“We Didn’t Know We Were Poor…” Thoughts on Poverty and What We Can Do.

When I was serving as a pastor in local congregations, I often had the opportunity to work with people who came from the generation that lived through the Great Depression.  I remember one woman who told the story of how her father accepted a job at his company that paid about a third of what he had received before, but he took the job, as she said, “Because at least he had a job, and so many people didn’t have anything.”  Many of the political ads I am seeing on television right now are reflecting the realities of the recession that our country has gone through over the past few years.  One side claims that their candidate is helping to pull the country out of a recession, while the other is trying to convince the American public that things are much worse than his opponent is trying to make us think.  Both have used the word “depression”–one to say that he helped us avoid a depression, and the other to say that we’re in something like a depression, or very close to it.  And of course, both sides are saying that their candidate is “The One” who will help our country get out of this mess.  Meanwhile, both candidates are concerned about the place of the middle-class.  The words “middle-class” are thrown around in the present political climate in much the same way as “family values” and “choice” have been used in the past, as a litmus test of where one stands, and particularly, with whom one stands in an election.

What I haven’t heard very much about, though, regardless of the candidate or political party, is poverty.  Yes, they are slinging arguments around about “entitlements” and “the social safety net,” and other buzzwords that really try to reduce the issue of poverty to a soundbite, but there is no one major candidate who is talking about poverty as “the issue” of this campaign.  Here’s why I think it should be…

Nelson Mandela, the great freedom fighter of South Africa, is attributed with the quotation, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”  According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at Columbia University, around 15 million children (21% of all children) in the U.S. live below the poverty line.  I live in a community where 26% of residents live at or below the poverty line (U.S. Census figures).  With so many children (and adults) in poverty in our communities and our nation, what does the way we treat people in poverty say about our society?

Another phrase that so many people from the Depression era have said to me over the years is, “We didn’t know we were poor until afterwards, or until someone told us we were poor.”  So many communities, families, churches, and yes, the government, came together during the Great Depression to help one another out.  As a result, many people who might not have survived otherwise were able to survive those lean years.  Self-sacrifice, community spirit, and good legislative and executive action were all part of the road to economic recovery back then.  And yet today, so many of our political class would have us believe that poverty is less of an issue than the shrinking middle class.  Hello?  Where are the middle-class going?  They’re slipping into poverty, that’s where!

So what can we do?  I can tell you that the answer is not to write more blogs about poverty, which is exactly what I am doing! I’m not sure I know all the answers, but here’s one that works for me:  Everyone who talks about poverty as an issue needs to get to personally know someone (or multiple someones) who are living in poverty, and they need to introduce their friends to people who are in poverty.  Not in a touristy kind of way, like “Oooh, look at the people in poverty!”  What I’m thinking of is a true opportunity to make friends with people in poverty, to learn their perspectives on the world, and to know them first as human beings with feelings, attitudes, and frustrations, and second only as the numbers that make up the “issue” of poverty in our nation.

I work with the ONU chapter of Habitat for Humanity, a great group of top-notch students who really care about helping others.  Many of these students come from what politicians might call the “middle-class,” while some actually come from backgrounds of privilege, and others may come from poverty themselves.  But the one thing that binds these students together is their commitment to a movement (Habitat) that not only builds homes and does good work, but builds relationships with the people who will inhabit those homes.  Habitat encourages people to get involved with the people who are benefiting from good works, and really being a part of the community  in which you live and serve.  When we do this, we realize that no one is ever truly poor who has good friends who are willing to help out, and that no one is without gifts to give for the greater good.

If only our politicians understood as much.  Well, that’s not fair, maybe they do, on some level.  I guess what I want to say is, if only our politicians admitted as much.  What a country that would be.  What an election that would be!