Monday, April 30, 2012

The New Face of Poverty


READING: Matthew 25: 34-40


Imagine if you will: You are taking a stroll when you see ahead of you a poor person you have seen before.. this person is often in the same place, asking for help. In a hurry, you cross to the other side to avoid being accosted. But as you pass, you glance over at the poor person….

What do they look like? What is their gender, race/ethnicity, age, stature?

What are they doing? Standing, sitting, holding a cup or a sign?

How do you feel as you watch this person?


Now I took us through this exercise for a reason. Almost all of us, even those who think or know that we have been or are currently among the “poor,” have stereotypes and myths we need to examine. It is precisely those myths and beliefs coupled with our fear and shame that keep us from being a part of the solution to poverty as it exists today.

This collective psychological black hole of fear threatens so deeply that it often results in moral failure and stalls our efforts to effectively address a potential national pandemic. It paralyzes... (West & Smiley, The Rich and the Rest of Us, 2012.)


As I read the newly published book, The Rich and the Rest of Us, by Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, I was forced to encounter time after time my own biases and deep-seated anxieties about the poverty of others and my own proximity to poverty, in the past and in the future.

“….poverty means that there’s something wrong with your character, that you’ve got bad habits, you’ve got a bad lifestyle, you’ve made the wrong choices. “I would like to present an alternative theory … poverty is a shortage of money. And the biggest reason for that shortage of money is that most working people are not paid enough for their work and then we don’t have work.” Ehrenreich


Many, many of us are only a few paychecks away from losing it. We live more or less paycheck to paycheck, and we could very easily slip into the downward spiral that West & Smiley call a “greased chute” down where a ladder up had been.

One third of American citizens are living in poverty or are just a razor’s edge away from what could be called poverty.

Our unemployment is the highest since 1948.

Children go to bed hungry every night. 17 million ~~ food insecure

Elderly~~ nearly 10% below poverty line

Housing: 700,000 are homeless on any given night, while foreclosed and abandoned buildings sit vacant.

It would be hard to have lived through this past year and not have seen vividly the populist movement referred to as Occupy Wall Street being born and taking its first steps. This movement is indeed exhilarating and hopeful because it involves young people, social media, and crosses barriers of race & class. Indeed, the 99% has proven to be a fairly accurate slogan for the movement, as it is precisely the 1% who have caused and who are responsible for the poverty we see today. (But it is primarily a “blame” movement, and today I am asking us to look inwardly first.)

Let’s agree: there is a problem.


Pilgrim ethic corrupted // MLK’s “Dream” which is “a dialectical critique of the American dream..”

The roots of poverty are deep in our society. So are the roots of our dreams of wealth and affluence. So is our denial. (ignoring original sin.. citing international poverty… segregation..)

Industrial revolution ~~ first millionaires

Poor houses to Settlement Houses (solidarity)

Depression to FDR’s recovery

New Deal

Great Society

War on Poverty to War on Welfare (Reagan to Clinton)

Poor Peoples’ Campaign

2012 ~ Pres. Campaign & GOP


If you are not amongst the 1%, then maybe you feel you are not part of the problem. But remember, if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. What can we do?

According to West & Smiley, “The truth about poverty must be affirmed.” But where is the TRUTH?

I think the TRUTH starts with us.

Do you want to know God? Then learn to understand the weaknesses and imperfections of other men. But how can you understand the weaknesses of others unless you understand your own? And how can you see the meaning of your own limitations until you have received mercy from God, by which you know yourself and Him? ~~  Thomas Merton

It is always easy and will always be possible to point fingers at the “other,” the fat cats, the Monopoly magnates. (Rich Uncle Pennybags)

But it might be more productive if every person of faith, conscience & good will took a long, hard look at our own “sin,” what West & Smiley call the “Blade of Indifference.”

If we can affirm and acknowledge the TRUTH about poverty, we can validate it and move toward action. The game we all play to some degree, the game of Shame & Blame, has led us only to this place of pending destruction and doom.

Two words that S&W raise up are good places to start: COURAGE and IMAGINATION. Each of these earns an entire chapter named “Poverty of _____” but there are also examples of wealth of courage, from Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzio, and imagination, including Warren Buffet, Michael Moore, and of course, these two men.

Courage, Imagination, Affirmation & Compassion have one thing in common: they are all free.

They’ve outlined a twelve point plan for recovery from poverty and called for a White House summit on the issue, asking us to join their call. They remind us that May Day, May 1st is historically a day of workers’ rights, labor justice, and solidarity. Each of us has made a start by being here today and listening with courage to ideas and truths that may be uncomfortable and produce fear. Perhaps a good place to continue is to spend even a small part of May Day learning more about poverty, its many iterations and the myths that keep it in place, and to execute one small action, signing on to the letter to President Obama that W&S have authored, or reaching out to anyone less privileged than we are with compassion, courage and imagination.


(includes links to many web sites on poverty, hunger & homelessness)

For a look at poverty right here in Kentucky (the comments are especially edifying):

QUOTES from The Rich and the Rest of Us, West & Smiley, 2012. (Pp. #s missing because it was read on Kindle!)

Our chickens have come home to roost. While we maligned and ignored the poor and worked to separate them from those more fortunate, poverty snaked its way into mainstream America. As unemployment, corporate greed, and the divide between the rich and the rest of us grew exponentially in the 21st century, we held onto our stale 20th century habits.

Affirming poor people is dangerous. It means that you first acknowledge their existence. Acknowledging the poor opens the door to perilous thoughts. We are forced to consider: “Can it happen to me?” To many, poverty is regarded as a personal declaration of failure, a measure of fundamental unworthiness, or, as in Caradine’s case, a blight on an upstanding community.

Most Americans choose instead to segregate themselves from poverty. The stereotypes and stigmas serve as curtains that separate “us” from “them.”

Great social change requires persons who possess the courage to tell the truth, to fight for justice, and to be so committed to that truth that they are willing to risk death. No small matter.

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the capacity to stand in one’s truth with integrity no matter the consequences.

Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds, “A good indignation brings out all one’s powers.”