To the Editor:
The increasing state of poverty in our country and community dominates public conversations. While residing in Grant County for 18 years, I have witnessed decline of economic as well as social conditions. It is reflected in the shrinking number of residents, businesses, community and social services, closing of schools, flourishing secondhand stores, and other statistics.
The common definition of poverty is limited to numbers reflecting income in earned dollars, while people's quality of life is not always directly related to their income.
It is reflected in person's degree of physical safety (safe environment, including adequate housing), having sense of belonging (being included by groups formed by mutual interests), feeling cared for and having opportunity to care for others, having freedom and opportunity to grow as a person, as an individual who develops their potential skills and talents in order to contribute to the larger community. There would be no community without individuals; no individual person can survive without being a part of their community.
Recently I attended statewide workshop on working with people who were commonly labeled as "poor." While listening I felt baffled by this catchall term. My observation, through the history, cultures, countries, communities, families and individual people has always been that the financial resources are only tools toward various purpose, and do not in itself create predictable outcome. It is, as with all tools, an issue of values and skills. The best tool is worthless if one does not know how to use it. So it is with money - having it does not alone solve all problems.
In the workshop the presenter answered my question. "Poverty" has many elements. There is an economic poverty: not enough money to buy needed services or items. There is social poverty, when an individual or family is not included, does not feel included and does not know how to join a larger community. There is an educational poverty when an individual, while having financial resources, does not know how to use them, an individual who is not informed about possibilities and resources, and skillful enough to ask questions and to know where to look for answers. Educational poverty is a result of a lack of training in reasoning, lack of training in being able to step outside of a limited picture of "how it really is." Educational poverty is a result of educational system, which puts more emphasis on memorizing arbitrarily chosen "facts" and less on developing thinking skills and making choices.
And there is a spiritual poverty. It is a poverty of a person who does not feel being a part of something bigger than themselves, who does not feel unconditionally valued as a human being, a person who does not feel safe while knowing there is "something bigger and wiser,' an ultimate source of wisdom and guidance and care.
The workshop validated my experience of knowing there is more to what we commonly call "poverty" and limiting our thinking to numbers of dollars earned. There have always been people who lived with very limited incomes, but never felt poor. They might have lacked certain things (choosing between what I want and what I need is another issue), but knew how to maintain relatively safe and healthy and happy life.
They were educated in establishing priorities in the distribution of their financial resources and planned their budget accordingly. They were educated in skills of daily living and critical thinking. They were able to place their life in a bigger picture in terms of beliefs, values, history, culture, human development, including use of mathematics and logic.
In conclusion, financial economics are crucial in terms of acquisition of some of necessary tools for living, but it is one of many means toward eradicating poverty. Even the best tool is worthless without skills in its use. It is the education, learning how to think, plan, learning what to value, and how to choose, learning to ask questions and where to look for answers that provides a way toward flourishing of life and happiness we all search for. This search is the individual's responsibility, while community's responsibility is to provide opportunity, encouragement, support and resources toward learning and growth. The responsibility is mutual.