Who Shows a Preferential Option for the Poor?

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I have already broken my reading system proclaimed last week (surprise! surprise!) but I also anticipated that things might intrude--such as books that arrive from the library and must be back. So it is with Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in American.

A short time ago I provoked a correspondent by asserting that everything that was inexpensive was, in fact, quite expensive--we just didn't really pay the price--the poor did. He responded cogently with a clear indication that I had failed to say what I intended. And reading this book, I feel the need to make the point again.

As we enter the season of political debate, the question of who addresses the needs of the poor is, in fact, critical to the determination of how we will vote. But before we can address the question, we should ask ourselves, "Who really sees the poor at all?" The answer is that we all do, though we may not recognize the fact.

People who are working minimum wage jobs and attempting to support a family fall easily into this category. This encompasses many of the people who wait on us at restaurants, who clean the rooms we stay in when we are away from home, who help us when we shop at Wal-Mart or any number of other retailers.

Think about where you live. Now stop for a moment and consider a paycheck that consists of six dollars an hour for forty hours a week--two hundred-forty dollars a week--just shy of $1000.00 dollars a month. Where does one live on $1000/month. How do you pay rent, utilities, food, gas, clothing, etc. on that amount of money. And what if you are not single, what if you have a family?

I know that I am guilty of not seeing the poor and not realizing the implications of these low wages. Ehrenreich's book spells them out clearly. No health care, poor meals, failing health. Some of the people that she speaks of in the book lived in their vans and "borrowed" the showers of others who lived in cheap hotels. I don't know that this is exemplary of the life of all--for example, being a college student is a kind of training in poverty that most of us go through. But most of us are really only in "mock-poverty." If something dreadful were to happen, most have recourse to returning home. The truly poor work without a net. There is no wealthier home for most of them to go to.

I recommend the book as an insight into the world of poverty. Most of us know that it exists, and most of us figure, as Barbara does in the book, that the poor have some mechanism, some means of coping that is beyond our view. Her conclusion--most of them do not.

And so, who offers a preferential option for the poor? I think we're foolish to think that any political party can do so. The best they can do is throw money at the problem through a massive bureaucratic system that tends to eat up the funds before they arrive at their intended goal. With all good will and good intent, the government can only help so much.

Now think about the last time you were in the DMV or had to deal with any part of the local or national government. If your child were ill, is that what you would like to go through to see to it that he was cared for? If you were hungry, would you want to jump through the hoops necessary to put food on the table?

I say, don't look to the government to make the world of poverty disappear. We, each and every single one of us, offer the preferential option for the poor. We do so through our work and through our donations. We also do it through our consideration. I'm sure most of St. Blog's consists of people who understand the necessity of tipping when one eats out. However, bear in mind that the average server gets less than one-half of minimum wage. (At the time of writing, Ehrenreich says that the law required payment of $2.13 an hour with the proviso that tips brought the wage up to minimum wage. If not, the employer was responsible for the entire bill.) The next time you get service that isn't everything you think it should be, consider the circumstances that you may not be seeing.

The poor are not asking for our help. According to the book, many are not expecting a hand-out and don't feel particularly oppressed. But, just because people are resilient enough to adapt themselves to horrendous circumstances, that does not mean we should perpetuate the circumstances. The first step in abolishing poverty is to face it squarely and to be willing to take upon ourselves some share of the burden--even a small share. Perhaps we leave a slightly larger tip for the waitress. Perhaps we treat people who assist us in shopping, who check us out at grocery stores in a somewhat better and friendlier way. Perhaps we bring more food to the pantry and we work with our local Church to expand our services to the poor. We each have within us the capacity to help make the world just a little bit better for others. We need to seize each opportunity. We need to revise our opinions of those who are less well off. (Ehrenreich noticed that when she was dressed as a maid or cleaning person, she could not even get waited on at the restaurant without obvious contempt.)

In short, WE are the preferential option for the poor. The government can go only so far, it is up to us to bridge the gap that makes life livable for those less fortunate. Surely it is part of our duty to consider which government plans are worthwhile and to support them. And indeed, when all other factors are equal, this is one of the issues that should dominate the consideration for whom we elect to office.

The poor are always with us--then and now. They are a direct challenge to us and they are an image of Christ among us. It is up to us to choose whether to help lift them up from poverty or to once again crucify Jesus by leaving them where we find them. We cannot solve all the issues of the world, but we can embrace those issues that come into our lives and in so doing attempt to make life better for everyone. Poverty is a weight upon us all and the responsibility of all. I know that I do not do enough and Ms. Ehrenreich's book brings it home for me. I hope that I can extend what I learned here into a constant practice of alms-giving and genuine concern.

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Good points, Steven. I come again to Luke Chapter 6 on this: vs. 30-38

Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again.
And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

I am far from perfect at it, but it is obvious we are all called to have an open hand and help those God sends our way. And frequently, the onus is on us for using the excuse that the poor will abuse what we give as a reason for not giving. I don't know how well God will look down on us using that as an excuse for a closed hand. I love the slogan Live simply so that others may simply live. I wish I was better at it.

This is an excellent post, Steven. It's so easy for someone like myself to bury my head in the suburbanite sand. I bet that for many of us, we don't understand that line in the Hail Holy Queent prayer: "mourning and weeping in the valley of tears". Our earthly experience is a "valley of tears"? When we open our eyes to the poverty of those who live around us, probably right under our noses even in suburbia, that line in the prayer begins to make sense.

I wonder though, and I've raised this question elsewhere, I'm really not comfortable giving money to panhandlers in the streets here in Chicago. I feel as though I'm being taken for a ride. I see people by the train stations who have been sitting in the same spot, saying the same line for 3 years now. I've been downtown on weekends, and I'll see some of these people walking around looking pretty decently dressed. There's a guy by the train station who holds up a sign that says "LOST JOB PLEASE HELP". He's held that sign now for going on 2 years. I've noticed that he's recently added the word "DISABLED" to his sign.

The verse that Sue posted above mentions "Give to everyone who begs of you." This verse has bothered me a lot since working here in Chicago. I don't give to these people anymore. I figure that if I support my Church's efforts to help the poor, I'm doing my part.

Any thoughts on this?

God bless you!!!

From my experience in building Habitat for Humanity homes, there is also a good deal of education that needs to be done as part of the 'preferential option for the poor.' Increasing wages or subsidies for the poor is good, but many of those recipients often do not know how to manage money. As part of our Habitat process, we taught people how money management works - and that makes a big difference. We also prayed for them - a lot.

There has also been research done on the 'housing wage' - the amount of hourly income people need to be able to purchase or rent decent housing. It's similar to a living wage, and is significantly higher than minimum wage.

So I suppose I'm saying there is more than money to be concerned with if we are to raise the poor out of poverty.

I provide health care to the poor and the uninsured (and underinsured). I agree with Steve Bogner that there is also an educational component to truly helping the poor. For example, when we switched from food commodities to food stamps, there was not any kind of training on making good food choices. I could go to the store with $50 and come home with groceries that, while plain, would provide nutritious meals for several days. Dried and canned beans, tuna, carrots, cabbage, oatmeal, etc. But a person who does not know how to cook or plan might buy hamburger meat, Hamburger Helper, mac n cheez, ramen, and hot dogs, and think that it was a nutritious and affordable meal plan.
Or take exercise. Due to TV, many people think that the only way to get exercise is to join a gym or buy expensive equipment. I suggest walking 30 minutes daily over and above what is done for the job. Of course, if they don't have a car they often are already getting that exercise, so then I can congratulate them on having met that goal without even trying.
I disagree with some of Barbara Ehrenreich's views, (pro-abortion etc) but this book of hers is spot on in the portrayal of the invisible poor.

A couple of years ago, the government came out with a cookbook for clients of the WIC program to help them learn the skills that Alicia's talking about -- to stretch their food budgets and cook nutritious food. Oh, the scorn that got heaped on them -- surely the government didn't actually expect people to cook, did they?



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 2, 2004 7:24 AM.

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