There are two blog posts that are making the rounds this week, both heartfelt, both controversial. One is about how poor people think and how that makes sense in context. The other is about the behavioral differencesbetween poor people and rich people. The first is the experience of one particular woman and speaks for itself. The second is best addressed by my friend Nate Pyle and you can see what he has to say here.
I’m not going to weigh in on the controversy caused by either post. I have opinions but I also have “on the other hand” opinions and so I’m just going to keep my opinions to myself. But I am going to tell two stories from my childhood that really shaped me.
The first happened when I was about 9 years old and I came home from school parroting something I had heard my teacher say: “Poor people might not can help being poor but they can help being dirty.” In retrospect, I’m pretty sure she must have been shaming a particular child in my class but I don’t think I understood that at the time. My usually easy-going mom became very intense and I could tell I had said something wrong but I couldn’t figure out what.
She pulled me onto her lap and said, “I want you to think about that. What if you didn’t have money to pay the electric bill? You wouldn’t have hot water. You might not even have water at all. How would you take a bath? What if you only had a few dollars and you could buy food or you could buy laundry detergent? Would you feed your kids or would you buy soap? How would you wash your clothes? You could go to a Laundromat but how would you pay for it? What if your mom was a single mom and had to work every night or what if she was gone in the mornings when you got ready for school? How would you know how to get yourself ready and cleaned up and in clean clothes?” Her voice was gentle but I got the point and I never forgot it.
I had a similar experience with my dad as a young teenager. I had been over to a friend’s house and came home with questions. Why did my friend’s family have such a nice car when they had a house that was falling down?
Like my mom, my dad took the time to help me understand. He said, “Imagine that you only make enough money for your family to pay your basic bills. That’s a lot of people. But you manage to save a few thousand dollars. It’s not enough to really change the situation with your house—it might patch some holes or fix some things up but even a few thousand dollars won’t really make a difference with everything that’s wrong with your house. But if you spend your money on a car, you have reliable transportation to get to your job. You can feel like you’re keeping your family safer in a car that’s less likely to break down or have trouble. You’re not spending a lot of money that you don’t have on constant car repairs. And you can have a certain amount of self-esteem because more people will see you driving your car than will know where you live.” Again, that made sense to me and I never forgot the conversation.
One more memory, this one from my college years. I lived for a summer with a family in the church I served. They lived in a white frame house built in 1900. The floor in every room sagged in the middle. The trees planted all around the perimeter (probably in 1900) shaded the house, which was nice since there was no air conditioning. There was hot water in the bathroom and cold water in the kitchen which was much better than the other way around. The money that the church paid them for my room and board covered their utilities for the summer but I know that in the winter, they sometimes couldn’t keep the electricity and water on.
The husband in the family had suffered a head injury working construction and was a little slow. He could do odd jobs and tinker around on cars but he had trouble following through on a complicated project. He worked all day every day but I’m not sure how much money he was able to bring in. I suspect not much.
The wife, now married to a man very different from the one she said “I do” to, was an Energizer bunny of entrepreneurial energy. She got up at 3 a.m. every morning and went into the little general store in our little town, having convinced the owner to let her set up a little kitchen in the back. On a residential sized stove with one counter and one sink, she started making breakfast tacos and big eggs-and-bacon-and biscuits breakfasts for the farm hands and working men that came through, followed by the town’s old men and their bottomless cups of coffee.
As soon as the breakfast crowd was done, she started on the best hamburgers in the county and fed more people than the little store could hold. She worked until the kids got home from school and went home to her second shift. I never knew anyone who worked harder. Since she was the only one who staffed the little kitchen, she worked all day every day and worked through chronic back pain.
At the beginning of the summer that I lived there, the whole family went out and purchased an old van—the first vehicle they had that could carry all three daughters and the baby granddaughter. They all cried at the end of the year when the little store closed and the restaurant closed with it, forcing them to sell the van.
The mom and the dad loved each other really well and I remember lying in bed listening to their distant voices as they sat each night at the kitchen table talking things through, teasing each other and laughing. One night, though, I heard them trying to make a decision: glasses for one daughter or a dental visit for another daughter. How would you choose? They chose the dental visit, fearful that infection would set in and create even more expensive problems. The middle daughter went another school year with broken glasses.
In case you haven't figured it out, my stories aren't really about poverty; they're about empathy. Empathy is the capacity to set aside my own point of view and to see a situation through the eyes of another. An Other. Many who have advocated for empathy for the poor have been accused of being immature and "making excuses." The idea that we can't distinguish between empathy and excuses makes me really sad.
I’m also not saying that poverty isn’t sometimes partially the result of unwise choices. I do know that not being poor has often protected me from the full impact of my own bad choices. I also know that wealth and virtue must never, ever, ever be equated. Jesus had a few things to say about that, as did his little brother James. That may be the way of the capitalist system but it’s not the way of the Kingdom of God.