The Potential of Those in Poverty

Jim Nowlan recently wrote a piece entitled, “Poverty Doesn’t Limit Your Potential.” In this editorial, he provides many examples of successful individuals who broke the cycle of poverty. I’m sure we all know someone who, despite humble beginnings, became successful. James “Cash” Penny comes to mind. J.C. started off far worse than most people on welfare today. His hard work benefited the masses and made him millions. I like these stories.

If all other things were equal, and if poverty was just a matter of insufficient income, as some suggest, I’d have to agree with Mr Nowlan.  Sadly, things are not equal; life is not fair. I believe that there are many contributing factors to poverty. Access to a good education, proper role models, parental involvement, internal motivation, micro-cultural attitudes toward success – it’s these factors and more that threaten a person’s potential, not just a lack of money.

An individual’s potential is limited to their knowledge, skills, expertise, and maturity. The more these areas are hindered, the more likely a person is to be unsuccessful and live a life in poverty. Jim Nowlan gave us anecdotal evidence of those who busted out of that poverty. I like the stories. But they are stories, and simply not the norm. A 2009 study by The National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University found exactly that. Those who grow up in poverty are more likely to live in poverty as an adult and the odds increased the longer they lived in poverty as a child. Why? Childhood is a critical time to learn the knowledge, skills, expertise, and the maturity needed for success in adulthood.

Take something as simple as the daily interaction between children and parents. On average, children in a professional family household hear over 2,100 words per hour. A child born into a “working class family” hears 1,200 words per hour while a child living in a welfare family environment may hear only 600 words per hour. The cumulative effect of this is significant. A 10-year-old child growing up in a welfare home will not hear as many words as a 3-year-old whose parents are working professionals. While I reject the idea that one is more advantaged than the other, it’s clear that one has a marked disadvantage.

Many see poverty simply as a lack of income and a solution to the poverty problem is to throw money at it in a variety of ways: welfare, a hand-out from a benevolent church, redistribution of wealth, or even the most recent idea of a universal basic income. I’ll let others debate the validity of these approaches. I have my doubts, and so does history. I will argue that this is not enough. Even if we were able to subsidize every family living today in such a way that they lived above the poverty line, we’d be robbing them, and the rest of us, of their full potential.

What, after all, is potential? When and how is it realized? J.C Penny reached his potential. He not only met and exceeded his physical and financial needs, he also reached the point that he was able to serve others. The potential of those living in true poverty is beyond our imagination. Our investment in them must be more than in dollars. It must be a lifelong walk developing the whole person.

Only in that way we do we ALL reach our full potential.

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