Friday, November 09, 2012

Helping the Less Fortunate See the Light

A great story on the problem of poverty in rural American made me ask a lot of questions the other day. 

The story tracked poverty in rural areas of Texas, Mississippi and the Great Plains. These places contain some of the nation's 46 million people who live below the poverty line (below $22,050 for a family of four). As I was reading the story, I wondered: What keeps people from living "the American dream?"

I did not grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. We always had food (including plenty of Twinkies), clothing, electricity, running water, new clothes and plenty of love around our house, but we were not rich. It wasn't until I was much older that I realized the sacrifice my parents made each year to make sure we had everything we needed. My parents used a combination of credit, layaway programs and a savvy use of the money they did have to make our lives comfortable.

One area where our family struggled was with fashionable shoes. There was a time when everybody had two pairs of shoes: one for play and one for dress. That changed in the 1970s when Nike started selling shoes "just because." We couldn't afford expensive "just because" shoes made by Nike, Adidas or Pumas.

When we needed shoes, we went to the discount store in Longview and bought the knock-offs called Adios. They had the same styles and colors, but they only had two stripes instead of Adidas' trademarked three-striped look. But man, I was proud of them and wore them out of the store.
It was easier for me, because a lot of kids were in the same boat.

When it was time for college, my parents just were not able to help. I got several scholarships for my outstanding grades and stunning good looks, but I was still short for my first year in college. So, instead of enrolling for my first semester, I joined the Army National Guard. While my classmates were attending the fall semester, I went to boot camp and my first Advanced Individual Training course (the shortest one I could find). I got back into town just in time to enroll for the spring semester.

I went to "drill" with the National Guard one weekend a month and worked two or three jobs to supplement my grants from the government to go to school. I wasn't lazy. I wasn't looking for a hand-out. I didn't feel entitled. I just needed a little help to move up the economic chain.
That's why I didn't understand other people not doing the same thing I did. It was hard work, but it was worth it to sacrifice for a few years to reap the rewards of a lifetime. Why don't other people do that?

And after reading the story, I think I understood a little better. Some people don't "think" they can do it. For me, and many other Americans, there was never a doubt about the ability to succeed. If you work hard and get a little help (money, contacts or opportunity) most people can find a little piece of the American Dream. But for many, the ability to succeed sounds about as easy as taking a stroll on the moon.

I believe, the only real way to help the less fortunate is to change their mindset. It starts with a good education, of course. The great educator Horace Mann said, "A human being is not attaining his full heights until he is educated." We have to make sure kids have access to a great education, not just in elementary and high school but beyond. A little bit of money invested in a child's education, can save a truck load of money in prisons and other institutions of reform.

But we have to educate a child by not just filling their minds with facts and figures but by empowering their mind to dream big dreams. We have to help them "believe" not only in the American Dream but dare to believe they can dream too. All people aren't lazy and looking for a hand-out, they really do just need a change in mindset.

The old NAACP commercial used to say, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." I couldn't agree more. But something more important than not wasting a mind, is having faith and hope that all of us can do what we want to do. We may not find a silver spoon but we can find a slice of the American Dream.

Maybe it’s time to stop focusing on what and how we teach the Three R’s and instead, strap on our Adios shoes and start teaching a child to believe in themselves. Helping a child believe in the dream might help us say, "adios" to poverty.

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