Updated: May 23, 2019
When founders Luke and Joy Ellsworth speak about the value of nature and community in our lives, the message resonates. The vast majority agrees that a stroll in a peaceful environment is good for mental health and blood pressure, or that the nutrition in homegrown produce is far and away better than nutrition in store-bought produce, or that green tech would lower utility bills for low-income households if it were available to them. The problem is that these ideas are (at first glance) unachievable. Or are they? There’s a new reality regarding green living and modest lifestyles gaining more traction: It seems that “living green” is both possible and very beneficial for people at the lower end of the earnings spectrum.
The Ellsworths spent three years living in the Missouri Ozarks, which is a remote area of the country with a very low median income. They were drawn by educators’ reports that in south-central and southeastern Missouri, poverty and destitution mirrored the more well-known urban squalor both in measured statistics and in visible living conditions. When Luke and Joy first heard about this, as urbanites, their gut reaction was that the wide open spaces would lessen the sting of poverty symptoms (i.e. very low incomes, teen pregnancy, drug use, low educational attainment and low life expectancies.) On the contrary, the geographic isolation seemed to exacerbate many of these conditions to the point of obliteration. For instance, Joy was shocked to find child mortality rates in the Missouri Ozarks clocking in higher than both of Missouri’s high population urban areas.
Upon lengthy investigation, however, the Ellsworths discovered an anomaly in the expected poverty outcome. There seemed to be two distinctly unique cultures of households which both earned next to nothing in monetary compensation, but one group ended up much better off than the other. One group fit the profile of what many imagine would happen in a household that has earned way below federal poverty level for decades; the other group achieved good health and happiness, which was less expected.
The larger, less healthy group consisted of people who could not provide for themselves. Exhibiting the infamous behaviors that are openly detested by right-leaning political commentators, “the poor” relied upon government subsidies to keep themselves or their families alive. Among higher earners, it was taboo to admit the existence of third-world living conditions in the Ozarks, an area in the heart of what locals knew to be the most powerful country in the world. Yet every day public school teachers in the area saw the truth evidenced in their students, and they would share stories to reduce the pain that they felt in their hearts for the children.
The teachers reported feeling conflict, since they personally knew the parents of those children, and many (if not most) of the parents were loving, delightful people. Since government subsidy is a cultural faux-pas in the Ozarks, some families in this group turned to escapism or illegal income as a means of coping. Even in those cases, the Ellsworths found the families still consisted of loving, delightful people worthy of help. The worst cases entered the criminal justice and child welfare systems, witnessed in Joy’s work coordinating foster care advocacy in Missouri’s 37th Judicial Circuit. Only then did people in low-income environments begin to lose hold on their ability to produce consistent evidence of their own human decency.
The second group earning incomes below federal poverty level consisted of families that somehow maintained good citizenship and health. These families’ status among the area’s affluent implied that they possessed wealth, though it was technically non-monetized. Lifestyle choices common among these families involved repurposing of resources, community resource sharing, entrepreneurialism, low-cost food collection and utility cost reduction. The embrace of enterprising eclecticism also seemed to be a shared trait in this second group. The Amish community, which adheres to the same values on religious principle, often appeared with this successful low-earning community at craft festivals and knowledge-sharing conferences.
In one example, Luke and Joy observed a couple who had come to a University Extension office wanting to grow the family business that had earned between $10,000 and $15,000 of annual income for themselves and their five children. They had done well over the years, and all the children had grown and moved away, but the youngest had decided to stay home and help her family make the business into a decent retirement income. In another example, an extended family pooled their resources to purchase three adjacent plots of land and work the land together in three separate houses. Beyond growing food together, family members also ended up founding a creative marketing business, a smoked brisket business, and an agricultural cooperative.
Luke and Joy observed these families annually celebrating, either with their extended families or with their community, the beginnings and ends of each season that involved the harvest of resources. It wasn’t the celebration that made for the success, but the work done in-between that made the difference. This involved growing ample food at home, foraging overgrown areas for edibles, and hunting to eat various animals. Most of the collected food was preserved for long-term consumption. The potluck was the party venue of choice.
These practices required spending most or all of the waking hours outdoors. A major part of Ozark culture seemed to include the enjoyment of the outdoors, whether that is exploring forests, climbing rock faces, or swimming and boating in lakes and streams. During plentiful seasons, the act of collecting food became for many a practice of mindfulness in nature, even sometimes a return to childlike exploration of the world. While experimenting with this cultural practice, Luke experienced a dramatic health improvement—the elimination of an autoimmune reaction that had threatened his eyesight for nearly a decade prior. This experience cemented for the Ellsworths their belief that spending time in natural environments can improve health and wellness.
Many of these successful families also combined the strength of community with the strength of nature to create utility cooperatives. They worked together to specialize knowledge about electrical systems, pooled their resources, and bought solar panels and wind generators for household use, or to be shared by the community. Alternative energy in southern Missouri is a lucrative industry with a strong local market.
Seeking out the commonalities among healthy and happy people earning low incomes helped the Clement Waters founding team pinpoint lifestyle factors that significantly lessened, or in some cases eliminated, the expected burdens associated with having a very low monetary income. In the healthiest and happiest households earning under federal poverty level in the Ozarks, a simple paradigm ruled: Respect your connections.
Humanity’s connections to each other and to nature can be a major part of the solution for low-income survival. As an environmental community development organization, Clement Waters Retreat works to increase people’s happiness and healthiness as a result of their connections to nature and their connections to other people. To counteract the stressors of urban life, we demonstrate affordable, simple and easily adoptable solutions for health and survival.