Hacking Poverty [Blog Action Day 2008]

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This is Blog Action Day!  Read about it here.

Conversations about poverty often forget the subjects of the discussion: the poor. I am convicted that the kingdom of God is always focused on those who are on the margins, as the Good News always has to be "for the poor." But even in conversations about poverty, those who are poor are often relegated to the corners...so this is an attempt to draw them out!

What is Poverty?

First, a definition. Poverty is the condition of people whom we describe abstractly as 'the poor.'

You could say that poverty is like porn: you know it when you see it. But in defining people as "poor," we dehumanize them as we abstract their condition.
Referring to people by a label is always dangerous. We may forget that the poor are not an abstraction but rather a group of human beings who have names, who are made in the image of God, whose hairs are numbered, and for whom Jesus died. (Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor, 57) 
In doing this, we tend to view the poor as “a group that is helpless” and we “give ourselves permission to play god in the lives of the poor” as we dehumanize them and treat them as “objects of our compassion.” (Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor, 57)

The truth is that the poor DO have names and the names of people who become subject to poverty become more and more familiar to you. Poverty is creeping out of describing the "homeless" and into the decribing the condition of lower-and-middle class families.
  • Three in five of the working poor are working full time, and it is getting worse. 
  • The ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay went from 24:1 in 1967 to 300:1 in 2000 (Jensen, Responsive Labor, 7-9).
  • Poverty has affected the working class that rely on agrarian income the hardest. "Family farming is ended and, with it, any direct access to the means of production for the vast majority of people. Deindustrialization has wiped out that segment of the working class." (John Cobb, Postmodernism and Public Policy, 165)
Poverty is not something abstract; thus, to approach poverty we need solutions that
  1. affirm the value of each person,
  2. are modeled after an economy of abundance rather than an economy of scarcity, and 
  3. include the non-poor as fellow participants who suffer under poverty and thus we can all work together to find solutions.
Poverty is not OK for some

The first hack is to see that definitions of poverty are done by a society that does not value each person.

Respected economists believe that "some degree of poverty and unemployment is inevitable and desireable, moreover, for the economy to produce sustainable growth and as a motivation for others to work." (Jensen, Responsive Labor, 59-60)

The problem with this is that any society that tolerates unemployment "is a society convinced that gifts are not meant to be shared." (Jensen, Responsive Labor, 59-60). Economists who define who is poor and celebrate unemployment ascribe a value to a person from a philosophy of scarcity. There is a "human propensity to value some persons mroe than others: the "deserving" poor should have greater access to the goods of society than the "undeserving." (Jensen, Responsive Labor, 59-60)

To combat this human tendency and society norm, we need to value the totality of human work. We need a "theology that assumes the inestimable value of each person regardless of work; a theology that operates out of assumptions of sharing and abundance instead of hoarding and hierarchy among workers." (Jensen, Responsive Labor, 59-60)

Poverty: a biblical model

The second hack is to model poverty solutions after God's economy of abundance rather than our economy of scarcity.

"Poverty is, in the biblical vision, never something to be put up with or to be adjusted to as normal." (Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Christendom, 216). You may recall the words of Jesus "the poor will always be with you" (Matthew 26:11). Many categorize this as "the poor are always gonna be a problem, so why try?" In contrast, I see this not as a resignation to the reality, but a commission along the lines of Deuteronomy 15:11 to "share always with the needy in your land." If those who are poor are always with us, then we need to figure out how to include them in the conversation.

When it comes to approaches, many people today will probably want coercive efforts: taxes, nations cooperating, putting the homeless on boats and sailing them into the sunset (for shame!).

However, this hack claims something surprising: We cannot legislate sharing. We believe in a God who shares without coercion. God does not force humans to accept God's grace; God's grace is a free gift that humans can accept or reject. Sharing cannot be coerced; otherwise it ceases to be sharing. In other words, forced sharing is oxymoronic!

God's sharing, by contrast, is free. God shares God's grace freely without requirements or triggers. "The paradox is that we typically say 'no' to that gift. In response to God's sharing, we choose to hoard what we think is ours, and thus choose death." (Jensen, Responsive Labor, 59-60)

What would it look like to live out of abundance? This does not mean throw money at the situation with reckless abandon...we leave that to banks bailouts apparently. Rather, an alternative proposal to taxes and labor camps is non-coercive applications that does not throw money at the situation, but rather invites those who are poor to participate.

I'll cease acting like I know everything and just quote Jensen whole-hog right here:
"An alternative policy would be to dismantle the connection between government assistance and employment by providing training and education for all who are unemployed. Here there would be no means testing of recipients. Rather, local, state, and federal governments could offer several measures that enhance the participation of all in the reality of abundance, such as free education, job training, child care, and transportation. Enhanced educational options for the unemployed would satisfy both a society's need for an educated workforce and the unemployed person's desire to contribute in some way to life abundant. Apprenticeship programs for the unemployed would allow for a continuation of struggling trades (such as Navajo rug-weaving) and the creation of abundant beauty for society as a whole. The key, however, is not simply to construe public assistance as grants of money, but to include education, job training, and transportation to work as means of government assistance." (Jensen, Responsive Labor, 106)
I'm not 100% with this model (some level of government assistance and money is necessary for a society that has a vast stratum of ability to work), but the connection between valuing each person and giving value to them make this abundance-based model  rather compelling.

Poverty affects us all

A third and final hack is that it is important for those of us who are not poor to realize our own poverty.

The non-poor share characteristics with those who are poor in that we are “also made in the image of God, are also fallen, and are also being offered redemption.” But we who are non-poor ignore the Good News easier because “knowingly or not, [we] are playing god in the lives of the poor.” (Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor, 88-90)
Too much food or too big a house makes us slaves to food and to our mortgage. The result is a life full of things and short on meaning. Like Proverbs 30:8-9 says:
Give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that I need,
or I shall be full, and deny you,
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
The poverty of the non-poor is harder to change. A bank account and an abundant diet somehow insulate people from coming to feel the heartache of poverty even poverty is right next to those who are non-poor.

To the non-poor, then, the effect of discussions of poverty with the non-poor can breed a hardened fatalism, resignation, and time-worn skepticism about the possibility of lasting good news. But in understanding our own poverty, we can see our own role in this area of need as we proclaim the Good News as "a summons to the poor and marginalized to understand themselves as inheritors of God's reign, as children of God, as blessed." (Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Christendom, 85)

Thus, the counter-narrative to "work hard to play hard" scarcity model is the story of Christ inviting all around the communion table, inviting them to a banquet that overflows with God's grace. In doing so, we realize that our lives are possible not because of human work, but by God's grace which nourishes without fail. "At the Lord's Supper, there are no working poor: all are poor standing in need of God's grace, and all are fed abundantly when bread is broken and wine is poured in Christ's name" (Jensen, Responsive Labor, 9).


I'm not here to offer solutions; there's a bigger swath of the blogosphere doing that.  What I hope to add to the conversation is to make poverty approaches more holistic, in that:
  1. Poverty is about people with names, people with families, and people who are beloved children of God.  Any approach needs to include their voices in it so that we are not "doing things TO them."
  2. Poverty approaches should be based on abundance of gifts and opportunity, rather than the scarcity of funds and hope.
  3. Poverty includes the non-poor not as external to poverty or even causes of poverty, but fellow participants under poverty that we suffer under, even as we play a different role than the poor.
Dealing with global poverty has always been a constant companion to the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Ending poverty will take a radical shift from current economic policies, but by the grace of God, it is possible.

Comments?  Questions?  Welcome to our visitors!

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kouji haiku October 15, 2008 at 8:51 AM  


for my part, i turn to sites like freerice, kiva, and goodsearch, as ways to help alleviate poverty online.

saw this post via the front page of blog action day. it's great that you're participating. :)

Olive Morgan,  October 17, 2008 at 9:40 AM  

What a wonderful post - full of new insights leading to action.
Thanks for linking with my blog.

kouji haiku October 19, 2008 at 3:27 AM  

and i think that one reason poverty cannot be tolerated is the effect it has on kids. people can disagree on whether a person chooses to be poor or not. but it's clear that that person's kids don't choose to be poor. so i feel something must be done.

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