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Types of undeserving poor

This is the third of three blog posts triggered by the book, The Myth of Undeserving Poor, which I recently finished reading. If you read the first post you will know that I feel the book is mistitled, in that it does not really challenge the myth of the undeserving poor. However, it does point out that Christians are called to grace and generosity regardless of the 'deservingness' of the person in need.

The authors Charlesworth and Williams also discuss ‘types’ of poverty. This is not something I have ever been comfortable with. It feels too much like dismissing the Christian duty to care for the materially poor by claiming that other ‘poverties’, experienced by those who are otherwise materially wealthy, also count – and so Christians are justified in living, working and socialising among the materially rich on the grounds that they are ‘spiritually’ or ‘relationally’ poor, or maybe even poor in their concept of their self and their relation and duty to other people and the natural world. And yet the only rich people whom Jesus chooses to spend time with are those who are socially outcast – the tax collectors, who are perhaps most akin to today’s drug barons, in being people who not just exploit others but are vilified for it across all sections of society. I see few Christians making drug barons the target of their love.

‘Types’ of poverty given by Charlesworth and Williams are economic, relational, aspirational and spiritual. My strongest contention is with ‘aspirational’ poverty: I believe this is a term used to blame the individual for what is in fact a consequence of circumstances beyond their control. It is used to blame young people for not ‘aspiring’ to become a doctor or lawyer, when they are in a school that is very unlikely to give them the support they would need to get to a university to study law or medicine and come out at the end of their degree with a secure job offer. It is used to blame people for not ‘aspiring’ to get out of entry-level jobs, when there aren’t the jobs available locally for them to progress into. It is used to blame people for accepting their situation and making the best of it, as if endlessly striving for the situationally impossible were a better approach to life.

If people in poverty have had to learn to be content with less than the middle class expect, we should seriously question what is wrong with our society, State and Government that we are so badly failing to provide people in poverty with opportunity to thrive. Too often, those few who do escape from poverty do so only be leaving their family, friends and birthplace behind – which ironically may trigger ‘relational’ poverty! So-called aspirational poverty is in reality a poverty of opportunity, for which those of us in more comfortable situations are to blame for not helping those beneath us, whether through charity or political work to increase justice in our country.

‘Relational’ poverty is, again, a term that seems to lay blame more on the individual than on society. It implies that the person has not pursued relationships, or has failed in their relationships, and what they need is help learning how to form and maintain relationships. This is quite different from ‘isolation’ or ‘loneliness’ or even ‘time poverty’: factors created by society which work against relationships. This includes the ‘rat race’ and the emphasis on individualism, careerism and the pursuit of wealth. Our culture lauds those who over-work, even though over-working results both in poorer performance at work and the destruction of the very personal life that we work to pay for!

What the lonely middle-class need is to learn to cut back their hours of work and live on a lower income for the sake of relationships. What the lonely poor need is a higher hourly rate of pay, in jobs closer to home, at normal working hours, so that they can earn enough for a decent life and still be around at the evenings and weekends to socialise and be with their family. These are two very different issues: one is a choice the middle class are free to make; the other requires a concerted effort by society to improve working standards at the bottom of the labour market. Why, for instance, do factories and warehouses run 24/7 rather than 9-5? These are emergency services; there is no necessity for these jobs to be performed at night, and a lot of unnecessary harm to the workers. Yet this does not seem to be what is meant when people discuss ‘relational poverty’.

Finally, ‘spiritual poverty’ is generally taken to mean not knowing God. And yet the Bible defines spiritual poverty as a humble, repentant heart: it is the knowledge of our sinfulness, worthlessness and inability to do good before God. Not only that, but when John the Baptist asks if Jesus is indeed the Christ, Jesus’ response is not ‘I am evangelising those who don’t know me’ but, ‘I am ending material causes of poverty and preaching to the materially poor’ (Matt 11:5; Luke 7:22). If Jesus’ primary concern were those who were far from understanding and accepting him, he would have gone to the Pharisees and scribes and priests, not to the poor and needy.

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