Our community has always had lots of poor people, by which I mean people with little money and few possessions. People here were poor in the 60’s and 70’s, when I was growing up, and people here are poor now.
But what it means to be poor has changed. In many ways poor people today are better off. Overall, poor people now have more possessions. Things we would have considered unattainable luxuries in my childhood are now regularly available to nearly everyone it seems. Some of that is attributable to easy credit and the loss of our cultural aversion to debt. Some of it is attributable to the fact that things are just a lot less expensive now than they used to be. Regardless of the reason (and acknowledging the fact that there are still plenty of poor people who have neither possessions nor money), it seems clear to me that, as a group, poor people aren’t as bad off now as they were a few decades ago.
But in at least one very important way it seems to me that poor people here are worse off now. I recently learned that people in our nearby city of 50,000 spend over $1 million per month in food stamps (SNAP). I’m confident that we’ve never before been so thoroughly dependent on others for food. When I was growing up, poor people kept gardens, chickens and (if possible) livestock. We hunted and fished. We may not have been able to buy movie tickets or stylish clothes, but by and large people were able to feed themselves.
Of course sometimes we all need a helping hand, and I’m happy to live in a society where people don’t have to go hungry when they’re in hard times. But when we have to depend upon others to give us food, in perpetuity, then we’ve become far too poor.
I wonder how many of the people who are now food-dependent are even aware that they have the ability to grow food themselves. Sadly, as a society it seems we’ve lost the basic knowledge of food production–the most fundamental of all human skills and the one that has assured the survival of our species for thousands of years.
I’m hopeful that the tide will soon turn. I like to imagine a future filled with backyard, community and rooftop gardens–a future in which even people who are poor, are not too poor.