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.