A civil society will do all it can to help lift people out of poverty. Unfortunately, it would seem, society can do only so much for the individual. Especially one who uses poverty as a crutch.
In New Mexico, poverty is the go-to excuse for almost every problem – often to the exclusion of responsibility.
Education? Teen pregnancy? Drug addiction? Alcoholism and DWI? Burglary and violent crime? Can’t be helped here, it seems, because of poverty.
And those in the poverty industry – who make their livings working with people defined as poor – routinely release annual reports illustrating a dire picture for New Mexico. It seems as if the state were doomed.
But is New Mexico really fated to a forever downhill slide?
I can’t believe that.
Because, though I never knew it as a kid, when I look back on my childhood on Albuquerque’s West Side it’s clear we grew up in what today is called poverty. And most of the kids I grew up with were in the same leaky boat.
President Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t launch his War on Poverty until 1964, when I was 8. At that time, the national poverty rate was about 19 percent.
After more than 50 years and more than $20 trillion spent by the government on poverty, the national rate now is just under 15 percent. In New Mexico, it’s 22 percent – almost one in four.
In today’s dollars, a family of seven – my family when I was growing up – earning less than $36,730 is living in poverty by federal standards. For health insurance purposes, a family that size earning less than $88,152 is living in poverty.
Yet somehow, a lot of people of my era did OK.
So what made the difference? You tell me. Seriously.
I don’t think I’m special or that my situation was so unusual. And many people have done far better in life than I have. Why is it that the son of a family that runs a food truck in the Valley can be accepted to Duke and Harvard, while others drop out in the ninth grade and sign up for benefits at the earliest opportunity? Is it because that family refuses to accept being poor as a foregone conclusion?
So I’m certain many of you have stories to tell about someone – your parent, a teacher, a neighbor, a minister – who helped guide you or someone you know out of poverty.
I’d like to share some of your stories with readers in a future column. Perhaps they could inspire someone who could use it right now.
But there is a limit: You have to do it in 300 words or fewer. It can be done, and to illustrate it, if you’d please indulge me, I’d like to tell you a story:
One evening when I was in my early teens, my dad came home from his job at a service station. He seemed more tired than usual. After he plopped down in his orange and yellow cloth-upholstered rocking chair, he called me over and asked me to help him pull off his boots.
That wasn’t unheard of. But he unexpectedly asked me to pull off his socks and touch his feet.
Then he said, “Do you feel all those calluses and how rough my feet are? If you don’t try harder in school, you’re going to have to work hard all day on your feet, and yours will get the same way, too.”
I was floored. He knew just what I needed at just that time – and I’ve never forgotten it.
See. That narrative about my dad’s feet was only 130 words, so I know you can do it in 300 or less.
My parents didn’t make it past eighth grade before getting married for life and producing five children. They had working-class jobs – but my mom really didn’t start working outside the home until we were in school.
We knew our parents would sacrifice for us. And they pushed education – public schools; we went to John Adams Middle School and West Mesa High School. My siblings became educators, engineers and executives.
I’m sure it was my mom who found the money to buy a set of Collier’s encyclopedias when we were little – though we didn’t get a color TV until around 1970. Just think, I was one of those kids who didn’t know “The Wizard of Oz” started in black and white and changed into color.
Yet we were never made to feel hopeless. Or that sacrifice was somehow a bad thing. Or that it was unfair for other people to have things we didn’t.
The funny thing is, I don’t think my parents were that far outside the norm for the times.
All the reports lately of baby killers and stabbings and public beatings and DWI and drug addiction and so on can really make one feel dark and cold on a fall day. And we hear from plenty of people who call or write to the newspaper pushing the notion that it’s all inevitable because of “poverty.”
But life doesn’t have to be like that.
Email your stories of hope and inspiration to me at email@example.com or mail them to 7777 Jefferson St. NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109.
I hope to find some to publish that will support the point that a good deed or well-spoken words at the right time truly are apples of gold that can do as much as any institution to break the cycle of poverty.
Even in New Mexico.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Editorial Page editor Dan Herrera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.