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.