What Poverty Is and Isn’t

It’s become fashionable in local conservative circles to talk about the “relative poverty” found in the United States, compared to the real poverty that abounds in Third World nations. And it’s true, generally, that the poor in America are better off than the poor in, say, Indonesia or Malawi.

But while this is a tidy way of ignoring the plight of the disadvantaged around us (without necessarily involving oneself, it seems, in that of those “over there”), it misses a key point, one that I preached about in my very first sermon years ago: Poverty is not simply a lack of money, or having less money than the other guy, or even having less money in a village in Pakistan and more money in a city in Pennsylvania. While it may fly in the face of conservatives’ observations that some of our nation’s “poor” have satellite TV and cars and thus are not “poor,” and presumably not worthy of Christian concern, poverty boils down to three components, only one of which is money. Poverty is a lack of power, a lack of education, and only with these a lack of money.

Being poor in a socioeconomic sense is much like being one of the “poor in spirit” Jesus refers to in the Beatitudes; both are a condition that those living on a dollar a day overseas and those who, as one local sage observed, live in the United States in houses, trailers, and apartments littered with junk toys and old vehicles — the overweight, unkempt among us, he observes, who smell funny and who have bad teeth — experience. I don’t deny that it is easier to be poor in the U.S. than it is to be poor in Soweto; my argument is that dismissing America’s poor because they sometimes accrue worthless crap and lack what some define as classical Christian refinement is a dismissiveness borne of contempt, not a grasp of society, economics, and politics.

Poverty, economic and spiritual, is an unchanging state in which one lacks power, education, and currency — something with which to trade on the market. We are “poor in spirit” because we lack the power to change our spiritual condition; we are utterly without power, in and of ourselves, to effect any kind of change at all to the reality of our separation from God. Likewise, the poor are poor because they lack the power — political, social power — to change theirs. Theirs are not the voices listened to in the corridors of power; theirs are not the needs considered within those halls. Most certainly, the faces of their children and their elderly, sick, and disabled don’t register in those halls.

We are “poor in spirit” because, in addition to power, we lack education. We don’t know what we need to know, and Who we need to know, to be saved from our sin and be reconciled to a Holy God. Without the proclamation and reception of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are left with a knowledge gap as wide as the chasm between us and God. There’s a Way, but it’s not known to those who need it. And the poor, in the U.S. and abroad, are poor in a socio-economic sense because they lack education, the skills and facts necessary to lift themselves from poverty — and that lack of education is a direct result, a confirmation of, their lack of political and social power. It is for this reason that most of the world’s poor are women and children; whatever doors to education and power might squeak open, or be forced open, for men in poverty, remain locked to women burdened not only by poverty, but by patriarchy and the abuse, degradation, and isolation it perpetuates.

Finally, we are poor in spirit, Jesus says, because we have nothing with which to trade in the marketplace of sin and salvation. Our most pious efforts are like dirty rags. We have no “goodness” to offer, no innate virtue or character with which to purchase redemption; our purchasing power in light of our sinfulness is even less than my ability to buy a latte with bottlecaps. The poor among us, in an economic and social sense, are poor in the same way — the financial resources the “not-poor” have are not trickled down in sufficient measure to the destitute, who often attempt, nonetheless, to assuage their misery, and indulge their children, by buying stuff. I’ve worked with the poor for some two decades. I know that when you can’t give your kids a college fund, health insurance, and annual vacations to the lake, you decide that fifty bucks a month for cable TV so they can enjoy the programs their classmates do seems reasonable. But cable TV, junk cars, and cheap furnishings represent, good or bad, the efforts of some poor Americans to remedy the day-to-day misery of their situations, to appear on the outside to be a tiny bit “more” than they feel they are on the inside. Sinful pride? Maybe. But it’s no more sinful on the part of the poor, and a whole lot more understandable, than middle-class America’s ravenous hunger for 2009 Dodge Compensator trucks and 50-inch hi-def TVs.

The entrenchment of poverty requires a devilish trifecta of political and social impotence, a lack of education, and then, along with those, insufficient funds to remedy the situation. And poverty is rarely a temporary thing; the elements that render it temporary are the factors that, in the negative, define poverty — being broke is the state most of us are in until the fruit of our education and social power is harvested. Yes, poor people lack much money — but not all people who lack money at a given period are truly poor. Being broke isn’t the same thing as being poor.

Jeff and I were broke during the first few years of our marriage, but we weren’t suffering through poverty. We ate lots of beans, rice, pasta and ramen, but that was our starting point, not our destiny — and through no virtue or strength on our part. This is a sinful world and a fallen country; that we, Jeff and Keely, benefit from it proves the point. Jeff was secure, healthy, literate, and had avenues open to him that enabled him to start a business; I had a college degree, a skill, a voice, and a career. Our days of financial stress were, we knew, only temporary. The reality for us was that while our first house cost $9,000 (yes, nine thousand!) and was as run-down as you’d imagine, the world is simply geared toward us — white, literate citizens with some education and a political voice.

Yes, God has blessed us tremendously, and with those blessings, we’re called — all of us — to recognize that the holy grace of God and the unholy “grace” of sinful society, both examples of unmerited favor, have set us on a path that often runs through being broke, but never, or very rarely, leads to being poor. Because God has blessed so many of us with material prosperity, through his lovingkindness, and because this same God superintends a world that sinfully showers privilege on us through our legal citizenship, our color, our access to nutrition, the arts, health care, and education, it’s imperative for Christian America to recognize both examples of unmerited favor and use what we have to help others.

Every heart has its own story; every life has its peculiar blessings and particular hurts. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we can wander through life ignoring — or, worse, chasing away — the poor, lodging our miserly virtue in questioning “Are there no poorhouses? Are there no prisons?” We wince at Scrooge’s hard-heartedness and rejoice in his redemption, while witnessing now a great “Christian” movement that grills the poor, finds them unworthy of aid, and publishes lengthy treatises that seek justification of their indifference by asking “Have they not cars? Have they not cable? Are their yards not full of worthless crap?”

There was repentance on Scrooge’s part. As for our local Reformed Reconstructionists, only the Spirit knows, and I pray he’s not grieved further.

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