Monday, July 16, 2012

It's expensive being poor

Most of us assume we are entitled to the accoutrements of whatever class in society we currently inhabit. I'm solidly (I think) in the middle class, so I begin to assume it is the norm (and my birthright)--a couple with kids in a single-family dwelling, member of a homeowners association, two cars, a job with benefits, opportunity for my wife to stay home full time with the kids, and so on.

I mean, isn't this how everyone lives? Isn't this how everyone should live?

Then, whenever I drive past the houses built by the football and basketball coaches at the University of Arkansas, or stop in to visit someone at federally subsidized housing, I have one of two visceral reactions:

a) Oh wow, I wish I could do something to help these poor people, or 
b) I wish I could buy THAT house. They have it so much better than I do!

Like most people, I probably prefer upward to downward mobility. At the same time, there are parts of the "upper" that appear lonely and troubling to me, and some aspects of the downward that have their strange appeal.

Then I start to think about how stuck we are in our class. If you have wealth, it's awfully hard to divest yourself of it. If you're poor, it's well-nigh impossible to "climb" out of it. Class is incredibly static. It usually takes some kind of massive exterior shock to make a shift between classes.

I think class is like this because it is about more than financial status. Class is about "social capital." Pierre Bourdieu famously defined social capital as "the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition."

Let me make that more concrete. In addition to the actual physical and financial assets I have, my "social capital" extends even more widely. If I lost my house, I have many family and friends who would house us, even for an extended period of time. If I become cash poor, I have access to a fairly substantial line of credit. I can borrow stuff I don't own from my church, my neighbors, and my parishioners. 

If I don't know how to fix something, I know somebody who does.

I think many of us in the middle and upper classes begin to become blind to the extent and importance of this social capital in our lives. We assume those who are poor still have these kinds of social capital at their disposal, and should make use of them.

But the truth is that many people (not all) who are poor, are poor at least in part because they are also poor in social capital. They can't borrow money. They can't go live with their parents. Not only is their social capital in short supply--the network of resources actually at their disposal are themselves expensive. 

Want to borrow money? Then pay this usurious interest rate on a pay day loan. By comparison, do you have $50,000 to put in savings in our bank? Great, we'll pay you interest and give you this free HD television. 

There are perks for being rich. Millionaire movie stars get free swag at the Oscars ($75,000 worth of it in fact). 

There are no perks for being poor. The poor have to bring folders of paperwork (and stand in line for hours) to prove their eligibility to receive $50 towards their electric bill for the month.

And almost all of these differences come down to the sense of entitlement I mentioned early on. I find it so perfectly natural that I dwell in the class I do that I assume, if people just put in a little more effort (get a job, buy a car), they could live like I do. My sense of entitlement is so great it is difficult for me to perceive the very real barriers that exist that keep people in the class they are in.

Even more troubling, we tend to think we "deserve" our class. That's why rich people get free stuff. People and companies actually want to give them stuff for free because their wealth mimetically attracts it. It is in our nature to shower gifts on our gods. 

On the other hand, we assume those who are poor are poor because of what they have done (or not done). If they would just work harder... All kinds of suspicions attend our gifts to the poor. They might not use what we give them for the right purposes. If we give them something, it might increase the possibility of co-dependency.

Is there a fix? In Christian perspective, it is fairly clear what we should be about. Christ has broken down the dividing walls between us (Ephesians 2). There is no longer any rich or poor (Galatians 3:28). Christ brought an end to entitlement. The fix is quite straightforward, if difficult in practice. Christians of different classes need to mix it up. We need to live with each other. We need to extend our social capital beyond traditional networks.

The poor need the rich and the rich need the poor.

And we need to stop judging people by their class. The assumptions we make of those not of our own class are massively problematic. They are an example of bearing false witness against the neighbor. Not all rich people are greedy. Not all poor people are lazy. Not all middle class communities are boring and white bread. 

And finally, Christians are called to have special concern for the poor. I honestly don't know anywhere in all of Scripture where Christ judged someone who was poor and sought his help, and his response was to call them lazy, question their moral integrity, and tell them to get a job. Always and consistently, he helped them. Often not with material assistance, for he himself was not wealthy. 

But what Christ did, and what the early church did, and what the church at its best does yet today--he sat at table, ate with, went into the homes of, everybody, rich or poor. And that itself is not only the beginning, but the all in all, of Christian ministry.


  1. Anonymous3:35 PM

    Clint, I agree that concept of class is much greater than simply the amount of money a person has. I also appreciate your comments about social capital and how as a middle class person I take that for granted.

    I sometimes struggle with Jesus' response to the poor. Clearly he taught that any socio-economic class can become obsessive about money. An example is Jesus' response to the crowd in John 6 when they seek him out after he feeds the 5000. After he sees that they want to make him king (John 6:15), he withdraws from them. Then after they track him down, he chastised them for seeking him only because they ate their fill of bread. He reminds them to work for the food that endures for eternal life.

    Jesus always connected the physical and the spiritual whereas we seem to be frequently separate the two. Your last paragraph seems to suggest that our ministry is to make Christ's transformative presence real for all people.

  2. Hi there! I appreciate that your comments on poverty aren't limited to the subject of money and why poor folks aren't just getting a job.

    You talked about the social capital of people in poverty and middle class, and I think we do a disservice to the poor if we forget to mention the fact that RELATIONSHIPS are what they rely on to survive day to day. In middle class, life for the most part is stable, so we can plan. Who in middle class doesn't have a 5-yr plan?

    If I'm in poverty, I'm really caught up with solving the concrete problem, today, of paying my light bill so the electricity isn't cut off- it's SO important that I can't look beyond today, not even towards the end of the week. I will ask my friends, relatives, and neighbors to help me pay my bill (in addition to your church and maybe a gov't agency too).

    In middle class, if my car breaks down, what do I do? I call AAA. If I'm in poverty and my car breaks down, my Uncle Ray is the one I'm going to call- he'll come tow my car b/c I watch his kids 3 days per week. In poverty I have social capital, but I need them to "get by," I need them in order to survive.

    I could really go on and on and on in response to your post! In my day job, I am a Bridges Out of Poverty trainer at a faith-based non-profit (Compassion Coalition), so this is a subject very near to my heart. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  3. JHB, that is a really helpful distinction. It's not that the poor "lack" social capital, but more that they have to make use of it for different purposes? Is that a good way to summarize?

    1. Yes! Definitely. In the comment from "this is who we are" down below, they recommend the book by Ruby Payne "What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty." While that book has some good content, there are portions of it that flew all over me! I struggled with some of the chapters, however a book with a lot of similar points that Payne co-authored with 2 others titled, "Bridges Out of Poverty" is a resource I'd highly recommend.

      In poverty, relationships are essential to "get by". In poverty, you need people to survive. What is often lacking for folks in poverty is the social capital necessary to "get ahead." This type of social capital, the people who help you bridge from where you are to where you want to be, is essential. I take my own "bridging social capital" for granted- every job I've ever been considered for has been a direct result of someone I know putting in a good word for me. Does that make sense?

      Like I said, I could talk "all things poverty" 'til the cows come home!

  4. Jeff Morlock8:07 PM

    Clint, this is so insightful. And very helpful in our local context. We live in a suburb that is middle class and urban poor, 50% white and 50% non-white. The text you took as your jumping off point applies to us pointedly as we launch a new mission start here. But where you nailed it is that it is in our sitting at table together that we come into fellowship and understanding. That is where the differences begin to disappear and we stop objectifying, envying, or deploring one another. Great post. And a lot to reflect on.

  5. I was a guerrilla soldier in the War on Poverty, circa 1965, at 933 12th Street, West Oakland, CA. We fought, inter alia, against the building of BART in the Bay Area because the B & T unions had carved up all the jobs so the dirt poor citizens of "The Flatlands" in Oakland would see their homes demolished with nothing in return. We were led by young pastors at the West Oakland Christian Parish. After a year living in poverty, i concluded that LBJ's "War on Poverty" was about as "successful" as bombing Hanoi==except the bombs were federal funds. Art McGill at Harvard later taught me what Aquinas had said about the "appetitive" function, the real subject of your entry, Clint. As for coaches and athletic directors, I assume you read about JoPa's final salary package of $5.5M, negotiated amid the heat of his last battle, trying to salvage a wounded reputation.

    If only we could teach the world to feed on words of Grace alone.....!?

  6. Anonymous11:23 AM


    There are a couple of things that stick out in your post.

    It struck me as particularly non-Lutheran when you said:

    "On the other hand, we assume those who are poor are poor because of what they have done (or not done)."

    I realize that this is not your perspective, but it made me think on the Gospel, and that there is nothing that we can do to earn justification. Our good works are nothing without Grace. The state of being either poor or rich has nothing to do with what one does or doesn't do; it's a result of living in a fallen world.

    You also say:

    "The poor need the rich and the rich need the poor."

    I think that the rich need the poor more than the other way around. How do the bourgeois live as they do? They live like vampires: off the blood of the worker. It makes me think of Acts 4:32

    "And the multitude of them that beleeued, were of one heart, and of one soule: Neither said any of them, that ought of the things which he possessed, was his owne, but they had all things common."

    or the story of the rich young man in Mark 10:

    17 And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good master, what shall I doe that I may inherit eternall life? 18 And Iesus said vnto him, Why callest thou me good? There is no man good, but one, that is God. 19 Thou knowest the Commandements, Doe not commit adulterie, Doe not kill, Doe not steale, Doe not beare false witnesse, Defraud not, Honour thy father, and mother. 20 And hee answered, and saide vnto him, Master, all these haue I obserued from my youth. 21 Then Iesus beholding him, loued him, and said vnto him, One thing thou lackest; Goe thy way, sell whatsoeuer thou hast, and giue to the poore, and thou shalt haue treasure in heauen, and come, take vp the crosse & folow me. 22 And hee was sad at that saying, and went away grieued: for hee had great possessions. 23 And Iesus looked round about, and saith vnto his disciples, How hardly shall they that haue riches enter into the kingdome of God? 24 And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Iesus answereth againe, and saith vnto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches, to enter into the kingdom of God? 25 It is easier for a camel to goe thorow the eye of a needle, then for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

    It was really your observation regarding American entitlement, a kind of feeling that we deserve something, when all we really deserve is God's "present and eternal punishment."

    I saw a play some years ago that deals with this subject. It's called The Gingerbread House, by Mark Schultz. I don't particularly enjoy reading plays, but since I doubt that there's a production in your area you may want to give it a read. It is available on Amazon:

    One of the reviewers of the production I saw wrote this:

    "Stacey and Brian are a couple that can no longer quite be called young. The responsibilities of raising two children—a chipper son and a tiny, cherubic daughter—have left them resentful and unfulfilled. Were it not for the offsprung albatrosses wrapped around their necks, they presume life would be vibrant and hopeful; Stacey would no longer schlep from her tedious job at a travel agency to Little League games, and Brian could focus on executive combat with the young bucks coming up the ranks in his office (the specifics of Brian's career are obscured by the wonderful vagaries of Office-ese, including wistful dreams of getting into "The Club"). Under the wooing guidance of Marco, Brian's slick-as-snake-oil friend, Stacey and Brian hit on the cure for their (soon-to-be-no-longer) thirtysomething woes: They'll sell their kids to Albanian buyers."

  7. Kitty, I am not saying it is good for us to assume this, I am saying it is what we often assume, erroneously. And the poor need the rich inasmuch as they rely on shared wealth to relieve them from some of their hunger and distress. There is an important mutuality that is represented throughout Scripture on this point.

    1. Anonymous12:09 PM

      I didn't think you were a proponent of the interdependancy, I was just sharing some thoughts that you inspired.

      Once afgain I highly reccomend The Gingerbread House to you. It's sometimes hard to find God in Schultz's plays but he is a Christian, and has an interesting voice and perspective.

  8. Excellent Observations.....a great book for everyone in the faith community is "What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty" by Ruby Payne. EXCELLENT book of talking about why" we do what we do in our "class run world". thanks for sharing!

  9. Thanks, Kitty, for the recommendation. I'll take a look!