What Constitutes ‘Poverty’?

Recently on one of the native American Facebook sites I came across a saying. It read something like this: XX% of native Americans are under poverty level. Having personally experienced ‘poverty’ in the last few years, and, having read enough decolonizing books to assist us in changing to better native thought patterns, I questioned the perspective of the quote. It has been eating at me ever sense. Now, if you will permit me to share why, I will continue…

I went and did a search on the United States official poverty perspective. Firstly, they admit that they struggle to truly define scientifically what constitutes the line of poverty. In 2017 the U.S. Census considered the poverty rate at 17%. (Some said 12.3% but that was corrected.)  The defining dollar amount was between $21,000 and 28,000. Eighteen years earlier in 1999, the Census Bureau gave the level at $16,600 as sufficient to live. But the officials said it’s really a judgement call. Let’s keep this perspective in mind as we step our way through this emotional trash.

Wikipedia gave the definition of poverty as a state of deprivation or lacking the usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions. Another place indicates poverty as does not allow extra funds for emergencies for such as to fix a car or something broken or health insurance. Yet a third site says you are no longer in poverty if you have:

 a phone 

    have clothing beyond the need of warmth and decency 

    have a house in good repair

    own a car, can make repairs on it, afford gas for it and can afford auto insurance

    can afford health insurance.

Let’s keep these thoughts in the forefront of our minds as we continue this walk.

Next I looked at our people. There are, according to one report, 334 reservations on this land. About 700,000 native people live on these reservations. One report says there is 69% unemployment verses 25% during the Great Depression. The stats state that the median income for our people on the reservations is $33,627 (That’s a comfortable living in my mind!) 25.3% live ‘below poverty level’. 29.9% lack health insurance, and labeled ‘among the poorest in this country.’ (That was also said of the natives in the Cape Cod area just after King Philip’s war.) Let’s continue with their presentation: 60% of those not on a reservation live in the poorest counties. 36% of males are in high poverty communities and do not have full-time, year-round employment. In fact, the Blackfoot communities are said to be 69% unemployed. The overall conclusion is that 28-36% of native members are poor compared to the 9-17% of the U.S. populous being poor. So, what’s the conclusion? Native Americans are among the poorest people on this land. Maybe….maybe not.

    For what it’s worth, this is my perspective…firstly, I have a daughter and son-in-law that are a part of an old order Church. As far as the money goes, they are in the poverty level. In fact, they would try not to get so much that they would have to pay much taxes. Secondly, they do not have a phone. Nor a car or what goes with it. (They have one horse and one old buggy.) They do have a motor for their well to pump water for them. They only cook and heat with wood. Their church encourages them NOT to spend too much ‘fixing up their place’ or on clothing or even food. They raise most everything and go to the store for little. What they do buy like material to sew clothes, they seek to get used or from garage sales or thrift stores. And, they certainly don’t have medical insurance. Now, remember this as we continue.

I once read a book that an Amish man was telling that we don’t need to keep up with the general U.S. world. He said in all the years his children were home (and he had about 8-10 of them), he never made enough in a year to pay taxes! He didn’t own a phone or auto or insurance of any kind. They had sufficient food (basically all home raised) and sufficient clothing (they made it themselves) and had ‘enough’ to make life work and all his children were a hardworking lot. He would have been considered in ‘poverty’.

So, what is the real criteria for ‘poverty’?

To repeat what was earlier stated it’s really a judgement call. When I was in my poorest state, I reaffirmed what I learned about money and living at a very young age: 1. You don’t need much to live. 2. Spend VERY CAREFULLY what you do get. 3. Always put some of the money and resources away no matter how little you have. 4. DO THINGS YOURSELF instead of using money.

Now let’s look at our heritage:

1. We only took from God’s creation for our necessity. (1/3 of whatever it was, and left-be 2/3rds of what the Lord provided in His creation.)

2. We made our clothing needs as such that would last for YEARS. (And replaced it with our own efforts.)

3. We used our natural resources from our gatherings for multi-purposes such as bones for tools, twigs for arrows, reeds for baskets, etc. And were certainly fine with it’s primitive looks.

4. We were expectant that there were lean times during the year and were content that it was sometimes part of the phase of life at that moment. We prayed and trusted the Dear Mystery to provide for us through His creation that He made for us, but we also applied ourselves to provide for our family by that source. AND, we were content and thankful with His provision.

5. We did not need to constantly work but took the natural times of life of work and play and rest.

6. We had no issue of walking to get to were we needed. (Some of us did make use of the horse later on.)

7. If our homes were getting old, we went and got more natural supplies to make a new one or repair the old one.

So, what am I concluding here? You’ll need to watch for the next Around the Fire post to find out the answer…

Giga-waabamin (Ojibwe) I’ll see you.


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