This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.
In these tough economic times, blame for the recession is being passed around like a cheap drink. I heard one person blame the subprime mortgage crisis on African Americans living beyond their means and another blamed illegal immigrants. This has made me aware of a massive shift that has happened in how we view those living in poverty.
There was a time when people believed that people living in poverty simply needed an opportunity. This general goodwill followed the civil rights movement’s legislative and cultural victories. The result was numerous social welfare programs that supported health initiatives, job training, and educational-enrichment programs in disadvantaged communities. I know because instead of a doctor’s office, my mother took me to a free clinic.
Corruption and abuses of particular parts of the system encouraged the unfortunate stereotype of the freeloading single black mother. This distorted image (although true for some) gained ground during the Reagan era of the 1980s and peaked in the early ’90s, eventually leading President Clinton to pass the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Even today, black and Latino people are the default faces of government-assistance programs. Yet few know that when social welfare plans such as Medicaid, Food Stamps, Supplemental Security Income, and HUD housing programs are added together, the majority of its recipients are white.
The goodwill generated from the civil rights movement and the racial advances of the last 40 years apparently has run out. With our nation’s economic future cloudy, it seems there’s a more brazen resentment of the poor and the stranger.
The Changing Nature of Poverty
I grew up in generational poverty in North Philadelphia throughout the 1970s and 1980s. I saw African Americans owning businesses, working and taking care of their homes. Alcohol and illegal drugs were available but were kept in the background out of the reach of children. Having access to a variety of people (some who were not poor) helped me to see possibilities. This was an era when some of us knew we were poor, but we were told we did not have to act like we were poor. This wisdom, which often reached us through the local African American churches, encouraged our spirits and work ethic. It told us that we had something to contribute to society.
But the poverty of today has one thing as its legacy: a spiritual decline coupled with a greater access to cheap legal and illegal substances. When my fragile community was flooded with crack cocaine in the early 1980s, it began destroying the moral fabric that kept certain vices in check. Maybe it was the greed that became emblematic of the 1980s. Local political decisions made alcohol more available by allowing corner stores to sell it. As the pharmaceutical industry grew, so did access to prescription drugs on the street. Although immigrants were investing in the community by starting businesses, African American merchants were displaced. Programs that had started in the late 1970s were cut. Young people, with less exposure to positive examples and resources, were tempted with easy access to drugs, alcohol, and later … guns.
Many local organizations were ill prepared for the sea change that emerged. This spiritual decline accelerated teen pregnancy, crime, and violence. Church members began moving out of the community, turning their houses of worship from places of refuge into bunkers. Many of the people whom the underprivileged members of the community needed to see the most … left. The wisdom that was demonstrated to me as a kid seemed to evaporate overnight and was replaced with angry, narcissistic attitudes. The result was an underclass living in a subculture of dependency, shame, and dysfunction.
Acquiring Godly Wisdom
Today, our heroes reflect this drastic change. They are wealthy and beautiful. We pay attention to these people, not because of their godly wisdom, but because of their wealth. We should remember that godly wisdom can only be perceived by the humble mind. Celebrity culture, by its very nature, does not celebrate humility. This is why I appreciate Pastor John Piper’s definition: Wisdom is practical knowledge of how to attain true and lasting happiness. Celebrity culture promotes fame and fortune as happiness; the Bible says otherwise.
To find true wisdom, we must start with the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7) by seeking God through prayer and the study of His Word (Psalm 19:7). Seeking builds character and perseverance. I would suggest that godly wisdom is hard for the rich to attain because many of them live in a bubble of idolatry and self-exaltation. And once a person acquires great wealth, he typically wants to do everything he can to hold on to it. Is this why Jesus said it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle?
In Ezekiel 16:49, God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” In the New Testament, James sums up this idea by explaining that there are rich people who are wealthy because they are greedy (James 5: 1-6). This excess is always on full display on the nightly news, but many of us treat it like a virtue. (Did anyone bring up the issue of greed during the debate of extending tax cuts for the rich?)
I am not suggesting that all rich people are greedy. What I am saying is that the love of money can blind us to godly wisdom. Economically speaking, when you are at the bottom you have nothing to lose. When you are at the top, you have everything to lose. This fact inevitably drives our behavior, as well as our view of the world.
Here in Western society, even those of us who are not in possession of great fame and wealth are at fault. We may not have millions or live in a palatial estate, but we don’t cherish the honor of being made in God’s image. Instead, we try to “be like Mike” or “keep up with the Joneses.”
One of the key things that I’ve learned about wealth is that it does not only come in the form of material prosperity. Wealth also comes in the form of a sound mind, good physical health, and spiritual discernment. Keeping this in mind has helped me recognize that, even though I may not have expensive cars or a big house, I’m still rich.
It’s also important to remember that, those of us who are blessed with more in terms of finances and material things have an obligation to remember those who don’t. Proverbs 29:7 says, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (NIV). Wisdom is the key to handling matters related to both poverty and wealth in our society. And wisdom comes from God.
Life Lessons From People in Poverty
Those of us who are parents need to pass along this message to our children. In a world overrun by consumerism and greed, it’s crucial that we ground our kids in humility before God and instill in the younger generation a sense of compassion and justice for those who are less fortunate.
Throughout my life, I have struggled with how to communicate the poverty of my childhood to my own children. They are growing up middle class with the privilege of annual vacations, decent meals, a loving family, access to a vehicle and a home. I did not have most of these things. I was dependent upon not only my mother but the goodwill of others who helped me grow.
There are four things I seek to pass on to my children that have nothing to do with wealth. It has more to do with the insight I gained growing up and the wisdom God gave me as a young, struggling Christian.
1. Humility — God blesses us through our humility. God created a harmonious hierarchical order that brings glory to Himself and gave us an important subordinate place in it. Beginning with Adam and Eve, we forfeited our position and plunged humankind and creation into sin. We need to understand our position in relation to God. Humility encourages creativity, and my mother demonstrated this through thrift.
2. Interdependency — Proverbs 4:5 tells us to get wisdom and get understanding. We are dependent on God for biblical wisdom, but we must put it into action. The wisdom of the age says being rich is the end goal. Godly wisdom says that wealth is more than just money and must be used responsibly. My mother recognized opportunities for me that she could not provide and encouraged me to grow from it.
3. Perseverance — The most patient people I have met are usually those who have learned to do without. Being poor for me meant missing out on some opportunities and being teased and judged unfairly. But these experiences built my character.
4. Sacrifice — Jesus and many of the apostles sacrificed their lives, which is one reason why the church is 2.1 billion strong today. Poor people must live with sacrifice every day. I do my best to provide growing experiences for my children instead of just material things. If we can learn to do without at a young age, it will benefit us greatly when we are adults. –RT