Poverty and identity

A few days ago I met with my ex. He bought me breakfast, and we talked about our 18 year old, and as we separated in the parking lot, he started to tear up. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, “If there’s anything you need, you know you can just ask, right?”
I responded as gently as I could, “I tried that for 20 years and it didn’t work, did it? I asked for contact and communication and I never got it.” I was a little angry and I felt sorry for him.

I was also being a little cruel; his offer was sincere. He was offering help because I’m living below poverty and I’m on food stamps. Some part of his social identity is offended that his child’s mother is living “this way,” which is a code for “beneath me.” Sadly, he has no idea that he means anything like this; he was offering added support, and he meant it, and he feels sorry for me.

I pointed out to him that it’s hard to hear those offers of support when one is at the bottom, and all one heard on the way down were warnings and silence. Sympathy, pity, and charity are hard things to need and harder to depend on. They wear out and go away. One must live always with the sense that this support is unearned.

In middle-class white America, one is supposed to “earn” and “deserve” everything. This is oddly un-Christian and certainly un-Protestant. Grace, in Protestant theology, is never earned or deserved. Yet one of the oldest Protestant theologies, often attributed to John Knox, is based on the idea that favor (good things) is bestowed by God on the elect, on those who are chosen, who therefore “deserve” favor.

Poverty in America is often labeled as the result of laziness, stupidity, poor judgment, lack of ambition. Mine is in part the result of choosing to do what is right in my life and seeing money as secondary. As a result, much of my work (50-60 hours in a given week) is unpaid or underpaid. Because I don’t have a “career” job, one that I can stick with for 20+ years, I’m also seen as a dilettante. All of my jobs are interconnected; it’s what one friend calls a patchwork career. And all of them are about communication and pastoral support. But they are not “regular” jobs with predictable paychecks and benefits, and this lack of dependability reduces the level of respect I receive from many people.

Now I find myself at the low end of the income scale, yet still partaking of the privileges that being middle class, white, and highly educated convey. These privileges come with expectations, and failing to fulfill the expectations leads to judgment manifesting as disappointment from some and disdain from others.

One has to wonder if this judgment contributes to the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” It’s not only money that separates segments of culture; it’s also the expectations placed upon us by ourselves and others. Those expectations reflect class and status; they are unconscious triggers of social placement. Our expectations of ourselves and others place us in relation to one another. It’s important to question those relational realities from time to time, even in parking lots turning down charity from the ex.

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2 Responses to Poverty and identity

  1. ahuntca says:

    “Yet one of the oldest Protestant theologies, often attributed to John Knox, is based on the idea that favor (good things) is bestowed by God on the elect, on those who are chosen, who therefore “deserve” favor.” I thought this was Calvin…? but regardless I find this crosses denominations, though Wesley largely escapes it, he focused a great deal of his ministry encouraging persons to rise above their circumstances through the grace that can lift us up…. his 20th century followers and many of his 21st century followers have not escaped the belief that favor is bestowed on the Christian who believes…

    I live in a neighborhood where my income fits… but my life-style, interests and values are not those of many of my neighbors… I’m not drinking myself to death, using or selling drugs, hanging with those who do, or physically disabled by a hard life. I not only belong to organizations, donate to organizations but I volunteer and engage in politics. As much as I try to relate with respect, sometimes the gulf is hard to bridge. I live in a 17 unit apt complex and of 21 residents only 5 of us vote.

    I can’t unbecome who I have become. On the other hand I am the first of my family to graduate from college let alone earn a masters. One of my nieces has graduated from college and one has a Dental Assistant Certificate post GED… My nephew barely finished HS and his wife didn’t though she completed a GED in her late 20’s or 30’s and has been the bread-winner. My nephew works but works as a seasonal employ so he can spend his time hunting and fishing. Neither of their parents were interested in going to school largely in a rejection of parental expectations. My mother insisted my sister and I were going to go to college but her idea was that it was as an insurance policy in case the men in our lives proved undependable as hers had. Instead she got one daughter me who took school and religion too seriously (she thought) and one daughter who had children and grandchildren and is now welcoming great-grands… and it appears that she communicated to both of us in her own way, that we hadn’t done it right.

    I’ve always felt uncomfortable in discussions of class for a variety of reasons. One being that in small towns and rural communities of the 40’s and 50’s class issues looked different than they did in urban areas or so it seems to me and everywhere they were less obvious than they would become in the 60’s and 70’s and certainly now… in anycase… I liked your discussion…

    • hadhufang says:

      Calvin is certainly tied into this concept. I have the idea more fully formed from Knox, who undoubtedly built upon Calvin’s theology. But I’m not picky; call it Calvinism if that seems more accurate. 🙂

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