Saturday, November 8, 2008

Archive: The Useful Poor

(This editorial appeared in the Journal's "Best of" theme issue in April of 2001)

Acknowledging the Useful Poor

“Best of” issues, no matter who does them, are never complete. There are always categories that voters don’t get to vote on, because we just never thought of them.

Likewise, when economists and politicians try to figure out why our country manages to keep running, they often miss key factors, simply because they just never had occasion to think about them. They generally consider those living below the poverty line as an economic negative, for instance. But they don’t figure on Cathy, Paradise, Leila, Randy and Sina.

Kathy left her career as an advertising executive to work with battered women on this island. She founded a craft market that helps family violence victims sell their own products to achieve financial independence, and has started a network that gathers household items for victims moving out of family shelters to start their lives anew. Her only income these days comes from a part time job at an organic vegetable garden, but her efforts have helped dozens of women to start new and productive lives.

When Paradise isn’t working for the non-profit dolphin research foundation she helped to start, she’s organizing free concerts to get island musicians more exposure and promote community bonding.

Before being forced into retirement by a stroke, Leila worked selflessly for decades at half-salary--and sometimes for no salary at all--to manage the gallery of a local cultural center.

Randy and Sina helped start an unrecognized Hawaiian fishing community, where homeless families practiced traditional skills to feed themselves and regained some pride in their own identities. Their little community turned a piece of land that no one wanted into an alternative to welfare housing--at least until someone else wanted that piece of land, and bulldozed them out.

Economists and pundits talk of the “idle poor” and the “working poor.” Most of our welfare and support programs, these days, seem to be oriented toward moving people from the “idle” to the “working” categories. But Cathy, Paradise, Leila, Randy and Sina belong in a different class. Call them the “useful poor”: people who don’t earn much money, but who lead lives that are very much of value to the community.

These people don’t really fit any of the Journal’s voting categories, either. But this island has hundreds or thousands like them. They volunteer for art, cultural, social and religious organizations, stretching each dollar of tax or grant money by contributing “sweat equity.” They paint, act, write and dance, often for free, giving tourists something worth coming to see and residents something worth staying to witness. The useful poor volunteer as mediators and self-help group facilitators, cutting the costs of social services and relieving the overloaded court system. They help run feeding programs for they homeless--often for the same organizations that once fed them. They are self-employed craftspeople and small entrepreneurs, putting in long hours and operating at tiny profits, if any, for the privilege of doing what they love. They are housewives who stay home to tutor their children, or unpaid student teachers and low-paid graduate assistants who stretch our education budget.

The value of these people to our economy and quality of life is uncalculated--literally. The state keeps no economic statistics on the useful poor as a class. Our social programs are geared more to use them up than to help them. Our legal system turns “community service” into something shameful that one does in lieu of jail time. Our grant programs often demand “matching funds,” without counting sweat equity toward that match. Our tax and legal structures, especially in this state, are weighted heavily in favor of large companies and civil servants, and stack the odds against the survival of small businesses and non-profits.

Some people don’t gauge their success by their income level. But it’s in everyone’s interest to help those people continue living lives of such value.

It’s time to at least start counting such people, to find out and acknowledge how much they do for us. We can’t begin to protect what we don’t even realize we have. But we’ll all lose if they disappear.

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