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Poverty of WHAT?

AUGUST 01, 1967 by DONNA THOMPSON

Mrs. Thompson is a housewife and free-lance writer in Southwest Missouri.

Newspapers and magazines have been filled with articles about the war on poverty. But it seems that these analysts think of poverty only in terms of money income. The government is trying to pro­vide income of a certain amount in the belief that, with material poverty obliterated, the individual can have all the good things in life and live happily ever after.

The popular impression seems to be that the individual cannot amount to anything in the world if he is poor financially. Appar­ently it has been forgotten that the great of the world have climbed to the heights from hovels, half-starved, perhaps, but undeterred from the things they desired.

That is where our modern think­ing stumbles. The dictionary de­fines poverty as "a quality or state of being poor, any deficiency in what constitutes richness. Poor—as poverty of soil or ideas. Pov­erty, a stronger word than poor, is the state of being in need." In need of what? Money, yes. But not money alone. We need a war on poverty of moral principle, poverty of character, poverty of ideas, poverty of ambition, pov­erty of courage, and poverty of determination.

I have been reading the life of Hans Christian Andersen. His father was a cobbler. His mother washed clothes in the river to help make a living. He was poor in this world’s goods, hungry and cold, poorly dressed, and unedu­cated. But rich, very rich in ideas, in dreams, in courage, determina­tion, and faith in God. Poor clothes and hunger could be endured as he reached to become a great nov­elist, playright, and spinner of fairy tales that have delighted children around the world.

Abraham Lincoln, reading by firelight and candlelight, with ill‑fitting clothes and no formal edu­cation, asked nothing of any man. He wanted a chance and made it for himself.

The pages of history reveal great actors, writers, lawyers, art­ists, ministers, politicians — the list is endless. They were poor. They were hungry. But they achieved because they were rich in many ways.

The Nature of Growth

We need to change our view­point. It is well to clean up the slums. It is well to try to find work for people who will work. It is a wonderful thing to provide an ed­ucation for people who want it. But let us not mislead ourselves. Those who are poor in worldly goods will not be stopped if they are rich in character, moral fiber, courage, and ambition. They will develop the talent God has given them and nothing will stop them.

I do not mean that everyone has the divine spark of greatness. But any individual can help him­self become a responsible, desir­able citizen — not rich, but with enough — honest and law-abiding if he so desires. Look at the lead­ers in your own community, many of whom from poor beginnings have risen above their surround­ings. And among your neighbors are many others who live in small­er houses and work for what they have — not abundance, but enough — who go to church and send their children to school, whose pride will not permit them to ask for help and, if offered, will push the offer away with the answer, "Let me do it. I can do it for myself. I don’t need any help."

I once knew a boy who was working his way through college. He had no money, but he was de­termined to go on to medical school.

"Medical schools cost a lot of money," I said. "I don’t see how you can do it financially."

I’ll never forget the way he looked at me or what he said.

"I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was a little boy. The old country doctor in our town used to take me with him on his calls in his horse and buggy. And I’m going through medical school and become a doctor if I have to live on a sack of peanuts a day."

He became a very successful surgeon. He had started poor in money, but rich in dreams and determination. He would not be stopped.

Even the Great Master himself was so poor that he told his friends, "The Son of Man hath not where to lay his head." But his words have endured for two thousand years, his life an exam­ple of wealth of spirit, of courage, of character. Each can achieve the goal that is set for him — if he is rich in those spiritual quali­ties which defy the bonds of ma­terialism. In the soul and mind of man lies the richness of his life. Not what he wears or where he lives, but how he lives and what he is.

The Desire to Learn

In the War on Poverty, the word education is mingled with that of material advantage. For­mal education is of great value money wise. It is also the key that will unlock many doors. But edu­cation may be acquired without going to college. The dictionary defines education as "the imparta­tion or acquisition of knowledge, skill, or the development of char­acter as by study or discipline. Education is the general and for­mal word for schooling, especially in an institute of learning. But knowledge, that which is gained and preserved by knowing, enlightenment, learning, is the sum of information conserved by civ­ilization. To learn is to gain knowl­edge or understanding by study."

And you can study by candle­light, as did Lincoln, or by a glow­ing electric light. You can study and learn on the street, in the field, in the factory, anywhere, if there is desire and will. The world of learning, of knowledge, is open to those who want it.

Poverty in a sense is a physical and material condition to be over­come; but men also must fight the war on poverty of spirit, pov­erty of ambition and determina­tion and courage, the poverty of our minds. "Knowledge is power." It is time men stopped thinking only in terms of financial and ma­terial poverty and began to fight this poverty of the soul. If the latter is conquered, the other will take care of itself.

 

***

Pauper’s Purpose?

Because it is my social function to supply the world as well as I can with a certain thing, therefore I dread the world’s being so well supplied with it that I shall be able to get little or nothing for supplying more. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this consideration, or the penetrating and intimate nature of its bearing on every aspect of the social question.

PHILIP H. WICKSTEED, The Common Sense of Political Economy 

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August 1967

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