“Poverty” in America, Part II: Luck is Overrated

In Part I, I drew a line in the sand regarding credibility in arguments over poverty–that line being personal and direct experience with it. Even among those from the experienced side of the line, however, there exists a fairly pronounced dipole of thought as to its origins (this part) and solutions (Parts III and IV). My ideas arise from the rightward limb of the spectrum. Yes, the sociopolitically conservative ex-poor do exist, and we are far more common than you may think! [Many are Depression-era elderly; but some are the kids and grandkids of that generation who have picked up, through necessity, the same thrifty ethics as well.]

Yet, there are those who have been there, as such bearing credibility in the “poverty” debate, and somehow think it was government handouts and happenstance that largely were responsible. That stance strikes me as woefully ignorant, and moreover, self-flagellating. Take this BLOG entry as an example–ignoring some grammatical and usage errors therein.

“Gaius” is much wealthier financially than I; but I’m doing OK for the time being. I have no major economic needs, largely due to thrift, avoidance of debt-inducing materialism, and an otherwise conservative philosophy on personal economics. I don’t want or need the biggest, newest, fastest or shiniest of anything in particular. It takes a lot of justification to get me to part with even a few shekels (as the youngest offspring of one born in the Depression). By contrast, he attained his wealth via aggressive, smart entrepreneurship and prolific return on investment. Outstanding! I admire that. He has earned his way up, and deserves all the platitudes that go with that willingness to work hard and take risks. He cites personal experience on rising from adversity. Fine. So will I. For every story there’s a counter, and I’m the yin to his yang.

Like him, I grew up poor (albeit inner-city instead of Appalachia). Only as a last resort, and with great reluctance (as it should be), did we benefit from occasional public assistance in welfare and health care. Many other times, we refused public assistance out of idealism. It was better to earn soup, soap and saltine crackers through sweaty manual labor, choosing which bills to defer to next month or next, whether to buy roach spray or deodorant this month, than to drive welfare Cadillacs. It was more honorable to listen to the landlord threaten to evict us, and to put up with the daily rounds of calls from bill collectors, than to take the wrong way “out” and get into drug dealing, fencing or con games.

The author doesn’t elaborate hereon, but in my household the primary sentiment associated with public aid was a combination of embarrassment and deep shame, most definitely not any sense either of entitlement or tactical strategizing to attain more. The adults in my house acted like it; they took the high road and set the right example for their child.

The red tape involved in securing public aid seemed intrusive and oppressive at first; but upon more careful contemplation, we knew it had to be that way to reduce (if never eliminate) welfare abuse. As I’ve noted before, however, plenty of folks we knew still had creative ways of gaming the system–some involving effort approximating or even exceeding that involved in, say, finding gainful employment. Ironic, eh? Surely “Gaius” witnessed abuses of the system, but neglects to write of that. Why? Is it selective memory, or deliberate omission of truths inconvenient to his sociopolitical and economic agenda? I’ve seen both from those who offer similar lines of argument as that author.

Rising from American “poverty” is hard, yet quite possible (as many of us have proved), and yes, dependent on occasional opportunism. I believe that God allows us no challenge we can’t overcome with sufficient effort, willpower, and most importantly, openness to accept wise guidance from around and especially above. Having been there and done that, seen this and seen that, I firmly and resoundingly refute his notion that luck plays the biggest role in rising from what we call “poverty”. Hard work, attentiveness, and focus do. Did I get help along the way? Absolutely. Who doesn’t? That argument is moot. Plenty of people screw up despite getting help! Their negative examples show by default that diligence and effort are the ultimate keys.

Plenty of people from far more deprived backgrounds than mine, financially or home-wise, also escape. Whether or not we notice, we all encounter opportunities to rise from any form of adversity. Making the proper choices is far more related to initiative and hard work than luck. You see, everybody has God-given talents and, at some points along the way, gets chances. This interesting, multi-page essay offers a great explanation of why luck is overrated with personal and business success.

Substitute the concept of escape from “poverty”, and the idea is the same. I vouch for this more than for the concepts espoused in the first link.

Every poor kid I knew had chances. The ones today who are destitute, in prison or dead almost universally chose not to make the effort needed to climb through at least temporarily opened windows out of the dungeons they occupied. They chose to be gangbangers, to consume and/or sell drugs, to steal radar detectors from cars, to rob liquor stores, to break into houses. They chose not to make the most of the education available; and in so doing, chose the likelihood of destitution. Even in the most low-rated public schools, one can learn enough at least to get into bridge-education such as community college. One also can chose to buckle down and study after getting into higher education, instead of drinking and partying it to waste. Choices…

Despite some mistakes I did make, I chose none that would jeopardize the chance to get out of that situation. Why? Awareness, for one. Plain and clear results all around, even at that early age, revealed all I needed to see about the life-altering dead ends involved in using, dealing and the felonies they accompany. The same applied to promiscuity–really, even singular teenage sexual activity. The results apparent? Teen pregnancies, the mentally agonizing reality of abortion on girls either forced or misled into them, deadbeat “dads” running away from responsibility, delayed or broken dreams of higher education for escape from the hole, and the presence of teens (some I knew) in queue for venereal-disease treatment at public-health clinics. Miserable! All of the above, for ten minutes of thrills in the form of hits or humps. No thanks.

Negative examples are just as important as positive ones. Such examples abounded in such a profusion as to be incomprehensible to anyone outside the “poor” themselves, and aid workers who served them.

Regardless of parental income, regardless of home situation, we all have opportunities for free education in this nation, opportunities to say no to drugs and alcohol, opportunities to tune out harmful temptations and the shallow and useless sideshow of worldly pop-culture), and tune in our teachers and other positive role models. Again, the fact that some kids grow up to succeed from far more intense circumstances of “poverty” than mine proves that it is possible. If they can, anyone can. No excuses! I absolutely will not suffer fools on this issue.

Sure, the “Gaius” had episodes of help, as did I. We both took advantage of what he calls “luck”, and what I call “opportunity”. We chose to accept and honor the aid of those who offered, and like me, I presume he returns those favors through charitable donations of his choosing. As with me, I reckon he doesn’t advertise the specifics of this, because the most honest and sincere charity is performed in private, away from the scrutiny or laud of others.

Given our kindred spirits, even in disagreement, I think “Gaius” sells himself short. Indeed, he unintentionally insults himself by failing to give credit where it is due–to God first (part of his admitted lack of religion) for granting his innate gifts, then secondarily, to himself for using those abilities that we all have to make wise choices. If he can, anyone can. If I can, anyone can (and I’m not that special either). If the kid from a broken, drug-infested home can, anyone can. Again, the fact that it happens proves that it’s possible. Choices are ultimately what determine our success or failure, far more than any other factor. Even if we screw up, we most often still get second chances to rise out through…you guessed it, proper selections. Only on the deathbed is there no longer hope in this life to overcome adversity.

Sure, bad things happen that we can’t control. More often than not, we indeed can overcome, with faith, persistence, determination and resolve. Sometimes the setbacks are so severe that, if they don’t kill us, they legitimately maim and impoverish us (accidents, cancer, unpreventable presence in natural disaster, etc.). For that, assorted and situationally dependent measures of public aid are justifiable and supported by me, payable with near-current levels of taxation given streamlining of inefficiencies elsewhere in government. However, genuine tales of extreme and totally faultless hardship, while they make spectacular news headlines and sympathy stories on TV, are far less common than the choice of being poor–in other words, free-will selection of avenues, such as lack of effort toward education, that keep the cycle going for another generation.

The most prevalent way to escape “poverty” involves a collective sum of individual work ethic combined with personal responsibility to take advantage of opportunities everyone gets, but only some risk grabbing. I say this from first-hand experience. More specifics to come…but first, a needful addressing of some common liberal mischaracterizations of those who advocate taxing our way out of “poverty”.

Next, Part III: The Misleading “Solution” of More Taxation


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