Sunday, May 07, 2006

Poverty, Simplicity and Survival: A Sunday Meditation

Simplicity has become big business in the United States.

Go figure!

Jim Wallis and Sojourners magazine pointed me to Grist Magazine and Elizabeth Chin's essay, "I Will Simply Survive" (March 1, 2006).

After reading it, I knew I had to post at least a quote here.

"Enjoy" is not exactly the right word here, but read and think and consider, at least.

What is abundantly clear is that for the poor, access to most resources is limited at best, the result of a combination of financial limits and larger social disinvestment. While wealthier households struggle to balance schedules overloaded with activities and commitments, the poor often spend an inordinate amount of time negotiating basic needs. The limited nature of their consumer environment means that everyday tasks take much longer, and usually end up costing more. Given that low-income neighborhoods are unlikely to house large supermarkets, consumers are faced either with buying higher-priced and often lower-quality goods in local markets, or figuring out some way to travel the miles to the supermarket and back, often with kids in tow. Imagine grocery shopping for a family of four using only a bus or train. Distances become exponentially more important when relying on public transportation's service schedules, routes, holidays, and glitches. (Interestingly, while contributing far less than "their share" to problems like automobile emissions, the poor model at least one portion of a solution, being the large bulk of public-transportation users. What they teach all of us, however, is that it is impossible to rely on public transportation and manage, as many well-off families do, to be in nearly three places almost simultaneously.)

Powerful folk beliefs in the United States portray the poor as profligate, undisciplined consumers. In fact, those who have carefully studied the day-to-day purchases and economic behavior of the poor know better, and the poor know best of all how carefully their resources are managed, bartered, exchanged. Without access to the supersized reservoirs of credit that the middle class can amass through both property and little plastic cards, the poor are often laid flat by large expenses: a refrigerator, a car, a hospital stay. Savings accounts, retirement funds, mad money -- these are not options, not so much because the poor are incapable of thinking about these things, but because, as one anthropologist described it, "there's a lot of month left at the end of the money."

Consider this: many poor children have never had the opportunity to purchase a gift for a loved one. Whatever conflicts the affluent might feel about rampant consumerism, it is worth wondering whether -- and how -- something so seemingly simple as being able to buy your mother a present for Mother's Day might also be a powerful moment of self-actualization. The power to buy is, in this society, inevitably and fundamentally, the power to be.

[Owen James Frazer's birthday! ]


boxthejack said...

Thank you Larry. This is a useful word for me this morning.

Unable to sleep I thought I'd open my Sunday by listening to a recording of John's gospel. It is saturated with Jesus' concern for those unable to pay their way into religious and social acceptance, the intransigence of the religious authorities, and their rejection of him both because of his association with the poor (which, through their lack of access to the rites of the temple rites made them 'sinners') and his uncertain parentage.

When we claim Jesus we claim his exclusion and shame, his rejection and poverty. In the blogsphere I've noticed the resistance to this that exists within the church, precisely because it challenges the myths that support our comfortable privileges as part of the dominant culture. To too great an extent, the church has decided to serve the prevailing principalities and powers, rather than challenge them with the gospel.

I thank you for reminding me of those to whom Christ came, such as those you mentioned. The question I have is how do those of us who have a car, a job, and an overdraft, embrace Jesus of Nazareth's exclusion? How do we challenge the prevailing culture of consuming and consuming more?

Be encouraged.

Your brother in Scotland.

krister said...

These are some convicting words, Larry. What are the chances that Dallas will be able to convince larger grocery stores to build and move into in low-income areas?

Larry James said...

Boxthejack, thanks for your encouragement. The answer for persons who are serious about a lifestyle walk, I believe, is to tie our actions to our understanding of discipleship, one day at a time. It is a battle. But for the best result, simplicity must be directed toward the reallocation of assets toward those who need the benefit of a hand up and of honest, simple opportunity.

Krister, thanks for your question. The grocery store issue is a tough one and one we have been wrestling with for years. Five years ago we met with the owner of a major U. S. grocery retailer that was moving into our market here in Dallas. We tried to convince him to open stores in our parts of town. The key is roof tops. Many inner city neighborhoods are not only extremely depressed and devastated, but they are also de-populated. As we build more in-fill housing, more new multi-family housing and more mixed income and use developments, the retailers will follow. It is not easy in this economic system as it currently operates. We are determined to keep trying and working hard.