Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Is poverty a lack of income?

I was on a major university campus recently and saw an "occupy" site with hand lettered sign proclaim a protest against the inequality of the economic system in the U.S. I thought, Hmmm too bad we didn't think of this back in the 60s. Protesting the economic system is very convenient, you can choose the time and place you want to protest with no fear that your cause will evaporate like protesting a war. What do you do when the war is over? Move on to the economic system and then you can have a readily available protest any time.

This got me thinking about poverty again. When I lived in Panama City, Panama, there was a section of the city called the Marañón. The average occupancy of the dwellings averaged 50 people per room. Yes, you read that right, per room. People would take turns sleeping and using the other facilities. One of my friends lived with his family in a small two room apartment with the parents, one grandparent, seven children and a few cousins. Even a small increase in income by any member of the family immediately became an advantage to the entire family. There wasn't an expectation that the family members would contribute to the welfare of the entire family, there was a social, cultural and strongly emotional reason why every member of the family contributed to the overall economic well being of the family. 

Ok, now let's contrast this with a recent report I read of a family. The husband was a professional. The wife was an accountant. They had two children. They lived in suburban house with the usual accouterments. The husband lost his job and then the wife lost her job. Voila. Instant poverty. They were immediately looking to the soup kitchens and food banks for support. They became a statistic in the U.S. Department of Health and Welfare's definition of poverty. Yes, they were poor. Very poor. In fact, they were poorer than my friend in Panama. Why? Because they lacked the support of a loving, extended family. Poverty is not where or how you live, it is the inability to maintain your family connections to the point that you can rely on your family in the case of a family crisis. Maybe the professionals had no family? What is more likely, they had a family but by cultural, social or other circumstances had let their family relationships lapse to the point where they did not have the support of an extended family. 

Poverty is not so much a matter of income. It is a matter of family. One of the largest parts of the national income in some developing nations is the money sent to family members from those working abroad. The crisis in welfare in the U.S. is not so much a crisis in income as it is a crisis in families. Attacks against the family in our society are destructive of the social fabric as well as the economic well being of the nation.

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