"My dad always told me, 'Don't waste your money on people who are poor. They're poor because they chose to be.'"
I shot a covert glance at the speaker, horrified at her blatant lack of empathy. She sipped her coffee, young and designer, the brands of her clothes and the logo of one of the most expensive schools in the country on her bag all screaming "I didn't earn this myself", and I wanted to ask her if she understands what privilege is.
Poverty. Those who don't know it do not understand it. And we do ourselves a huge favor if we just admit that aloud. More than needing to not appear offensive, we truly need redemption and softening... to be humble and loving.
The kind of money that enables a person to live without any concern toward it is extremely rarely built up in one generation. And if a person doesn't have a role model to follow, making and saving money is a complex and constant problem. Or, if a person has health or emotional difficulties, they may appear able-bodied and still not be able to deal with the daily demands of a job. And that's just the beginning of the problems caused by a lack of the social and family structures so many of us take completely for granted.
Let me quote an excellent Times article:
"Successful people tend to see in themselves a simple narrative: You study hard, work long hours, obey the law and create your own good fortune. Well, yes. That often works fine in middle-class families.But if you’re conceived by a teenage mom who drinks during pregnancy so that you’re born with fetal alcohol effects, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against you from before birth. You’ll perhaps never get traction.Likewise, if you’re born in a high-poverty neighborhood to a stressed-out single mom who doesn’t read to you and slaps you more than hugs you, you’ll face a huge handicap. One University of Minnesota study found that the kind of parenting a child receives in the first 3.5 years is a better predictor of high school graduation than I.Q.All this helps explain why one of the strongest determinants of ending up poor is being born poor. As Warren Buffett puts it, our life outcomes often depend on the “ovarian lottery.” Sure, some people transcend their circumstances, but it’s callous for those born on second or third base to denounce the poor for failing to hit home runs."
It's poor taste, at the very best, for those of us with a roof over our heads to lack empathy for those sleeping on concrete in the cold tonight, but it makes me cringe especially small when I hear such things from the church. I often think of people with names and faces whose stories are much harder than mine and haven't received all the help I have and wonder if the church would still be saying disparaging things if we knew faces and stories and names instead of statistics and dollar signs. We need to remember that we haven't earned much of what places us where we are on the socioeconomic hierarchy, and that our lack of desperate need does not mean we automatically have the answers for those we deem beneath us.
While I agree with some of the criticism often aimed at social welfare programs, saying they're sometimes mismanaged and in some cases ineffective in breaking the cycle of poverty, I wholeheartedly disagree with the often-selfish sentiment behind much of that criticism. Ending the cycle of poverty is as complex as the issues of its causation. Handing a large sum of money to someone whose drug abuse has rendered them homeless might not help them at all, and offering healing and community to that person is a long and sacrificial journey, but surely we can do better than (either to their faces or safely online) saying they should just get a job.
You may have ideas, good ones, about how to make good life changes. But may I ask you a favor? Unless you know what it's like to be completely alone in the world and trying to stay warm and fed, please respond with kindness instead of distaste and judgment. Surely we can do better than that.
Surely, especially because the Jesus we're celebrating this month was born, in today's lingo, on the street. As an adult, he was homeless. He depended on other people for meals. He knew need. By his life and words, He teaches us that God comes to us in the form of the needy, and how we treat them is how we treat Him.
Another excerpt from the Times piece:
"Low-income Americans, who actually encounter the needy in daily life, understand this complexity and respond with empathy. Researchers say that’s why the poorest 20 percent of Americans donate more to charity, as a fraction of their incomes, than the richest 20 percent. Meet those who need help, especially children, and you become less judgmental and more compassionate.And compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but a mark of civilization."
As we receive grace from God for our sins, we know what need is. We understand that we are totally dependent upon what we don't deserve, and we know that compassion should not be merely a mark of civilization. Compassion is a mark of following Jesus.