PERCEPTIONS OF THE POOR
AWARE OF OUR NEIGHBORS? In the wake of the first round of rallies by Latino immigrants, conversation has been brewing about these heretofore "invisible" people. Such might have been similar conversation when Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man was published over 50 years ago detailing the realities of African-American life, realities that seemed to surprise most white Americans across the economic and educational spectrum. But were they/are we really that dull? I think not. I think our narrowed perceptions are very much part of the sin of racism and classism that still grips America. We know more of what is convenient and self-reinforcing for us to know than the complex and sometimes difficult reality of our national and community context. We are particularly resistant to direct or indirect cause-and-effect links between affluence and poverty.
PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS OF POVERTY. In light of the renewed "I never knew it was that bad!" conversations, I recently pulled my file of the National Public Radio survey on poverty conducted by the Kaiser Family Fund and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. It is four year old now. But the survey (I don't know if it is still available online at www.npr.org) reveals the prevailing attitudes of Americans about poverty these days. A few highlights:
· Only one in 10 Americans now rate poverty as one of the two top issues government should address.
· 40% of households with income under $34,000 (under 200% of poverty) fell behind in utility payments or couldn't pay for medical care in 2001; Over 30% of these say that at some point they had too little money to by enough food.
· Americans are divided over the causes of poverty--about half blame the poor themselves; about half point to circumstances beyond their control--like low wages, medical bills, etc. More well-off and conservative citizens think the poor aren't doing enough to help themselves.
· Most poor people are working--but most Americans surveyed agree that the jobs available to low-income neighbors aren't very good and don't pay the bills adequately.
· Sympathy for the poor is slipping--many well-off citizens think that people living in poverty have it too easy to change their situation.
WHO ARE THE DESERVING POOR? Are we are back to trying to distinguish the deserving poor from the undeserving poor? Are we back to the blame game? Are we more ready to commend and support a family or person that momentarily appears to be trying hard and simultaneously shun and blame an individual whose light has all but gone out, who has all but succumbed to the despair borne of poverty, and who has adopted raw survival tactics just to...survive? Do we really think that withholding life's most basic sustenance from one and offering it to another we deem more deserving is consistent with a Judeo-Christian ethic?
BUYING INTO SUBCHRISTIAN ASSUMPTIONS. Yet this posture and policy, long a practice in the world of dominance and competition, has now a strong foothold among some strains of American Christianity. How quickly many Christians arrive at judgments based on unredeemed, subchristian ideologies and assumptions. Social scientists, usually acting at the behest of politicians who are constantly pandering to a self-serving electorate, do not operate with an anthropology or social ethic that is informed by the living Word of God. To whom are we listening?
BLESSED ARE THE POOR? I wonder to what extent similar perceptions about poverty--and people who are affected by it--were prevalent in Jesus' day? There are many indications that poverty was rampant, that if you were poor it was considered a curse and a spiritual malady. There was plenty of finger pointing and avoidance going around. And there is indication that some poor folks were considered more worthy than others. Into this polarized arena Jesus stepped and declared with his words and life: "Blessed are the poor."
REVIVAL IN AMERICA? Folks in my evangelical circles talk about the need for revival in our churches and in America. If Isaiah 58 is to be taken seriously, then revival begins with rightly perceiving and treating the poor and then changing the unethical values and utennable behavior that makes people desperate in the first place. You just can't talk about revival apart from addressing this injustice. What would it mean for affluent and middle-class Americans to truly "bless the poor" today? What will it take to draw us out of our self-protective cocoons, blame games, and self-serving "deserving" analyses and into an understanding, constructive engagement, and shared pursuit of the end of poverty in America?