Poverty as a Challenge, Not a Problem

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By Philip Newswanger

 

The war on poverty is a battlefield strewn with corpses.

Liberals, progressives and conservatives have tackled the moral, ethical, economic and social consequences of poverty and have died a metaphorical death because of their insane yet Good Samaritan efforts.

Each side has their own solution, too serious by nature and comical by execution. And each side is predictable by their unpredictability.

We approach poverty as a battle or a war and not as a challenge. In warfare, a battle or a war must be won. It’s a zero-sum game. We win, you lose. Do we see graduation rates as a war? The idea that poverty is a war to be fought and conquered is a mistake. It should be treated otherwise.

Poverty as a natural condition of human civilization was considered normal for millennial; not until the 19thcentury did politicians, thinkers and the conscience of the community consider poverty a social problem. The Enlightenment brought new thinking, but it also imbued us with the attitude that anything, including poverty, could be conquered by lucid reason.

The Industrial Revolution, which created a society based on money and property and less on peerage, disrupted this sort of thinking. It was only then and in the future that it was charitable to offer charity.

Yet poverty, as a social behavior, isn’t lucid because it’s too human and humans, by nature, act randomly and irrationally.

What we can’t have, we want and what we want we can’t have. As individuals, we are selfish and self-centered. As a group, we are altruistic and outgoing. The conflict is obvious in politics and in our personal affairs.

Which brings us to Norfolk’s Poverty Reduction Commission, a group of altruists selected by Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim.

The group spent a year studying and discussing poverty in Norfolk. The city is rife with poverty and poverty is a sickening aspect of our affluent society, no matter which society or which city.

But poverty is an infection that seeps into the bloodstream of our society. It infects the children, so the children repeat or mimic their elders. Poverty infects our present and our future. It infects the education of our children and their children.

But is poverty a personal behavior or a societal condition?

That’s where we get stuck.

Conservatives like to think of poverty as a personal choice. Liberals and progressives like to believe that poverty or some aspects of poverty can be solved with programs.

Their beliefs belie their efforts.

Neither one is right and neither one is wrong. Nor do I have a solution to the problem. I merely write this column to highlight the inconsistencies in the consistent rhetoric in which the topic of poverty is slowly suffocating and that we need to view poverty from another perspective.

The 22-members of the Commission did a good a job as they could under the circumstances, though a measure of any initiative are the results and not the reasoning behind such a coalition. The city, munificent as ever, has donated $500,000 so far to programs. Some of the money will safeguard children while other funds will finance programs aimed, ostensibly, at curbing poverty.

A housing study is being financed by Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority, though I am not certain how a study on housing would reduce poverty. The study was one of several recommendations by the Commission. A study might make a consultant a little richer but won’t make any of us a little wiser. All of us know that affordable housing is an issue.

Which is why the federal government subsidizes housing through Section 8 housing, known as Housing Choice Vouchers. Which in Norfolk is limited because there’s a waiting list for these vouchers.

Another recommendation, also in the works, is a guide for job seekers, and the city is conducting public sessions to get input from the community.

Which means jobs which translates into food and shelter.

Poverty is a complex problem that is so simple to discuss but so difficult to solve.

If you want to save the world, save it one person at a time.

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