Friday, February 26, 2010

Why Are The Poor Punished For Being Poor?

Some might disagree with the question I have posed. "The poor aren't punished! If the poor just do what they are supposed to do, then there's no reason for any punishment." While I agree that there is no good reason for them to be punished for the reason of being poor, it is certainly true that this is the case.

From the most ancient times, this has been true. If a peasant was unable to pay their taxes in ancient Egypt, they were whipped. If someone was unable to pay their debts, from ancient times to only a hundred years or so ago, they would be imprisoned. Today, interestingly enough, the poor are charged for their debt-- to make the debt go deeper.

For instance, in looking at my water bill that I was unable to pay until this week, I added up the charges they put on me for being unable to pay it-- 90 dollars total. This is all because I wasn't able to pay on time, not because I didn't pay my debt. Am I a bad person? No, I just run on donations and donations don't always arrive when we want them to. I can't call someone up and say, "Hey where's your check?"

I could just say that I would go without utilities until I can pay for them. Unfortunately, that isn't a possibility as well. It is illegal to have a house-- especially if you have children-- without running water or electricity. You can have your children taken away from you, in fact, if you live in such a condition. Because if you are poor, then the state considers you unworthy to care for children.

Then there's the banks. They offer "free" checking accounts. Well, they are free if you have an account that is well over the line of going under. But if your account is close to the edge-- you have a tendency to only have a few dollars in the account because you are poor-- then all it requires is an accounting error and you have a 35 dollar fee and five dollars a day. Then the banks keep changing the system every once in a while to make it easier to overdraw the account if you are close to the bottom. It's only for the poor to pay fees. And people wonder why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?

But back to my original question. Why is this? Why does society allow this? Why do people feel justified to insult homeless people or consider single women on welfare "unworthy"? Many reasons:

-It used to be that no one was truly considered "poor", because everyone is connected to a network. A debtor would be thrown in prison because even if they had no money, their family and friends did, and so they considered the family and friends responsible for the debt. We don't follow that line of thought today.

-Today, the main line of thought goes like this: If anyone is poor, it is their own fault. This is especially the thought in the U.S. I just had a conversation with someone who considers that if one lives in the U.S., then there is no reason why someone should be poor. Well, if that is the case, then why are so many people poor, even living in third world conditions? Well, it must be their own fault. Perhaps they are disabled in some way-- mentally ill, etc-- or they are addicts or have some other moral failure. So society punishing the poor is simply a way to give the poor their just due: punishing them for whatever moral lapses they have.

-Another reason for punishing the poor is because of their lack of contribution to society. If the poor are poor, it means that they consume far less than others. This also means that they do not contribute their share to the economic pool. Somehow, they must be forced to do so.

-Another reason is because the poor "steal" from others. If the poor are sick, they can go to the hospital and get free medical care (if they don't pay for it), which means that other people are paying for them, through insurance, or whatever. If a person isn't paying for enough electricity, it means that others are paying for the infrastructure that benefits everyone, including the poor. Everyone has to have a bank account to cash checks, but the poor aren't keeping a sufficient amount in the bank for the bank to use. The bank is giving the poor something that others are paying for. Thus, the poor are resting on the benefits others give them, thus they should be punished, or at least forced to pay their fair share.

I'll talk about the misconceptions of the poor later. I just want to remind people of God's words to societies that refuse to assist the poor:

God takes His stand in His own congregation; He judges in the midst of the rulers.
How long will you judge unjustly And show partiality to the wicked?
Vindicate the weak and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.
Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.
They do not know nor do they understand; They walk about in darkness; All the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I said, "You are gods, And all of you are sons of the Most High.
"Nevertheless you will die like men And fall like any one of the princes."
Arise, O God, judge the earth! For it is You who possesses all the nations.

Psalm 82

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Poverty is Expensive

Today we just had our water turned off at the Anawim house. Donations have been down and we've been praying for the Lord to supply, and we've never had anything switched off before. Enough excuses-- we just didn't have enough money. We're poor, and we run it close, and we've been late often enough. So, it happens. We prepared ourselves for the loss of water, so we're good for a while, with enough water to do what we need to.

It is interesting, though, how our society punishes the poor. And it makes sense. In our case, a utility looks at our lack of payment and they say, "These people have defaulted! And now we have to go and turn their water off!" Obviously, we're bad people. If it were a human being, I could maybe talk to them and say, "Look, we're going to pay, we're good for it. I'm a pastor and donations have been down, but it won't stay that way." But a utility isn't a person that you can talk to. It's an entity, a corporation. This means that they have policies. And policies mean that there is no give, no compassion, no give and take. And some of the policies make sense. Turning off the water because you don't have money to pay for it makes sense.

But in every utility and most corporations, if you are unable to pay, then there is an additional penalty. Of course, the penalty is financial. In our case, it's sixty dollars. And the amount plus the penalty must be paid before the water is turned back on. This is a "disconnect fee". It could also be called "punishment for being poor."

Even so, with the water companies, they have to send someone out, and so it makes sense that they expect the poor person to pay for that. Not compassionate, but it is reasonable. But for other companies to do the same thing-- a phone company, for example, where all they have to do is type in something in the computer-- their charge is simply a penalty for not having enough money. And the only penalty that makes sense to them is a financial one.

Poverty is always expensive when the poor lives in capitalism. The reason is because the society is focused on making money, therefore those who don't make money are bad and deserve to be punished. People who don't make money, for example, can only afford the food that makes their body run poorly-- high carbs, high fat. They also get the health problems that go with it. But, because poor people are ethically bad, then they also don't get adequate health coverage, if any at all. So people who either can't make money or don't make money are caught in a cycle of debt they can't pay.

Suppose a poor person wanted to get out of the debt. Great, many people are there to help them. But, because they are poor, they don't get the decent interest rates. Only rich people get those, because they have proven themselves worthy. So a poor person finds themselves in a difficult time to get out of the debt that is a minimum requirement of poverty.

To be poor means you can't take advantage of the savings of the larger quantities.
To be poor means you live with money anxieties and the depression that goes with it.
To be poor means that all the books on helping you be financially stable aren't written for you, because the publishers wisely know that poor people can't buy their books.

I'm not whining. But I wouldn't mind if some of the corporations that provides services for the poor and the government and the churches might, on occasion, think about the implications of poverty, and what it means to be excluded and disrespected simply because money isn't available.

Us poor are, for the most part, a proud people. We pray for help, but we rarely ask for it. It would be good if someone would recognize that we are trying to make ends meet and not punish us for having a bad month. Or a bad life.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Good Food For The Poor

(This post is copied from "Food Inc" which I wrote on my Steve Kimes, Anawim Esq blog)

My daughter, Nikki, was radically offended by a movie they showed in school a couple weeks ago. I would have thought that my son would have been offended by his school showing Sweeney Todd to his stagecraft class (I know I was), but he was fine by that. But my daughter had a real problem with the film Food Inc.

Honestly, she had problems with food, as it is, because she's such a picky eater. She doesn't eat most meat, not because she has a moral problem with it-- she does eat hot dogs and chicken nuggets-- but because she doesn't like it. Well, this movie sent her right to the edge of being a full vegetarian. She decried the abuse of chickens and was horrified at the brief shots of slaughterhouses.

I went ahead and watched Food Inc. myself, with the rest of my family going in and out of watching it with me. I hope that doesn't come back to bite me. So to speak.

Food, Inc. is a documentary that is basically presenting some of the more radical points of two books, Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. It is a shame that some of the more interesting points of the second book weren't presented, but the documentary was more focused. It was concentrating on how the incorporation of the food industries have caused problems for both animals and humans.

It presents it's points well, having extensive interviews with the authors of the books as well as farmers and organic food producers. Interestingly, it isn't completely against incorporation, giving a more balanced perspective of the relationship between the organic dairy company Stoneybrook Farms and Wall-Mart. It shows that it is possible for customers to vote with their pocketbook, by purchasing food that is raised better.

However, and more realistically, it also shows that purchasing good food that is healthy for both humans and animals isn't possible for a large percentage of Americans. It shows a family who is just making ends meet because of health costs and time constraints, and so they are forced to eat fast food and cannot buy vegetables. If you've only got a few dollars and you want to feed your family in a hurry, you can either get each of them a hamburger-- made from unhealthy beef, encouraging horrible animal care practices-- or you can buy your kids Little Debbies and soda.

This is my family's reality. I've had doctors and others tell us what we should be eating, but the fact is, we can't afford it. Vegetables are expensive, even your basic lettuce. Last night, I wanted to buy a salad for the meal we were serving to the homeless, so I figured I could pick up a couple heads of iceberg lettuce and a bunch of romaine to mix it up. However, when I got there I found that this store switched to all organic produce and it carried the organic price tag. Smaller heads of lettuce cost twice as much as they would have regularly, and to add romaine to that was out of my price range. I ended up paying more for bagged lettuce, but at least I had a salad. But this means that I have fewer options for other meals.

Donated food is also problematic. The far majority of donated food is bread and other high carb options. Protein is difficult to get, and organic options are laughable. The non-profit groups, like our own, do our best to serve healthy, balanced, and tasty meals, but our resources are limited.

People wonder why the poor are fat. It's not because they are lazy or because they make terrible choices with their limited food dollars. It's because their food dollars won't allow them to eat nutritionally.

And why is that? Primarily because the government subsidizes corn products, but not more nutritious items like broccoli or spinach. They regulate meat to a certain degree, but not with an eye to the over all health of their nation. The government nutrition guidelines are a joke-- they recommend way too much carbs and way too little veggies. Now, I know why they do that. They are trapped between the two pincers of the reality of what is available to most Americans and the powerful food industry lobbies.

But until the government makes serious practice changes, the food industry won't change. The food industry, honestly, is giving us what we buy. We are addicted to addictive foods, which are bad for us. And so our addictions are controlling the market, making the bad foods cheaper and the good foods more expensive.

If the government subsidizes healthy food, then the poor will be required to change their eating practices. If the poor have more veggies and fewer carbs, then their systems will be less stressed and they will make better life choices. The whole of society will benefit.

However, we know how government works. They don't do anything unless they are demanded of. They continue to vote for immigration bills that they know-- both Republicans and Democrats-- that are bad for the economy. George Bush presented a balanced immigration bill to a Republican congress, but it failed because of the outcry of the American people. Healthcare will continue to be stalled because the American people are nervous about losing what they have. If the Farm Bill-- the main policy map that determined government subsidy of food-- isn't changed by the voice of the American people, it will be determined by the lobbyists. The American people must demand better food for all the people, not just those who are able to afford it.

For this reason, I wish that every American could see this documentary, Food Inc. Not because all of it's points are good, but until people realize there is a problem, they will never try to create solutions.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Health Drive for the Homeless!

There have been requests by some of the homeless on the streets of Gresham and Portland to have some health items for their use. Some items that are simple for most of us to pick up for ourselves can accumulate to a lot of money for those on the streets. Perhaps you or your church would be interested in having a drive for these needed health and hygiene products? Some of these items would be given directly to people on the streets, while some would be kept in first aid kits for use when they are needed. Any items donated would be given to Anawim and if we have excess of any of the items, we will pass them on to other organizations in the Portland area that are serving other parts of the homeless community.

The list is put in order of need:

Hand warmers
Disposable razors
Cold medicine-- decongestant, antihisthemine, cough medicine
Individual packs of tissue
Packs of alcohol swabs
Anti-bacterial ointment
Gauze pads (all sizes)
Hand sanitizers

Please contact us if you want more info: or