On poverty

Last week I went to the dentist to have a little problem fixed; my bill, after insurance was figured in, was $963.  I put it on my Discover card and consoled myself that at least I would get a little cashback bonus for my trouble.  And then I got to thinking: I have dental insurance and a credit card and a decent paying job, but $963 does make a dent.  What do people do who don’t have dental insurance, or credit cards, or decent paying jobs?

They don’t get their teeth fixed.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about poverty, the cousin of racism.  I know many people in my various circles of family, friends, and church who will not hear one more word about white privilege, racism, or any of it.  I don’t agree with their position, but I also know that however eloquently or loudly people proclaim their message, others simple will not hear it.

But I wonder if these same people who will not hear one more word about racism will listen to a word about poverty.  I think the two are very much entwined, though poverty may cast a wider net.  I think as much as we have a problem with racism in this nation, we also have a problem dealing with the reality of poverty.  I am not an economist, a social scientist, or a psychiatrist, but I do read a little in these areas.  I am a pastor in a faith tradition that teaches that we must always have special consideration of the poor, who will always be with us and who will always rely on our goodness or guilt or generosity.  Some friends would say that Jesus has put this on my heart this season, and so I share my thinking with you.

Walmart-strikers-food-bin-return-e1416863017929I think about those Walmart workers who are not paid a living wage, who gave back the food donated to them at Thanksgiving saying they would rather have a raise than a turkey.  I think about the Walton family’s wealth.  I think about the discrepancy between what a CEO makes and what the janitor makes.  The figures don’t add up.

A recent study showed that there is a point at which more income does not equate to more happiness.  “Emotional well-being also rises with… income, but there is no further progress beyond an annual income of ~$75,000. Low income exacerbates the emotional pain associated with such misfortunes as divorce, ill health, and being alone. We conclude that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness, and that low income is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being.”  (http://www.pnas.org/content/107/38/16489.abstract)

I think about the cycle of poverty.  Brain research has shown how brains under stress get rewired.  Children who live under the stress of poverty, food insecurity, abuse, and other factors essentially run the risk of having their brains rewired.  They get stuck in the “fight or flight” response mode.  Toxic stress also cause long term physical damage as well.  Harvard University has done great work on the developing child, and I commend their research to you. (http://developingchild.harvard.edu/key_concepts/toxic_stress_response/)

I think about world poverty.  After the nation of Liberia ended a fourteen-year civil war, there were only five doctors there to care for four million people.  Ebola has ravaged parts of west Africa because the poverty there has insured inadequate medical care, sanitation, communication, and support systems.  What is fueling the so-called immigrant crisis on our U.S. southern borders?  Poverty, in part, in Central American countries.  Violence, corruption, and crime also play their part, but those might all be rooted in poverty.

Last week I attended a meeting of city officials, housing department staff, and religious leaders in my part of the city to talk about undoing and repairing the effects of gentrification in North and NE Portland.  Some of that is tied to Portland’s shameful history with regards to the African American community here, displaced three times in the twentieth century.  But some of it is tied to the gap between poverty and wealth in this community.

It’s no coincidence this is on my heart in December, this month when we spend so much money on things, and some money on organizations that help people.  It’s also a month when many non-profits received a good portion of their annual donations as people take advantage of the tax credit available through charitable giving.  In our little family, we spend more on ourselves than we do on others, but we do give some money – to our church’s Angel Tree project, to Habitat for Humanity, to Heifer International.  My parents asked that this year our present to them be a gift to their church’s school in Haiti.  They know they don’t need one more thing.

I am no communist.  I don’t think we should all throw all we have into a big pot and everyone gets an equal share.  (Sorry, disciples in Acts 2.)  But I do wonder how much is enough.  I wonder what would happen if some gave up a bit of their abundance – would that help another get out of some of their poverty?


Not Even the People App Is Safe

Not Even the People App Is Safe

I have the app for People magazine. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I read it every day. I read it before the real news, just after I’ve checked my email and Facebook. What can I say? Life can be intense and People is like potato chips for the brain – pure junk, but so good. I will claim the higher ground that we don’t actually subscribe to People magazine – that would be a clear endorsement of the celebritainment industry. (We do, however, subscribe to Entertainment Weekly, as does my awesome, fully-tenured English professor sister who claims it helps her keep up with the cultural milieu of her students, or something like that.)

So I read the People app for pure escapism. I love the gossip. I love the dresses. I love the candid shots of beauties coming out of the grocery store with no makeup on looking better than I do at my most fancy. It takes my mind off things like how many Easter flowers we need to order this year, and what will that late-coming diagnosis for a dear parishioner reveal, and how late do we let the homeless guy sleep in the doorway.

And there I am, one afternoon, at home in the comfy chair in the fifteen minutes between coming home from work and leaving to pick up my child, scrolling through the People app. Aw, Ben Affleck says Jennifer Garner is the best wife ever. Man, that Beyonce can wear an outfit. Oh, and here’s a nice little tidbit about a Hollywood producer. Is he in trouble? Messing with his leading lady? Screaming at assistants? No, he’s saving the world.

That is just not okay. I do not read the People to be inspired by people changing their lives. I do not read the People app to be reminded that there is horrifying poverty in the world. I do not read it to have some beautiful Brazilian girl who lives in a garbage dump staring at me from some photograph. That is not part of the escapism.

So much for my reverie into the world of beauty and glamour. Back to suffering and pain and injustice. Because here’s this guy who was a successful Hollywood producer, who was on location somewhere and saw children living in garbage dumps. He gave up Hollywood and started a non-profit to help these people. I read the story, and do I give money to his non-profit? No. I just feel guilty.

I don’t know what to do about the crushing poverty in the world (some of which is in the U.S.) I am familiar with the story of the starfish washing up on the beach, and the man throwing them back one by one, and the observer telling him he can’t save them all and what difference does it make, and the man responding that it makes a difference to this one. Every time I hear that story (sadly, more than should be in sermons and children’s messages in worship) I want to shout, “But who’s figuring out why all the starfish are washing up on the shore in the first place?”

There’s charity and there’s justice, and we need both. And maybe , with all my first-world problems, I need more justice and a little less escapism. But the app was free, so I’m not going to give it up. Not just yet.