On poverty and the fat of the land

by the Night Writer

The open palm of desire, wants everything, wants everything, wants everything…
— Paul Simon, “Further to Fly”

Here’s an interesting article I read yesterday:

1 in 5 Four-Year-Olds Obese, Study Finds
Associated Press Online
Lindsey Tanner
April 07, 2009

A striking new study says almost 1 in 5 American 4-year-olds is obese, and the rate is alarmingly higher among American Indian children, with nearly a third of them obese. Researchers were surprised to see differences by race at so early an age.

Overall, more than half a million 4-year-olds are obese, the study suggests. Obesity is more common in Hispanic and black youngsters, too, but the disparity is most startling in American Indians, whose rate is almost double that of whites.

The lead author said that rate is worrisome among children so young, even in a population at higher risk for obesity because of other health problems and economic disadvantages.
(…SNIP…)
Jessica Burger, a member of the Little River Ottawa tribe and health director of a tribal clinic in Manistee, Mich., said many children at her clinic are overweight or obese, including preschoolers.

Burger, a nurse, said one culprit is gestational diabetes, which occurs during a mother’s pregnancy. That increases children’s chances of becoming overweight and is almost twice as common in American Indian women, compared with whites.

She also blamed the federal commodity program for low-income people that many American Indian families receive. The offerings include lots of pastas, rice and other high-carbohydrate foods that contribute to what Burger said is often called a “commod bod.”

“When that’s the predominant dietary base in a household without access to fresh fruits and vegetables, that really creates a better chance of a person becoming obese,” she said.

It’s a conundrum of American culture that our poorest people, regardless of age, are more prone to be overweight than those with more education and higher incomes. It’s not a new revelation, but this article jumped out at me because of something else I heard recently.

I attended a Catholic wedding and at one point the priest led a group prayer asking for God’s intervention and/or blessing in a number of areas and listed “the elimination of poverty” in the petition. The elimination of poverty? I mean it’s a fine and “Christian” sentiment, but didn’t Jesus say we would have the poor with us always? It got me to thinking about just what poverty is (or isn’t) and what exactly can be done about the symptoms and the root causes. Can you define poverty by the amount of money someone has (or hasn’t), by where he lives, by his clothing…or by his actions, attitudes and habits?

The problem in defining poverty is that it is a relative term, subject to perception; i.e., “I may not be able to tell you what poverty is but I can tell you what it looks like” (or, “I know it when I see it.”) There are people here in the U.S. that you can look at and consider themm to be “poor” — until you go to the Philippines and see a family living on (not in) a piece of cardboard in the city dump. To that Filipino family the poor man in America with an apartment, food, television and midnight basketball looks wealthy and his bag of Cheetos and Big Gulp are an excessive indulgence; meanwhile that American looks at my nice house, two cars, big yard, smells the sirloin grilling on the patio — and wonders why I’m so “lucky”. And I think that if I won $100 million in the lottery I’d still clear nearly $50 million after taxes and could buy a mansion where fresh bon-bons could be delivered twice a day.

My wife, in her training as a police chaplain, has taken a number of classes to help her understand the stresses and job hazards of police officers as well as the social issues that make up the environments in which they have to do their jobs. I think one of the most interesting for her was the series on understanding that the poor, the middle class and the wealthy all really do think differently and have a nearly “secret” way of communicating within their groups that are almost incomprehensible to outsiders. I know, I know…it sounded kind of specious to me, too, until she shared some examples that made me go, “Hmmmm.”

I won’t go into all that now as it could easily be three or four posts, but I will offer that I think attitudes, habits and actions have more to do with a person’s poverty than bad luck or conspiracy to keep one down. Recognizing that, we have several times in the past helped “poor” people out not just in money and goods, but in trying to show them where the critical decision-making points are, how our family manages things and how to have a vision for navigating to a better result. You’ve heard the old saying about giving a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish you feed him for a lifetime, right? We’ve helped people out with the equivalent of boats, equipment and fishing lessons, only to see them happily shove off and get out a little ways … and eat their bait.

That doesn’t mean that we’ll stop trying to help or stop trying to renew our own thinking so we can be better at it. It does make us very dubious, however, of the proposition that redistributing wealth is going to do anything to reduce poverty. The problem isn’t the amount of resources, it’s information and perspective. The poor people in America who are obese aren’t lacking food so much as they lack good nutrition; similarly education doesn’t help if it’s the wrong information. Look around and there’s all kinds of evidence that so-called “smart” people in all walks of life are making dumb decisions when it comes to finances, whether it’s in their own lives, in their families or — God help us — in our governments.

3 thoughts on “On poverty and the fat of the land

  1. i’ve known a couple ‘millionaires’ who never made much money, but instead possesed personal discipline practiced over a long period.

    all they were trying to do was be financially secure and sensible. never intended to become rich, but they did.

    they enjoyed simple meals, and drove old cars. paid of their homes early and put away the rest. and one day woke up and said “wow, where did all this money come from?”

  2. There’s having no money and then there’s 3rd world countries where women hold together homes in the midst of violence without much consideration of their rights or contributions. (Can you tell I’m thinking of Africa? I get so mad when I think about what goes on over there.)

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