Today, more than 30% of Americans live in or near poverty.

In 1955, Tennessee Ernie Ford had a #1 hit that defined the poverty of the era.

” … You load 16 tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St Peter don’t you call me cause I can’t go; I owe my soul to the Company Store…”

Such was a story of working in the coal mines where very small local communities were effectively owned by mining companies. They worked all day, had little exposure the the outside world, and were required to purchase their food and supplies from the Company, which charged high prices, yet allowed some credit. In the 50s and 60s, kids were born into this slave system, while most of the nation experienced prosperity in spades.

Beyond the coal mines, the USA was abundant from the mid-40s to the 1970s. Jobs were plentiful and the requirement for people to work as an unpaid or low paid intern didn’t exist.

We’ve all heard that “statistics lie, and liars use statistics.” One such study has a variety of iterations but, when the fog clears, only about 40% of adults would be able to come up with $400 for an emergency without borrowing, or begging. Statistics don’t always mention the method of measurement, nor the relative values of a currency’s purchasing power. Poverty exists beyond the financial realm and there are some measures that are not a function of the Almighty Dollar. In the tribal communities we find different measures of many things. For example, when the leaders of the organization Pachamama, (a charity I support) visited the Achuar tribe in Ecuador, the shaman told them “We view Western Civilization as materially advanced and spiritually retarded.” While many people living in America view our community as spiritually advanced and materially retarded.

When this lens for measuring success is used, the financial calculations fall by the wayside. I had the fortune of being part of the Metta Center for Nonviolence headed by Michael Nagler, founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies curriculum. Together, we visited Mumbai, India to celebrate Mr. Nagler’s awarding of a Gandhi Peace prize.

-Yin and Yang!-

One day I was at a dinner for 20; the Chairman of the Mumbai stock exchange, the former Ambassador to France, the former head of the India Atomic Energy commission, and sponsoring family. The next day, near my hotel, I took a walk. I passed the well know slum of cardboard shacks and approached a beautiful park. A gal, probably from the shacks, dressed in the colorful sari with her kids, was also enjoying the park. This picture cannot be erased from my mind. The length of her colorful gown flowing an inch above the dirt path… and not a speck of dirt could be seen as she strolled with her kids. Did she know something that my advanced society didn’t?

A few hours later, I entered a store as a woman spread her colorful cloth on the sidewalk. She and her two kids sat with very little food to enjoy a family lunch together. I still wonder how many families in our rich society are able to enjoy such a real luxury.

Our Nation is full of poverty that money cannot fix. My dear friend Azim Khamisa has devoted his life to his foundation, TKF, which he formed 25 years ago after his son was shot and killed by a 14 year old gang member. He has spoken directly to, and helped, over a million kids raised in an environment prone to gang violence. When I think of his audience, even if they have a cell phone, bought or stolen – a sad measure of success, I reflect on my visit to Mumbai – the gal in the park and the family on the walkway.

Money, success, abundance has not and will not fix our underprivileged, whether they are rich or poor. Azim’s approach of love and intense dedication has put a dent, a big dent, into our societal poverty. Let’s hope and pray that the underprivileged wealthy folks will wake up with a new measure of success.

How will you measure your success today?

Rich Meyer
Author & Blogger

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