My friend and her three children lived in a snug and clean chicken coop behind my friend’s father’s house. Her children were neat, mannerly, and highly intelligent. Every week she checked out library books for them and stored the books on a shelf above the bunk beds she had constructed out of used lumber. She fed the children with food stamps when she couldn’t afford food otherwise, and they were basically healthy.
Nevertheless, the poverty in which they lived was shaming in our affluent culture. I recently read an article by William Bole, “Relative Poverty: The Indignity of Gross Inequality” (Christian Century, Dec. 27, 2011) that helps to explain the shame.
Bole talks about a school of thought about inequality in the United States that he calls the “We Got Stuff” school. The “We Got Stuff” school claims that “. . . even the down-and-out [in the U.S.] have a standard of living that eludes most people in destitute nations. That’s what matters. . . Widening gaps between rich and poor are beside the point.”
But Bole counters, “As is customary for humans, Americans inhabit a particular space and time. They live in communities and need access to the resources that will help them participate fully in those communities. This means they need basics, such as a decent-paying job, health insurance and retirement security. At present it also often means needing cell phones, computers, and reliable cars.” Such people must be dealt with “within their social contexts.”
Bole has read a new book by Ronald J. Sider, Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America. Sider quotes Leviticus 25:35-36. “If members of your community become poor in that their power slips with you, you shall make them strong. . . that they might live with you.” Sider’s emphasis is on the “with you” part. That was important to my friend’s children. In order to feel a part of their school community, they needed to believe that they deserved more than a chicken coop.
Today some political voices are calling for drug testing of all those getting unemployment insurance in addition to those on welfare. It is another example of shaming the poor–of emphasizing that the struggling are not part of the legitimate American community. In contrast, Boles states that the Jewish prophets and Jesus called for the integration of the poor into society. They did not conclude that because the poor of Jesus’ time were well off compared to people who had previously lived in caves, they should not be included as an integral part of their vision of a sacred community.
All the children in my friend’s family had serious problems believing in themselves as adults, despite the fact that my friend was a very loving mother. I have spent years trying to analyze the causes of their difficulties. I believe that part of it was that they were treated by their community as social outsiders. Unworthy. Cast aside children. Two of the children died tragically. The costs of that stigmatization were heavy indeed.