Saturday, September 8, 2007

Why Are People Poor?

One of the standard interview questions we throw at people who want to come work at Real Change is, "Why are people poor." Responses generally range from outright victim-blaming to the spouting of overly-pat dogma. Once in a while someone speaks from the heart in a way that tells us they really get it, and they score major points.

Almost everybody begins by saying something like, "Oh ... wow." The second thing they all say is, "that's a really big question!"

We tell people that there's no wrong or right answer, which is only sort of a lie, but today, for the first time, I heard what was clearly the wrong answer.

Here's how it went.

"Hmmm ... wow, um, that's a huge question! Hmm. Well ... sometimes, it's about the person, and what they do. And sometimes it's bigger." My co-interviewer and I waited.

"What? You want more? Well, hmm, (long pause). I guess I've never really thought about it.

Usually, when I get the "Are people homeless because of their own bad choices or because of the system" question, I say it's both, and then I resort to the musical chairs metaphor. Imagine the chairs as scarce resources like affordable housing and jobs that pay a livable wage, and that people are competing for them. When the music stops, who loses?

It's the people less able to compete. Maybe they're dealing with addiction, or they're mentally ill or have some other disability. Or maybe they're young, single, and have kids. Or old. Or borderline developmentally delayed. Or have a crap education because they were born into the wrong zip code, or they're a felon that nobody will hire, and so forth.

In a market that produces only housing for profit, those who can provide no profit often get no housing. The working poor have very little margin for error. They are, in a word, vulnerable.

Charity, and by that I mean any strategy of amelioration that is essentially an act of mercy, makes the brutality of this system easier to bear all around. Some shifting around of chairs may take place, with people getting up and down, but a certain proportion of losers is pretty much guaranteed.

Justice is about putting out enough chairs that no one has to stand for too long, and making sure that no one's got their fat ass parked on three of them at once while they hog all the cake.

Charity is necessary, but not sufficient. And if that's all you're doing, at some point the rest of us have to assume you kind of want things to stay the way they are.
It is essential, but it does not alter the math.


njb said...

Bless you. I continue to be grateful for the work you do. You have a gift for identifying bullshit from all directions, and are unafraid to call it out.

It's even more than that though. Lots of people can identify bullshit. It takes something else though, to cut to the core of the painful truth, about poverty, hunger, homelessness, whatever, and then say -- okay here's what we do. We need more of that. Thank you.

Thom said...

I was working on a sermon based on Lamentations and found your blog. I am grateful for "the chairs" analogy, it has put some flesh on what I have believed for a long time. I deeply appreciate your honesty and I laughed my ass off when I read your bio. I would like to use it in my sermon, and I will give you credit!