Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How Does it Feel to Be Poor?

I'm not a fan of popular spiritual gurus. It's my own bias. In their television appearances their views tend to be more truncated and far too simplistic and it's sometimes hard for me to take them seriously.

However, the Washington Post's series on the working poor "Hovering Above Poverty, Grasping for the Middle Class" has a contribution from Deepak Chopra which I think warrants attention.
He raises the question "How Does it Feel to be Poor?"

Interestingly, I don't think I've ever heard anyone ask that question before.

Any number of people make assumptions and based upon those assumptions we develop our own answers and in doing so form our own opinions about the poor. Many people consider the poor to be the inconvenient drag on our country's potential.

It's also true, that in our work at Central Dallas Ministries, we get to hear a great deal more about how people feel about the poor. And there are times when the reaction is very disappointing.

When did we get so hardened in our attitudes and stereotypes? And why have so many of us decided that the poor are so different from the rest of us that we can be so dismissive of them?

The poll covers a couple of things that are very interesting to me.

Many people assume that one reason that people are poor is because they are not 'religious' enough. There are, indeed, disciplines of the Christian faith, and other faiths, which will help us make wise financial positions and keep us from making foolish ones. But the conflation between faith and financial security is not absolute. Nor is the idea that people are poor because they don't believe in God. The poll says that 78% of the respondents say that faith and belief in God is very important in helping them get through tough financial times. Now that doesn't mean that they are all devout, nor does it mean that they attend church every Sunday. But of course you can't make those blanket assessments about the faith of the rich either.

The other thing that people tend to think about the poor is that they are just looking for a government hand out. The poll says that 53% of those surveyed don't believe that government programs have been much help and that 63% believe that people can get ahead through hard work.

Its interesting that those who are least benefiting from the American Dream are tenaciously committed to it!

The entire poll can be seen at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/business/hardesthit/images/assets/Poll.pdf.

Granted all surveys are point-in-time snapshots and don't tell the whole story. And I can stipulate that everyone of us can point to examples that run counter to the results of the survey. But what we believe about the poor tells us more about us than it does about the poor themselves.

How does it feel to be poor?

What does it feel like to be thought of as a person who has no hopes or dreams?

What does it mean to be thought of as a person who is lazy, instead of someone who can't afford health insurance or who had to make the choice between falling behind in rent in order to buy medicine?

What does it feel like to be viewed as someone who has children because they are promiscuous, rather than someone who was devastated by divorce, or who has been widowed, or abandoned by a spouse?

What does it feel like to be seen as someone who is uneducated, rather than someone who has been poorly educated because they were only taught to take standardized tests?

Isn't there another way of looking at the poor, instead of the antipathy we seem to be developing regarding their very existence?

I think we should at least consider something Chopra says, "...the poor subsidize America's enviable lifestyle. Every underpaid hotel maid, McDonald's cook, migrant farm worker, and school janitor living below the poverty line is contributing money to the rest of us. Without the poor there would be no American dream, and yet they are the least likely to benefit from it. If I am being asked what sustains me in economic hard times, my answer isn't conventional religious piety but a new vision of possibilities. Such a vision must be spiritual at its core. Begin with the notion that all souls are equal, and that each person can evolve in consciousness. Give the poorest people -- and everyone else -- the tools to expand their own awareness, and heartless questions about how it feels to be poor won't be necessary anymore."

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