Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On Poverty

Several weeks ago I read a comment responding to an article about the “plight of the poor” in the US. The respondent was a paramedic who regularly made calls in public housing areas. He said that he was discouraged by parents who had big screen TV’s, expensive clothes, and other costly items sitting around, but couldn’t seem to come up with money (or be bothered) to buy Motrin for a feverish child or get them to a doctor. He took issue with their choices and priorities. I see his point.

I got me thinking about poverty and money management. There is a difference between being poor by statistical measures, and living poorly.

Admittedly, we all come up short from time to time. Emergencies can catch us off guard. The car loves to break down when the bank balance is lowest. There is a line between having enough to meet your needs and falling short of sufficient income. There are some costs that cannot be further reduced beyond a certain point. There is also a point where it becomes possible to get by. Whether or not you can do it is up to you.

In some cases, a very low income will undoubtedly mean an impoverished life. But in other cases, is it lack of income, or poor money management, that causes poverty? How is it that some couples who collectively make about $100k per year have so much trouble paying their bills that their lights and water are regularly turned off, while others making less than a quarter of that keep the bills paid?

A lot of people live in “technical” poverty. Their incomes are low enough to qualify for public assistance, but they don’t seek any. Yet they live fairly well. They certainly aren’t miserable. It isn’t a fancy life. It means doing without sometimes, making things yourself, cooperative efforts, finding things at thrift shops, and not having the newest and latest electronics. Some people call it “living within your means”. It often means redefining what it means to live well. It means shutting out the noise that tells us we need more and more, that we deserve newer, bigger, better.

What it comes down to is being really, really careful how you spend what money you have.

You can be impoverished because you just don’t have enough money. You can also be impoverished because you don’t manage what you have. Know the difference.

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