Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Some Thoughts on Poverty Reduction

Other than absolute destitution, poverty is in my opinion really a state of mind.  How is that for a statement that should get me flamed and hated?

Once one gets beyond not having enough money for food and shelter, poverty becomes much more how someone views themselves within the world.   I know of people that earn over $100,000 a year and consider themselves poor and others who earn almost nothing but do not consider themselves in poverty.  Admittedly both are extremes, but both show that it is not income that decides if a person is poor or not.

When I look around and see people who are in poverty, I see people that feel hopeless and abused by the system.  People that have taken on board the idea of being a victim and the idea that they are not 'worth' what other people are.  As there are more and more things we are 'supposed to own', the easier it becomes for people that do not have the list of chattel goods of the 'norm' to feel they are poor, that they are not making it in society.

One way I see this manifest itself is in how people look at what they can not afford to buy and feel less because of this.   They are not asking the important question if it is something they really want or need.  As an example a new flat screen is a luxury, there are no shortage of free TVs out there.

It is this rise in the expectation of what we should have that is creating the sense of being poor.   In the 1970s my family was a middle class family of four - my sister had moved out when I was seven and my brother three.   We owned one car and one TV.   Long distance phone calls were a luxury.  I had to earn half the money to buy my bike and ski gear, skiing itself was all my responsibility. Based on what we had then, by the standards of today we would be poor, but because we were like everyone else we did not feel poor.  Actually we were well off because we had a dishwasher and a dryer.

A typical household of four how has one car per adult, one landline phone for the house and a mobile phone for each adult, one TV per person in the house with one being a huge flat screen, at least one gaming system, likely two or three computers, and twice the amount of clothes as in the past.   Most people have cable and some sort of PVR.   The expectation that once a youth is a teenager they will work to buy the things they want is no longer nearly as prevalent as it was 30 years ago.

It is still possible to live the same middle class standard of living from the 1970s but now that standard of living is considered poor.  

I having worked in First Nations communities for many years now and I see the people that believe they are poor.   Certainly many of them do not have a high standard of living, but they have the enough to live a decent standard of living.   What I also see is that the belief of being poor grinds them down and they lose hope.   As they lose hope, they fall into behaviours that reinforce poverty.  I  have seen very smart promising youth assume because they come from a poor family there is no possibility of things being better.   They assume that their fate is set and lose hope before they reach the end of high school.  

Many entrepreneurs start businesses and fail and try again and fail again.   They go through periods where they are destitute, but there is something in the worldview of many entrepreneurs that is filled with hope.  It is this sense of hope and expectation that eventually things will work out that keeps them from feeling poor.    I know one property developer that 25 years ago had no idea how he would feed his family, now he has more wealth than he knows what to do with.  

I know single mothers that have hope for the future and do everything they can to improve the lot for themselves and their childern.  Women that go out and work 40 hours a week and then go to university fulltime as well.   They have no spare money, but they have a goal and hope.   I also know single mothers that only see the poverty their situation has left them in and how they can not afford to buy their kids new trendy jeans or the latest gaming system.   They sound trapped by their situation.

How does one reduce poverty?   It has to be something more than government hand outs, it has to be about giving people hope and a sense that they are capable of succeeding at what they do.   The system has to be one that gives them dignity and does not make them feel like a victim.   Seeing a government worker for financial help is fast route to feeling small and irrelevant.

Even if somehow we can change the way government interacts with people needing help, we have a bigger societal problem.   All around us there are image of what we should have, what toys are the indications of success, and that poverty is a personal failure.  Being poor has more stigma attached to it in our society than being homosexual.   I have no easy ideas on how to change that.

As long as we treat poverty like a faceless problem that needs more money we are never going to succeed.   We need to humanize poverty and we need to give people the ability to have dignity and be proud of who they are.
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