I’ve an ongoing conversation with a dear friend of mine about the role of the church vs. the state when it comes to the poor. Neither of us belong at all in the category ‘poor’–she is of an upper middle class white family who owns property, and has a graduate level education; I am a single middle class woman with graduate level education and a full time job. We tend to talk past each other when the subject of poverty arises, both getting defensive. We’ve argued our own sides to the point of offending each other, then back off cautiously as neither of us wants to ruin a friendship. At times I suspect we are closer in our opinions than we imagine, but I doubt we’ll ever completely see eye to eye on it. I wonder if my status somehow as a TCK (third culture kid), particularly as one who grew up in the third world, however, colors how I understand the poor, as well as the potential role of government and church.
The fundamental divide, it seems, between her perspective and mine (and if she reads this, and I’m incorrect, she should correct me and help me better understand) is that she tends to think of the poor as ‘individuals in need of help’. I’m uncertain if it is economic status, educational privilege, or mere ‘Americanism’ which posits her in the position of being the benevolent agent in these scenarios. When she describes government subsidies and/or welfare, she regales me with stories of abuse: instances where entitlement is assumed and laziness is writ large. I am unclear as to why it is that I react to her descriptions and responses with defense: as if I’m certain it is against me or my family that she’s making accusations or judgments. Perhaps it is because I spent my childhood accepting handouts and gifts as missionaries, forever relying upon the proverbial kindness of strangers.
What must be equally accounted for is the fact that she accuses me of idealizing the poor. Whereas I hear her complaints against abuse accompanied by a tone of indignation (“the poor are stealing from me”), she hears my defense of the poor as coming through rose-colored lenses (a noble people, struggling in a noble fight). It is likely the case that I do tend to idealize the poor, although I try to guard against it. You be the judge.
John Steinbeck purportedly wrote that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Indeed, it seems that the American dream is alive and well–upward mobility is assumed to be an option, indeed assumed to be a good, and a failure to be poor (our value, intelligence, morals, etc. based on our economic status). Not only is it assumed that we can move up, but it is our responsibility to move up. Kurt Vonnegut commented: “It is a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” ”
I’m unwilling, however, to assume that the American middle class is everyone’s ideal. The underpaid working class seems to be caricatured into either comic ‘redneck’ or as merely unwilling-to-pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps ‘lazy’ (or some mixture of both). Might it be the case that for those able-bodied poor who never shift into the ranks of ‘middle class’, the drummers’ cadence marches them to other ends? Or that they never imagined their world to be otherwise? Or….
I believe the poor have many gifts for those of us who aren’t poor, but only if we are willing to have our eyes opened to critique. What we learn is more often about ourselves than it is about the poor (much in the same way that African-Americans can teach me what it means to be white, because I function within the haze of privilege, oblivious to the graces and opportunities my skin color affords me.) These are a people with feet in both worlds (knowing what it is like to function on very limited resources, but also living within the ubiquitous aspirations and standards of the wealthy.) The media spreads the gospel of the upper middle class, wherein needs are not only met but excess is normative. We are thus trained to accumulate, to stuff our selves and our homes (this coming from an overweight woman just days after thanksgiving!), regardless of economic status or class.