back”.

One thread that I see interwoven throughout the book is that for most of us, our lifestyles are not “sustainable”, they are dependent on our continuing to earn a salary without interruption. Most of us do not save enough; financial pundits advise a three- to six-month emergency fund to live on in the event of unemployment or illness. Yes most of us have less than one month’s savings – we are, in effect, one pink slip from a long slow slide into poverty.

There is a Chinese Proverb: “Lazy people have no spare time”, and I have found this to be true. I have personally observed many families who are “gadget-rich/cash-poor” (Big-screen TV, Kitchen full of appliances, all the latest toys, videogames and diversions… but no money). Some are members of my extended family.

Every Christmas, I see good folks running around like idiots after the latest must-have gadget for their children, whether they can afford them or not; they are unable to tell their children “No” — but this is hardly surprising; they are often unable to tell themselves “No”, either. They are ruled by impulse, and easily manipulated by shrewd marketers.

  • They have time to watch TV but not time to look for a job.
  • They watch the news, and believe everything that they see, and as a result are horribly depressed. Not surprisingly, they adopt a “victim” mentality, and expect the Government to fix their problems.

I find it very hard to have sympathy for people who are stupid with their money and stupider with their time.

I remember a story from a few years back when a man lost his job. He went home and shot his wife, his children and himself. He and his wife worked in the same place, and both lost their jobs around the same time. They had no savings; they has a house full of stuff, and no money. And yet that root cause was casually disregarded by a media obsessed with the gory details.

Most of us – myself included – have forgotten the meaning of frugality. The last generation that had to learn that the hard way is almost gone. Today’s grandparents grew up on easy credit and “live-today-pay-later”.

The authors express their disgust at the number of poor living from hand to mouth, and they say “something must be done”. I agree. Where we part company, however, is that they place their faith in the Government – particularly the Federal Government – as the source of all planned political solutions. I have looked through the Constitution, and I cannot find anywhere that empowers the Feds to take responsibility poverty – or drugs, or health, or food, for that matter. Helping the poor is a noble goal, but it is my contention that Governments are incapable of nobility —  it is simply not their job.

So whose job is it?

  • The States? Possibly.
  • The Counties and Cities? Maybe.
  • The towns and villages? You’re getting warmer…
  • The communities and churches? Getting warmer still.
  • You and me? YES.

When we look out for our neighbors, we enrich the community. When we buy American instead of Chinese, we keep jobs in the USA, instead of sending them away to the other side of the world. And yes, it costs more than buying foreign; nothing worth doing is ever easy.

The authors spend much wordage expressing their slack-jawed admiration of the Occupy Wall Street mob, who seem obsessed with the fact that the richest 1% of the population own 90% of the wealth, while conveniently ignoring the fact that this has been the norm through history and the world.

1% equates to three million people. But somehow the protest slogan “three million people control 90% of the wealth!” does not sound quite so impressive. Historically speaking, 1% is actually quite egalitarian.

  • Medieval England, with a population of about 4 million, was controlled by the king and a handful of Earls.
  • The Roman Empire, which at its peak stretched from Northern England to what is Eastern Turkey, was ruled by thirty families who founded Rome, collectively known as the Patricians.
  • As a general rule, nations and empires throughout history have been ruled by roughly 1% of 1% of 1%. Compared to those examples, the modern “1%” is the essence of equity, particularly when you consider that while the wealthy 1% may own most of the stuff, they do not own the populace as was often the case in olden times.
  • A wise man once said that “The haves and the have-nots can often be traced back to the dids and the did-nots.” (D. O. Flynn).

The Federal Government has a rather silly habit of declaring war on things that cannot surrender. We have a war on drugs that has been going on for thirty years, a war on poverty that has been going on for even longer. Neither has worked. You would have thought that after spectacularly losing the “War on Alcohol” eighty years ago, we would have avoided all attempts at social engineering, but the precise opposite has happened.

“Quitters never win and winners never quit… but those who never win and never quit are called idiots.”

The best thing that we can do for the future is to teach our children how not to be poor. Every parent wants their child to have a better lifestyle than they did; we all want our kids not to struggle. And so we try to steer them into safe jobs that pay well; jobs that do not involve sweat of brow or physical labor. But the safest jobs are rarely the most comfortable ones; I know several people who “graduated” from Computer programming to management or marketing, and went on to become unemployed when their employers had a bad quarter. I also know some folks who work in less glamorous jobs, such as plumbing, electrics, construction and HVAC, who have more work than they know what to do with. When our chimney needed to be rebuilt, we waited for several months for “our guy” to become available. This is also why some construction guys are never on time; they are always doing side-jobs.

Perhaps we are giving our kids the wrong advice. Rather than telling them to do what they love (which, for a teenager is usually “watching TV/playing games/chasing girls/chasing boys/hanging out”), perhaps we should advise them to figure out what they enjoy doing that can be used to serve others well. For some that will be healing or building, or helping.

Above all, we should advise them to avoid the mistakes that lead to poverty. Dropping out of school, getting pregnant, getting a criminal record… there are so many ways to make yourself unemployable or impoverished for life.

Where I disagree with the authors is where the solution lies; like classical socialists, they believe that the problem can be solved by central government, using the time-honored tool of redistribution of wealth.

I don’t know about you, but I have not had a problem that Washington D.C. has solved.

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