Is Poverty a State of Mind?


The other day, Secretary of Housing, Dr. Ben Carson said that poverty is a basically state of mind.  I basically agree with him.  Where I disagree is in the fact that there are people who are thrust into poverty who, because of strength of mind, will pick up and make a go of life.  Unfortunately, life rarely works that way.  I know.  I’ve been there, and am doing that.

Poverty is a world-view.  Being stuck in a situation and thrust into poverty is situational.  They are two different creatures.  I know people who were born into extreme poverty and worked their way out of it.  I swear mind-set, mental attitude is part of it.

Person A grew up in extreme poverty.  As a child, all she wanted was a new dress, new pair of shoes, and a new doll.  Instead, she would be forced to be polite and thank church women as they would, at Christmas, their daughters, in their new clothes, to give their used things to A.  They treated her like dirt.  She swore she was going to get out of poverty and make them pay.  She became a very successful realtor.  She traded cars every six months.  She had a perfect home.  She had a wardrobe that cost a fortune.  No matter how wealthy she became, she was still that little girl who lived in the sticks.  Locally, she was never allowed to rise – socially, beyond her beginnings, no matter how much she earned.  Her revenge was the fact that she could buy and sell those who treated her like dirt, many times over.  Unfortunately, she was never able to enjoy her victory.  She died of breast cancer at the age of forty-five.

Family B were what we in South Carolina would still call poor white trash. Bobby could barely read.  Nora made good money in the textile mills.  They had four children.  When Bobby was told that his youngest son was autistic, he told the teacher to get the kid some damn crayons and teach him how to draw.  (True story).  Nora loved the Lord.  So did Bobby.  They were both cursed with the diseases of poverty.  Their poverty was mental.  Their combined income was a good $2000/month.  They owned their own house, they paid their bills on time.  They had health insurance.  The oldest son joined the Marines and never looked back.  The oldest daughter married a guy who earned his Ph.D. and became an instructor at Clemson.  She eventually earned a degree in elementary education.  The youngest daughter ended up a druggie.  The ‘autistic’ kid ended up doing life.  Both Bobby and Nora died young.  The oldest daughter took in the children of her druggie sister and raised them.  She and her husband did quite well in life.

Person C was a bum.  His wife left him taking their two daughters, which he adored.  He needed a home for them, so he bought a place, on time.  He needed a job.  He borrowed a lawn mower.  He quit drinking, took his daughters away from their mother and raised them.  He made himself independently wealthy mowing grass, first buying a mower, then a second, hiring his daughters.  He hired their boyfriends, bought additional mowers, and had a good life.  Like so many people raised the way he did, life caught up with him.  He was dead of cancer by the time he was fifty-five.

Couple D moved to South Carolina from New Jersey.  Both had been raised in abject poverty.  After leaving the military built a small business.  She worked in a grocery store.  They sacrificed for a house in a decent part of town.  He invented a tool.  He sold his business for millions.  They bought lakefront property and spent a half million on a house.  He went back to school and earned a law degree. She attempted to become an artist.

Person E was born into total and complete poverty.  She did not learn to speak English until she went to boarding school, where she was whipped until she learned to read in English.  Her family came to this country with the Conquistadors.  Her mother never did learn to speak English. Her siblings struggled to keep their mother housed, fed, and comfortable.  E lived at home, caring for her mother.  By this time she had married.  Her husband had a union job.  Her brothers, having bought their mother’s home for her, signed it over to E when her mother died.  Now retired E and her husband has social security and pensions that bring in about $2500/month.  She has another $1500/month or so social security.  Their children have excellent jobs and have done quite well for themselves.  E has traveled extensively, to Europe, and all over the US.  The mindset is still one that does not realize they could have nice things.

Then there is Family F.  They were from rural North Carolina, way up in the mountains.  They were related to Family G.  I think Mrs. F was the sister of Mr. G.  The F family were the poster children for welfare, food stamps, government waste, multi-generational welfare, doing absolutely nothing.  They were every cliche for welfare reform.  They were filthy, lazy, lived like pigs, and raised two sons who ended up drug dealers, and in prison.

Mr. G, brother of Mrs. F, was a total jerk.  He and his wife, who was also related to the F family left the mountains and moved to a Navy town, where he had a union job as a machinist. Their daughter had/has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.  Their life, back on the mountain, when they returned, was difficult, but they made sure their children were educated.  The oldest son shagged an after school job mowing a local golf course.  He now manages a PGA course – one of the big ones.  The second oldest son became a high school teacher.  The daughter with arthritis is an artist.  The second daughter married a guy from the other part of the state.  They are doing quite well.  The youngest daughter is a nurse.

Is Ben Carson right?  Yes.  Is he wrong?  Yes.  Life is what you make of it. Going back and thinking about people, it dawned on me that the families who succeeded did not take government hand-outs.  The ones who did had outcomes that were not as optimal as those who were determined to succeed on their own.  I lived in a certain community in South Carolina from the time I was six-years-old until I was in my forties.  I’ve watched people come and go.  Even the multi-generational welfare families have changed.  They no longer even exist in the area.  You cannot sustain longevity on government largess.

Having been forced to live on practically nothing these past few years, and watching my parents go from wealth to less than fifteen thousand a year, I know what it is like to live on nothing.  I’ve learned nothing is more humiliating than the possibility of having to ask, locally for assistance.  People who are experiencing bad times need to be allowed to maintain their dignity.  Having been there  it is better to deal with the anonymity of federal assistance.  Fortunately, I was able to make do.  It was difficult.  I have learned, though, that poverty is a state of mind as well as a state of bank account.