poverty is and isn't

I was convinced for the longest time that I grew up in poverty, because according to western standards, I sure did. But have you notice...

I was convinced for the longest time that I grew up in poverty, because according to western standards, I sure did. But have you noticed that western standards are sometimes a little warped? A little out of touch with the global reality? How can you tell? Because a couple billion of the world's people would kill to be poor in Canada, or any other western society. Poverty has become a relative term which tries to encompass some pretty disparate extremes. And like all hyper-exaggerated terms we westerners have watered down and corrupted, it does a great disservice to those who are actually in need. Are you poor if you live off of ground beef and macaroni and share bedrooms and wear hand-me-downs? Or are you poor if you sleep in a hut made of garbage, go barefoot and beg spare change from vacationing Americans? 

How do you fight poverty if you can't reconcile these extremely different ideas? Well, you can't. You can't properly engage any societal ill unless you're willing to be honest.

If someone can afford a smartphone and a cigarette habit but can't afford car insurance, they are not poor. They are spending their money on wants, not needs. By choice. And that is not actual poverty. 

Poverty is a human rights issue...absolutely. And if we look at it as a human rights issue, we can clearly see that poverty does not depend on money and possessions, a relative scale of measurement, but on choice and opportunity. The world's poor - those who are truly poor - have no means to change their circumstances. That's what makes them poor! They can't get an education. They can't get employment. They can't move to a better place. They can't do a damned thing. Poverty, in reality, is the lack of individual power over individual lives. It's not just about money.

An American professor of Entrepreneurship once tweeted: "What causes poverty? Nothing. It's the original state, the default and starting point. The real question is, what causes prosperity?" This, I think is the key attitude and the one that best upholds liberty and human rights. 

If you have the option of going back to school, of applying for better work or taking on more work, of sacrificing nonessentials, of moving to a new place, of accessing government assisted training, poverty is nothing more than a temporary condition based on your will. The opportunities are there whether you take them or not. Even those who live in inner city ghettos or the Appalation mountains, at the very least, can pack up a water bottle and a blanket and start walking. It's not all unicorns and rainbows, but they do have a certain amount of power. Any person living in a western society can go somewhere else, learn new skills, and create an entirely new life. I know because I watched my parents do just that. 

Do you want to know why I grew up poor? Because my mom and dad dropped out of highschool and got pregnant as teenagers. That's the no-nonsense truth. It took them a long time, but they got their GED's, better jobs, paid their debt, and built a beautiful home. It was liberty that allowed them to defeat circumstances. Truly poor people do not have that liberty.

And as unpopular as this truth may be, poverty is sometimes a choice. People may choose to remain in a place they have emotional ties even though opportunity is not as abundant. People choose to marry and start a family; a rather expensive endeavour I've been told. Many people prefer non-mainstream or risky careers and are willing to take a smaller salary to follow their dreams or be their own boss. People will give up everything for drugs and other vices. They make bad business decisions that lead to failure. And yes, people can also be plain lazy and dishonest. Where there is liberty and opportunity, there will be a broad economic spectrum because there is a great diversity of choice. And there will be a constant shifting as rich people fail and poor people raise themselves up. You just don't see this in nations where real poverty is rampant. 

Gaining a better understanding of what poverty is and how it can be fought with liberty and opportunity is like having a pair of x-ray glasses. Suddenly, we can see through the phony welfare schemes that promise to end poverty by stifling opportunity and rewarding the refusal of the individual to act or to choose on his own behalf. We can determine what welfare is reasonable and affordable, and what welfare is simply redistribution in disguise. Because some assistance programs are effective and encouraging and we want those programs. Others are useless and enabling and yet we still have to pay for them. 

I recently read an article about a small Manitoba town that "eradicated" poverty for two years in the seventies. But what really happened is that the NDP government simply started handing out cheques. And when the NDP were voted out in the next election, the new government discovered that the money had run out. They stopped the cheques and the town's poor had to continue as before. No new opportunity was created. No new industry. No new jobs. No tax decreases. Poverty was not eradicated, it was simply deferred, and at great cost.

And that is the problem with welfare: someone has to pay for it. The government owns no money - it only moves money - from your bank account to somewhere else.

Striking a balance between helping those in need and yet not stripping the nation's earners of their property and rights is the great struggle of capitalism. Because if we cripple opportunity through redistribution, taxation and regulation, we only create more poverty through a lack of liberty. We don't want a system of allotment, where the powerful decide what we deserve. Because tyranny is at heart, a kind of poverty. And throughout all the history of the world, it has never created prosperity for anyone but the tyrants.

Talking Points:

True poverty is not a lack of money and possessions, but a lack of opportunity.
In the west, poverty is a temporary condition that can be changed.
Handouts do not eradicate poverty, they only defer it.
All programs in place to help the poor must be paid for.
The government owns no money, it moves our money.

Questions to Ask:

What are the circumstances or causes of an individual's perceived poverty?
What can be done to change those circumstances?
What opportunities are available to the poor in my area?
What can I do as a citizen to help create opportunity for betterment in my area?
Are there places where tax dollars could be better spent to create opportunity rather than dependence?

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