Since the talking heads on television discovered poverty while covering Gulf Coast hurricanes, I've heard several commentaries on the subject. All of them shared one thing: The poor were left out of the conversation.
According to commentaries, it's the non-poor's fault the poor are poor. We have "abandoned," "neglected," "turned our backs on" them, etc., and so forth. Hey, didn't the poor have anything at all to do with the fact that they are poor?
Of course they did. Granted, there is such a thing as darned bad luck. Accidents, illnesses, layoffs — lots of things we can't control can upset the financial apple cart. A majority of poor people, however, are poor because they did it to themselves.
They failed to educate themselves. No matter how lousy government schools are, you can learn in them if you want to. One study of Asian children found that they excelled whether they attended a good school or a slum school. The difference was, their parents motivated them to learn.
Besides, there is hardly a city or town in America that doesn't have a public library, and there's a Ph.D.'s worth of knowledge sitting on those shelves, free for the taking. Harrison Ford, the actor, went to a library and taught himself to be a master carpenter before he became a successful actor. The public libraries are probably one of the most valuable and least used resources in America that are available to everyone.
Some people are poor because they develop drug or alcohol addictions. Chemical addictions are not racial in the least. I know of a former lawyer and judge, white as bleached flour, who wrecked his career, his family and his life because of an addiction to crack cocaine. A chemical addiction can drive anybody down if it is not faced and stopped.
Some people are poor because they never developed good work habits or even good grooming. Nobody is going to hire some kid with his pants down around his buttocks, who talks jive instead of English, and who is two days from his last brush with soap and water. Nobody is going to keep or promote someone who is chronically late to work, watches the clock and is the first out the door.
My dad would always cap his advice on work habits and grooming with the warning "The world doesn't owe you a living." What he meant was that when you go into the marketplace, you'd better be prepared to compete and to offer a potential employer more than a plea for pity.
Some people are poor because they never learn to handle money. Government schools and a lot of parents fail their children in this regard. It's one of the most important things a child can learn, because the formula for success is real simple: You must spend less than you earn; you must save and then invest. That's all there is to it. There are thousands of how-to books written on the subject, but the good ones all boil down to those three rules. Spend less that you earn. Save it. Invest it.
This is still a country where anybody of average intelligence can achieve some level of success if he is willing to work hard. I personally know many immigrants who came here without a dime, some not even speaking English, but who through hard work have made themselves wealthy with no assistance from the government or anybody else.
Finally, as sad as it is to say it, some people are poor because they are stupid and/or lazy. These you can't help. They will either squander or let somebody gyp them out of whatever you give them. Lots of families have one or more of these kinds of people, and in better days, they were just taken care of by their families.
But don't buy this con game of laying poverty on the non-poor. It's bull uttered by people with an ideological interest in big government.
October 8, 2005
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.
© 2005 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.