When we think of poverty, what do we think of? Food stamps? Emaciated children? Tin shacks? Empty refrigerators?
I have seen poverty all over the globe in my lifetime and know that it is all of that -- and much more. Some 20 years ago Life magazine asked me to find an American family that could be the face of poverty. How was poverty lived in the United States?
We had correspondents in all parts of the country send in candidates, with pictures, for consideration. In the end, I chose a family in Portsmouth, Ohio, a once flourishing industrial town (birthplace of Roy Rogers), down on its luck. I spread the snapshots of the family out on the table for the editors to see. I expected the look of shock on their faces.
"But they're white!" said one.
"Yes," I replied. "Most poor people in the United States are white." That was a revelation. White people could be poor.
Flashing forward for a second, according to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, things haven't changed much. In 2010, over 5 million white children lived in poverty and 4.8 million black children did. Whites still prevail.
Of course, I am fudging now as I did then, since the rates of poverty by demographic category give a very different picture; 35 percent of Hispanic children under 18 live in poverty and 38 percent of black children are poor. For whites, it's just 12.4 percent. Just! It's no fun to be poor, defined, crudely, as not having enough money to pay for food and shelter. But what about the TV? And the cell phone? The drugs? The teenage pregnancies? Is that poverty? Do we subsidize it?
Is there a racial component to poverty in the United States? Of course. Are there cultural differences in the way poverty is "lived"? Yes. Are there correlations in marital status and poverty? Indeed.
One of the reasons we titled the 1989 Life story "Children of Poverty" was to convey the multi-dimensional, multi-generational nature of the beast. You were born into poverty as you were born into America or France or Nigeria. Indeed, "poverty" had a lack of money dimension to it; but it was just one of the characteristics of the syndrome. After all, plenty of people have their "going broke" periods; this family had been, it seemed, perennially "broke," always "down on their luck." And in the post-Great Society era, their "work" had become "working the system." It was a co-dependence that was quite obvious and quite frightful.
So, can we "cure" poverty?
Years after the Life piece appeared, I met a low-income housing developer who talked frankly about the money he had made building housing for the poor, to help cure poverty. "It didn't work," he said. "We were supposed to provide decent housing," he continued, "and the rest would follow."
I asked about schools. "Yes," he said, "Getting kids a good place to live was supposed to improve their educational prospects. It didn't."
After decades of helping give poor people what we thought they needed in order to succeed in school -- food and shelter -- this man had concluded that what they needed were better schools. "You don't improve the schools by improving living conditions," he said. "You improve living conditions by improving the schools."
Education, education, education. That's how you solve poverty. It's a solution the country hit up on the mid-1800s, when states began to impose compulsory school attendance laws; and it worked. Several generations of immigrants and natives alike contributed to the building of school houses, most of them the best buildings in town, on a hill, representing the hope of upwardly mobile change that education offered. They believed that knowledge counted; that it counted enough to lift you from poverty to providence. And it worked. By the mid-1900s America had educated several generations of the poor and they had gone on to recreate America, transforming it into the world's most powerful economic engine.
Somehow we've turned the paradigm of success on its head; we've convinced ourselves that we can't educate children until we solve poverty. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.
Knowledge counts. Knowledge wins. And schools remain the only place that rich and poor alike are going to acquire knowledge. The poor do not lack dollars; they lack the knowledge that is the only currency accepted on the toll highway to success.
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.
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