The War on the Poor

My wife and I recently downsized to pay-as-you-go dumbphones. I’d like to say that our movement toward a simple lifestyle is the primary reason. (See Emptying Barns for posts on our journey of letting go of possessions.) But, if I’m honest we’ve done so to save money. With my continuing non-paid lifestyle, we can use an extra hundred bucks a month.

This photo by Rudy Costanza of the Times-Picayune created a stir in New Orleans and the Internet.

I thought of this when I heard that an internet complaint session has begun over a photo of a poor child with an iPad. Can you hear the uproar? “I can’t even afford an iPad and I pay for people on welfare to have one!” Embedded in this comment and others like it is a judgmentalism about the poor. The poor are lazy, the poor are manipulative, and live in luxury on the back of hardworking taxpayers, goes the judgement.

Until our contracts were complete with the big corporate phone company, we did not have the choice to downsize to affordable phones. Though our finances dictate that a pay-as-you go basic phone is the wise choice, until earlier this week I carried an iPhone. If you knew my income and saw me with an iPhone you might ask yourself, “Where’d he steal it?” or “I can’t even afford an iPhone and I pay for someone on welfare to have one!”

Or you would if you perceived me as a poor person.

We have a disdain for those who are poor in this country. We blame the victims of this complex social issue. When we oversimplify it, we oversimplify the role that personal responsibility plays. Yes, personal responsibility matters but poverty has far more to do with oppressive systems within our culture and economy.

Having spent decades in educational and social service agencies, I have known some people who skirt ethics and legalities. Some of them have been poor. Most have been from middle-class or upper-class socioeconomic groups. This is to say we are all human with our faults regardless of our income.

Judging another by an object they own (or simply possess) is dubious. I have had my eyes opened more than once as I visited the homes of children’s families who were poor. I’m not convinced I wouldn’t spend a tax refund — that might be better spent — on an iPad for my child if I raised her in some of the hope deserts I’ve visited.

But, for those who profess to follow Jesus, none of these facts are the reason to refrain from our harsh, disdainful judgment of the poor. Never mind that pesky little ol’ passage about not judging others (See Matthew 7:1-5), the Gospels (and the Old Testament, too) are chockfull of passages about how we treat the poor. Many argue convincingly that Jesus has a preferential option for the poor.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because [God] has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.” Luke 4: 18a NRSV (Read in context.)

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Mark 10:21-22 NRSV (Read in context.)

‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. Luke 11:42 NRSV (Read in context.)

Just & Loving God,

Soften our hearts,

   open us to your love,

      that we might breathe it in and,

          breathe out its compassion, empathy, and

             burning desire for justice.

May we leave judgment to you,

   and exude your extravagant love for the poor,

      in our actions and words.



Related Reading

The author of the original Times-Picayune article discusses the reaction in a newspaper column.  An interesting discussion of what the poor deserve as explanation for the reaction can be found here.

This entry was posted in discipleship, Social Justice and tagged , , , by Tim Graves. Bookmark the permalink.

About Tim Graves

Tim strives to share God’s extravagant love for all–no matter what & without strings. Seeking to follow the lure of the Spirit, Tim writes about what it means to be a follower of Jesus in an era where Christianity has come to be associated with hatred and political wedge issues. “Heinous things have been said & done (& still are) in the name of the One who breathed in the Divine,” notes Tim, “but Jesus shows us that God loves extravagantly.” Following the teachings and life of Jesus is about inclusion not exclusion. It is about compassion, grace, and admitting no one has all the answers. It is about responding lovingly to the best of our human ability. It is about people not institutions. It is about social justice. It is about caring for creation. It is about being who we were each created to be. Tim is a former early childhood educator, a runner, a hiker, a devoted husband, father of two adult children and their spouses, and a grandfather of two perfect babies. The former pastor of the Condon United Church of Christ, Tim recently began serving the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Albany, Oregon. He writes from home, from the coffee shop, and wherever the trail leads him.

7 thoughts on “The War on the Poor

  1. I read an article a while back about how poorer people were big consumers of smartphones. Initially this seems surprising. People with more money tend to think of a smartphone as a luxury that you have in addition to your computer, and maybe landline phone, notebook computer, music system. Poorer people got smartphones, it turns out, because they couldn’t afford to buy multiple devices and it allowed them to have access to the internet and computing at a lower price.

  2. Oh, Tim…

    Thank you for this post. I could go on and on about this issue.

    There are a lot of ways to frame, dissect and analyze the American attitude towards poverty. I can think of situations when people roll their eyes in disgust when a poor woman purchases Cheetos with food stamps in a convenience store, only to have another woman roll up in her Lexus and buy the same product, and no one bats an eye. Same with cigarettes, alcohol… I don’t care how you slice it, that’s a double standard. It’s okay for a rich woman to buy whatever she wants, while a poor person is held to a higher moral standard of health and fiscal responsibility. Somehow the party who is making a profit off the transaction no matter who buys the snack food, Frito-Lay, escapes any scrutiny or culpability. But that’s a comment for another post.

    Full disclosure: I will give a homeless person a dollar or five no matter what she is going to buy with it. I’ll even point the way to the liquor store. As a recovering alcoholic, I know where they all are, and I know what its like to need a drink to keep from crawling out of your skin. Trust me, if you don’t know what that is like, have the decency to withhold your judgment until you walk a few blocks in those shoes. I used to keep a pack of cigarettes in my car even though I haven’t smoked in 15 years, because no one should have to suffer the humility of fishing through trash for butts, not so long as I dare to call myself a Christian. Sick people need out compassion and our help, not our condemnation and moral indignation.

    The bottom line is this: poverty is an unspeakably horrific violence that is committed BY people ON people. Don’t ignore that fact. This is not some random distribution of wealth that just happens to find some people overprivileged and some people underprivileged. This is not a situation where everyone started on the same, level playing field and proved themselves clever masters of their own fate. And it absolutely has nothing to do with the presence or lack of moral virtue. There is a system that distributes wealth, which is kept in perpetual motion by those who benefit, whether they are aware of it or not. I think that many of those who benefit from it are genuinely held captive by the system to which they are complicit through blindness. Those who are crushed by the system, the poor, not only suffer the brutality of violence and hunger, but the shame of stigma to boot. That’s not only unfair, that’s not only cruel, that’s not only unjust, that’s sadistic.

    The only thing we have the power or freedom to do, the only response we can make is this: the poor and the overprivileged must find solidarity with one another by realizing that we are all held captive by the same unjust system, and that there is no meaningful way to regard ourselves as individuals, but rather as an intricately woven tapestry of humanity. Either the whole fabric is intact or the whole fabric is unraveling. The condition of the poor is inextricably connected to “our” condition, because so long as the wealth I enjoy is funneled to me by the same system that denies it to others, I am complicit in the crime. And if I am aware of it, then I am charged with the responsibility to do something about it. This isn’t about guilt, this is about justice and liberation. Not just liberation for the poor, but liberation for us all.

    We MUST ask the right questions and get others to ask the right questions. Why are poor people poor? Why do I enjoy privilege? Who or what is escaping examination in this equation? Who benefits by keeping us all convinced that we are so different from one another? Who has divided and conquered us? Who is my neighbor? How can I access the only power in the universe that can set us all free?

    • …and when we ask these questions, we are going to have all sorts of uncomfortable conversations. We have to talk about racism and white privilege. We have to talk about classism, sexism and gender discrimination. We’re going to have to talk about corporate imperialism at the end of a rifle. Did you know that the iPhones in our pockets were manufactured by brown peasant children? How is that possible? Because the weapons we pay for help keep “business-friendly” multinational corporations in power in impoverished nations overseas. Where did the land and the wealth come from that is now being distributed unequally? Wasn’t there an entire nation that occupied this land before we got here? Did they just up and leave? Or were our power-mad leaders the architects of genocide? Upon whose backs was this nation built, without pay or freedom? What color was their skin? Where do they live now? How did they get there?

      …yeah, these are going to be tough conversations, but we have to have them. And if we are Christians, then we can take hope in faith that the peace of reconciliation will rise up among us in the Kingdom of God.

  3. 1) A person cannot be priviledged unless another person is under priviledged.
    2) Poverty is not a justification for stripping a person of their ability and need to hope and strive for a better future.

    • Amen.
      Doug, I think that the opposite of underprivileged is not privileged, it’s OVERprivileged. That’s an uncomfortable thing to say, because it suggests that we as the overprivileged have something to give up in the cause of justice.

      • Regardless of the semantics, there are people who have the life they have only because other people were denied opportunities or forced to have less of a life.

  4. My family has two MacBook Pros, two iPhones, an iPad, an older but functioning iBook G5, an older but functioning PowerMac G5, and an older but functioning Acer Netbook.

    A picture of us and our over abundance of technology should be what offends.

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