Monthly Archives: December 2014

Sorry, I Don’t Know Anyone Who is Poor . . .

Do you have a friendship with anyone who is poor?

Since writing and continuing my work with Just a Little Bit More, I’ve had a lot of conversations with others in my own socio-economic status range – upper-middle – about those in our society who live in poverty. Currently, the US poverty rate is around 16%. (I’m aware that there are some who bicker about the rate – how it’s determined and calculated. I’m using the government poverty threshold rate – for 2014, income of $23,850 for a family of four – which helps lend consistency over a fifty-plus year period, going back to 1959 when the US government published the first national poverty rate – 22.4%.) A lot of folks in the upper classes talk about the poor in our society, but the majority of those who speak don’t know – not by acquaintance, and certainly not by friendship – anyone who is poor.

Author Bill Bishop tells us why this is so in his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (Houghton Mifflin, 2008). He argues that even as America becomes more diverse in overall demographics, we increasingly live in neighborhoods – and socialize – with people who think, vote, and sort their values just like we do. Remember the days when a mechanic and a doctor could be next door neighbors? The America of yesteryear was segregated racially; the dominant segregation in today’s America is socio-economic and often political – reflecting, in part, the polarization that dominates our strained social interactions. Bishop claims only 25 % of American counties in the 1976 presidential election were deemed landslide (more than a 20 point margin of victory); in the 2004 presidential election over 50% of American counties were landslide.

Sorry, I don’t know anyone who is poor, but I certainly have an opinion about the poor.

So true. I’ve learned by listening to middle/upper-middle/upper class folks (white, mostly – all my Latino and African-American friends and acquaintances do know people who are poor) to know what they say about those living in poverty, because I’ve been asking this question consistently for a couple of years when conversing about social inequality: Do you know anyone who is poor? The answer typically breaks down into four opinions/viewpoints: 1) personal knowledge (or an anecdote heard) of a bona fide slacker who doesn’t work and sponges off the government; 2) the story (the one answering the question) of his/her rise from poverty back in the 1940s or ’50s (the implication being that social mobility is alive and well in America); 3) the claim that poor people lack discipline and are lazy – again, the implication being that social mobility is alive and well in America; and, 4) the reality that people living in poverty in the United States have it so much better off than poor people in other parts of the world.

Yes, there are bona fide adult slackers who sponge off the government – without question. It’s tempting to think, however, if you don’t know anyone who is poor – the law of generalization – that all people living in poverty consequently fit this same pattern. Those of us who know people living in poverty realize that such a generalization is nowhere close to the truth. A small minority of adults sponge off the government; consider that half of those living in poverty in the United States – some 22.5 million – are children or elderly. The United States has an abysmal 23.1% child poverty rate. According to a 2012 UNICEF report of the thirty-five richest countries in the world, the United States ranks 34th in childhood poverty. Thanks to Romania’s rate of 25.5%, we avoid the cellar in childhood poverty rankings.

As for social (or economic) mobility – work hard, save money and you’ll succeed by moving up – it works well for middle and upper class, educated Americans (with the usual caveats for ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation). But that same rate of social mobility doesn’t apply to those who are born into poverty, especially among ethnic minorities. The former group – higher classed and educated – is privileged, systemically. Today it’s best to be born rich in America: it’s three times more likely as compared to a generation or two ago that your father’s income will determine your own income. Upward social mobility, overall, is not what it used to be in America.

And, yes, those who are poor in American have it much better off than those who are poor in Africa, India, Russia, and China. My mother tried to get me to eat my boiled asparagus by referencing the starving hordes in Africa (or was it China?), but it was largely unsuccessful. I had no idea or vision of what life was like in Africa. That type of comparison thinking was too abstract for my juvenile mind to process, especially when it was fully engaged in potential strategies to avoid the mushy asparagus that sullied my plate. Similarly, personal income differences within countries matter much more than income differences between countries.  Economic differences can and do serve to motivate the less fortunate to aspire to greater heights, and poor people living in America can count on a better social safety net than poor people, for example, in Belarus. But, prominent economic deprivation in relation to the rest of society is what can warp a young mind and spirit, because the differences are blatant, noticeable, and real. And if the opportunities to advance are few and far between, then many of the social variables affected by poverty (incarceration, teenage pregnancy, and school drop-out rates) are simply and sadly reinforced.

Do you know anyone – a friend or someone who is more than a passing acquaintance – who is living in poverty?

Linda Tirado is someone who has lived most of her adult years in poverty. Her book Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014) tells it like it is. She got lucky; a blog post of hers that described living in poverty went viral and she ended up with a book deal. As she rightly claims, it’s more like she hit the lottery than worked her way up via a vibrant economic mobility. Her book is a top-seller and she tells a tale that is compelling, insightful, and real for many Americans. There are those, of course, who attempt to dismiss her telling of the tale of living in poverty in today’s America as overdone and exaggerated. I’ve read her book and done my own bit of investigating. Whereas she can tend toward over-generalizing (I’m guilty of the same charge at times), how often does a minority or shunned voice get the stage? She liberally uses profanity, but her voice is genuine. She speaks for a number of Americans who are rarely heard.

From the last chapter in her book, “An Open Letter to Rich People,” Tirado states “I hope at this point you are feeling like maybe you hadn’t thought this whole [socio-economic] stratification thing through all the way. You guys don’t really ever talk to us and have no idea what our daily lives are like.” When we don’t know anyone in a certain people group, it’s easy to stereotype and even demonize them. The majority of people living in poverty are not undisciplined, lazy, or necessarily deserving of their current fate. How might we all work together to remake our society into one where egalitarianism is valued more so than the propagation of entrenched privilege for the most fortunate among us? Tirado asks would you “want to live in the nation you’ve created; if you were born tomorrow into the lower classes, would you be quite so sure that America is the land of opportunity?”

Some of us in the upper classes are effectively cocooned off from those who live in poverty. We don’t know personally anyone who is poor; our interaction with people living in poverty is limited to random interchanges of commerce that bring us together. We who are well-off purchase or receive services from the working poor whose jobs pay the minimum wage of $7.25/hour or slightly more. As if it’s a religion, we teach to our kids and grandkids the unifying belief: If you’re poor, you’ve done something to cause it to happen, and, consequently, you are at fault. When we trust this premise to be true every single time – without exceptions – we create a society with an intentional lack of compassion. What social critic R. H. Tawney described generations ago is still true today: “A society which reverences the attainment of riches as the supreme felicity will naturally be disposed to regard the poor as damned in the next world, if only to justify making their life a hell in this one.” (From his classic of 1926, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.)

What would it be like if there was more interaction between the socio-economic classes, as equals on a person-to-person level? Take it from Tirado: “There are poor and working-class people everywhere, guys. You can just have a conversation with one, like a real human being. Give it a try. You’ll like it. We’re entertaining. We have to be; we’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.”

 

This blog post and others on this website are representative of my views and writing in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available at http://www.blueocotillo.com, Amazon, or any other bookselling venue.

Pick it up with Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth – highly recommended!

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Ferguson, MO and Isaiah 64:1-2

Thanks to Rozella White, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Director for Young Adult Ministry, for her November 24th FB post on the ELCA Clergy page calling forth commentary and protest concerning the Michael Brown/Darren Wilson grand jury decision. I wrote the following in preparation to preach (in English and Spanish) on Sunday, November 30, 2014 at St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran in Austin, Texas. What follows is not a word-for-word transcript of my preaching that day (preaching is, or at least should be, a “live event”), but the basis of my thinking for what went into the message that became vocalized.

Almost 30 years ago, I lived for two years in South America. Not only did I learn Spanish and get a thorough introduction to generalized Latino culture, I also learned what was to be one of my main vocational callings: to be a missionary to white folks. Missionary, of course, is an old-fashioned word. It’s meaning, however, is still pertinent in the 21st century world. It’s my mission to bring an important message to people with whom I share common experience and understanding. It’s not that I’m superior to those receiving the message or endowed with special talents; initially and significantly transformed by what I saw and experienced in Perú, that transformation continues as I’ve worked in dual language ministry for close to 25 years in Texas.

2019 will mark the bleak 400th anniversary of the beginnings of slavery in the territory of what is now the United States. Slavery came to an official end in 1865, but its effects still linger. Unarmed Africans/blacks have suffered – including death – under the power and hegemony of whites in these lands since 1619 when the first African slaves came to colonial Jamestown. Michael Brown’s case is sadly a continuing thread in a long narrative. Where I live – Austin, Texas – Larry Jackson, an unarmed black man, was killed during a struggle with white police officer Charles Kleinert in July of 2013. Kleinert has subsequently been indicted for the death of Jackson; his trial has yet to start. Austin – the city that oozes cool vibe with all of its events and attractions – has had a number of similar incidents in the past decade where unarmed young men of color (yes, some involved in criminal activity) have lost their lives on the other side of a police weapon.

Thankfully we live in an ordered society, buttressed by law. Police forces are a necessary part of that order derived from law. We are grateful for those who serve in law enforcement, yet we also recognize that a society that has a long history of prejudice and racism, such as ours, can produce a jaundiced law and order. An order based in injustice is no order at all for a class of persons deprived of power. The power of the dominant race or class must be kept in check; power without accountability leads to domination. Ferguson, Missouri is a community of some 21,000 souls – almost 70% black and 30% white. Its police force of fifty-three consists of three black officers and fifty white officers. Ferguson is one of many ethnically minority communities in the US policed by majority white forces.

I’ve heard white folks say over the years: “Slavery is a distant memory – can’t they (blacks) get over it already?” “The civil rights era has helped transform American society – enough with the protests and riots.” “Now that we have a black president, it’s an equal playing field for all and the age of affirmative action should be over.”

This society has made great strides, socially, over the centuries. Yet, the further we go forward, new light shines to expose many other issues and concerns that need attention and correction. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr proclaimed decades ago, there is progress as time marches forward, a progress in both human potencies – evil and good. Many things are much better than they used to be, but not all things. America is not yet a society devoid of prejudice or racism.

Many people – not just whites – are upset that some in Ferguson responded to the no indictment decision of November 24th with protests and riots that included the burning of buildings and destruction of property. More than a generation ago, non-violence prophet Martin Luther King Jr. condemned riots as self-defeating and socially destructive. However, he also understood why an oppressed minority would resort to rioting: he called it the voice of the unheard.

Isaiah 64:1-2, similarly, is the loud and strong call of a minority voice in search of justice. Here’s a concept that is very difficult for many white American Christians to grasp and understand. Bible stories and histories are told in a minority voice – a voice that lacked societal power in the days of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans. The Israelites and the early Christians that speak, respectively, in the Hebrew and Christian testaments did not speak from a place of political, social, or economic power. They spoke from a place of minority status. Isaiah 64 – from the heart of Israel’s Babylonian exile in the 6th century before Christ – is only understood from a minority perspective, a perspective with which many white Americans are unfamiliar.

“Would that you rip open the heavens and come down!” Exile had ripped apart Israel socially and economically. Israel was justifiably mad at Babylon, God, and itself. The raw anger of the prophet’s voice is undeniable. Many of us – regardless of skin color and socio-economic status – have felt this same type of rage and anger as individuals when suffering through one of life’s many tragedies: loss of a loved one, divorce, an injustice. I remember when my three children were quite young, and the personal feeling of parental responsibility that burdened my heart. I can remember feeling potential rage toward God if anything were to happen to one or all of them. Was I justified in pre-loading my anger toward the heavens? Of course not – but sometimes rage is our only recourse when we are confronted with an event that overpowers us (or in my case, the fear of its overpowering potential). Every single one of us, most likely, can personally relate to such a scenario.

The prophetic voice in Isaiah 64, however, was not an individual voice. It was a voice that spoke for the people – for the community. It was a shared experience – the pain, indignation, and humiliation of exile. And here’s where the understanding of Isaiah 64 gets difficult for American whites (defining the term as those who have at least two or three generations of forebears in the country; the circumstances of immigrants – regardless of color – are fraught with obstacles). For more than 400 years, America has been a society where the locus of social power has resided with whites. Barring isolated individual cases, whites as a people have not experienced the social trauma involved with racial bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. When my son – blonde and blue-eyed – was growing up in Austin, Texas, I didn’t sit him down and tell him the dos and don’ts of dealing with police officers. Maybe I should have done so, but it never occurred to me at the time. Do black and Latino parents – who are my co-workers and neighbors – have the same experience with their sons and daughters? They do not – I have verified it in conversation with them – and out of necessity they have to have the conversation of conduct in the presence of law enforcement with both their daughters and sons.

We who are law-abiding white folks have lived our whole lives under and within a system that, generally speaking, has worked. Go to school, work hard, and stay out of trouble is an effective formula for many. We need to understand, however, the very same formula and system has not worked the same way for many of our minority brothers and sisters. Black men are six times more likely to be jailed than white men. The poverty rate hovers around 25% for blacks (as it does for Latinos) and only 10% for whites. It is time not only to question a system that works for some and not for all, but to change it.

The season of Advent would have it no other way. “Oh, that you would come down and fix our very lives and the structures that govern them, O Lord!” For too long, we in the American church have been complacent with the message of Jesus’s coming among us as one only of personal redemption for personal sin. This is to be expected from a majority voice comfortable with the system as is. We confine Jesus’s work to the personal realm, and rob the larger society in which we live of the message’s greater effect. Jesus was and is a missionary to this world; his message is life-changing not just for individuals, but for people groups and societies. This Advent, let us see with new eyes and hear with new ears – Jesus comes not just to save us from our personal sin, but to take on societal sin and its consequences as well. He comes that joy, peace, and hope be real not just for some, but for all. God’s kingdom will have it no other way. Amen.

 

These blog posts reflect the views that I share in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, published in May 2014. It’s available at all the usual haunts, including Amazon. I write under the pen name T. Carlos Anderson; click here to read the humorous and entertaining story about the genesis of the unique pen name.

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