Problem of Poverty is Complex, Tenacious

Letter to the Editor:

An editorial in the Daily News January 17, 2007, reported: “The territory’s poverty rate is double the national average. Statistically, more families are living in poverty in the Virgin Islands than anywhere else under the U.S. flag. The territory’s poverty rate is higher now than it was a decade ago.”

The problem of poverty is complex and tenacious. In scripture, it is written “The poor you will have always with you.” Centuries ago indeed it would have been reasonable to think it was part of God’s eternal plan for the world. Today it could seem more like an indictment of human society. Many claim that we now have the ability to eliminate poverty, and presumably powerlessness, ignorance and deprivation which often go along with it.

We may have the ability in the material sense to eliminate or significantly reduce poverty and its attendant ills, but as societies we lack the will. There are dedicated individuals and organizations, but clearly not enough to tip the balance. Others don’t care enough, some even believe we shouldn’t intervene. Many give higher priority to other goals.

The editorial referred the matter to our Legislature, which recently in lame duck session (which is traditionally how it’s done) gave itself a handsome raise. But politicians (and all leaders, even religious ones) can only accomplish social goals to which a large enough part of their society is willing to apply itself. Leaders have to respond to the priorities of the sources of their power.

I have other priorities myself, principally my responsibility to keep my immediate family secure and our desire to help others close to us. This takes a lot. Then I have more selfish, occasionally extravagant objectives to consider.
Such objectives are provided by enterprises which employ many people. A society whose main industry is tourism (perhaps after local government) is obliged to recognize this.

However, such a society should also ask is too much of the employment too poorly paid, too draining, and for some too dead-end? Can those who would lift up themselves and their families do so if they are willing to work hard? And are those who are not able properly looked after?

Those assumptions are widely accepted as goals and measures of our society. Even a casual observer though might see that we don’t measure up, even if we are better off than many other societies. The statistics from the editorial, which I take to be reliable, indicate we shouldn’t be complacent.

So if we do have the ability to eliminate poverty and its ills, or alleviate them substantially, and don’t, then we are complacent and stand indicted as a society; and if this is universal, as a species. What can you expect from the descendants of apes who somehow  have attained reason?

Nevertheless, we do see a lot of goodwill and good deeds around us. I wish we knew what would create a “critical mass” which would tip the balance. If we could only solve the problem like a Sudoku, lay out all the possibilities in each position and eventually eliminate by its relationship or connection to other positions all but the right one.

The problem of poverty and the powerlessness, ignorance and deprivation that often come with it, is even more complex, although the rational approach is certainly to be recommended. And the solutions are more various. A strong community for instance reaches out in many ways.

An increased sense of community is one thing I believe would help to mitigate the problem and not be too hard to achieve. It’s here already, something I found (as others have and even written studies about) when I first came down over 30 years ago.
Accelerated population growth, people moving here from all over, has diminished our sense of community, and created more separation between us than there used to be, and maybe intensified the feelings that sustain separation.

There is even entrenched opposition. Opposition to an overarching sense of community which would integrate our disparate elements arises from many sides. Some of it is quite conscious, some proceeds from a stoutly maintained psychological state of being in denial. Among other motives I find there are persons who prefer social exclusivity and privilege. There are those who fear absorption into a larger society as a loss of ethnic culture and identity. Many simply are stuck in their more comfortable path of socializing mostly with others like themselves or known forever.

Our sense of being one community is not extinguished completely, and I believe I see a resurgence thanks to more than just a few persons and groups. It is encouraging too that the motto of the winning gubernatorial candidates was, and I hope still is, “Together we can!” Executive and legislative branches both could promote actively our sense of community as the highest priority.

Goodwill, persistence, and especially sensitivity to the feelings of others are essential for each of us. Now, none of those are graces which I personally have in abundance. They are not my strong suite, so to say. I am trying. Very trying, as a younger brother used to tell me, and as those of you who know me can attest. The number of mistakes I’ve made along the way are uncountable. For me at least that seems to be the nature of the enterprise. But it’s worth it.

So what specifically could we do individually to increase our own and the general sense of community? The majority among us who are not already doing too much could each carefully choose one (or one more) community-oriented effort, one compatible with our abilities, talents and interests in some way so we don’t quickly burn out. Also, compatible with our resources and responsibilities, many of us could increase our financial support of local, national and international worthy causes. Where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also.

Nicholas Childs