She is seventeen years old. She and her older sister, who is going college, both work nearly full time jobs in addition to their school work. Their mother has been unable to find work since she separated from a their father on account of his drinking and violence.
In between updates on her father’s efforts to stop drinking and her efforts to hang onto a job with a boss from hell, she stops to ask us to recommend a good restaurant where she might take her mom for her birthday. ”She’s been really down lately because she can’t find work and because of the problems my dad gives her. I want to take her someplace nice, to give her a good time.”
A LACK OF WILLINGNESS TO TAKE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
I winced as I heard her question. It reminded me of one of the more recent Facebook rants I’d read about how “those people,” meaning poor people, should exercise more personal responsibility. ”They’ve got to have their cell phones and eat out all the time,” was the criticism.
I tremble with rage when I read such lazy, irresponsible, baseless accusations of people like the young woman I just described. I want to fight somebody when I hear poor people being blamed as the cause of our problems in this country.
The thing about that 17 year old who is keeping a roof over her jobless mother’s head, feeding and caring for her 14 year-old brother and 5 year old sister is not that she is so exceptional.
Look at the collage at above. Do you think I am attempting to tug at your heart strings? You bet. Because I can tell you a story about every single person in the collage above that would make you envious of them, of their courage and discipline and self-sacrifice for their fellow human beings.
I want your heart to be stirred because it is the only sure antidote I know to the callous, unthinking labels that are heaped upon those people every time someone talks about poor people as though they were all irresponsible, undisciplined and unprincipled freeloaders on society.
If you come to my church, if you dare to walk around my neighborhood, I can show you dozens if not hundreds of people who are living exemplars of personal responsibility. You and I could never hope to measure up to the discipline and determination that most of the poor people I know demonstrate in their daily lives.
Credit card debt in this country averages $15,965 per credit card holder. 609 million credit cards are owned and used by Americans. The total revolving debt as of December of 2011 was $801 billion and the total U.S. consumer debt was $2.5 trillion.
Yeah. Our country’s problems are caused by poor people. Illegal immigrants. People who can’t speak English. Those are the people who’ve racked up $2.5 trillion in consumer debt.
IS IT REALLY US OR THEM?
Look, I know what I am talking about. I am a Caucasian U.S. citizen who qualifies to be in the top 3% of people in this country in terms of my household income. I grew up around other Southern and Southwestern whites and I have navigated all of my adult wage earning life in affluent economic circles.
And I can tell you that what I have heard come out of the mouths of untold numbers of affluent white Southern and Southwestern Caucasian U.S. citizens over my adult life would convince anyone that there is a real culture war in this country. That there really is a war between “us” and “them.”
I’ve heard affluent people who are drowning in debt because of their own personal irresponsibility go on a ten minute rant about “those people” who are costing us jobs, who have “fancy cars parked in front of their shacks,” “can’t stay out of jail,” “don’t need to be leaching off the government,” “do nothing but lay around all day.”
And I see the same people try to hide their bigotry and contempt when face to face with the people they just got through condemning. Or worse still, be completely unaware that the person they are dealing with fits into the class of people they have just been condemning.
TAKE TWO WEEKS TO LISTEN
Believe me when I tell you that I don’t want a culture war. I’m not running on any political platform. There is no money in this for me.
I’m not trying to convince you to vote for an economic or political liberal. I completely agree with the idea that reducing the deficit should be a top priority for our government.
I sure don’t want you to accept what I am saying at face value when I recount my personal experience to you.
I do want to encourage you to do one thing. Take two weeks and just listen. Bring up the question of what responsibility if any we might have to poor people in difficult economic times. Don’t prompt people or argue when they start going on about the sins of “those people.” Just listen.
Then I want to begin a conversation here about who or what we really need to be at war with in this country.