This week I watched a controversial show called “Benefits Street” which is a British program depicting the US equivalent of welfare recipients. I’ve been watching a lot of poverty related documentaries hoping to find money saving ideas. Unfortunately, there is very little information to be gleaned from watching impoverished people living in first-world countries. I have gained tips from people living in what is commonly known as “third-world” countries about saving money and conserving energy. One thing I have learned is that I can cook rice and soup using a thermos instead of wasting propane or electricity for heating water. I also read a lot about the lives of people living during the Great Depression and love the motto “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”
Why can’t I learn anything from watching welfare recipients? The problem is that every person on those shows has stuff and other resources available. In general, welfare or benefits recipients have the luxuries of a television, kitchen table, cell phone, bed and couch. It also appears that most of them can afford cigarettes. I look at anything thrown away in the trash is like throwing away money. Almost every item can be reused for something else. Dryer lint and the cardboard toilet paper rolls can be used to start a woodstove. Plastic coffee containers can be used for storage. Old clothes can be used for rags. During desperate times, everything should be used again and little should be thrown away. Living in western countries, almost everyone has access to information through public libraries that are free or close to free. Libraries have internet which gives someone all the opportunities to learn. The vast majority of people have at least rudimentary reading skills.
I recently watched a show about urban gardening and the man being interviewed grew atypical garden plants. He told the interviewer, “Nobody in this neighborhood knows that every plant in my yard is edible so they don’t try to steal these.” It was somewhat of a revelation because there are so many plants on the side of the road that are available to anyone who knows what they are. I live in a rural area but many healthy young adults are on some form of welfare. There shouldn’t be a food shortage or hunger problem because most people have access to open spaces of land for gardens. In my county, the extension office even offers classes about food storage and canning. Oak and black walnut trees grow in abundance and yet very few people will bother harvesting the nuts. A fishing license only costs $20 per year with most rivers stocked every couple of weeks. People give away goats and chickens in the newspaper all the time. There are wild rabbits and quail running around everywhere. With a little bit of energy and planning, a desperately hungry person doesn’t need to buy much food in this area.
Defining poverty is difficult, because the line is always moving. A hundred years ago, virtually everyone on welfare nowadays would be considered rich. None of the people in the documentaries have to rely on a good harvest to survive through the winter and few of them have to build a fire to stay warm. The clothes they are wearing are not from animals they had to keep alive through disease and extreme weather conditions. But at the same time, the pride of growing their own food, building their own fires and keeping their own animals does not exist anymore either. Throughout history, humans had to use so much time and energy just to stay alive. Welfare and charity for healthy adults is still a fairly new concept. I wonder what will happen in the future as the poverty line keeps moving up.