We Weren’t Poor

Not long ago, a friend of mine and I were talking, and he mentioned he was part of a round table group and their next the topic of discussion was going to be ‘What is enough?’.  That got me thinking.  Materialistically at least, what really is enough and what does enough mean?

Legend has it my mother was born in a log cabin in the late 1930’s.  I have yet to confirm that with her, but one time during a conversation she did confirm that she was raised in a house that was originally just a cabin without electricity, no indoor plumbing and the requisite outhouse to go along with it.  She remembers doing her homework by kerosene lantern and running out to the “facilities” in the dead of winter in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin until she was 11 years old and the only cool place they had to store food was in the cellar.  I still remember my grandma’s cellar and she still stored food down there to keep it cool when I was a kid in the 80’s. Keeping in mind that seventy percent of households already had electricity by 1930, this was not necessarily unusual in rural areas.  However, it is still something most people, even those near retirement or older, cannot fathom as their parents, grandparents and sometimes even great grandparents grew up with electricity and indoor plumbing. 

During this conversation she said one thing that has stuck with me ever since.  When she told me about doing homework by lantern because they had no electricity, I said “Damn, you were poor” and with total sincerity she replied, “We weren’t poor, we always had enough to eat.”  We weren’t poor, we always had enough to eat.  That is one hell of a powerful statement if you let it sink in.  We weren’t poor, we always had enough to eat.  Just think about that for a moment.

In an article from 2011 The Heritage Foundation found that In 2005, the typical household defined as poor by the government had a car and air conditioning. For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR. If there were children, especially boys, in the home, the family had a game system, such as an Xbox or a PlayStation.  The same article quoted that “scholar James Q. Wilson has stated, ‘The poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago.’” Today in 2020 I only have one TV, nor do I have air conditioning or a Xbox, yet my income is well above the government’s baseline for poverty.  The definition of poor today and what is enough has changed drastically from what it was just a few decades ago when many people were worried about just getting enough to eat.

I would like two TV’s, air conditioning and a Xbox, but my personal baseline for poverty is well above the government’s and I cannot afford those ‘luxuries’ that the average poor person has, but do I have enough?  I have a vehicle, TV, computer, internet, decent clothes, cell phone, a huge collection of tools I never use anymore and a roof over my head.  And judging by the scale at the doctor’s office I most certainly not only have enough to eat but eat way more than anyone ever should. Is it enough?

Even with all those things I still stress about money, bills, retirement and what I don’t have but really want; like that retirement home sitting on a thousand acres of untouched forest of rolling hills, streams and maybe a small lake or two.  But do I really have enough?  Probably, but like most of us I want more.  But how much would really make me happy?  At this point in my life I still don’t know.

There are some who believe that having a cell phone, cable TV and a car are necessities and should be a right. That assumes there is a baseline for enough for everyone. Believe it or not there are people out there that believe, like the EU, that a vacation is a human right and should be subsidized by the taxpayer if necessary.  A right?  Is having a phone on par with the right to free speech? Is a vacation equal to freedom of religion?  I emphatically say HELL NO! But that’s another discussion. The question also arises, who pays for what is enough and who decides what is enough?  Maybe those questions too would be better answered in another discussion.

Ultimately it is up to each of us to decide what is enough for ourselves. I have told the story of my mother to several people and was amazed by their reactions to it. Reactions ranged from indifference to a flat out ‘So what’. I asked all of them if their parents grew up without plumbing or electricity and the answers ranged from ‘No’ to ‘I don’t know’, again some with indifference. Is our society so egocentric, materialistic and full of consumerism and we are so far removed from worrying about having enough to eat that a statement such as ‘We weren’t poor, we always had enough to eat’ does not compute in our jaded minds and has no intellectual impact? Are we so far removed from worrying about having enough to eat that even having a car, multiple TV’s, cell phones, internet, vacations etc… is not enough anymore and those should be considered human rights? For my mother enough was, and still is, having enough eat.

These days when I’m feeling stressed about money, my financial future or that I may never have the money to own my dream retirement home I try to remind myself what my mother once said: “We weren’t poor, we always had enough to eat.”

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