I’ve been trying to come to terms with a strain of mean-spiritedness that I always find in the comments section in articles that deal with the struggles of the working poor.
“You make all kinds of excuses for your meaningless life, don’t you?” This is a comment I read yesterday on a story about a single mother with a PhD who couldn’t find a tenured position that would pay her enough to have food security. The comment was aimed not at the subject of the article, but at someone who dared to express sympathy for her.
“It didn’t seem so long ago that most people would think twice about denigrating fellow citizens who were having a hard time. These days, it appears to have been sanctioned as a new national bloodsport, regularly slipping under the PC-radar as little else manages to,” writes Barbara Ellen in The Guardian. “…Is this our new default setting – that the needy are greedy?”
I was reading today that 48 million Americans rely on the supplemental nutrition program (food stamps) and I thought about the tale of the Prodigal Son and our famine blindness. (Most Americans who hear the story of the Prodigal Son, when asked about it later, do not remember that there was a famine in it.) I realized that our famine blindness extends to our own time and our own neighbors. A famine is a food shortage that affects the entire community. Of course, famines never impact the entire culture equally. The poor have always suffered the most. If 48 million of our fellow citizens are food insecure we have a kind of famine in our midsts.
We manage to remain unaware of this by defining “we” as the kind of people who do not have survival fears. As I mentioned in my last two posts, our social commentators (writers) are made up mostly of those who are of a social class that can afford to take on a job where they are not sure they will be paid regularly. Our government representatives are of a wealthier class still. The 113th Congress has become wealthier than the last, with incoming freshmen bringing in a median net worth of $1,066,515 each — about $1 million more than that of the average American. The narrative we hear about America is told from the perspective of this group. “We” are the ones who pay taxes. “They” are the ones who need help. Those 48 million Americans are not “us.”
“Four out of five U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives,” writes The Associated Press.
How can four out of five U.S. adults not be us?
As I have mentioned here before, “the poor” are not a distinct social class, although the number of “poor” remains relatively constant, it is not the same individuals who make up that demographic every time it is measured. Poverty is something that happens to people for a period of time. Almost any of us (probably not Bill Gates) could be one of “the poor” given the right set of circumstances– a job loss, a large medical bill and so on.
Throughout history, our culture has been created by members of the elite. In the 18th and 19th Century it was the aristocracy. Now it is the “job creators.” It strikes me, as I think about famine blindness and the tale of the Prodigal Son that one of the unique things about the New Testament is that it tells the story of the poor and powerless and it continues to have an impact on people’s consciousness. That the voice of a poor Jewish teacher has managed to survive through the centuries is a bit of a miracle in itself.
I learned this from Timothy Beal’s “The Rise and Fall of the Bible”:
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than 80 percent of born-again or evangelical Christians believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse.
It is not.