I have just begun reading Michael B. Katz‘ book In the Shadow of the Poorhouse, his comprehensive book on the history of welfare in America. I begin this book on the heels of Da Chen‘s (Chen Da) personal memoir of growing up dirt poor as a member of a hated landlord family under the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Colors Of The Mountain. What strikes me, today especially, but always, is that a lot of what we consider when speaking of disenfranchisement and poverty is based upon perception. I, after all, am a member of the rich landlord class in America, head and shoulders above the ranks of my unfortunately tenants in both means an education, and, therefore, opportunity. And yet I write today’s blog sitting in an abandoned apartment that is unrentable because two door frames have lead paint and await the next income of any size that will allow me to just pay the heat bill on the one building still seeing any kind of income, although not enough to keep me out of foreclosure. I have been narrowly keeping the nipping dogs of poverty at bay under slightly more favorable circumstances for the last thirteen years. And yet, despite thirteen years of evidence to the contrary, I still rosily look ahead and foresee that the winds will turn in my favor any day now.
I often wonder, as I deal with the “truly” poor, what perceptions they bring to the table. After extensive conversations, we usually get down to a universal truth at some point: I am responsible for my terrible life. And yet, qualifications vary greatly as to what constitutes a good life and what exactly is preventing them from living it. Obviously the human condition is characterized by flaws, many serious and universal. As the Bible would say it, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” When one wants to ask just how our world would be better if we all did not fall short of God’s glory, we have the example of Jesus, the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of his being.
And what does Jesus’ story tell us about how to make this world a better place? First, it does nothing without calling a spade a spade. He doesn’t excuse our flaws. He, after all, as the Bible clearly indicates, came to make a sacrificial payment for our flaws—his own death. But more than that, he showed us the way to be glorious like God. As the writer to the Hebrews says, “though being in very essence God, he did not consider equality with God something to be sought, but rather humbled himself in the form of a servant.” Jesus summed up his compassion like this: “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Isaiah said of him, “A bruised reed he will not break. A smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”
Certainly none of us can save the world like Jesus. And none of us comes close to reflecting God’s perfection, his glory. But the example of loving our neighbors as ourselves is clear. All of us, rich and poor, endowed by our creator with a sense of fairness and compassion, whether or not we acknowledge that it comes from God, are, to some extent, concerned with the plight of humanity. This is, in no small part, because we recognize the bigger picture, that the plight of my neighbor affects my own. There is, nevertheless, an innate selfishness to each of us that is not ready to lay down one’s own life for the sake of others, no matter how much we care about them. For many, the selfishness has entirely blocked out more than lip service to “all for one and one for all”, and for many, even the lip service is gone and forgotten in the ever-accelerating paper chase.
But back to the question at hand. Why is it that I continue to see myself as rich, even while I slip into foreclosure and my indigent tenants live comfortably off their handouts? This is possibly where I benefit from the foresight and broader perspective of my education. I can see into the future, which quickly approaches, that brings the collapse of America and the end of the welfare system. This makes me wiser, but, as the song says, sadder. For there is no upside available when welfare runs out and those with little to their name must be supported by those of us with not much more. We surely won’t be able to pick up the slack. Education tells me that this is because my perceptions have been used against me just as much as has their perception that the government will always be there to take care of them.
Yes, I, and those like me, have also been given the Koolaid. Many is the commercial that advertizes that the college educated individual will make $200,000 more in his lifetime than the poor high school graduate. Of course, we are not told that this will be used against us to prop up the ruling class, which includes those in the fiefdoms of the universities. Indeed, factoring the time wasted in school, the money lost to student loan interest and the higher taxes paid, we will have to work twice as hard just to keep from ending up welfare recipients ourselves. (That, of course, is the unstated goal. Once everyone is on the government teat, then the new communist agenda can be rolled out. Confer “Colors of the Mountain.” and every other book about communist tactics.)
Of course, now it becomes even more obvious just what one cannot do with an education. My friend recently graduated Magna Cum Lauda from an Ivy League class university. He was handed his diploma and went out to find a job. Sorry, now you’re an educated poor man. You know more than us and could be our boss. We are quite impressed, but cannot hire you. My friend is not alone. Countless millions more who merely survived college with the promise of being entitled to a cushy job are not only not finding cushy jobs, they are lucky to find any job at all. And, by the way, those student loans are due NOW.
One nice thing about being older (the downside being reference in “Too Old to Start Over, Too Young to Die”) is that I was able to complete my Master’s program back when, with a little effort, I could do it without student loans. On the same lines, the greatest thing about my education over the last three decades is that is has been at the very survivable cost of libraries, the internet and discount book stores. As I look at poor college graduates, I see that I am vastly superior in knowledge that counts than most of them. Yet my advantage is mostly one of time and experience. I have learned on the long journey that the world is not fair. They are learning via Cliff Notes. Yet we are all in the same predicament.
What is the answer to poverty then? If I could give than succinctly, would I be an overnight sensation, rich in material wealth beyond my wildest dreams? I doubt it. The answer is at once simple and complicated. To the spiritual wealth, I have the answer in Jesus. Since most would rather talk about “hard realities” of life and “real wealth”, this is, materialism, Jesus doesn’t cut it very well with his heavenly mansion rhetoric. Fine. Let’s talk about the here and now.
First of all, despite the road down which I suspect Mr. Katz is going to take me, public welfare really is about private sector involvement. But it’s much more personal than that. Communism, a dirty word because, in most instances, it equates to mass slavery for the benefit of the elite cadre, is actually a concept with quite a bit of merit, when practiced on the personal level. True communism is, after all, nothing more than extension of the family unit. Anyone with half a brain understands that every country with a strong family unit (with more than 1.6 engineered children) prospers. Countries that tear down this sacred unit soon regret it. Hillary Clinton told us it takes a village to raise a child. She has it backwards a little. It takes a strong family to raise a child. And the stronger the family is, the more the family can help the village. Strong families can reach out to include those who need the love and support of a strong family.
Secondly, there is the sticky question of entitlement. How much does entitlement get played by those who could be working and taking care of themselves? Public sentiment has gone around many times on this. The answer is a little problematic because, like any poorly designed clinical trial, it tries to define the problem with only one variable—is the person able-bodied. That doesn’t take into account education, location, and cost of living, to name a few. Now that the college graduate, allegedly a highly motivated group (at least those who I don’t watch pickling their livers on a daily basis during their undergraduate years), faces the same problems of gainful employment, the corollary issues are more illuminated. Certainly, reading books like “Colors of the Mountain” and examining other cultures and their acknowledgment that only a few rare souls really “make it”, we can see than the problem of poverty and how to end it is universal and universally unsolved by state welfare.
Maybe I will go out and find a treasure trove of new business, dig myself out of my current hole and go on happily with my life. It could happen. I do, after all, have the education. But to what extent will I have to put my compassion for the whole on hold for the selfish advancement of myself. This much I know—poor people can’t help poor people in America. It’s not because we don’t want to. It’s mostly because, in its effort to serve the needs of all people, the government has exacted the entire resources of the once independent middle class and forced them all into dependence. Too many of us who thought we were clear of the poverty line have not been paying attention as greater taxation, regulation and hidden inflation have raised the line so high that we don’t have to limbo very low anymore to get under it.
So, here I am, possessing of many answers, on the trail of asking the right questions, and having nothing to show for it but the undying annoyance of the koolaid drinkers. For me, richness cannot lie in my personal bottom line. That would be a repudiation of my entire life’s goal to raise up my neighbor, not to mention a slap in the face to my gracious God. I hope to be, like Da Chen’s beloved ancestors, someone to whom people can look for inspiration and motivation when the chaos of America’s and the world’s Cultural Revolution, and its present irrationality, subsides. It took forty years for Da Chen’s family to finally see the fruits of doing the right thing. I hope it won’t take that long for me. Three more decades would make me an old man indeed. But even if I never see that day, knowing that it will come still makes it worth it to me. And that makes me one of the haves.