On “Poverty”

I started thinking seriously about poverty ten years ago when I was in graduate school.  Not for the reason that I was in school, but because of many things I was reading there and the fact that I had a wife and two children to support.  I was, like probably most people in graduate school, paying for both school and living expenses with government loans.  I had a half scholarship for tuition and fees, but even so, school was very expensive.  A few times I had to work a part time job to make up the difference.

My academic program involved a great deal of reading and reflection on the works of classical antiquity and the Middle Ages.  Particularly in the former, I repeatedly ran into the theme that the accumulation of money and material goods almost necessarily led to a severe decline in personal and civic virtue and morality.  Sparta and Athens experienced it.  The Roman Republic experienced it.  The Roman Empire experienced it.  Jesus said a great deal in the Gospels about the corrupting influence of a high emphasis on material things, and the Epistles tended to be pretty hard on it as well.  Even the Church catholic in the Middle Ages experienced the same ethical downspiral as its pagan precursors the more it focused on money and material gain.

It wasn’t exactly revolutionary to read all these accounts and come to a generally negative conclusion about the relationship of money and possessions to what truly matters.

The next step in my thinking about “poverty” came when, fresh out of graduate school, I took a teaching job at a small Christian school.  We always hear of the public schools bitterly complaining, despite their access to the State’s coffers, about their severe lack of money.  The complaint is nearly ludicrous given the near destitution-level of financial struggle that small Christian schools face.  Public school teachers aren’t paid well?  Don’t make me laugh.

At any rate, there I was with a wife and two children – shortly thereafter three children – making a wage extremely far below the U.S. poverty line.  I was, in fact, so far below the poverty line that the Federal government declined to tax me at all, and instead decided I needed a fairly large amount of money (almost a third of my salary at that time!) given to me as a “refund” on my IRS return.

It was in this context that I started to wonder about the rhetoric of “poverty” in our country.  For the interesting fact was that although I and my family were classified as merely subsisting and in need of significant government assistance, I was never unable to pay my rent, my children always had plenty of food and clothes, my car was paid for, I had very little credit card debt, and I had a few standard electronic luxury items in my house (including a desktop PC and a laptop).  This was “poverty”?

Now it is true that given my extremely small salary, I was unable to make payments on my school loans, my family did not have health or dental insurance, and even with the annual tax-time infusion of Federal money, we pretty much just barely scraped by.  But we had the things the Apostle lists as leading to contenment, food and clothing, and on top of that we also had shelter and a number of items (chiefly books) that, from a mere material sufficiency standpoint, were superfluous.  Given all this, my mind kept turning over and over again the question, “This is poverty?”  Clearly not.

However…(There’s always a however… or a but… or an on the other hand… in human things, which, under an absolute God, are always subject to great relativity.)

Despite the apparent simplicity my account of my own life over the last decade may give it, the question about “poverty” is pretty complicated.  A huge part of the complexity is that as Christians in America, we are a rather spoiled lot.

How many of us reflect on, say, our standards for what “good” food is – let alone what “enough” food is?  How many of us eat out more than, say, once a month, and reflect on how vastly much more it costs to do that than to plan weeks of menus, shop in accord with them, and eat at home?((My children have recently begun to see this larger point about food in particular because we’ve gotten involved with volunteering for Feed My Starving Children, which exposes kids who never go to bed hungry to what real poverty looks like.))

How many of us consider that when we, living in the lap what most of the human race would have considered god-like luxury, speak of the “poverty” of others, we might just be answering the wrong question – and in fact, simply begging the question?

How many of us accept, without much thought, the popular narrative that Protestantism has this amazing thing called a “work ethic” that requires constant, frantic activity aimed at acquiring more and more stuff so as to prove that we are “King’s Kids”?((This is another term on which, when it comes to economics and politics, there is surprisingly little self-critical reflection among American Christians.))

Do we do much reflection on what work is and how it is connected to the Gospel?((Dorothy Sayers’ Why Work? is a provocative place to start.))

As Protestants, we often hear from those of our own propagandists who are trained in economics that the Reformation created an amazing world of temporal and material prosperity which is in principle available to everyone equally – if only they will make proper, rational, self-interested choices that The Market’s “invisible hand” will mesh with everyone else’s for the greater advancement of all?

Interestingly, that interpretation of the Reformation’s cultural effects itself trades on a debatable understanding of the Reformation’s relationship to previous Church history. It’s worth asking (since we Protestants are just as human as anyone else!) to what extent might we be using a caricature of the Reformation to justify our present ideological commitments?

In my years as a teacher, I’ve had occasions to teach humanities courses based on curricula that explicitly-state their commitment to “the Christian worldview.”  I have noticed often than when it comes to economics (and also politics, which used to be the same subject as economics, as in the old the term “political economy”), American Christians nearly universally gravitate to using every text they study, whether the Bible or the classics, as support for our own present concept of capitalism, with all its assumptions and consequences.

Yet for all the talk of “worldview,” there is little to no reflection in such treatments of fundamental issues. Few are the discussions of the teleological finitude of man made in God’s image and his correspondingly limited relationship with the world as his habitat. Most discussions in “worldview” treatments of the origins of money and economics slavishly follow the old, trite script of imagining all pre-modern arrangements as hopelessly mired in “poverty” – a narrative that begs at least as many questions as it purports to answer.  But probably the most astonishing lacuna in the “worldview” thinkers’ talk about economics is the one into which has fallen the nearly universal theme in pagan and Christian sources of the ethical corruptions that easily enter when a mind sets itself on earthly gain.

Questions are a fascinating thing.  Sometimes they are good, sometimes not, but it is not always easy to determine which status a particular question has.  Moreover, many disagreements turn on the simple fact that different people ask different questions about the same phenomena, and so, quite predictably, if also quite un-self-consciously, come to different answers.

It is clear to me that my own life experiences (especially as refracted through the type of education I received – which many do not) more than justify the sorts of questions about the fact of and rhetoric of “poverty” I have asked in this post.

More than a decade later, I am still pondering the classical texts I studied in graduate school that got me started thinking about “poverty.”  I’m still waiting for too many people in the intellectual world I inhabit, that of classical education, to “catch up” with the contents of the books they claim to love reading and writing about and begin talking about economics in, well, actually classical terms that are thousands of years old instead of only about two hundred fifty years old.

I am still grappling with how to apply the New Testament’s largely negative words about wealth and material possessions to my own life.  And I’m still waiting for popular pastors and “thought leaders” to show more insight into the Bible than matter-of-factly saying shallow things like “Abraham was rich” and “We’re King’s Kids who have dominion!” and “Jesus’ parables endorse money-lending and saving for a rainy day” and “The 8th Commandment proves that there’s private property.”

Too many, it seems, think they already have The Answers, and so they don’t ask the really important – and often self-condemning – questions that go deeper than surface level appearances.

I am still a teacher, and, though I have risen almost double in salary over several moves to different schools, I still make well below the poverty line as established by Those Who Say They Know the Objective Truth About Such Important Matters.  Part of that is, of course, because I now have six children rather than two.  But every member of my family has more clothes than any of us can wear in a month, we have at any given time a month or more of food stored in our pantry, we now own two cars, my children are all in above average health, we (usually) pay our monthly bills on time, and we only take on debt when it seems unavoidable otherwise.

We are, as a general rule, pretty happy with our standard of living, and recently my wife and I have begun to run thought experiments about how we might actually get rid of much of the simply superfluous stuff we have – not just to simplify our lives but to take a stand against the extreme materialism that so deeply infects the Faith in our fair land. Don’t get me wrong – we’re not talking wearing hair-shirts and becoming pitiful mendicants, mind you.  We’re just trying to engage more faithfully the perennial issues surrounding the role of money and possessions to virtue.

At the end of the day, I have to say firmly and resoundingly, no, no matter what the charts and graphs and Learned Articles and one-sided apologetics for God’s Own Economic System, American Capitalism, all say, I am not “poor.”

One may be able to show me a line on a spreadsheet marked “Poverty Line” and put an X below it where my family is, and one may be able thus to condescendingly speak of my regrettable state of “subsistence living,” but I don’t believe a word of it.

Go pack some meals for Feed My Starving Children and try to say that I am “poor.”  What this sort of thing does is reveal that all standards of “rich” and “poor” are relative to some other standard – and it is that almost always unstated (and likely unexamined) standard that we need to be discussing, not the amount of money one makes.

I can’t help but ask: does not such rhetoric grossly trivialize “poverty?”

What happens when, as frequently does happen in one-dimensional “worldview thinking” circles, this understanding of economics is tied to the Constitution-thumping, flag-waving theology of “American exceptionalism” which itself wrongly presumes it is a logically corollary of the Gospel’s message of freedom?

Does such thinking merely presume on the inscrutable providence of God (who, after all, raises up and casts down kings and cultures as He wills without ever consulting us)?

Does such thinking trivialize the Bible and the Christian witness by shackling the cross to the ?

And lastly, doesn’t such thinking bury beneath confused and simplistic propaganda very deep questions with which our race has always struggled, and to which we are still trying to find answers?

Could it be that much of our thinking about poverty is itself deeply impoverished?

[Revised for more clarity, July 25, 2023]

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