Bring on the "Poverty"

Update: Distinguished author Tito Perdue adds his thoughts on the potential benefits of a recession and notes an unintended (positive) side effect I hadn't even considered: fewer illegal immigrants.

In his response to today's earlier post “Recession: Just What the Doctor Ordered?" Stacy McCain infers that I have a youthful idealism that is causing me to “romanticize poverty.” Maybe. I would counter that he has a middle-aged skepticism that has caused him to demonize it.

Having thrown the P-word into the ring, let’s consider it for a moment. What does it mean – really? You might be surprised. A quick Google search revealed that it has taken on a meaning quite different from what it once had, a reality which may help shed some light on Mr. McCain’s assertion of my naiveté.

According to 1828 Webster, poverty is:

1. Destitution of property; indigence; want of convenient means of subsistence.

According to 2009 Webster, poverty is:

1. The state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.

The discrepancy between the two definitions is telling. The type of “poverty” that I am suggesting would be good for America is the second. I am not wishing for mass calamity but for, as Tito Perdue put it, an end to the "sumptuousnes that dissolves self-discipline."

Mr. McCain seems to be referencing the first. (That he may be old enough to remember the original definition could be the source of the confusion.) He writes:

“It is one thing — and arguably a good thing — for young people to struggle with economic hardship as they try to establish their independence. It is something entirely different, and a very bad thing, to confront a poverty that is permanent, lifelong, inescapable, hopeless.”

I quite agree.

The point isn’t that suddenly he with the lowest bank account balance “wins.” The point is that an economic downturn severe enough to lend us some perspective might be more than a necessary evil. It might be an unexpected blessing. It might return us to a definition of poverty, rightly-understood, where having to choose between dinner out at McDonalds versus a dinner at Applebee’s is a choice we are grateful even to have and by no means qualifies us to claim “lack.” Or, in Mr. McCain’s case, to decide whether to “(a) make the car payment, (b) pay the phone bill, or (b) try to keep the electricity on for another month,” produces more gratitude than aggravation precisely because there is a car, phone, and electricity to be paid at all.

To be sure, I realize that when grouping anything into a collective whole, there will always be exceptions. I have already heard from some of you who are convinced that you are living in need. Maybe so. Maybe not. More than likely, you are referencing the state of poverty in definition 2, rather than that of definition 1. If this is the case, I congratulate you for the opportunity to grow in virtue.

If you think I'm advocating a return to the bare minimum without some vested interest, think again.

My own opportunity to live in a state of general discomfort is not so far away. In fact, the prospect is what prompted me to write on the subject at all. As my regular readers know, I will be soon be moving to the ghetto of Atlanta to work with the inner city kids on a full-time, volunteer basis. For the first time in my life, I'm going to have a chance to learn not in theory but in practice what it means to live with the basic necessities rather than niceties. In the midst of hyperconsumerist, materalistic America (even in a "recession"), I acknowledge this is a rare opportunity.

Right now, as I type, I'm sitting on a feather-down comforter with my pedigreed dog in a 1,000 square-foot apartment in a gated community. When I move to Atlanta, I'll be writing blogs from a dorm room I'll share with who knows how many others. Just outside my door, instead of manicured lawns and bright-faced children riding their scooters, there will be dirty streets and real poverty - the 1828 kind. Instead of spending time with my white, middle-class church friends everyday, I'll be interacting with the homeless, drug addicts, and others whose lives are on a downward spiral of hopelessness.

Call me a masochist with a penchant for self-flagellation, but I can hardly wait.

I may be alone in this, but it seems to me that up to a point, creature comforts are welcomed, but too much of a good thing can be just that. Once you've had your hand in the cookie jar for so long, the thought of one more starts to make your stomach turn rather than your mouth water.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. There are many who forgotten that what we refer to as poverty most others would define as provision. The reality is that most American's whine about not having a nice car or a bigger house while most other people have no car and live in conditions we would consider derelict and condemnable (dirt floors as opposed to linoleum and open windows or fires as opposed to heating and air conditioning). For anyone who has spent time outside of the states in someplace other than a resort or tourist area it becomes more apparent that most Americans lead a very sheltered and well insulated life. The recent downturn in the economy has the potential to provide a much needed glimpse at reality that many have completely lost touch with.