Poverty and the Doctrine of Shame (part 1)

I’ve been mulling on this topic for a few days. It’s so complex that it could easily turn into a book, but I’m going to try to be semi-brief (well, in two parts, with this as part 1). Plenty of others have written about the complex factors that contribute to long-term poverty, so I’m not going to rehash those discussions. What I want to focus on is how our society shames and judges people who are poor.

A lot of the shaming comes in the form of puritanical super-virtuousness. The comment section of a recent blog post by emergent Christian author Rachel Held Evans was quickly filled with armchair poverty “experts” whose remarks were far removed from Jesus’ teachings that I wondered if we read from the same Bible.

This poster reads (and I cringe) "Welfare: You work hard so they don't have to!"

I hesitated about posting this pic, but I wanted to illustrate the stereotypes about welfare and poverty.

Here is an example from the blog comment section: “The poor fall into two categories – those without knowledge and the lazy.” During my childhood, my mother typically worked at least three jobs and still struggled at times to make ends meet. The blog reader’s declarative statement resembled childhood messages that I absorbed from the culture around me.

But generalizations sound quite different when we attach them to specific people. A rephrasing of the above comment might go like this: “Your mother’s struggles revealed that she fell into one of two categories – she lacked knowledge or she was lazy.”

Now, I have indeed encountered those who would have been so brazen as to insult my mother directly…or any other random person who has had financial difficulties. In general, though, a lot of these blanket statements are generic, and when pressed, the person doing the judging would most likely backtrack if I were to call out that kind of insult with a reminder that most of us know and love people who have faced financial challenges.

"Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor." James Baldwin

This leads to another type of comment (here, I’m paraphrasing things I’ve heard frequently): “Your mother [or someone else we personally know] was different. She was doing the best she could, unlike those other lazy people.” My internal response: “Really? Are you absolutely sure about that? How do you know whether or not others were trying just as hard as she was?”

And then a typical followup from the armchair poverty expert: “I know this person who is collecting welfare and is on Medicaid, but she uses her food stamps to buy junk food, and she has an iPhone. She is always bragging about how she doesn’t have to work and can just live off the government.” (It’s usually a woman, thanks to the 1980s “welfare queen” myth.)

iPhone screen

There’s a lot to unpack in that kind of statement, but again, others have tackled the sociological aspects of this topic much better than I can here. A couple of things in the “I know this person who…” argument stand out to me, though. For one thing, there is an assumption that if one person in a particular situation is exhibiting a particular behavior (such as “taking advantage” of the system), it must be the norm, even when there is a lack of evidence to support such a questionable logical leap.

But I wonder what would happen if this same type of rhetorical formula were used in a different context. It might go something like this: “I know this person who speeds on the highway, but he has a radar detector and texts while driving. He is always bragging about how he never gets tickets and how he’d rather pay for a ticket than slow down anyway.” For whatever reason, speeding (which regularly endangers a whole lot of people’s lives, including children) is considered more socially acceptable behavior and far less dangerous than the possibility that someone might collect food stamps without actively looking for a job.

Another thought also comes to mind with the “I know this person who…” statement. Maybe the anecdotal woman really wishes that she could find a decent-paying job, and she is embarrassed that she can’t. There are times when we as humans might not want to admit to our own disappointments, so we minimize or dismiss our feelings in order to save face.

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It can be as simple as saying, “Well, I was going to break up with him anyway,” when the reality is that we weren’t expecting to get dumped. Or perhaps after getting passed over for a promotion, it’s justified with “I didn’t want the extra workload,” when in fact we were excitedly anticipating the challenge of new responsibilities. Or for women who have had no luck conceiving: “I love the freedom of not having kids,” when we secretly picked out baby names years ago.

Vulnerability is difficult stuff. We don’t always handle it well, and a lot of us will go to great lengths to avoid letting others know how we really feel about things that are emotionally painful. This is especially true about poverty. When someone says, “Poor people are lazy” (or “parasites” or “bums” or “stupid” or any number of other negative words that are often associated with poverty), maybe it’s just easier not to admit how difficult poverty really is.

When someone has applied for countless jobs, only to be rejected again and again, it’s demoralizing. But when that same person has to listen to judgmental comments from total strangers (not to mention supposed friends and family), it’s even worse. Because these insults might be confirming the deepest, darkest fears that many of us carry inside us: that there is something inherently, horribly wrong with us. Taken a step further, when these attitudes are taught in church, or articulated by those who claim to be Christian, this is what might be heard (whether or not it’s intended): “God does not approve of you. Poverty is your punishment.”

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But poverty is not a punishment. Regardless of what our worldly, materialistic consumer-driven society might tell us, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Shame can drive us to do all sorts of destructive things to ourselves (physically, emotionally, and spiritually), and in my experience, I haven’t found a single beneficial value in shaming others. I’m going to continue this topic in a future post, but for now, I want to end with a message to the many friends I have who are struggling right now: I believe in your goodness. You matter. And no matter how difficult life might seem at times, I’m cheering you on.

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Life among the ruins

A family I met last week in Haiti has changed my life. It’s hard to know yet how exactly this encounter will affect me because I’m still processing it, but I’d like to share the story as it is right now. This is just the beginning.

The Wesley Foundation work team from CU-Boulder that I traveled with spent the week at a clinic run by Partners in Development, a Boston-based non-profit whose mission is “to serve the poorest of the poor,” which is quite ambitious in a country that was already impoverished before the earthquake two years ago displaced countless people who are now living in tents where one-room homes without electricity or running water once stood. PID runs a clinic that provides free access to basic health care, a mobile clinic that reaches residents of a tent city about once a month, a child sponsorship program, and a small business loan program.

While the rest of the team was assisting with the construction of a new house, I stayed behind at the clinic because my still-recovering ankle wasn’t stable enough for me to be at the muddy worksite (it is, after all, rainy season). The director of PID learned that I had experience working with children and asked me to meet with a single mother whose two oldest sons were habitually stealing and staying out all night. The mother (I’ll call her Marie-Jean) was stressed out, neighbors were complaining, and there was nowhere to send the boys (I’ll call them Daniel and Josiah) in order to get them to start behaving better. My task was to attempt to learn why the boys were acting out. We weren’t sure if I would have any luck, but we figured it would be worth trying.

I had to work with a translator because my Creole is very limited, and the family doesn’t speak English. I started out by directly asking the boys why they were stealing, and the response was not at all what I expected: “I’m hungry and my stomach hurts,” Daniel said. “We don’t have anything to eat at home,” Josiah explained.

The vast majority of Haitians struggle to put food on the table, but I initially wondered if Marie-Jean was depriving the two older sons of meals because, from what I had heard from the director, she had expressed interest in placing them in an orphanage, which simply isn’t feasible, as the orphanages are still completely full in the aftermath of the earthquake. As for why the boys were running away from home, well, they knew that they would get in trouble when their mother found out they were stealing, so they would hide all night in fear.

Marie-Jean’s brows were permanently furrowed, and she looked terrified. She told me that she did not have any money, so she wasn’t always able to provide food for her five children. I thought back to a book I had recently read that asserted lack of money is not the biggest obstacle to overcoming poverty, and I started asking her about what resources she had in her life.

I learned that her husband had abandoned her and moved to another country before taking up with another woman, her parents had died, and her siblings lived so far away that she had no means to travel to see them. In other words, Marie-Jean was completely on her own without a family support network. Her three younger children need constant attention, so she doesn’t venture far from her home very often. At least she can occasionally visit with friends.

In the midst of this conversation, my brain was on overload trying to figure out what to say to the boys. How could I say, “Don’t steal. It’s wrong,” when they were literally stealing to survive? I felt like I was talking to a young Jean Valjean. They claimed to be stealing food and also money to buy something to eat, but I wondered if they were really stealing candy instead of nutritious food. But when I asked them what their favorite food was, one said “corn” and the other said “rice.” This…from a 12-year old and 10-year old! Where in the world was I? Oh right…Haiti.

I asked the boys what would motivate them to stop stealing, and Daniel said that he would be less likely to misbehave if he could go to church. He said that God could change his heart, and he would be able to endure being hungry. This was when I learned about yet another barrier in Haitian culture: church. You see, it’s not culturally acceptable to go to church in “regular” clothes. This is the one place where Haitians go all out and wear fancy attire, and while American churches have tended to become increasingly casual, churchgoers would be shunned if they showed up in clothing that was perceived as disrespectful or ir-reverent.

And, of course, Marie-Jean did not have the money to buy church clothes for her family. Nor did she have transportation to travel half an hour away to the nearest town whose stores and market sell this merchandise. It seemed surreal to me that money was standing between this family and their faith when Jesus was such an advocate for the poor. Plus, I couldn’t possibly tell a 12-year old boy that he should go to church because God would prefer for him to starve than to steal. Seriously. Surreal.

By this point, you might be wondering why I didn’t just offer to give them some food. This brings up yet another issue. I simply don’t have the personal resources to provide for everyone in the world (or Haiti…or just that village) who is hungry. It’s not like I could buy them a meal and then be done with it. This is chronic malnourishment and all the health complications that go along with long-term starvation.

And even if I could provide them with some food to solve the problem, well, I would be leaving Haiti in a few days, and PID would be left to cope with the aftermath when word got out that a “blanc” (white person) had been handing out food. One thing I’ve learned about visiting other countries is that it’s incredibly important to be mindful of the culture and not do anything that will create bigger problems.

I kept asking questions and trying to gather as much information as possible. I asked the boys how they felt about worrying their mother. They were ashamed and knew they were disappointing her. I asked Marie-Jean about what might make her situation better. She said that she would like to start a business selling food in front of her house because, even if she could find a job somewhere (there aren’t any), she would not be able to work away from home due to her younger children.

Now we were getting somewhere. The social worker for the clinic (a Haitian who had also benefited from the resources of PID) was present during this part of the conversation, and he might be able to come up with some ideas about how to proceed. In the meantime, I asked them if they could return the next day with all of the children. They agreed to, and then I hesitantly asked if they wanted to pray together. A resounding “yes.”

I say “hesitantly” because I made a vow a long time ago that I would not attempt to convert people to Christianity. Yes, you read that right. Some of you might have gasped and immediately started praying for my doomed soul, but the truth is that I don’t believe in classic evangelism. I’ve seen the dark side of this approach–African villages abandoned by missionaries who disrupt traditional family units (many of which are not nuclear families in the Western sense) and then leave the locals to fend for themselves when the mission appointment is finished. Faith is a lifelong journey, and conversion is not something that I think can happen in an isolated instant without continued followup in community-based relationship. Faith changes over time, and that’s OK…in fact, it’s probably desirable. Plus, I’ve seen God’s love in plenty of folks who aren’t Christian, I believe that salvation is universal, and the United Methodist Church (my denominational affiliation) overtly states that religious minorities should be respected.

So here I was sitting across the table from this family who probably hadn’t prayed with anyone non-blood relatedn quite some time, and I sensed that they craved a shared prayer. I offered it not because I wanted to convert them to Christianity (after all, they seemed pretty devout without my contribution) but because I was meeting them where they were, instead of where I was. Sure, I’d made a commitment not to proselytize or be “that” kind of Christian. But really, I wasn’t either of those things. I was trying to be present in a way that would be comforting to them. I was trying to model God’s love. 

They wanted me to lead the prayer, so I prayed for well-behaved children whose bellies were full of corn and rice, for a mother who wouldn’t have to worry about how to feed her children, and for peaceful souls who could have faith that God provides. I didn’t know if any of those things would ever come to pass, but I believed that it was possible for this one family to experience improved circumstances.

After the meeting, I reported to the director of PID about what I had learned. She responded that this was an “emergency situation” and that we should act fast before the boys had the chance to steal again. Alicia Fall, the director of Her Many Voices (the non-profit that coordinated our trip to Haiti) had brought quite a bit of non-perishable food that had originally been planned for our team members before we learned that our meals would be provided at the clinic site. PID was able to get food to Marie-Jean’s family by the end of the day, and the boys haven’t stolen since that first meeting last week!!!

I’ll tell you more about the subsequent visits with the family in future blog posts. In closing, I just want to say that I witnessed an amazing transformation in Marie-Jean and her children over the course of a few days. And as they transformed, I did as well. Sometimes in spite of my idealism that along with others I can help make the world a better place, my realism brings me down. I still can’t help but wonder about the hundreds of millions of other families who are in a similar situation. After all, almost a billion people in this world don’t have access to clean drinking water. And I can’t solve that problem alone. It’s too big. But our small work team, with the expertise of PID, has been able to help one of those families, and seeing them change so quickly has been quite incredible.

A tent city in Port-au-Prince

Homeless in the shadow of cathedral ruins