Commentary: The poor have a wealth of worldly wisdom

A certain wisdom comes with being poor. Be grateful if you can't lay claim to it.

Miss enough paychecks, fall behind on enough bills and people get savvy quick to the ways of making do.

Kansas City saw this truth play out on the evening news Monday. Recall the lines of people desperately seeking utility assistance? Nearly 1,000 people showed up at an office of United Services Community Action Agency. Police were called for crowd control; parking tickets were written.

But there's more to the story than just the flailing economy.

Monday was the first day the general public, not just the elderly and the disabled, could apply for utility assistance. And it also was the first business day of the Cold Weather Rule. That's the humanitarian way utility companies deal with people who can't pay their bills. From Nov. 1 to March 31, for the most part, utilities won’t be shut off if temperatures drop.

The rush was people wise to the ways of the system. They wanted to ask for help early, fearing funds would run out. Others sought help paying utility bills, wanting to get the heat back on, knowing the Cold Weather Rule would get them through the winter if they run out of money later.

Call it the business of being poor, the ways of subsisting on little.

Shuck the assumptions. Assessments show most of the people served by United Services work and their families are not large. Lazy folks, people who are their own worst enemies, certainly exist. But the term "welfare mentality" is usually used by the "have-lots" intently telling the "have-nots" how to reform their wayward selves.

"In many respects the old poor are much more resourceful; they really know the ropes better than, in some respects, the new poor," said Teri Gillespie, resource manager at United Services, which serves Jackson, Clay and Platte counties. "The new poor — they have no idea who to ask, what to do, the vocabulary even, the resources out there or even which way to turn."

United Services has the task of reaching the new needy without further breaking their spirits. And to continue serving those entrenched in poverty, knowing that the bad economy is pushing them further downward.

I've long thought some of the business world's challenges ought to be turned over to a roomful of single parents managing households at the poverty level. Want to see creative financing? Put those folks together. They are problem solvers.

About 30 percent of the people in line on Monday were new to seeking assistance. The challenge is to help them through systems they thought were for other people, emphasizing their abilities to keep their need temporary.

Tempted to judge? Just be grateful if Nov. 1 held no more significance than a new month of fall.