This is about my seventh run at this week’s blog post. I go between pondering esoteric philosophy and facts and back again. None of it is striking the right chord in me, so I’m going to try a little free association and see where we get.

I would typically identify as a Republican – though I have voted Democrat. I truly don’t connect with either party completely on any issue so that leaves me mainly as a standing member of the Dissatisfied Party. Based on what I’ve gathered from various reports, tweets, Facebook posts and water cooler conversations, the DP has the largest population base right now.

I guess I’m starting here because that is typically where we start policy discussions in America. We identify the other person’s party and then define how they feel based on the vitriol we hear spewed out by mainstream media. Depending on what popular 24 hour news channel you watch, you are edified daily on the ridiculous position of the other party and why they will destroy this fine country if we don’t take radical action to stop them.

The end result of this at a grass roots level is primarily political disengagement. Even those who are willing to engage in debate typically end up disenfranchised or disillusioned to the point of inertia.

For the purposes of this series – let’s jump over that pit of despair and not get bogged down in policy. Let’s talk about welfare, its history, and how we got to this point, but let’s start with a different approach than the political party-based one we may be all-too familiar with.

I don’t know if you have used Quora (www.quora.com), an amazing site where you can pose questions and get a wealth of opinions. I am using it as part of my research on this subject of poverty

One of the questions I found on Quora is: “Why do you think most poor people remain poor?”

It is this question that I want us to consider. I don’t want to get into another debate about the freeloaders in our system because there is no debate there. People abuse the system. I don’t want to get into a debate on the right public policy to eradicate poverty. There has been poverty throughout history. A tweak to public policies that date back to the 1600’s isn’t the answer.

What I want us to think about in this series is simply this question – Why do poor people remain poor? Furthermore, what insight does that give us?

Had you been born into true poverty, you most likely would remain in true poverty. This is a statistical fact. One of the greatest indicators of escaping poverty is never having known poverty.

It is easy for those of us who grew up in middle class America, or better, to kid ourselves that we have somehow managed to stay out of welfare and do well for ourselves based solely on our amazing work ethic. It is so hard to let go of the idea that individual responsibility is the master determination of our destiny that considering any other idea feels almost anti-American. I know it’s hard for me. I would like to think that my hard work is what got me here and that given a worse set of circumstances at birth, my hard work would have eventually gotten me here again. In many cases, that veiwpoint is simply not true.

Jon Crater painted this vivid picture in response to the question posted on Quora:

“Let me paint a picture” he begins.

“You grow up the 5th of 7 children to a single mother. She herself never finished high school.

Your father does not support you in any way. Your mother worked a job at Burger King once. But that was before you were born. You’ve never seen her work a job in your life.

You are gifted with only average intelligence.

Your mother rarely shows interest in your school work.

You don’t personally know anyone well who has been to college

You have no idea what you would even do in college since you don’t have any exposure to any professions that you actually need a college degree for.

The goal that everyone seems to have for you is to stay alive, stay off drugs and stay out of jail.

The only people you know with money are criminals. Everyone else is poor and most of them are on some sort of government assistance. No one expects you to be any different.

The only job you can get is 30 hours a week, pays minimum wage, has no benefits and barely pays for the gas you use to get there, assuming your car doesn’t break down on the way.

So…what is it about this kind of upbringing (which is astoundingly common in the US) do you think actually encourages prosperity as a goal? ”

The picture Mr. Crater created with his stark words was sobering to me. It helped take me out of statistics and “free-loaders” and “users” and put me in the shoes of people. These poor we talk about – they are people. People who often face neglect and cruelty the likes of which we can not fully comprehend. We will talk about the systems later on in this series that help to perpetuate this cycle – but for now I just want us to spend some time thinking about our question…

Why do the poor tend to remain poor? And then a follow up question: What is our response to the answer?

If the poor remain poor because they lack the means with which to escape poverty, then isn’t it our duty as members of a thriving first world society, not to mention Christians (for those of us who are), to provide them with a ladder, a bridge, a map? A way out?

Let’s come out from behind our go-to arguments and common perceptions and start to think of the poor as people—not “poor people;” rather, people who are poor.

Next week we will look at some of the other responses I received regarding the question I posed on Facebook: How do you define the poor? Obviously, financially poor is but one aspect. I think even from this week’s dialogue we can see that financial poverty is often a result of lack in multiple areas of life.

Please post your reactions. How does this discussion of the poor make you feel? I had some defensive thoughts come to mind that I mentioned above – what defensive responses came to mind as you read? Does this make you willing to think differently about the topic?

I can’t wait to hear from you.

As always – click the plus sign next to the “Follow” button to subscribe. You will get emails sent to you with each new post.

Thank you!

  • I really sat up and took notice of your comment about thinking a strong work ethic will almost automatically translate into ‘the good life.’ I don’t know that I ever realized that’s what I was thinking, but it stopped me in my tracks in this post. I grew up lower middle class, but my parents were both hard workers…so I had that modeled for me in every inch of my life.

    I often have thought about this quandary as we see it in education. I have so many students who I talk with and say, “You can choose a better life!” But, they just don’t see it. They don’t know what it is to strive for excellence, and it’s hard to choose that path when you don’t really know what it looks like in real life and how it applies to you.

    Lots to think about here. Mainly, I’m thinking, “Now what?” What does that mean on a day-to-day level as I walk this life.

  • Penny Garver

    I keep trying to comment on this, but my comments turn way more personal than I’m comfortable with in a public forum. So, I’m going to try to de-personalize what I want to say a little.

    I was raised with a good work ethic. But I was also raised by parents who were service-oriented and didn’t make much money. I have five siblings, all but one make more money than I do, because I followed my father onto that service path. My first teaching job in 1985 paid less than $14,000 a year. I was definitely living on the edge of poverty in that position. Was it because I was raised in poverty? No. Was it because I wasn’t raised with a good work ethic? No. It was because I wanted to teach in a small town where I knew I was making a difference for some kids.

    I bounced around some, tried out different jobs, different communities, different lifestyles, until I landed where I am now, 14 years ago. I still don’t make a lot of money (I could actually make $10,000-$15,000 more a year and have summers off if I worked in public school), but I make a huge difference in the lives of the kids that I work with. That means far more to me than any money can.

    Am I financially poor? Some might say so. But what I have in emotional wealth and personal satisfaction more than makes up for the money that I don’t make.

    • Julie

      Thank you, Penny. I think that is an entire additional post we will have to have – because while financial poverty is the most obvious form of poverty, it does not ever mean a person is poor. I should have made that point in this post as welll. Thank you for doing so very elequantly.

    • Julie

      One more thing – I admire your decision, too. It is a decision I want to have the courage to make. Sometimes, oftentimes, we make decisions to be comfortable financially without realizing how uncomfortable we are making our soul….but God continues to remind us with great love.

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