Bootstraps & Assets: Three (Post) Evangelical Views on the Poverty of the Poor

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.

Image: Female protester wearing a sign that says, "You are NOT powerless." Black & white imagery

Image: Female protester wearing a sign that says, “You are NOT powerless.” Black & white imagery

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.

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*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.

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Don Lemon, Baggy Pants, and The Culture of Poverty Culture, pt 1

So Don Lemon and several other prominent upper-middle class Black people have used their privileged platforms to accuse working class Black people of acting in a way that keeps them in poverty and keeps them suspect. I’m white, so my voice in this inner-dialog is limited, and I’ll leave that up to much more competent critics, like Jay Smooth and Black Twitter. But I do have some stuff to say 1) as to how far the anti-baggy-pants logic reaches a White audience that uses its logic and arguments as further justification for oppressive White Supremacy policies and practices, and 2) the rhetoric used by the Lemons and Cosby’s, et al, is another variation on the Culture of Poverty line of reasoning put upon all poor people. Today, we’ll investigate the first point, the acceptability of White Supremacy in White communities. In a couple days, we’ll look more closely at the Culture of Poverty myth.

Little background: Don Lemon is a Black CNN personality who recently came out on his show to denounce young Black men for wearing saggy, baggy pants (and, of course, we all hate that, right? What thinking adult feels comfortable around it?) and for littering, and then brings in the inaccurate trope of 72% of African American children being born out of wedlock. These were all being thrown around as reasons why Bill O’Reilly is right, that Black people are basically holding themselves back. The fact that White youth are always involved in their own disgusting-to-adults, counter-culture habits (I had, I swear to Abba, a “reverse mohawk” when I was fourteen as my own way of rebelling against the dominant culture. But I think mostly because I just hated my hair at the time), that litter is prevalent in any throw-away, mass-consumption culture, that so many children being born out of wedlock is a symptom of poverty, not a cause. No, this is a sign to White Supremacy: Jump on board! Black men attacking black men means pile on!

What happens is first, nice, Black-friendly White person says, “Oh, finally!! This man says it!” Because that’s what the White person was thinking, consciously or unconciously, but didn’t feel was his place to speak on. This is a subtle effect of White Supremacy and White Privilege: white people like myself can think, “That particular action is disgusting and it’s no wonder why so many Black men and women are held back in society. They got too many babies/wear their pants too low/talk sloppy.” If we’re completely honest, we White people unconsciously take this negative, false anti-Black crap in because it’s part of our culture. If we’re decent and thinking, we wrestle it and confront it within ourselves and we listen to the data and the evidence and our friends of color about how these widely-accepted thoughts are false.

But often, no matter how we feel about it, we don’t talk about it because it’s not acceptable, it’s not politically correct and we don’t want to be shamed in public. As soon as a Prominent and Successful Member of Black Society vocalizes the White Supremacy myth, the shame barrier is gone and White people don’t know what to do with ourselves. Some of us have been itching to talk about how poorly The Blacks are behaving and performing in public so long, it just hurts to get it out all there at once.  And so they blurt about how The Black Community (because it’s all a monolith, right?) has 120% out-of-wedlock child bearing and how all the mens are in prison or how all the kids are gangbanging all because they don’t have any personal responsibility and don’t have the nerve to speak out against their own. So, FINALLY someone says it – but of course doesn’t go far enough. White people, White people say, are tired of dealing with the problems of Black people that, incidentally, White people have no responsibility in.

In this old narrative, there is no questioning of a society that allows for so much unchecked institutional racism that defunds and shuts down Black and Brown schools, divests in communities of color, vastly underpays both women and people of color (and particularly women of color), disproportionately imprisons Black and Brown men, redlines and segregates POC only to later displace them according to the whims of White landowners, targets and kills and then blames Black victims for their clothing or place or for their existence. This is not even encountering the psychological warfare waged upon Black people that tells them that their color signifies danger, signifies threat, signifies a lack of intelligence, cognizance, ability, work ethic. These forms of evil iconography are passed through pop culture and media down from the slave holders’ preachers through blackface and minstrel shows and the various limitations allowed for Black creatives on national television and radio (all of which is sometimes directly interrogated by Black artists, often not so directly but perceptively. But yet the popular perceptions dull on). White Supremacy is the law of the Land, and until White People stop giving into the narrative that White people are somehow better than non-whites and stop lying about the violence we commit to black society, black economics, and the black psyche, all the in-house discussions triggered by jack-ass racists like Bill O’Reilly are merely dangerous blame-shifters.

Logic like Lemon’s gives the racists more unchecked ammunition and gives the corporate-government hybrid behemoths full room to keep moving the goalposts.

Dress and linguistics are cultural. Culture is not a limitation – racism, classism, sexism are.

The Old White Boys Club is.

Top Hat & Tails

The oppression of White Supremacy should be alarming to White people, whether poor or middle class because, again, POC are the permanent underclass of Western society and are used to distract White rage from the injustice being perpetuated upon White people. Poor white folks, particularly, tend to blame their problems on Black and Brown people and so are instrumental in political and economic disenfranchisement of POC. This is ironic, for as much as White people fight against POC and further marginalize them, we move the goalposts for what is acceptable behavior to be done to poor white folk, too. And by moving that goalpost, we are also tearing into the assumed acceptable securities and rights for the rest of the 99% of White USAmericans as well.

In other words, even if you’re a selfish racist, you should be concerned that the very racist practices, methods, ideologies, practices, patterns, imagery, iconography, and rhetoric used to further marginalize Black Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos/Latin American immigrants will come back to haunt you as you find that having a refrigerator is just too good a luxury to be given to poor people, and having a functioning house that you can make payments on to own is too much goodness for middle class folks. After all, we just can’t afford it all, what with things being so hard for the corporatocrats running the world right now.