Poverty in America

  Will You Still Love Me When I'm Broke

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” These words, we are told, were spoken by Christ and comprise only one of the eight beatitudes.

Some linguists and theologians claim that “poor in spirit” refers to spiritual emptiness, pride, the absence of humility. Others tell us that “poor in spirit” means detachment, a kind of relinquishing of all attachments, earthly and otherwise.

And there are some, I am sure, who would claim that Christ was giving poverty a higher moral status than wealth, a deterrent to a spiritual life, if we are to believe the famous “eye of the needle” passage in which Christ was to have said that it would be easier for a “camel” to pass through “the eye of a needle,” than for a rich man “to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Another teacher of great moral authority, Gandhi, has often been criticized for being an advocate of poverty. Although he tried to rough the caste system up, the iconic photo of the great teacher, at his spinning wheel, has often been interpreted as a symbol of his profound reverence for austerity and the simple life.

The next logical jump for many supporting this philosophy is to view poverty as a way of life freeing humanity from the samsaric wheel of acquisitiveness, materialism, avarice, and greed.

So, are some of the great religious teachers telling us that wealth is the great spiritual detractor? Are they saying that any form of upward socio-economic mobility is a dangerous trap? Are they reversing the old WASP notion that economic status could be conflated with spiritual strength and moral rectitude? Are they, in fact, nothing more than the old Manicheans and Gnostics telling us that desires, material wealth, acquisitions are all part of the devil's handiwork?

In one alcohol recovery program, “fear of financial insecurity” is portrayed as a character flaw, a belief undoubtedly stemming from the faith-based notion that “God will provide.” Not to worry, as they say. After all, the “lilies of the field” don't fret, so why should we?

This Biblical consolation is not a very convincing argument when I see an elderly Phd friend living exclusively on Social Security and in a 300 square-foot subsidized apartment for $200 a month. Or a 58 year-old restructured out of a job. Or a friend of mine, in his fifties. losing his long-term factory job after his plant closed and went to Mexico. Or another disabled unemployed friend who had to fight for her life to keep her health insurance (she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her fifties).

To add fuel to the fire of how serious poverty is in this country, the National Association of Free Clinics tell us that those seeking free medical check-ups has increased by almost fifty per-cent in the last year. Food kitchens have also experienced a huge surge. Family Promise, an organization helping out families in transition, has certainly noticed the rise in poverty among many US families.

 One Google venue tells us that a little over 58% of Americans between the ages of 25 and 75 will experience poverty, at least for a year (the current 2011 poverty level, for a family of four, is around $22,000 a year). And do we have to be numbed one more time by the media telling us, ten or twenty times a day, that the unemployment rate in the US is still around nine percent or that the under-water mortgage is an ever-present reality in our economy?

America is now experiencing another group I will call the “new poor,” individuals, sometimes even educated, who once had very adequate-paying jobs but are returning back into the job market at the entry or minimum-wage level. And some, of course, have just given up looking for any job (My 58 year-old friend, for example, has no high-school degree. He recognizes the futility of even looking for a decent paying job to carry him over until he can at least get Social Security. And then he has to wait until he is 65 to receive Medicare).

I suspect there are thousands of others in their pre-Social Security and pre-retirement years who are also in the same boat (the recent HSBC decision to layoff thousands of workers to pursue higher dividends and the “new emerging markets” appears to be part of the global corporate trend of laying off many middle-management and well-paid workers–and you can forget about any corporate loyalty to the locale).

All of this would certainly indicate that most Americans do not accept the notion that poverty is a wished-for spiritual ideal. Many of us may have tipped our economic scales to the side of the chronic shopper as we consume far more than our collective three hundred million people really need. However, I don't believe most Americans are ready to follow the ascetic world of the wandering Jains, bowl in hand, waiting for the next hand-out.

Nor do I believe most Americans would miss an opportunity to win the lottery. But the lottery, after all, is the last-hope-on-the-block for many who would rather work the illusion that they have a shot at winning rather than live in the doldrums of chronic despair. And the lottery, I believe, is poverty's version of the old bourgeois game of buying an oriental carpet instead of getting four root canals. “Hey, ya only live once,” as the saying goes.

Americans seem to have conflicting attitudes about poverty.

Some view poverty as a failure of will and motivation. Others view it as fatalistic venue for those having no control over their biological, social, economic destinies. Some even see poverty as an aberration, a flaw, a lack of character. 

And some associate all poverty with homelessness, when, as one recent website points out, poverty has more to do with income disparity (people not making enough to make ends meet in contrast to a small band of plutocrats gathering in their salaries, their bonuses, their dividends, and their stock options to buy their sailboats or their second homes on the Cape) than being thrown out on the street. The wealthy, of course, can relieve themselves of guilt in knowing that poverty is about the homeless poor, over which, they would like to believe, they have no moral responsibility. On the other hand, income-disparity is one of those silent, unspoken realities in American that only the extreme left seems willing to rail against.

I also believe that there is a lot of denial going on among those who feel economically secure or who have plenty of financial reserves to carry them through an economic crisis. Many in this group, it seems to me, don't like to talk about poverty, which, for many of them, exists in a parallel universe, a galaxy, “far, far away” from their own personal lives.

And the media, in my judgment, has always had a kind of clinical and detached view of poverty. It may love the drama of homelessness, on occasion, but the inordinate-concentration-of wealth issue or the profound income-disparities in the country never seem to reach any kind of level, revolutionary enough for the media to be interested in.

If you are one of those who are experiencing the crunch of the economy, are without a job or have been laid off, or have had the bank foreclose your home, or have just given up, please know that many of us hear and feel your pain. This blog post is my way, a very small venue at that, to keep the issue of poverty on the front burner of American consciousness. And, like you, hope beyond hope, that America will not abandon me if I'm broke.

 (Writing, as many of you know, is an art. It is also a profession, a career that, because of the internet, may give the impression of being more of a lite-weight hobby than a serious pursuit. If you believe, as I do, that good writing is hard work and deserves to be compensated, please consider donating to this site. Thanks.)

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