Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Poverty of the Spirit

Poverty of the Spirit drags people down into real poverty. To succeed in life, you need to be rich in both your mind and body.

Poverty may be initially caused by a lack of basic opportunities, such as education, good nutrition, food, clothing, and shelter. A child born into poverty has fewer opportunities to get ahead in life.

And, as we have discussed before, poverty is perpetuated by making poor economic decisions. The decision to shun education, for example, as happens in many poor urban and rural areas. Or the decision to buy shiny consumer goods, like bling rims, or a snowmobile, on credit, is another example. Payday loans, rent-to-own furniture, title pawn loans - all poor economic choices that are targeted at the poor. In America, many of the "poor" actually have access to considerable sums of money, but manage to squander it rather quickly.

And when presented with economic opportunities, the poor consistently misjudge the market and miss opportunities. In an environment of economic opportunity, the poor seldom take advantage of circumstances, and in fact, shun opportunity entirely.

I was made painfully aware of this during a recent visit to Asheboro, North Carolina. Asheboro is about as far away from Asheville, North Carolina, in terms of geography and spirit as it is possible to be. Asheboro is near the Seagrove "pottery corridor" of North Carolina, an area with at least 30-50 pottery studios and an abundance of wealthy, out of town and out of State visitors looking to spend money.

And yet, even if you tried, you can't spend money in the area, other than on pottery. There is, it seems, a Poverty of the Spirit that prevents the locals from taking advantage of this economic opportunity. If you are a tourist visiting the area, there is no place to eat, few places to stay, and very little in the way of opportunities to spend money. Rather than try to tap into this lucrative tourism market, the locals turn their back on it - and even resent the intrusion of outsiders. And with the closing of the mills, poverty is rampant. Why not try to tap into a local industry that is thriving?

At first, this seemed very puzzling. But then it occurred to me that this Poverty of the Spirit may be a key to why and how poverty exists. Poverty is more than merely a lack of money in the bank. As previously noted, many "poor" people run through mountains of money, and seem unable to manage it properly. Giving money to the poor doesn't make them rich - at least for long. We see this all the time with lottery winners, an astounding number of which end up in bankruptcy, after winning millions of dollars. Why is this?

I think there are a number of causes. Poverty of the Spirit is a name I chose to describe them all:
1. Low Self-Esteem: If you do not believe you deserve wealth, chances are, it will elude you. This is perhaps one reason why the children of the wealthy (or at least middle-class) do well, even if they do not inherit money from their parents. They simply expect a certain standard of living, and thus work up to that level. On the other hand, if you are raised in poverty and trained from birth to believe that wealth is something "other people" have, then chances are, you will not strive to obtain it. 
In my own life, I saw this firsthand among many of my friends. They did not believe they were worthy of more than a lower-middle-class or even poor existence. The idea of becoming a Doctor, a Lawyer, or other professional was alien to them. And to some extent, I believed that myself, which kept me back, until I realized that a lot of real idiots were Doctors and Lawyers, and there was no "magic key" into the club. All you had to do was try - and succeed. And it was not hard to do. Changing my attitude was the hardest part.
2. Low Expectations: Tied closely in with low self-esteem is low expectations. If you are raised poor, your goals may not be great. Get a job, a place to live, get by. But if you are raised in the middle class or wealthy, you tend to assume certain things in life - that you will have money, live well, have a nice place, not have bars on your windows. Expectations tend to be self-fulfilling, to some extent, particularly low ones. If you do not try, you will not succeed. Dream no small dreams. 
I had friends whose greatest expectation was to go on welfare, or perhaps Social Security disability. Or others whose only ambition was to wait for their parents to die, so they could live off a modest inheritance without having to work. Or others who hoped only to work an unskilled job for the rest of their lives, when they had the talent and skills to do so much more. Why do some settle for so little, when they are clearly capable of so much more? Poverty of the Spirit, I think is partly to blame. 
3. Passivity: Many poor people are remarkably passive about their predicament, waiting for government assistance or for good paying jobs to materialize, without taking action to change their circumstances. Low self-esteem and low expectations may feed this passivity. 
And perhaps this is why you often see poor people stay on in areas that are blighted or poor. If there are no jobs available in your home town, the intelligent thing to do would be to move to an area where there are jobs. Yet many poor people stay in places like Flint, Michigan, and passively wait for jobs to come back (they never will). 
After leaving North Carolina, we drove through Washington DC. We were astounded by the number of "Help Wanted" signs posted everywhere - even on billboards. Citibank had a permanent sign up saying "now hiring". All this in the middle of the worst recession in decades. Who knew? Within a day's drive of Asheboro, there are jobs galore, but yet few people will uproot themselves to overcome poverty. 
I grew up in Central New York, which was, and is, a very depressed area, economically, and also has basically 8 months of bad weather every year. Like most graduates, I left the State (New York's biggest export is college graduates) and went to Washington DC to seek my fortune - and found it. 
Many of my friends never left Central New York - with predictable consequences. Why is it that people cling to places that are unattractive, have little or no opportunities, and have no future, when jobs are waiting elsewhere? I believe the answer is, in part, Poverty of the Spirit.
4. Misconception of Wealth: When a poor person wins the lottery, what is the first thing they are likely to do? That's right - buy a new car. For many poor and lower class people, owning vehicles is the ultimate sign of wealth. As a result, many poor people squander enormous amounts of their limited incomes on vehicles, as well as modifying, customizing, and tricking out vehicles. 
Real wealth, as we know, is not represented by what is parked in your driveway, but by your net worth, which is often not something you can show off to people. Tangible assets, such as Real Estate, investments, savings, and the like are real wealth, not depreciating vehicles and appliances. 
Thus, the poor chase after the signs of wealth and status (cars, televisions, cell phones, gadgets, designer clothing, etc.) while failing to invest at all in any real wealth (savings, real estate, 401(k), etc.). 
Again, as a youth, I (and my friends) fell for the concept of wealth in terms of owning things, like cars and gadgets, not realizing that real wealth (and power) seldom showed itself off. It is only when you understand the difference between real and apparent wealth, that you can really build real wealth. 
As we have learned here, any idiot with a pay stub can drive a fancy car - for a while, anyway. But having money in the bank is something that eludes an astounding number of people in this country. 
5. Lack of Imagination: One stop on our pottery tour of North Carolina was a local coffee shop which had WiFi. Now, we've been to a lot of coffee shops, but this place was pretty sad. The coffee was unremarkable and warm. And the selection of "dessert items" comprised a packaged danish. You couldn't spend money in the place if you wanted to, unless you wanted to leave $20 in the tip jar. 
The proprietor spend all day on his computer, but failed to really attend to his own business. He had no imagination as to how customers would perceive the place (dank, unfinished, depressing) and what they might want to buy (good coffee, good food). He had no idea how to run a coffee house, and moreover, didn't seem concerned about learning how. He was scraping by, and apparently that was good enough for him. When I asked him about the status of the local economy, he blamed all his woes on illegal immigrants. And yet, no illegal immigrants were running coffee shops
In poor neighborhoods, you tend to see this a lot. Unimaginative and unattractive businesses, haphazardly run, stocked indifferently, and not well patronized. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule - the barbecue joint that does a slamming business, attracting people from all over. But those are few and far between, outnumbered by the dreary convenience stores stocked with stale, left-over bread and the like. Liquor stores selling only pints of bad booze. That sort of thing. Bars on the windows, a bunker mentality. No imagination, no talent, no daring, no nothing. 
As a result, in many poor neighborhoods, the only thriving businesses are often owned and staffed by outsiders or recent immigrants - people with drive, self-esteem, imagination, and determination. The stereotypical Korean Grocery store in the ghetto is a prefect example. They look to see what people want to buy in the neighborhood and then try to fill that need. The local residents have neither the ambition nor the imagination to take such risks.
I think this Poverty of the Spirit results in low expectations of one's self - and also that of others. So a poor person thinks, "I can't run a business like that", and if they tried, they would not have the imagination to see how it could be run, and thus fail. Low expectations and low self-esteem become self-fulfilling prophesies.

I am not sure I have explained the concept well, or completely. It just struck me, traveling through this very depressed (emotionally and economically) area, that there is more to poverty that a low balance on your bank account, lack of opportunity, and poor decision-making. There is something in your mind as well - and perhaps that is the greatest obstacle to overcoming poverty.

I am not trying to run down the poor, only to understand better why some of us succeed in life, while others, in nearly identical circumstances, fail to do very well, or do anything at all.

Poverty of the Spirit, drives out ambition, creativity, and innovation, and thus perpetuates poverty. Breaking free of this Poverty of the Spirit is, no doubt, difficult to do. Ambition and imagination are no doubt crushed early on.

I wish there were easy fixes or suggestions on how to do this. But perhaps recognizing this phenomenon is a good first step.