Poverty in America is typically discussed as just another political issue, in cold, abstract terms, culminating in a liberal position or the conservative one. Forget policy - poverty's most compelling aspect, driving everything from social planning to health care, is psychology. The political class knows this and uses it to their advantage.
I have never known poverty, only financial hardship. Still, rolling nickels and dimes to pay the power bill affects your mindset in ways you don't consciously realize. At some point, well before homelessness, the financially disadvantaged begin to perceive their problems as personal failings. In a culture that constantly urges us to spend-spend-spend and where friends and relatives flaunt their new cars and vacations, certainly, I must be doing something wrong. I work hard, I save money - maybe I'm just a failure as a person. That mindset, of course, just feeds on itself and leads to social and personal disaster.
Yes, lifestyle choices do affect economic well-being, and some individuals do require a hard lesson in their day-to-day choices. In a society that loathes 'judgmentalism,' perhaps a few stern reminders of the importance of staying in school, getting married before starting a family, and spending wisely would be in order.
Society always seeks a balance between understanding and tough love. Our choices do matter, but at the same time, someone who is just going through a rough patch, whether through job loss or illness, hates being told that "you made poor life choices--" one of my pet peeves.
It is hard to tailor a message fit for everyone in poverty. Some people just need a little time, and some truly need material help. When everyone around seems to be living large, it takes no time to start resenting those who are better off. Thus, power-hungry politicians have built a bureaucratic empire by stoking the fires of personal resentment. "No tax breaks for the rich!" "The evil 1%!" These calls echo the mantra of the Democratic left.
Just who are the rich?
It depends. Sometimes it's the proverbial 1%. Sometimes, as during the Obama years, it's those making $250,000 a year. To put it simply, the rich are anyone who makes more money than you. Politicians are masters at pitting group against group. They vilify the rich and use the poor to stay in power, promising them not just a temporary helping hand, but free stuff and benefits that provide no incentive for self-sufficiency.
This currently includes health care. Once it becomes so expensive, a luxury that only government can guarantee, we find ourselves at the mercy of political institutions that stifle affordability, choice, and independence. Still, no matter how flawed, once an entitlement program becomes law, it takes on birth-right status, and full repeal equals political suicide.
But when you're down and out, you'll settle for any port in the storm, particularly when children and the elderly are involved. The biggest problem with poverty is that we tend to think of it as permanent. Better jobs come along, and people move out of the lower economic tiers every day. Politicians, however, particularly those on the Democratic side, seldom speak to us as individuals with unique potential for independence. And for many poor Americans, that is comforting. It takes only a few unemployment checks to relish the attention of those fighting "the rich" (or simply 'the haves') on our behalf. We may start out thinking that our woes are personal failings, but it takes very little manipulation for us to see ourselves as victims - victims of the rich, victims of Republicans, victims of the system.
Instead of examining poverty through the prism of our political biases, America's economically disadvantaged should be addressed as fellow citizens. Our most successful leaders - President Trump being one, Reagan another - don't talk about the poor, they talk to them. Trump daringly urged African-Americans to abandon the Democratic Party. "What do you have to lose?" he asked.
Great leaders don't preach or placate, they inspire. And finally, not all problems, be they personal or public, require government solutions. Donald Trump's self-help books (including 'The Art of the Deal' and 'Think Like a Champion,' among others) rival any campaign stump speech for practical advice. The impediments to financial independence are real and deserve our attention. Often, however, the biggest barriers are the notions of defeat within ourselves, and those who exploit them for their own personal gain.