The Poverty Spiral

[Note: This is a longer presentation that could be adapted to a 2 or even 3-part talk. I include it here as a sample of a theme I address, and the way in which I tend to teach or present material.]

God cares deeply about the poor.  I know, Roger, I know.  We need to be nicer and a bit more generous.  I thought that way for years, but God goes MUCH deeper than that.  It is remarkable how often God speaks about the and abuse of the poor. Abuse. Exploitation. Injustice. It appears that in every generation where God spoke a word to His people, He had to bring this up…repeatedly! I want you to feel something of the weight of God’s heart, so I must read some of these instructions, though there are dozens more in the Bible I will not read. I want to soak you with God’s Words before I add my own. Consider These: (All from the NIV Bible Translation)

“Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Exodus 23:6
“‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.’” Leviticus 23:22
“‘If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Leviticus 25:35
If anyone making the vow is too poor to pay the specified amount, he is to present the person to the priest, who will set the value for him according to what the man making the vow can afford. Leviticus 27:8
If the man is poor, do not go to sleep with his pledge in your possession. Deuteronomy 24:12
Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Deuteronomy 24:14
Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin. Deuteronomy 24:15
My whole being will exclaim, “Who is like you, O LORD? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.” Psalm 35:10
A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away. Proverbs 13:23
He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God. Proverbs 14:31
He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and he who gives gifts to the rich—both come to poverty. Proverbs 22:16
Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, Proverbs 22:22
He who increases his wealth by exorbitant interest amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor. Proverbs 28:8
The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. Proverbs 29:7
To Israel: Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, “Bring us some drinks!” Amos 4:1
You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. Amos 5:11
The LORD enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: “It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. Isaiah 3:14
Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. Isaiah 10:1-2
The scoundrel’s methods are wicked, he makes up evil schemes to destroy the poor with lies, even when the plea of the needy is just. Isaiah 32:7
“‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. Ezekiel 16:49
The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice. Ezekiel 22:29
He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD. Jeremiah 22:16
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. Luke 12:33
All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. Galatians 2:10
Now listen you rich people…Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. James 5:4

Why so many instructions? Why so many generations? You have to conclude this is one of the most pervasive, destructive patterns in human history. The well off get more well off and the poor take more losses. Do you think that still happens today or have we gotten past all of that?

So here is some interesting information taken from a Huffington Post article online January 17, 2016 (Their sources: Oxfam Report, Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report)
Wealth disparity: Top 62 wealthiest have resources equal to those of the bottom 3.5 billion.
5 Years ago, the resources of the top 388 matched the bottom half of the world.
The wealth of the top 62 has increased 44% in the last 5 years; the wealth of the bottom half of the world has decreased 41%. The richest 1 % of the world’s population now own one half the world’s wealth.

You see this on a global scale. You also see it on a national scale. Consider this stat from a Washington Post article—May, 2015, written by Christopher Ingraham) “…the wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. households have captured a whopping 76 percent of all the wealth in America. And that number is considerably higher than in other rich nations.”

Now, in all of the Scriptures I read, I did not hear one word from God that wealth is bad, that having a positive net worth is evil, that possessing abundant resources is wicked. What you heard repeatedly, however, is that all down through history some or much of the wealth of the well-off comes at the expense of the poor, that the well-off have a tendency to fight for laws and systems and practices that protect their wealth. People tend to look out for themselves and protect their own interests. People with power and money and influence use that to protect and increase their power and money and interest. You have heard that money talks. Well, poverty barely whispers.

I would like to give some context for how the wealth gap widens in the U.S. It is simply one way to look at factors that contribute to the growing gap. I want to talk about the poverty spiral and the wealth springboard. This image is a less data-driven and more experience-driven, but I think it can help us think through some factors. When I reference the poor, I am thinking of those who don’t enough resources to live on or just barely have enough to live on. When I talk about the wealthy or well-off, I am talking about people who have more than enough resources to live on or access to those resources. Let me talk first about the poverty spiral.

Poverty Spiral: When you have little or not enough resources, you are far more susceptible to losing resources. Losing resources is almost inevitable. The poor get poorer.

When you have less than enough or just enough to live on, and you have no ready access to resources, your definition of a disaster
* One $250 traffic ticket
* One $300 medical bill
* One $400 car repair

You don’t make an insurance payment. You get a suspended registration and/or license, ticket, or can’t drive, miss court appearance, failure to appear, arrest, bail bond, ticket. Thousands in debt. May never drive again. Much harder to get work.

Your truck blows a head gasket. You can’t afford the repair. You lose job. You can’t pay rent. You are evicted from house. You stuff piled at street by a sheriff. If you aren’t home, people plunder your stuff at the roadside. You are homeless, and hoping that maybe you can survive until your application for the housing project place goes through. For the poor, losses tend to multiply. They spiral.

Your car needs a repair. You get a title loan to pay for repair. You have insane interest rates, that you ultimately can’t keep paying. You lose your car to title loan company. Your credit is shot. You probably can’t borrow money anywhere now, and if so, the rates will be astronomical. Welcome to the poverty spiral.

I have friends who, when their car stops working have as a first thought: “Where will my family and I stay if I lose my house or apartment?” I have NEVER had that thought in my life. But for some of my friends, that is what one bad head gasket can do. That can start the fall of the dominoes. (Story of neighbor kid who told us they might have to move “under the bridge.”)

Let’s say you aren’t quite making enough to live on, but you are scraping by. You get stopped for not coming to a complete stop. You have a $250 ticket that you have to pay. You have no friends to borrow the money from. You have no credit card. Let’s say you can’t get money from a Title Loan place or you refuse to. Where will you get the money? Here are your options:
– Don’t pay the ticket.
– Don’t pay your auto insurance. up to $500 fine, suspension of car registration and/or license, reinstatement fees
– Don’t pay utility bill. It works for awhile, but then comes the cutoff…and the reinstatement fee.
– Don’t buy food.
– Don’t pay your rent. Actually, this is one reason why landlords can have such a tough time. If a poor family stops paying the rent, they will have some period of time before they have to move out. Unfortunately, this can be or feel like the best of all bad options.
– Sell drugs, sell sex, steal

Every option leads to more losses. Poverty tends to lead to greater poverty. That’s what I mean by the poverty spiral. Oh, and it’s terribly demoralizing. On that note, I will tell you that hopelessness and laziness look very similar. There is one narrative about the poor that they are simply lazy. I expect some are; God knows I’ve met some lazy well-off people. But a lot of times it is not laziness. They’ve simply lost heart. And the Bible has FAR more to say about poverty as it relates to injustice, abuse, exploitation, fleecing, gouging, partial courts, greed and stinginess of

Wealth Springboard: When you have extra resources or ready access to resources, you are positioned to more easily create more resources. Gaining resources is almost automatic. I will say up front that this is my story.

Wealth springboard:
* Savings earn interest. (Someone with 1 million in some kind of savings vehicle at a 3% rate is making $30,000 a year in his/her sleep.) Stocks earn value and dividends. Owned houses build up equity.
* The well-off can start businesses. They have the capital or they can easily borrow it.
* If a law is not working to the advantage of the wealthy, they can and will push to change the law, and they have the clout to do it.
* They have much more power to change things for their benefit. I’ll state the obvious. The owner or CEO of a business has much more power to effect work changes than the person making the least income. It is easy to talk about “those rich people” like Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey as the people moving up the wealth ladder, but I also must talk about how my “average” or middle class wealth helps me move up the stairway.

* I can buy sale items in bulk.
* I can get cash discounts.
* I can buy estate sale items and sell them later.
* I can take advantage of a great deal.
* I can get credit cards with little or no interest. I actually have a credit card with rewards. When I don’t carry a balance, I actually MAKE money when I use my credit card.
* Great credit rates. Can I talk a minute about the credit offers I get in my current neighborhood? I get repeated offers in the mail. The lowest credit rate I have seen is 30%. The highest was 385%. No, I didn’t think that was legal either.
* I can put a down payment on a house and pay less per month than the cost to rent.
* The wealthy can find great deals from the desperate. The wealthy often have something the poor desperately need, and the wealthy can negotiate the terms. It’s supply and demand, baby!
Every single time I am negotiating a price or deal with someone, I have a “leverage” meter working in my head. Without thinking in these terms, I am actually assessing how “desperate” they are. I am reflexively figuring how little I can pay.

When it comes to a $250 traffic ticket or a $300 medical bill or $400 car repair, it is an annoyance, but it’s hardly a disaster. Dip into some saving. Put the repair on a credit card.

And so the cycle since the earliest days of mankind continues. The wealthier get more barely even trying. The poor go backward a bit more almost every day. How is it that the cycle could continue? More to the point, how is it that followers of God could repeatedly miss this down through the years? How is it that they could be supporting systems that set the poor back further? I have to make this personal—how could I?

You must have a narrative that justifies your inaction, your failure to carefully consider the words of God. I will tell you the powerful narrative that I believed. It is captured in a thought-provoking song written 30 years ago by Bruce Hornsby and sung by Bruce Hornsby and the Range. The song became a number one hit, the song “The Way It Is.”

“Standing in line, marking time, Waiting for the welfare dime, ‘Cause they can’t buy a job.
The man in the silk suit hurries by, As he catches the poor old lady’s eyes, Just for fun he says, “Get a job.” That’s just the way it is; Some things will never change; That’s just the way it is.”
(Song: “The Way It Is,” 1986, Written by Bruce Hornsby, Sung by Bruce Hornsby and the Range,

“Get a job.” Anybody who wants a job can get a job. Anyone who has a job will be fine. Hardworking people have jobs. Lazy people don’t have jobs. Poverty is just a matter of someone being willing to work. For most of my life, I had just assumed that poverty was largely the fault of the poor. “Get a job.” The poor were simply the victims of their own bad choices, their laziness, their lack of initiative, their addictions, etc. I grieve those terrible stereotypes, but they are what I subtly believed whether I ever actually voiced them. And the core thinking behind all was this. Poverty is the fault of the poor. And there were Bible verses to back this up, the only verses about poverty I heard in the church:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10
Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth. Proverbs 10:4

See there! Poverty comes down to laziness, loving pleasure, and an unwillingness to work. It is obvious; poverty is the fault of the poor. But Roger, don’t you think that some poverty does have roots in laziness or bad decisions? Of course it does. God mentions that a couple of times in the Bible, but think back to all those verses I read earlier where God, time and time and time again, connects poverty to systems that favor the well-off, to behaviors that exploit the poor, to cold and tight-fisted hearts, to unjust pay, to exploitive interest, to tragic life circumstances, to negotiations that exploit desperation, to unfair laws that favor the rich over the poor, to God’s people who fail to fight for justice for the poor. Most often today, the wealthy are concerned about being robbed by the poor, but God almost exclusively talks about the well-off robbing the poor. Much more often, God talks about poverty being related to the wealthy, people like me.

The wealthy, like me, have an historical tendency to blame poverty on the poor and not me. As I look back, my “get a job” narrative about the poor caused me to ignore or miss entirely dozens of Scriptures about my responsibility. God was calling me to change my behaviors, to change my heart, to fight unjust laws, to pay people fairly, to negotiate justly, to make sacrifices to open doors for the poor, to champion just wages, to be generous with my blessings, to honor the poor and not despise them. God was saying that poverty is very often a problem created or supported by the wealthy.

In a room like this one, most of us are the “well off.” So, how are you feeling right now? Some of you may be feeling defensive. I’ve been there many times. Truth is, I’m partly wrong and some things I’ve said may be wrong. You’ve got to wrestle with what God is saying to you. Some of you are probably feeling guilty. Some of you may be feeling helpless. Bruce Hornsby’s words may be echoing in your head: “some things will never change, that’s just the way it is.” But it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. So what do we do about it?

One: Speak Up for Justice for the Poor
“The righteous care about justice for the poor.” Proverbs 29:7
The people of God’s way care about justice for the poor. He does not simply say that God’s people give to the poor here and there. They care about justice for the poor. Giving to the poor is never enough. That is a Bandaid approach. We are called to speak out against and seek to change laws and systems and practices that take advantage of the vulnerable. Psalm 82:3—“Defend the cause of the weak and the Fatherless.” Proverbs 31:9—“Defend the rights of the poor and needy….speak up!” Jeremiah 5:28—“My people…do not defend the rights of the poor.”

Our problem—MY problem—is pervasive self-interest. For most of my life, I have simply thought of how laws and policies and systems affect me. I have thought nothing of title loan practices, because they don’t affect me. I have thought nothing about felon laws because they don’t affect me. I have thought very little about minimum wage laws except how they might affect me. I have not thought about how a tax increase might benefit other people; I am only concerned if it helps me. I have not thought about interest rates or loan availability for the poor because it doesn’t affect me. I have not cared about bail bond practices because they don’t affect me. I have not cared about schools in deteriorating neighborhoods because my kids did not go there. I have not cared about how a political candidate’s policies might affect the poor; I have only cared about how his/her policies might affect me. The Bible describes me this way: I have not been righteous, because “the righteous care about justice for the poor.” I have not loved my neighbor as myself.

I will warn you that this is hard because justice for the poor will always have a price tag for the well-off, which is one of the reasons why justice tends to get neglected. If the poor are going to get very low interest rate loans, I am going to need to pay more. Am I willing to do that? Are you willing to take a financial hit to right injustice against the poor?

Befriend the Poor.
Be with them. Get to know people outside your neighborhood and usual social circles. Part of the income/resource gap in our country and world goes back to a geographical gap. The well off and the poor are geographically segregated. We almost always live in different neighborhoods. Let’s be honest. The well-off usually want it that way. “Those people” will bring down our property values.” This geographic gap widens the resource gap. We don’t know the stories of the poor. We care about things that affect our friends, but if almost all of our friends are well off, we will be less likely to care about the concerns of the poor.

Our distance from the poor often feeds contempt for the poor as well. Especially when we have generalized that the poor are simply lazy or people who exploit the welfare system, we can think of them as inferior to us, we who have “worked hard” to get where we are. The more quality time you spend with the poor and hear their stories, the more likely you are to treat them as real people like yourself.

Set Aside Resources for the Poor
Because there are so many instructions to be generous to the poor, I try to find ways to bless people who are at the lower end of our economic system. I leave generous tips for motel housekeeping staff, for instance. I look for other people who may be sort of “forgotten” in our work world to see how I might bless them.

Find Ways to Lend to the Poor
One of the most desperate needs of the poor is an emergency loan that is interest free.

Pray for Justice for the Poor
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that we plead with God for justice for the poor. Jesus taught us to pray “Give US our daily bread.” And it is this kind of praying that is most likely to begin changing our hearts for the poor. Your heart is more likely to move toward people you are asking God to bless.

Don’t Exploit the Poor.
Whoa, Roger! That’s over the top. I know. I know, but I have discovered that I have exploited the poor and vulnerable before. It has happened in sales. I buy things and resell them as a source of side income. I realized that every single time I am negotiating a purchase price, I have a sensor in my head. It is a desperation sensor. Why? The more desperate a person is to sell, the more likely I am to get a cheap price. And I have taken advantage of that. It breaks my heart to think about it now. Now, I must negotiate differently. Sometimes, I will encounter a well-off person who simply wants to unload something. I’ll take that great deal. But I can no longer make a great deal off someone who is desperate. I don’t negotiate every tag sale the same way. I live in a materially poor neighborhood, and I don’t negotiate lower prices they way I might in wealthier neighborhoods.

God’s heart breaks for the desperate poverty in our country and abroad. We tend to think that the primary way that poverty will be reduced is by changing the choices of the poor, but God almost exclusively addresses the choices of people like me who are not materially poor. We must consider how we are contributing to the exploding wealth disparity, either through our inaction, our choices, or systems we support or fail to challenge. I finish with a Scripture passage I read early on:

He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD. Jeremiah 22:16

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