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.


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.”


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.



Every once in a blue moon, I stumble upon a community of like-minded people who feel like lifelong friends from the moment we meet. That’s how I felt when I attended the Revolutionary Change Session hosted by POOR Magazine in San Francisco this past June. The weekend was truly transformative, and I’ve been blessed to continue building the relationships that started over that powerful weekend.

I’m writing this as a member of the Solidarity Family that’s committed to supporting POOR’s efforts. We converge by way of a conference call each month, email regularly, and I have Skyped several times with a longer-term member of the Solidarity Family who has served as something of a mentor to me.

In the course of our conversations, we’ve talked about how to get out the word about POOR’s innovative efforts to create an alternative to the poverty reduction models that treat poor people as if they have no wisdom and expertise about how to overcome their own challenges. It’s a difficult subject, but even the words “overcome their own challenges” hint at a paternalistic philanthropic attitude of “Here, if you’d only do things my way, you’d be so much better off.”

That sort of approach is elitist and often misses the point about why some people struggle with long-term poverty. The thing is, I’ve lived in poverty. Short-term situational poverty, but full of struggles nonetheless. My dearly departed mother often worked three or more jobs to make ends meet, and even then, there were times when our electricity got cut off. It’s hard to talk about even now because we closely guarded our financial situation from our surrounding community.

One thing I learned is that poverty can be incredibly isolating. People judge you all the time when you’re poor. They look at you as if you’re somehow less virtuous, as if you deserve your situation because you have failed. It’s incredibly humiliating. And it often happens in the places where people go to seek help, such as soup kitchens, welfare lines, and homeless shelters.

POOR Magazine's current office is in the Mission District of San Francisco. This area is currently undergoing "gentrification," which is a fancy word for raising rent as a way to push out the people who have lived and worked there for generations.

POOR Magazine’s current office is in the Mission District of San Francisco. This area is currently undergoing “gentrification,” which is a fancy word for raising rent as a way to push out the people who have lived and worked there for generations in order to make room for wealthier folks.

I’m fortunate to live in a town where the local soup kitchen is incredibly welcoming and non-judgmental, but I’ve been in a receiving line where the volunteers “serving” looked at me with condescending pity. If you’ve ever experienced that look, you know what I’m talking about: the “I’m so thankful I’m not you” look. The “I’m doing this so that I can be reminded that my life isn’t as bad as I thought” look. The “It’s a good thing I get to go home after this” look.

POOR challenges all of that because it’s led by people in poverty who are often busy worrying about how to get through the day and how to help others who are in a similar situation. It’s really powerful stuff. With every email message and phone call, I learn more about my own attitudes and limitations as I hear about the struggles that others are currently facing.

It’s because of those dialogs that I’m super-excited about a project called Homefulness that POOR has launched. Homefulness is a viable solution to the problem of homelessness, and although the current project is based in Oakland, California, I honestly believe that this model has the potential to transform communities all across the country. The thing that makes it work is that people in poverty are making decisions about what works for them, rather than having social service agencies tell them how to do things.


Homefulness sounds so appealing that I’m actually a bit envious that I won’t be living in that amazingly supportive and equality-centered community myself. The land has already been purchased, and pro bono architects and engineers have jumped onboard because of how exciting the project is. In other words, highly skilled experts have agreed to work for free because they believe in the power of this movement. The City of Oakland has been incredibly cooperative as the project has moved forward, and construction should start this next year. Even now, the land (which has already been purchased in full) is growing vegetables for a community-based garden. Really cool stuff.

I’d like to invite everyone who reads this to contribute to the fundraising effort that will bring Homefulness to fruition. There’s currently a challenge grant that will match dollar-for-dollar ever donation up to $35,000, and over $6,000 has already been raised. If you give $10, it will immediately multiply to become $20 thanks to the challenge grant.

You can support Homefulness through POOR Magazine’s website (if contributing via PayPal or check, be sure to put “Homefulness” in the memo in order to count toward the challenge grant) or with this Indiegogo campaign.

Oh, and I should mention that this project will be eco-conscious. In addition to renovating the existing structures on the property, several eco-friendly adobe homes will be constructed on-site, as well as a cafe, school, and office space. The goal is to use an alternative energy source for electricity, and the garden will make Homefulness even more self-sufficient.

The garden at Homefulness, as imagined by children who will tend to it.

The garden at Homefulness, as imagined by children who will help tend to it.

If you believe in contributing to a project that will help people in poverty become less dependent on government and charitable assistance, now is the time to make a donation. Contrary to what the media tells us, the vast majority of people would prefer not to have to stand in line for food stamps and welfare. Homefulness is a model of how that can start to work, and I believe that other communities can learn from what POOR is doing.

The other thing that I value from POOR’s structure is the way that those of us with race and/or class privilege are reminded that we don’t have a monopoly on how to do things. Sometimes it’s easier to ignore the realities that most of the world is struggling to survive, and then when we do “help,” we want it to be on our own terms. POOR Magazine is also indeed an alternative media source, and the news reports aren’t always warm and fuzzy.

I’ve been thinking about how to present this fundraising initiative to family members, and I realize that some of the word choices and topics might make relatives feel uncomfortable. I think it’s good to feel uncomfortable because that’s how we grow. If we constantly live in a sheltered, protective state, we don’t have the opportunity to stretch our hearts and minds. This includes looking closely at the reality that many people are barely surviving, and considering how this impacts them. Not everything is going to be wrapped up in a pretty package and presented with a glossy-sheen, but that’s a good thing.

So I encourage you to check out POOR’s Homefulness campaign and support it. Also take the time to read and listen to the powerful stories of those who are involved in this movement. If we all join in together, recognizing that we have far more in common than we have differences, we can make this world a better place. And Homefulness is a great place to start.