In my experience with (Post) Evangelicalism, there are three basic models for dealing with poverty and poor people (though most experience some overlap).
The loudest- though probably not the most widespread – we can refer to as the Dave Ramsey School of Thought: People in the US are in poverty because they choose to be. They are lazy, bereft of character, are without industry and resourcefulness. Poor people basically deserve to be poor. I mean, they can’t even bother to take one of Dave Ramsey’s $200 Seminars on Saving Money and Becoming a Success by the age of 60™!
The above view is deplorable, despicable and ultimately has no redeemable value whatsoever. It’s a Ponzi Scheme for greedy would-be condo developers – the sorts of people who run around twirling their mustaches while tying up their tenants to the train tracks just because.
But its real deviousness lies with how it views and thus affects poor people. According to the DRSoT, we aren’t fully human – we are leeches, drains on society. We are not survivors, we are here to suck up at the sweet teat of Mama Gubmint and drink more cavity juice from Uncle Sugar. We are not resourceful – except for learning how to extract those sweet liquids of public assistance and we exist merely to be tormentors of good old American Republicans. The effects of this kind of thinking leads to the Tea Party, which leads to a continued Starving Out the Poors aggressive campaign*. These are the people who brag about cutting food stamps; these are the school administrators who take away kids’ lunches in front of their peers because their parents didn’t pay their debts (for a public school). These people inflict real harm into the lives of the poor and inflict damage to Jesus’ Body.
The second model isn’t quite as insidious – in fact, it’s innocuous. And therein lies the problem. For this model is much more widespread than believed. If the first view is that of Rush Limbaugh, this is the view of the common person in (Post) Evangelicalism. And it seems so benign, so well-intentioned. Which makes sense. Most people aren’t villains and have little aspirations of being a Master Capitalist or even a banker.
However, White Evangelicalism is still problematic and these problems can remain with those who leave Evangelicalism and yet have not had the space or resources to fully wrestle with how Evangelicalism and White Privilege make us think about Whiteness, about class struggles, about justice and work. We tend to think of our neighbors, when we do, as decent people and we can move our imaginations a bit to see ourselves in their shoes. We don’t have to know poor people to feel some pity for them and to believe that they may not be the people who directly do their own damage.
And this is where Ruby Payne’s Culture of Poverty rubric comes from. It is exhibited prominently this week in a guest post at Rachel Held Evans. While the author takes pains to remind readers that people in poverty are not the main ones to blame for their own poverty or conditions, she also tips the scales in a way that, frankly, gives me pause. What Culture of Poverty teaches is that poor people are different (read: inferior) to middle class people and must be studied through a framework that is overwhelmingly middle class but lacking in critical theory or social sciences. One can find good truths through observation and being near – but strong assumptions still remain from an outsider perspective and prescriptions are also given from that outsider perspective. There is still a reluctance to grapple with underlying systemic factors that contribute to high- and generational-poverty.
To be sure, Amanda Opelt has some necessary insight for her (mostly) middle class white American Christian readers.
I did the math and found that someone working full time at the current minimum wage (assuming they had paid sick days) would only make $15,080 a year.
In most places, that is not enough for a family of two, let alone three, to live on adequately. And that’s assuming paid sick days and a full schedule. And…
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.
Ms. Opalt outlines – based on experience working in inner city Nashville – the trap that poverty is. Without a system of on-ground, replenishing, available and familiar safety nets (family to loan a few hundred dollars during a pinch; a few thousand in savings just in case) and cushions, poor people often have to rely on payday loans with exorbitant rates (I speak from experience having just missed this appointment due to the saving grace of having a family member in a place to help me pay rent this month), or pay more for upkeep and maintenance of crappy-but-necessary vehicles, or use day-to-day bus passes rather than cheaper monthly passes, or pay fees to restore the gas and lights because they couldn’t afford to pay their bills until tax returns, or stay at motels because of bad credit, or spend precious few dollars on a temporary escape that most middle class people take for granted. These survival mechanisms cost more money than stabler families and individuals have to spend for more stable and superior services.
So Ms. Opelt is correct in pointing this trap out and then giving some all-too-real cases of how this affects real live people. Poverty is like Mordor – you don’t fancy yourself just walking out.
But the sentence preceding this excerpt points to a problem with this worldview, one that many White Americans believe despite its vast ugly untruth reasserting itself on a daily, institutional level.
Abuse, racism, corruption; we all experience these hardships to a varying degree. [emphases mine]
While we may all be familiar to some level – however minute or overwhelming- with abuse and corruption, White people in a post-colonial world are not targets of racism. Something we must always remember: White colonists, elites and slave traders invented and whites of all socioeconomic statuses implemented and operate the social construct of racism. The express purpose of racism is to create and perpetually maintain a permanent underclass and to continue to divide the lower classes to keep us from organizing and revolting.
Racism as it is directed at non-White people is a tool to maintain poverty. Claiming that all people face racism not only belittles actual, systemic racism that happens to People of Color, but itself furthers the hold of systemic poverty. Which brings us to another criticism of the Culture of Poverty: there is little societal, systemic analysis of the why’s to poverty. Ms. Opelt’s piece highlights this inconsistency by noting that “the playing field is not always level and not everyone was born with bootstraps.” The bootstraps myth is a tape in conservative America about self-reliance – but it’s mostly about neglect of community and social-political responsibility.
Which isn’t to say that Opelt and Culture of Poverty adherents shirk responsibility for the poor on an individual basis. Like Opelt, they tend to be generous and voluntary, working as teachers in underresourced urban and rural schools, as social workers, working for non for profits, helping out in the inner city’s soup kitchen on the weekends. Many tend to put their money where their mouths are – but there is the complication that they look at the field of the work and only see the value of rescuing individual strangers on the road to Emmaus. They refuse to – for socio-theological reasons – acknowledge the existence of systemic evil. And they see social programs of uplift as being naive and intrusive at best, responsible for poverty at worst.
But perhaps the most heart-wrenching aspect of the Culture of Poverty view is how it belittles the lives and communities of poor folk.
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.
The problem here isn’t so much that poor people are turned into adversaries in this scenario - instead, we are objects to be pitied – emphasis on the objects. We are removed of our own experiences and thoughts and agency. Heck, even our communities and spirituality are labeled “impoverished.” We are infantilized and, in the Culture of Poverty Culture, can’t do anything without White Middle Class America stepping in to rescue us.
While on the face of it, because the Ruby Payne method lacks the antagonism of the Dave Ramsey method, we tend to think of purveyors of this model to be on the side of those in poverty. It is certainly better than the DRM. But, as my friend and unofficial mentor Don Washington likes to say, remember that better is not the same as good. And erasing people’s agency while belittling their communities and spirituality is not good.
To contrast, I think Christian Community Development Association shows a way forward at least for Evangelicals and a more healthy way of connecting with under-resourced communities and people.
CCDA, a coalition of Evangelical churches and community-based NFPs – believes in incarnational ministry and asset-based community development. The idea is that White Middle Class people can come live with poorer neighbors not as leaders but as neighbors. Often divested neighborhoods will have helicopter drops where outsiders will bring in resources regardless of what is happening and needed in the community. Rather, what we need are efforts to address lack of community resources through acknowledging what the community has, what it knows, and what it knows it needs. If White Evangelicals want to make remarks about how impoverished our community relationships are, I’d like them to live as neighbors and see how strong our communities are, how we come together and celebrate with each other and pitch in at times of need. And I’d like them to do this for years and years before they claim to know what we live with.
There are ways to treat poor people as fully human – as beings made in the image of God. Our communities and spirituality aren’t bankrupt – our checking accounts are missing or perilously low.
*This campaign can and should be defeated, but enough Americans will both have to awaken their conscience to vote against it and demand full equality for all. We need a moral education.