Saturday, February 1, 2014

safety nets & the poor.

"Most middle class Americans are familiar with circumstantial poverty—one bad investment or the loss of a job leads to a period of financial difficulty. What I learned in the inner city is that to be caught in the cycle of generational poverty is to experience a bankruptcy of spirit, a deficit of hope. It is poverty of education, community, safety, health, and spiritual guidance. 
...But for the low-income women I worked with, their lives were a perpetual house of cards. They had no resources, no safety nets to keep them from going under. One step forward, two steps back. A broken down car means you can't get to work, and missing even one day of work means you can’t make rent that month. A sick child means you can get fired from a job that keeps you at "part time" status because they don't want to pay you for sick days and holidays. Finally getting out of the welfare system means losing any childcare assistance, and childcare costs often break the bank. I knew a woman who wouldn't break up with her abusive boyfriend because he was her only ride to work. I'm not saying there is no such thing as bad decisions, but we all make bad decisions and only some of us have to face the full force of their consequences."

I am surrounded by people of immense privilege, being a person of privilege myself, and I am troubled by our (yes, including myself) ignorance about poverty.  We make a lot of assumptions.  We often give ourselves (or potentially even worse, God) credit for our immense wealth and prosperity, overlooking the many ways in which our advantages in life and safety nets have allowed us to flourish and succeed.  And by giving ourselves credit for our stations in life, our successes and comforts, we also make assumptions about the reasons for someone else's poverty, finding fault with them--have a little common sense, get a job, don't waste the help you've been given, make healthier choices.

I loved the examples given in this essay, because they illustrate beautifully how systematic poverty (as well as systematic addiction, etc.) is far more complex than a handful of choices made by one person--it's the hand they've been dealt, realities about their skin color and family of origin they cannot control; it's never being able to get ahead, trapped in a life of living pay check to pay check, one disaster or unexpected cost away from losing it all; it's a literal stunting of physical growth due to lack of food or abuse at a young age; it's inherited addictions to drugs or food or television; it's a setting of violence and constant stress that affects physical and emotional development. 

Or to put it another way: the little disasters that bring me some stress or frustration can be breaking points for someone else, simply because I possess so many advantages that the other does not.

This month, my car had some trouble that required two separate trips to the repair shop.  The first sign of a problem was a completely dead car on the side of I-5 on our way down to Portland for Christmas.  Chris and I had to be towed back to Seattle and then drive down early the next morning in our other car.  Grumble, grumble.  I was inconvenienced by losing one evening with my family and by the later repair costs, but overall, it was a small hiccup in the grand scheme of my life.  Why?  

My father-in-law had added us to his Triple A account, making the towing completely free.  Chris and I each own cars because our families were in positions to give them to us--for free!--which means we didn't have to miss our holiday time in Portland even though one car was temporarily dead.  We have savings that allow for unexpected costs like this to be covered, and the reasons for these savings are also incredibly layered and complex--from opportunities in school, to scholarships, to minuscule debt, to socioeconomic status of our families, to simple advantages in society enjoyed by being white, heterosexual, able-bodied individuals.

For another person, who perhaps lacked a free Triple A membership, a second car, and a cushion of savings, a dead car on the side of I-5 would have resulted in much more severe consequences, ranging from financial strain to missing Christmas entirely with loved ones.  Thinking even longer-term, what if the car wasn't fixed quickly enough and it was one's only way to get to work?  What if employment was lost because of a broken-down car?  Or what if credit cards were already maxed out in an attempt to give a few Christmas gifts on an already-tight budget, and there was simply no way to pay for car that died two days before Christmas?

By surrendering our misconceptions about what makes us successful, recognizing the many circumstances beyond our control that have resulted in our wealth and accomplishments--this frees us in a new way to love the poor, to know them and learn from them, and to pour out our privilege to benefit them.  We no longer cling to some belief that we deserve all this and "they" just need to make better choices; instead, we can begin to recognize injustice for what it is, and take steps toward bringing the upside-down Kingdom to earth, as it is in heaven.
"We don't get to opt out of living on mission because we might not be appreciated.  We're not allowed to neglect the oppressed because we have reservations about their discernment.  We cannot deny love because it might be despised or misunderstood.  We can't withhold social relief because we're not convinced it will be perfectly managed.  Must we be wise?  Absolutely.  But doing nothing is a blatant sin of omission."  -Jen Hatmaker
I haven't yet chosen a word for 2014 because I have still been focused and challenged by my word for 2013 (more on this soon, I hope).  Nevertheless, a hazy idea for the upcoming year has been coming into focus, and it's related to these challenging realities of systematic poverty, oppression, and addiction--especially in light of my own privilege and advantage.  Two words I have pondered as potential words for 2014 are "discomfort" and "respond."  I want to intentionally place myself in settings where I am the minority, rather than surrounding myself with people who look and think and talk just like me--and I know choosing this is always uncomfortable.  Likewise, I want to be careful to not simply read about poverty and oppression; I want to respond accordingly to what I know, making actual changes to my life in light of the suffering of others.

Let it be.

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