Essay / Culture

On being poor. . .

In the United States, why are there poor people? As someone who is from one of the poorest states in the Union (West Virginia) and who has in the past lived by choice in urban areas allow me to make a few observations. I would also recommend reading some articles from the Heritage Foundation to get some data to support my conclusions.First, let us state a few obvious things from a Christian perspective. Poverty in and of itself is not a moral condition. The poor are not “evil.” Prosperity is not a sure sign of God’s blessing. Scripture and common sense make it clear that (law of large numbers) a good lifestyle will usually lead to material success (though not necessarily ‘wealth’). However, God’s ways in any given person or situation cannot be known. One cannot meet a given poor person and say, “God is punishing him.” Poverty can also be a position chosen for effective ministry. As a vocation being free from worldly goods can be an excellent way to live. In fact, a simple lifestyle is quite freeing. Every few years Hope and I try to purge ourselves of “stuff” by giving things away. We also try to have an open door policy in our house. While not called to holy poverty, we do believe that we are merely stewards of the nicer things God has allowed us to have. Religious (monks for example) are often called to more extreme lifestyles. I celebrate this holy call. On the whole, good and moral living leads to prosperity in a just society. (I am not talking about wealth, but the goal of having the basic needs of the family met with some comfort.) Injustice can also lead to poverty. For example, racism in our society has historically caused African-Americans to live less well.What of modern America? Taken as a whole, while not perfect, modern America is the most economically just nation that has ever existed or is likely to exist before the Second Coming. While there is room for improvement, essentially any American can provide for the basic needs of his or her family with hard work. (Of course, this broad description allows for those few who through bad luck need help from the social safety net any Christian society sets up. We spend billions on this social safety net.) Many people are poor because they fail to take advantages of free education. Government schools are not good, and I would argue for free market solutions to this problem, but they do provide a basic education. Combined with a “chump change” job, they provide access to the nearly free Community College system. A person who behaves morally, does not abuse drugs, and works hard can most often escape poverty and become an owner of a home and business. In the history of the world, such social mobility is nearly unprecedented. In fact, I think we take it for granted. The difficulty often (in places like my home state) is a culture of poverty. Education is derided or viewed as useless. Goals are not set for children. Moral behavior is not shown by parents, who are often missing. The best cure for poverty and crime in the United States is strong families. For the most part, in the United States poverty is caused by a culture of failure in families. Is there institutional injustice that leads to poverty? No one who has lived in the city can deny it. Police would pass known drug houses and go “light” on crime in our neighborhood. When our house was robbed for drug money, the police could name the “perps” as they came in the door. Government paid lawyers would have these folk back on the street before the paperwork could be finished. Cable television pumped its message of lethargy, bad morals, and “blame” to our neighborhood night after night. Still, despite crime and inferior educational options escape was more than possible with a small amount of work. The largest impediment I have seen to such an escape were personal choices on the part of individuals. The question is not whether America is perfect, but whether (on the whole) any better society is likely or attainable. Revolutionaries always promise utopia, but deliver death. For example, in some ways Sweden is better in terms of poverty (fewer poor), but has created a sterile culture unable even to reproduce itself. It cannot defend itself and were it not for American military power would be helpless against other states. At this point a brief word on international poverty might be in order. Most countries in the world that experience high levels of poverty are unjust states. They propagate unfree societies that do not allow for free men or free markets. They do not impose equality under the law and so cannot sustain a free and fair business climate. In the United States crooked businesses eventually fail and many business criminals are at least ruined. We can argue about how harsh such punishment should be or whether it is still just enough, but we are one of the few nations where men like the leaders of Enron would face serious jail time for their crimes. As President Bush has said, this should be more and truer and is an area where our society can improve. In any case, giving money to the poor of these unjust (Islamic, communist, socialist, or otherwise unfree) states has proven counter-productive at best. The Heritage Foundation has excellent resources on foreign aid. Is there still racism in America? Of course, there is. Does it cause some of our poverty problem? Of course, it does. I have had friend who have experienced the negative impact of this in their own careers. However, racism can be overcome in most cases. We do not need revolutionary change, but changes in the hearts of individual people. We must continue to look for ways to give equality of opportunity for all. Immigrant groups of color in the last fifty years have proven the ability of any person to “make it.” Race simply does not account for most poverty. Most persons on long term welfare are white. Some of the poorest people in the nation are whites in Appalachia. Here racism cannot be a factor, but a culture that cultivates failure retards the ability to move forward. A recent study of the causes of poverty in England showed the same thing. I believe major media may be a major cause of poverty. Our pop culture which glorifies sexual misbehavior, mocks “good” students, makes heroes out of the rare few who can misbehave (music stars, athletes) and make a living, and provides easy access to gambling (lottery) is hardest on the poor. The anti-hero may make an interesting movie, but the “prostitute with the heart of gold” or the “Matchstick man” who is really a nice guy just is too rare to serve as a role model. Bad behavior mostly leads to bad ends, especially amongst the poor. Movies rarely show someone making it by working hard, paying their bills, and marrying, yet that is the best way to avoid poverty. Children of rich parents may get a mistake or two. Children of the poor are deeply impacted by their mistakes and sins. What of those who are poor (cannot feed or shelter their family in dignity) through no fault of their own? There the call of the Church is clear. Help must be provided. The Church spends millions a year to do just that, but it is not enough. Punitive taxes to fund inefficient government programs which often undermine the very behaviors most likely to end poverty (marriage, chastity, education) reduce the income available for giving.American Christians are also captivated with owning ever more stuff. There cannot be a government edict, or even a Church one, on how much is too much. Every person must answer that question before their God. Still, a life of giving (to at least the level of the tithe) and service is not an option for the Christian, but a holy calling. We should be known for giving. Hope and I try to make our house and “stuff” available for fellow Christians, while raising our own children in a secure way. These are hard calls and one must be careful of easy judgments. God may give my neighbor a very nice car. I should
not covet or judge. He has given me a nice film library. I should use that gift in His service while allowing Him to deal with my neighbor. A final word about goals in a culture: Radical equality of possessions or wealth in this life is neither desirable nor necessary for a just society. The folks enjoying their boats in the ocean today do not keep me from enjoying my house in La Mirada. God has blessed them in ways He has not blessed me.

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