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.