Imagine it is 1986 and you are faced with this scenario. You are waiting in line at the grocery store. You are right behind an African-American family, a young mother standing with a basket full of groceries and her three children. The kids vary in ages – a twelve-year old boy with a dry Jheri curl, short shorts and ashy knees; a 9-year old skinny girl wearing purple high-water pants; and a small baby, that had to be no more than 1 year old living inside a breathing machine. You question in your mind, “Where is her husband?”. You quickly look at her hand and notice no wedding ring on her finger. It is the young mother’s turn to pay for the groceries and she fumbles around in her purse as she tries to balance the baby’s breathing apparatus. She pulls out food stamps to pay for her groceries and it seems like it takes forever for the cashier to move them through the line. Just when you thought the transaction was complete, the mother opens up her purse again to take out what seemed like a million coins to pay for the balance. You guess the food stamps didn’t cover the full bill.
What are your initial thoughts about this family? They are clearly poor, living on government assistance. But, how do you really feel about them? How do you view the mother? What do you think will come of those children?
According to multiple studies, popular opinions and perceptions concerning those in poverty are likely negative. In the United States, most commonly, people tend to believe that poor people are lazy, unmotivated, with a weak work ethic, do not value education, and abuse drugs.
Even those who believe that systematic inequalities contribute to poverty, still believe that poor people are poor because they want to be.
Generalizations about impoverished people often stem from the individualist understanding of poverty, which holds that personal failings of individuals lead to poverty. According to a national survey conducted by National Public Radio, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, 50% of the public says the poor are not doing enough to help themselves out of poverty.
Regardless of what we believe or feel, scripture is clear – the Church is called to care for those in need.
But, how can we have a heart and compassion for those we blame for society’s ills? How can we give grace to those we don’t like or look at in disgust because “those people” can control their fate? Can we legitimately hold contempt and love in our hearts while we feed the hungry and build houses for the homeless? I would argue that we can’t. I would further argue that we can’t come up with viable solutions to the poverty problem, if our tainted hearts and preconceived notions inform our plans. We have created programs and given aid that have worsened the problem, and in a lot of cases spawned dependency, hurt and shame among men, women, and children with intricate stories – individuals who are made in the image of God with value, worth and purpose.
The family I describe earlier is my family. That is my mom, brother and baby sister. Although, my mom made mistakes in her life that contributed to our economic situation, the poverty myths do not characterize her at all.
My mother was the hardest working woman I know. She never slept past 7 a.m. and sometimes worked two jobs to make sure we had food to eat and clothes to wear. She instilled those values in her children. We all had to work. From babysitting to working in retail, we learned early that we had to work to live. With our very own paychecks, we paid for our school clothes and extracurricular activities. These values live on in our lives today and I hope to pass them along to my children.
My mother valued education. She valued education so much so that my brother and I took two and three buses to schools in middle class neighborhoods so we could have a decent education. When homework was too easy for me, she purchased flashcards and additional workbooks and gave me even more homework to complete. She put herself through school and earned her degree so that she could get a better job to provide for her family.
My mother loved her family and she worked diligently to provide for us. All she ever wanted was for her children to have a better future, a more prosperous one. It is because of her hard work and dedication to her family that I get to be a Director of Operations at an international nonprofit. I proudly stand on her shoulders today. She is my hero.
So, when you come face to face with someone in poverty, it is my hope and prayer that you look past what you see and how you feel, and intentionally listen to stories like mine. God will begin to paint a more complete and clear picture of poverty in our world today. You will find that it is far more encompassing, far more complex, and far more systemic than you ever imagined. We can’t continue to think of it in the same ways. Our eyes have to open and we have to gain the right perspective and posture in order to position ourselves to answer His call and effectively combat the poverty problem. Join me and let us rethink poverty today.