We typically think of poverty in terms of lack of material means... When enough people you encounter treat you as less than, eventually you internalize that and begin to believe you deserve and can only achieve less than.

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I like to consider myself a lifelong learner. One of the greatest opportunities to learn in life has been my work in the nonprofit sector. Over the past fifteen years, I have come into contact with people from all different parts of the globe, living in a multitude of situations. Hot-button political topics like immigration, healthcare reform, and abortion laws can take on a different light when you are seeing people whose lives are directly impacted by these legislative decisions.

Understanding the Past

Here is the thing, the more I learn, the more I realize that I have so much more to learn. I honestly don’t remember learning about redlining in school, but I have been researching it recently. For those of you who might be new to the concept, basically, in 1930 the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) created maps of where it was “safe” and “risky” investments for banks to give mortgage loans. Any neighborhoods with African American residents in them, were outlined in red, and the government would not insure loans made in redlined districts. Therefore, Caucasians were allowed to take out mortgages and move to the suburbs, while African Americans were left to rent in downtown districts.

The rationalization of the FHA was that if African Americans purchased homes in the areas where Caucasians lived, property values on the homes (which the FHA was insuring mortgages to) would drop. To this day, owning property is one of the fastest ways to increase net worth as home values typically increase over time. By the time that African Americans were able to purchase houses, property values had increased, meaning down payments necessary to secure a loan were higher. Thus, as middle class and upper class African Americans were able to move to the suburbs, those of lower socioeconomic status stayed behind.

Why not just live somewhere cheaper?

Other factors than the ability to get a mortgage impact where someone lives. If someone needs social services in our area, it is easiest to live close to the downtown Cedar Rapids area. This is where many of the service agencies are located. If people do not have their own car, moving out to one of the small towns around Cedar Rapids is not really feasible as bus routes are limited. All this to be said, lack of financial means can impact many areas of life.

I recently re-read When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. I highly recommend this book that takes a hard look at the Western philosophy to poverty alleviation. I was challenged by the following quote which brought my thoughts back to the practice of redlining.

“Which came first, the broken individual or the broken system? What happens when society crams historically oppressed, uneducated, unemployed, and relatively young human beings into high-rise buildings; takes away their leaders; provides them with inferior education, health care, and employment systems; and then pays them not to work? Is it really that surprising that we see out-of-wedlock pregnancies, broken families, violent crimes, and drug trafficking? Worse yet, we end up with nihilism, because these broken systems do serious damage to people’s worldviews. Worldviews affect the systems, and the systems affect the worldviews.”

You see, when you have not experienced life growing up in a marginalized group, you see the unwritten social rules differently. You go to school, get a good job, work hard, buy a home, and life is successful. However, those from marginalized groups have additional challenges and barriers to overcome.

A stark analogy to poverty is this: Imagine a bug caught in a spider’s web. At first it desperately tries to get free. It spends every moment frantically trying to make it. Yet, the harder it tries to get free, the more entangled in the web it becomes. Eventually, it gives up, knowing its fate to come. If someone in poverty tries and tries again, but success does not come, eventually, they can resign themselves to a life of poverty and generational poverty can result.

Poverty is deeper than “things”

In the Western world, we typically think of poverty in terms of lack of material means. Yet, poverty can go so much deeper. Many who are experiencing poverty themselves, discuss a lack of hope or social relationships. When enough people you encounter treat you as less than, eventually you internalize that and begin to believe you deserve and can only achieve less than.

We don’t have to call people names or verbally comment on their lack of financial resources to call people less than. Our non-verbal’s shout it louder than our words. We say it when our eyes dart away from the person holding a sign on the street corner. We hope our eyes don’t meet and pretend they aren’t there. We say it when we donate stained or ripped clothing we would never pass onto a loved one. We justify it to ourselves saying, “it’s good enough to the poor.” We say it when landlords don’t make necessary repairs to rental units. Who else is going to rent to them anyways? We say it when we cut enrichment programs from inner city schools and justify it because poor people rent anyways, so they don’t even pay property taxes that support the local school.

Losing hope for a better life

Do you know what happens to someone when they feel less than and they internalize it? They lose hope for a better life. They feel a loss of power to impact change in their own lives. It is easier to consider people of lower socioeconomic status as “them.” Different from us. It is simpler for us to tell ourselves that they made poor choices, which resulted in poverty.

The truth is, we all make poor choices. Yet, some of us have a safety net of financial resources and social relationships that can keep a poor choice from spiraling into generational poverty.

The differences between the “haves” and “have nots”

A person’s socioeconomic status has the ability to play a major role in all aspects of their life. Access to resources and a safe environment can be the pivotal factor in a person’s ability to overcome obstacles.

Let’s consider addiction. One son grows up in a middle class family. He becomes addicted to drugs. His parent’s healthcare plan covers inpatient treatment at the best facilities. They may even be able to pay out of pocket for additional treatment. They have a vehicle to get him to appointments and sick leave to cover the time they take off for his addiction. He quickly gets “back on track” in time for college, graduates, and has a successful career.

A son from another family grows up in poverty. He too begins using drugs. Yet, he only has one parent who has to work two jobs to make rent each month. This parent is so busy working, she misses some of the earlier warning signs of addiction. She loves her son and wants the best for him. But, because of her insurance, there are months long waiting lists at the few facilities that will take her state insurance. Her son has to go to another city for treatment, since that is where his name came up first on the waiting list. Her car isn’t safe for the highway, so she cannot visit him. Even if she could, getting someone to cover her shift is unlikely, and a day without pay means late rental fees or eviction.

After treatment he returns home and to school. Yet, the only neighborhood his mom can afford rent in, isn’t the “good neighborhood.” His dealer lives just down the street and knows the teen is coming home from treatment. The day after the boy returns home, his dealer comes knocking at his door while the mother is at her second job. He relapses and soon starts dealing himself to sustain his habit. A few months later he is picked up by police and put in jail.

Both of the young men’s stories began with addiction but had starkly different outcomes. Those in poverty face challenges those in the middle and upper classes are not even aware of. Poverty is a result not only of broken individuals but broken systems as well. Some of the hardest working, most determined people I have met have few financial means.

What would Jesus do?

When you look at who Christ spent time with during his time on earth, he didn’t spend the majority of his time around the wealthy. He spent his days with ordinary people (Luke 4:18-19). Some of his disciples were working class fishermen and tax collectors. Jesus understood that a person’s value is based on being a human being created in God’s image (Matthew 6:26). Jesus treated people with respect and dignity. He brought hope to people who were in despair. He continues to offer the greatest hope of eternity in heaven to those who trust Him as Savior (John 3:16).

It can be incredibly challenging to come face to face with the reality of ways broken systems in our country have impacted marginalized communities. It is far easier to identify the problems than to figure out viable solutions. Those in poverty have made and will continue to make poor choices sometimes, as do you and I. I’m not here to defend or excuse poor choices. Yet, the impact of said choices is oftentimes far greater for those with fewer resources.

My challenge to you — and myself — is to keep expanding our knowledge of what life in poverty is like. Stop justifying poverty to ourselves by blaming it all on individual failures. I encourage you to spend time with people whose life journey is very different from yours. I believe that your life will be enriched for it, and you will in fact learn a lot from those other people. I know that my life has been forever impacted by the men, women, and families I have met in my time in nonprofit work.

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