Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Poverty Mindset

If we don’t face some things about poverty squarely, we will pull away from working with the poor. We’ll do the prudent thing, the task-oriented thing—helping in some limited ways, but making sure we don’t get taking advantage of. Maybe no one needs to reread my screed on the processes and procedures churches go thru to make sure they’re not letting someone work the system. But if you do need reminding, you can find it on my blog, back in January, titled “Walking Around Money.”

Poverty is a mindset. That is, when you begin to work with the poor, you will find yourself frustrated at their lack of initiative, their giving up as soon as they hear any kind of negative answer. Their inertia.

Part of that is that for most of the poor, life has been one long beat down. It’s not like they up and decided at 21 to be poor and “losers,” as we might be apt to call them. It started in childhood. It started in their parents’ and grandparents’ childhood. They learned early that things don’t work out. That there is not much point in saving money because it will get soaked up by some “emergency” later on. You might as well spend it now because you need it now.

They learn very quickly that they are different. It is both enraging and heartbreaking to go with a poor family to any kind of social services or hospitals. Too often, they are treated rudely, treated as if they are stupid. After spending some time and building some trust with one family, both parents let out that they did not like going anywhere that might help them because they always come back feeling badly about themselves. It’s deep. It goes from the fact that they look, talk, dress, smell differently than “normal” people. Then it goes to the fact that if someone like me walks in with 5 cute kids, they’re cute kids (I have run a sort of experiment to see how people respond to me when I end up picking up a particular bunch of kids vs. how people respond when they are with their own parents. It’s shocking. There’s something remotely sentimental when it’s me, something almost reprehensible if they are with their parents.) If a poor family comes in with 5 cute kids… which one of them should die? Because that’s what we mean, finally, when we get mad that they have too many kids. We never stop to think that God gave us what we have for those who have nothing. And if you are going to hold a parent’s irresponsibility (if that’s what it even is) against a child, I don’t hold out much hope for you and Jesus’ meeting.

I grew up pretty privileged. My dad has more books than most county libraries. I never lacked for education, motivation, encouragement. I could have been on cruise control, and life probably would have worked out from the simple force of middle class. But what if you don’t have that? What if your parents can’t read? What if, God forbid, you’re just not very smart? You add rambunctiousness and boredom to the way the poor look, talk, and act, and a child hears from day one in school (and maybe even at home!) he is stupid, will not amount to anything… how long before this becomes reality?

Part of why we have to put down the poor, why we have to be against them is that they tear down the myth that we live by: that anyone can make it if they try hard enough. Poverty, if taken seriously, may make us realize that we did not achieve anything on our own, that we were set up for success from the get-go, and some are not so lucky. Not to say that it can’t be done, that this country is not countless stories of people making it out of the worst spots. But it does not always, or even often, work like that. It’s why the stories are so important to us.

So a child grows up miserable at home, miserable at school, miserable in his encounters with society because at each place he is either judged (and a mantle of fear is laid on him—us taxpayers worry he will be a burden on us) or realizes that he is constantly beholden if he is to get anything. So he learns to con and hustle. Or sinks into despair, alcoholism, drugs. Or just becomes shiftless.

If you can understand poverty as a mind-set, a build-up of lots of experiences, you’ll have a better chance of making an impact on the problem. You’ll know, for example, that more money will not solve the problem. We’ve been throwing money at it for years and… nothing. And then you’ll know what a double whammy it is to think that we’ll give some money, but then set up a complicated process to make sure we’re not being taken advantage of by giving away the thing that we want to keep but won’t solve the problem. The only solution is a committed Christian relationship. If you really feel like doing something about poverty, it will come down to becoming friends, becoming family, building trust and love so that they see another way of living. You have to change the mindset, and you can only do that by being a Christian presence aiding the “renewing” of their minds.

But this is a lot harder than giving away some money.


Peter said...

I'm wondering about evangelism and language. Maybe talk isn't so cheap. Maybe the way we talk to, with and about these people you describe. I don't so much mean the power of positive thinking or some kind of pentecostal positive confession.

I'm thinking more along the lines of truth-telling, of rightly articulating our own story with God, and rightly naming them as children of God.

I dunno know. I'm just riffing off the top of my head as usual.

Aaron said...

I think you're right. I guess my attitude going into any place is learn the language and the culture. It was important to do the bluegrass night because so many of our neighbors have Eastern KY roots. It's going to resonate with them. But you have to meet them, get to know them to figure that out. And then, be all things to all people so that by all possible means (bluegrass, where you live, how you live, how you listen, how you talk...) you might save some...

John said...

Recently i have thought alot about for-profit business and taking those profits to help the poor. I don't think we can change the poor (or the world) just by employing them or diverting the profits to ease their financial burdens.

I think there must be a systemic shift in how those who manage and run for-profit businesses, aka "the man", choose to engage and employ the poor. It is not enough anymore (if it ever were) to give someone a job, and yes, it happens. We must help to set them up for success. Not overload their plate to begin with.

There are those with determination and ambition and those who have had determination and ambition beat out of them. We need to re-install hope, small measures of success, baby step them to more. And as one of those baby steps they need to duplicate the process with someone else.

Just riffin of the top. : )

chad said...

Aaron, I think this is one of the best blog posts I have ever read anywhere. I understand what you mean by

"I could have been on cruise control, and life probably would have worked out from the simple force of middle class."

I think trying to throw yourself out of that momentum some times is the hardest but greatest first step.

Thanks for sharing this with us.

Aaron said...

Thanks, Chad. It's by His Grace.

jpeachjack said...

Wonderful insight. You hit the nail on the head when you said:

"The only solution is a committed Christian relationship. If you really feel like doing something about poverty, it will come down to becoming friends, becoming family, building trust and love so that they see another way of living. You have to change the mindset, and you can only do that by being a Christian presence aiding the “renewing” of their minds."

I became friends with a family of 9 almost 10 years ago. The mindset was (and sometimes still is) very frustrating. I have days where I feel that the parents just don't get it. At times I have pulled away out of frustration and other times I have embraced out of love. Through the years I have grown from being a neighbor, friend, and now member of the family.

It's not always comfortable, but if the cycle and the mindset of proverty can be broken what greater reward can there be?

Sharlee said...

I have personal experience of the 'Poverty Mindset'. I grew up in the midwest, in and around Detroit area as a 'white girl'. Moved to the South, against my will (parents) and married a Southern black man.

Prejudices aside from the Southern culture, this man and I hit it off from the start. Best friends so to speak. I grew up with acceptance of color and creed. He grew up with prejudices I could never know in my lifetime.

Fast forward to now, 20+ years later. We have lost two houses in our marriage. Yes we are still married. Have three children.

I marked up the first home foreclosure as the fact we were in our late 20s early 30s and young and dumb. Went through the recession of 1991.

This time we are in the recession of 2007. We both worked in real estate. He as a realtor for 4 years and I as a mortgage consultant for 6 years, in the banking field for 20+ years. I saw the writing on the wall, so to speak. In 12/2006 with his income diminishing, mine diminishing, sales almost coming to a hault. I begged him to sell our house! Went as far as to put his realtor for sale sign in the front yard.

Long story. He coming from an all black neighborhood, from the South, parents were domestic and lawn service workers, never owned a piece of property in their lives. He buried his head in the sand and refused to sell the house! For three years! House is now in foreclosure.

I have come to realize that if I stay with this man, I am doomed for retirement in a single wide mobile home. Which, to him would still be the Taj Mahal!

We are seperated now. And he is trying to convince me, he has better intentions. I say you can not change the mindset.

I noticed too, when we spoke the other night, just in conversation he mentioned someone he had met in his business (lawn maintenance) a man was telling him about what wonderful cakes his wife made. She sold them to customers who requested them. Only the ingredients were starting to cost more and the profit margin was closing in to $1.40 per cake. I listend to his story about this couple and cake making. Then I gave him mine about a woman who was on Ophra who won the Million Dollar Bake Off! Gave him the story on this. After our conversation, I realized, his stories are doom and gloom and mine are enthusiastic and hopeful!

Thoughts on that?