Check Engine Light

The week after Father’s Day is a terrible time to talk about your Dad’s failures, but I think my dad would agree with me on one of his: he did a terrible job teaching me about cars. To be fair, my mom didn’t do any better. I got my first car the summer after my sophomore year of high school. One weekend during my junior year of COLLEGE I was visiting my dad in Houston when he randomly asked, “When was the last time you got the oil changed on that car?” “Never,” I said. “What’s an oil change?” And so it came to pass that five years into car ownership, and after a quick and LOUD lesson on the purpose and desired frequency of such, I got my first oil change.

That afternoon, driving in the middle of traffic on Loop 610, I noticed the red “check engine” light in my dashboard had flickered on and was now glowing steadily. “Good grief,” I thought. “I just got my oil changed. There must be something wrong with that light.” So, I kept driving…until I started hearing a horrible banging sound coming from under the hood. By the time I negotiated my way through a half dozen lanes of traffic and off of the loop…well… that little car was never the same. Evidently the oil-changers hadn’t put the oil filter on correctly. Evidently that’s important to do.

My mistake in this situation was that I thought there was something wrong with the light when it was far more likely, and more concerning, that there was something wrong with the engine.

To some extent poverty rate is the “check engine” light on a community’s economic engine. Ours in Waco is glowing brightly. It’s tempting to believe that there’s something wrong with the light – that there is something wrong with the people who find themselves in the situation of poverty. On a case-by-case basis it is pretty easy to find evidence that seems to support that theory if you are looking for it.

When you look at the overall percentages, however, it seems more likely, and more concerning, that there is something amiss with our economic engine. Our poverty rate of 30% is more than double the rate for the United States (14%), and 13 percentage points higher than the Texas rate of 17%. Our close neighbor Temple has a rate of around 13%. It doesn’t seem likely that we have double the percentage of people with something wrong with them. Why would we? We need to be careful not to convince ourselves that the problem is the light when it’s really the engine.



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