I remember as a youngster, the first car I drove had those little words inscribed on the rear view mirror, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” I never really understood why that was, but it’s probably reasonable to assume that at the intersection of physics, optics and common sense, that mirror had to make things closer than they appear. For that matter, I didn’t have to understand it; the reality was that those objects were really close. This flashback came to me as I was part of a program to talk about poverty and our reactions to those individuals in poverty.
Every day, I have the awesome responsibility of managing and operating a non-profit, faith-based charity. And while fundraising and operations are a large part of the responsibilities of the position, it’s the softer skills that have made this responsibility truly awesome.
I remember as a high schooler learning about the Great Depression. That period of time, where everyone, everywhere was in poverty. At that time, Ohio’s unemployment rate hovered around 40 percent. I vividly remember seeing old videos showing soup lines in large cities and poor families packing up heading west. Just like that rear view mirror, poverty is close.
Fast-forward to the 21st century. We are in a time where poverty is much lower than it was during the Depression, but it is still here. How can we tell? I can see it every day. It is the faces and experiences of everyday people; our neighbors that we see at the local grocery store or just walking down the street. In fact, today even in our own communities, poverty hides in plain sight.
And while there have been efforts to combat poverty, the results have been largely ineffective. In fact, many would argue that our country’s anti-poverty programs have caused a dependency on government program that actually keep people in poverty.
As I have studied and looked at the issue, poverty is all about the lack of something in someone’s life. Those that promote government programs tend to believe that poverty is about a lack of money. Those that tend to be against such programs believe that poverty is about a lack of character. Like many things in life, the truth is somewhere in middle.
As I have seen individuals in poverty, I have learned that it is extremely dangerous to paint poverty with a brush that is too broad. Each individual in poverty has a unique and different set of circumstances that have caused this crisis in their life. It could be the loss of a job or even a loved one. A traumatic event can cause someone to leave the workforce. Generational poverty also exists where people have learned to depend on the generosity of others.
But perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned is that for the most part, people in poverty are very strong. These folks are resilient and resourceful to the core; most have a faith stronger than I may own. These neighbors don’t lack character. Yet, even if we cut large checks to these folks, you get the feeling that their quality of life wouldn’t dramatically improve. This is an issue where more than money is going to solve this issue.
So, what is it? If people in poverty are lacking something, what are they lacking if they aren’t lacking money or character? I believe they are lacking community.
I am becoming increasingly convinced we are living in a lonelier world. Even if we are connected through social media, those relationships are often superficial and often unhealthy. Sometimes it’s hard to find someone we can talk to for support and accountability to help us make sense of our world.
Now, I am not saying that having conversations with those in poverty are going to magically solve poverty. But, it can help. The power of a conversation, when done right, can open new doors and new horizons. And those conversations happen in community.
I once heard our communities as a place where we are “everyone for everyone.” We all work together for the common good. Imagine what could happen if we could work together to look for new ways to see the world we live in.
William “Bill” Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at email@example.com.