Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Choosing Poverty?

I was talking to an acquaintance the other day about my Lenten discipline. She stated that it was easier for her to have compassion for people living in poverty in other countries than it was for her to have compassion for people living in this country who "choose to be poor."

Of course no one chooses to be poor, but I've heard enough political and religious (!) rhetoric surrounding poverty and joblessness to know exactly what she means when she says that some people "choose to be poor." You know, those welfare moms who just keep having babies because they can get more government aid. And those folks who would rather sit and home and collect welfare checks that go out and get a job because that's just too hard. I don't doubt that there are such people out there who have given up looking for jobs, or that there are single women who are tired of struggling to make ends meet and decide that having another baby is a sure-fire way to get more money. And let's not forget young men and women who decide that the only way to break the cycle of poverty is to sell drugs.

But I say let's not pass judgment until we've been a mile in those shoes. It's easy for those of us who live in relative comfort to look down our noses at those people who'd rather lay in bed all day than go look for a job, especially when we haven't had the door slammed in our faces a million times, or when we haven't had to miss multiple days of minimum-wage hourly work to take care of a sick child--and then be fired.

If you believe that there are folks out there who choose that life, go ahead and read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed and see if you think you can manage any better than she did.

Or take this challenge from Urban Ministries of Durham:

Or watch Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days episode where he and his girlfriend try to move to a new city and live on minimum wage for a month.

Go ahead.

Richard Stearns calls it the "web of poverty."
While it is true that systems that oppress the poor must be challenged to achieve any lasting escape from poverty, even righting all of the systemic wrongs in a community does not automatically liberate the poor from their shackles. There are other, more subtle factors at play. After decades of entrenched material poverty, many communities suffer from poverty of spirit as well. They have lost faith in themselves and given up after too many heartbreaks and disappointments. My World Vision colleague Jayakumar Christian calls this the 'marred identity' of the poor. After a lifetime of exclusion, exploitation, suffering, and want, they no longer see themselves as people created in God's image with creativity, potential, and worth. They have lost the last thing that can be taken from them--hope.
He also says this:

There is no space here to do justice to all of the various theories on why people are poor and how they can move toward wholeness, but it is important for you to understand that poverty is highly complex and that there are no simple and quick fixes. And when we prescribe one particular 'pill' because we see just one particular symptom, the poor never seem to get well. In fact, they find themselves gulping down handfuls of pills prescribed by too many would-be doctors with too little real understanding of their lives. The poor are not lab rats on whom we can experiment with our pet theories; they are human beings with rich cultural and personal stories of their own. They have hopes and dreams, tragedies and triumphs in their lives. They need us to love them first and then listen to them. They need us to see their assets and their God-given abilities. Mother Teresa once said, 'When we see [those in poverty] as God sees them, we will glimpse His image in their faces--Christ in His most distressing disguise.'
Doesn't sound like something I'd choose.


Cathy said...

Very well said, Mary Beth, and great resources. "Nickle and Dimed" changed me. So does my anti-racism work - the systems are stacked against poor people and the working poor - especially poor people of color.

We need to do a new thing people!

Carrie said...

Wonderful post Mary Beth. I saw the 30 Days show about a year ago and it changed my perception of poverty. Now that my husband has lost his job and my own job is uncertain, I am looking at poverty in a new way - and not in the way that you would immediately assume. We are very fortunate and have lots of savings. And since we are both educated with many skillsets, we have other possibilities open to us. My mind keeps returning to families in real poverty. They do not have anything to fall back on, and I can't even imagine their daily struggle. The value of education cannot be overstated.

Jennifer said...

Preach it Sister!! I have read Nickled and Dimed, yes changed my perspective too.

bethanylutz said...

Yep, I love you. I thought I did...but now I am sure.

Kel Bel said...

Wonderfully thoughtful post - although I've always though poverty a complex topic, Nickel and Dimed really changed my perspective too. Such a compelling read.