My two brothers and I were introduced to poverty on a personal basis when I was in fourth grade. That was when our dad skipped town leaving my mother, brothers, and me destitute. He was supposed to pay alimony and child support, but rarely did. In fact, rare soon became never. Out of necessity, my mother went to work, but lacking both education and work skills she could never get much of a job. Mostly I remember waitress jobs, but she also had an assortment of other low-paying positions, mostly part-time.
No longer able to afford our comfortable home in a middle-class neighborhood, we were forced to move to a smaller home in a neighborhood of less congenial circumstances. Our new neighborhood was run down and seedy in comparison to what we were used to, as was our new home. However, the neighborhood did have one advantage: everyone else who lived there shared our circumstances. They were poor too. If it is true that misery loves company, we at least had plenty of company.
In our former neighborhood, everyone I knew had a mother and a father in the home. The mother typically stayed home and took care of the family and other domestic duties. The fathers got up every morning and went to work to earn a living for their families. This was in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In our new neighborhood, things were different. About half of the families were headed by single mothers. The fathers who had not left their families—at least not yet—typically sat around drinking most of the day. All were unemployed. In fact, I don’t remember many men in our new neighborhood who worked. Idleness seemed to be an accepted and even acceptable way of life for these men.
There was no such thing as the lottery in those days. Nonetheless, it seemed that every adult male in our neighborhood was always looking for some easy way to get rich; a way that did not involve work. Unemployed men would sit for hours on front porches drinking and analyzing the greyhounds that would race every Friday night at the nearby dog track. What little money these men could scrape together or borrow was often bet on the dog races. I don’t remember anyone ever winning any money, but I do remember quite a few scuffles when men who had borrowed money and lost it at the dog track could not pay it back. I also remember kids going without meals because their fathers had lost the family’s meager weekly income betting on losing dogs; that or drinking it away. It never seemed to occur to any of these men to better their circumstances by getting a job.
It was in junior high school that I first became aware of politics. Our next-door neighbor was a volunteer in the local Democratic Party’s campaign on behalf of John F. Kennedy. Everyone in my neighborhood liked Kennedy. He was, as they all said, “for the poor.” As I listened to adults in my neighborhood talk about the presidential race, they seemed to want the federal government to take care of them, and they thought that was more likely to happen if Kennedy won. Nobody in our neighborhood liked Richard Nixon. As a youngster I had no idea how the government might “take care of us,” but I could tell that adults in my neighborhood did not think Richard Nixon was the candidate who would do it.
On rare occasions I was able to catch a ride back to my previous neighborhood and spend time with my friends from another life. On these occasions, I would spend the weekend at a friend’s house, go to church with that family on Sunday morning, and return home after Sunday dinner—easily the best meal I would get all week. As I listened to the adults in these families discuss the presidential election, I noticed that a lot of them, unlike the idle adults in my new neighborhood, liked Nixon. As to Kennedy, they seemed to worry that he might turn the country into a “welfare state.” I did not know then what adults meant by a “welfare state,” but the inflection in their voices told me it wasn’t a good thing.
As a ten-year old, my grasp of politics was minimal at best. In spite of this, a stream of logic began to form in my mind concerning the presidential election. It went like this: Friends from my current neighborhood with idle fathers who do nothing but sit around all day drinking and who continually squander their meager incomes on gambling and other get-rich-quick schemes liked Kennedy. These are people who do nothing to take care of themselves, but think the government should take care of them. Friends from my former neighborhood with working fathers who support their families, teach Sunday School, coach little league, and contribute to the betterment of the community liked Nixon. My ten-year old logic went like this: My friends in the latter group definitely have better homes, better food, and better lives. This being the case, I leaned intuitively toward Nixon rather than Kennedy.
It was during the Kennedy-Nixon campaign that I first came upon the concepts of conservative and liberal. Kennedy was described as a liberal and Nixon as a conservative. To my ten-year old way of thinking, this comparison meant that liberals were for asking the government to take care of people who sat around all day drinking, gambling, and refusing to work while conservatives were for personal responsibility, working for a living, and taking care of their families. It seemed to me that the choice between liberal and conservative was a no-brainer, even for a 10 year-old. I was a conservative.
My choice to be a conservative cast me in the role of a minority politically speaking. After all, I lived in the deep South which at the time was still called “the solid South.” The South was solid at that time in that it was solidly Democratic. Conservatives were Republicans, a word made a pejorative in the South by the abuses of the so-called reconstruction period following the Civil War. Old wounds concerning the war and its aftermath still festered making Republicans—the Party of Lincoln—a distinct minority in the South at the time; a condition that did not change until Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter.
When my comfortable middle-class life was snatched away from me and replaced by poverty, my world came crashing down. I thought nothing good would ever come of my new circumstances. But I was wrong. The opportunity to observe the lives of idle people who yearned for a better life through get-rich-quick schemes, avoided work at all costs, and squandered their meager incomes on drinking and gambling juxtaposed against those of people who worked hard and took personal responsibility for their lives was a great gift. Because of this opportunity to compare, I learned that people who took personal responsibility for their lives, worked hard, and disciplined themselves rather than looking to the government to improve their circumstances fared much better.
It was this lesson that made me into what I call a PHD long before I actually earned a college degree of the same designation. By PHD I mean that I was poor, hungry, and driven. The depredations of being poor motivated me in a powerful way to do what was necessary to get out of poverty, and I did not intend to sit around waiting for the government to do it for me. I was driven to overcome my new circumstances and re-create something more akin to my old circumstances. Further, it became clear to me that education and hard work were what was needed, not government assistance. The fathers of my friends from my former life were well educated and they worked hard. They did not expect the government to do anything for them. In fact, they seemed to want the government to just get out of their way and leave them alone. It was the failure of others in my poor neighborhood to grasp this lesson that left them, their children, and their children’s children in the same state of poverty year after year after year. Now as a man in my mid-60s, I thank God everyday for turning my former poverty into a lesson, not an excuse.