A Witness Perspective: Poverty is Not a “Thing” – It’s About People

by | Jan 16, 2018 | Formation, Reflections

From my perspective as a long-time and former Louisville Catholic Charities employee serving in several different social justice ministry functions and now in my volunteer role as the Mideast Voice of the Poor Regional Leader, I’d like to offer during National Poverty Month this January 2018 this reflection on persons who are poor.

First, just a reminder – poor is an adjective. Thus, this poverty reflection is about people. Let me tell you about 3 persons that I know whom I would call poor.

Larry is a very neat, clean person. He is quite polite and can lay the saddest look on you when asking for money. He works, and his wife has died. He receives SSI (Supplemental Security Income). Larry probably is on the high end of the mental retardation scale. He would call me from time to time after he moved to Chicago. Larry was paying too much for rent.

Then there is Michael. He too receives SSI. He has multiple health issues. He is very personable and until recently spent $450 of his $600 SSI monthly check for a room in which to sleep—no bath, no kitchen. When he finally received Section 8 rental assistance, he got an apartment with a bedroom, kitchen, bath and a living room. His health is bad. He tried reengaging with society. He was part of my justice ministry network. His mind works fine when not muddled with drugs and alcohol. Michael died last year.

Then there is crazy Karl. Karl was schizophrenic and possibly manic. He once knelt before a crucifix in my office, handed me a knife and asked me to kill him. Drugs, alcohol, and mental illness. Lots of personality but often with a glazed look in his eye. He stepped out in front of car and was killed.

Now all these men are distinctive, had personality, and lived on the margins of the community. I met them because they would come to Catholic Charities asking for help and money. Sometimes, I became a payday lender that lost money.

What does God intend for the Larrys and Mikes and Karls of the world? Respect? Accountability? Love?

What does God ask of me? An outreached hand? A willingness to listen? A critical opinion? Money? Our God is a God of abundance (Garden of Eden). “Poverty,” or being on the margins, is largely a manufactured situation created often inadvertently and sometimes purposefully by you and me.

You and I are complex. The many studies around the issue of why some are successful and others fail always produce thought-provoking “explanations” — lack of money, place of birth, race, lack of social connection, lack of family support, absence of church affiliation or faith – but no silver bullet. In the book Bridges Out of Poverty and the accompanying “Getting Ahead While Just Getting By” poverty-escaping series (which many Vincentian councils and conference use to help our friends in need understand their situation and find a way out), Dr. Ruby Payne points to four major reasons why people find themselves in poverty:

  1. Behaviors and choices of the individual
  2. The individual’s lack of or inability to access human and social capital in the community
  3. Exploitation, and
  4. Political and economic structures.

All valid. The devil is in how you weight them. My friends would score high on the first and second points, for sure. But far and away it is number four that defines the boundaries.

It is helpful to recognize that the Government provides the largest safety net — food stamps and rent assistance through such programs as Section 8, to name but a few – in alleviating harm to those on the margin. Consider for a moment that we spend $49.5 billion in low-income housing assistance (2) and $70.9 billion in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (3) and other food assistance programs. Aid from all the churches in the USA would not come close to that investment. Then further reflect on our $700 billion budget (1) for war and defense spending, about six-fold more than we spend on housing and food assistance combined.

If you ask the question of how many persons in this land of opportunity move up from the lower class to middle class or even wealth, the simple answer might be if you are born into a poor family you will remain in that economic class. (4)
 So what am I to do?

Well, I would suggest the following:

  1. I must acknowledge that I am not ready to be poor. (5)
  2. I must acknowledge that persons who I call poor have the same worth in God’s eyes as I do.
  3. I must acknowledge that poverty – people being poor – is a creation of man, not God.
  4. I must acknowledge that poverty, as I know it, can be eliminated from the earth if I am willing to become poor.

Now you might say — “oh come on, really?”

Well maybe there is a #5. I must acknowledge that a requirement of being a child of God is for persons of good will to vote and act politically because the reason that some persons are poor is because of the rules of our society—global and local.

Now, I am not ready to be a mendicant friar. However, I am willing to be taxed more to provide a larger earned income tax credit or to provide funds to create affordable housing. You see, I have grandchildren who will be burdened with our failure to find the common good.

It is in the common good that all persons be brought to self-sufficiency. It is also in the common good that all people have a decent home, adequate healthcare, a living wage job, sufficient food. All people —7.3 billion of us on planet earth.

All this is in the common good and aligns perfectly with my Catholic and Vincentians values that recognize all persons as children of God and as having therefore inherent, self-dignity.

Where can I begin, where can we as Vincentians begin? We can acknowledge that the Larrys and Michaels and Karls of this earth are God’s children. Our Vincentian willingness to visit them and to offer aid can lead us as Catholics and as Vincentians to take the next step — advocate for change. For you and I are part of God’s family. We are each fundamental to the solution.

What is required of me is more than a sigh and a “ain’t that awful.”

What is required of me is a willingness to embrace a poverty (not spiritual but actual) — both within myself and within the family of man/woman that can alleviate the poverty of billions on this planet. I cannot do it alone.

Please pray for me as I will for thee that we all let God out of our hearts to do so.

David J. Dutschke is a Mideast Region Voice of the Poor Leader serving on the national SVdP Voice of the Poor Committee. He is based in Louisville, Kentucky.David can be reached at djdutschke@gmail.com

(*References and reading—HUD.gov, USDA, Economist 2.1.2014, Karl Rahner S.J)

1 https://www.fcnl.org/updates/policy-bill-proposes-700-billion-pentagon-budget-rejects-efforts-to-rein-i n-wars-1141 Military war budget

2 https://www.hud.gov/fy2016budget section8

3 https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/pd/SNAPsummary.pdf Snap

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socioeconomic_mobility_in_the_United_States

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/07/social-mobility-america/491240/ class mobility

5 Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol XIV (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), “The unreadiness of Church members to accept poverty” pp. 260ff