The War on the Poor

By Tim Graves

My wife and I recently downsized to pay-as-you-go dumbphones. I'd like to say that our movement toward a simple lifestyle is the primary reason. (See Emptying Barns for posts on our journey of letting go of possessions.) But, if I'm honest we've done so to save money. With my continuing non-paid lifestyle, we can use an extra hundred bucks a month.

Transient
This photo by Rudy Costanza of the Times-Picayune created a stir in New Orleans and the Internet.

I thought of this when I heard that an internet complaint session has begun over a photo of a poor child with an iPad. Can you hear the uproar? "I can't even afford an iPad and I pay for people on welfare to have one!" Embedded in this comment and others like it is a judgmentalism about the poor. The poor are lazy, the poor are manipulative, and live in luxury on the back of hardworking taxpayers, goes the judgement.

Until our contracts were complete with the big corporate phone company, we did not have the choice to downsize to affordable phones. Though our finances dictate that a pay-as-you go basic phone is the wise choice, until earlier this week I carried an iPhone. If you knew my income and saw me with an iPhone you might ask yourself, "Where'd he steal it?" or "I can't even afford an iPhone and I pay for someone on welfare to have one!"

Or you would if you perceived me as a poor person.

We have a disdain for those who are poor in this country. We blame the victims of this complex social issue. When we oversimplify it, we oversimplify the role that personal responsibility plays. Yes, personal responsibility matters but poverty has far more to do with oppressive systems within our culture and economy.

Having spent decades in educational and social service agencies, I have known some people who skirt ethics and legalities. Some of them have been poor. Most have been from middle-class or upper-class socioeconomic groups. This is to say we are all human with our faults regardless of our income.

Judging another by an object they own (or simply possess) is dubious. I have had my eyes opened more than once as I visited the homes of children's families who were poor. I'm not convinced I wouldn't spend a tax refund -- that might be better spent -- on an iPad for my child if I raised her in some of the hope deserts I've visited.

But, for those who profess to follow Jesus, none of these facts are the reason to refrain from our harsh, disdainful judgment of the poor. Never mind that pesky little ol' passage about not judging others (See Matthew 7:1-5), the Gospels (and the Old Testament, too) are chockfull of passages about how we treat the poor. Many argue convincingly that Jesus has a preferential option for the poor.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because [God] has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor." Luke 4: 18a NRSV (Read in context.)

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Mark 10:21-22 NRSV (Read in context.)

‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. Luke 11:42 NRSV (Read in context.)

Just & Loving God,

Soften our hearts,

   open us to your love,

      that we might breathe it in and,

          breathe out its compassion, empathy, and

             burning desire for justice.

May we leave judgment to you,

   and exude your extravagant love for the poor,

      in our actions and words.

Amen.

***

Related Reading

The author of the original Times-Picayune article discusses the reaction in a newspaper column.  An interesting discussion of what the poor deserve as explanation for the reaction can be found here.