Monday, January 13, 2014

The War on Poverty

It was 50 years ago that Lyndon Johnson announced his “War on Poverty.” John Kennedy had visited Appalachia and was appalled at what he saw, but Johnson knew poverty first hand and decided that would be the big issue of his presidency.

The debate is still going on whether the war was won or lost. To me, it is still going on. To Johnson the problem was simple, too many people didn’t have enough money and the government could help. His programs such as food stamps and Medicaid have gone a long way to keep people from starving to death. Newer programs such as school lunches and Earned Income Credit certainly help as well.

We now know that just giving people money doesn’t solve the problem. It is obvious to me that there is a “culture of poverty” that is extremely complicated and deep rooted. Some even deny that it exists and attribute poverty to racism or lack of education. Racism is a separate issue and may be an contributing factor in some situations, but the problem is deeper than that.

Education is closer, but part of the culture of poverty is a lack of interest or even disdain for education.

I have been involved with homeless shelters for several years and have some familiarity with businesses that cater to the poor. Businesses such as payday loans, buy-here-pay-here car dealers, rent-to-own stores, and to a lesser extent pawn shops, not only exploit the poor, but contribute to that culture. My direct experience is working in a pawn shop. Pawn shops are on a slightly higher plain than the others in this category, but we dealt with some of the same people, so I had first-hand experience.

We cannot expect the governments or Congress to deal effectively with this issue because they have problems understanding issues far simpler than poverty.

It is really everybody’s concern, especially churches and the Christian community who are particularly commissioned by Jesus to help the poor. Organizations such as The Salvation Army and the various Rescue Missions understand this and are generally overwhelmed. They need our help.

I see the most basic problem of poverty as lack of trust in the education system or in any big organization such as a bank. For example, many believe that it is better to cash your paycheck at a check cashing service than it is to open a bank account. An amazing number of people see no value in going to school and openly criticize those that try to learn or do well in class.

Surveys have shown huge differences in the way the poorest people and the wealthier people approach basic things like diet, exercise, health care, learning, and even transportation. Poor people regularly spend the most with the least benefit, not because of lack of availability, but because of their understanding of how things work.

A basic concept of the poverty culture is instant gratification. In fact, helping people get past this issue may be the key to helping them out of poverty. Starting a business or investing in the future is a totally foreign concept to a large portion of the population.

Jesus said that the poor will be with us always. He did not mean that we couldn’t do anything about it, but rather that this was going to be an ongoing problem for millennia and that we had our work cut out for us.

Monday, January 06, 2014

The Value of a College Education.

There has been a lot of talk in the media about the value or non-value of a college education. With the skyrocketing costs of college and the less than stellar outlooks for some recent graduates, this is a good time to take a closer look.
On a strictly dollars and “sense” level, it may be a wash. If you come out of college with tons of debt and a job that you could have gotten right out of high school, you have to seriously look at how you spent your time. But this misses the whole point of going to college. 

The value of a college education is not just “book-learning,” after all you could do better spending eight hours a day for four years reading in the public library for free. The value is in the relationships and experiences that come from the rarified atmosphere of a college campus that you can’t get anywhere else.

The years I spent at Kansas State University and later at Mid-America Nazarene University were life changing in all kinds of ways. Only a few were things I learned in a classroom. Sure I picked up some good economic theories and learned a lot of calculus that I’ve never used; but the bulk of my education came over a cup of coffee, hanging out with people from all over the world and all walks of life, exchanging ideas about music, art, architecture, and literature. 

I just finished reading J Paul Getty’s memoir. He attended Oxford in the early part of the 29th century. He admits that the best part was that classes were only six weeks at a time, four times a year, which gave him plenty of time to travel and get to know people. His travels to Italy, Greece, and France help make him one of the world’s foremost authorities on Renaissance art. His degree from Oxford in Economics may or may not have been helpful in the Oklahoma oil fields where he made his fortune.

I recently talked to a bank president. The bank is family owned. The current generation of owners were his friends in college. When they needed a president, because they already knew him, they gave him a call. Do the relationships we have in college matter? They certainly can.

This all brings into question the value of online or other alternative forms of higher education. I take all kinds of online courses to stay up to date in business, but this is not the same as being on a college campus and being submerged with like-minded people 24 hours a day. An online degree misses the whole point and probably dilutes the whole idea having a college degree.

Forget all the gibberish about whether or not a college degree will make you more money. It may or may not, that is up to you, not the degree, but it will definitely make you a different, and usually better, person.