Category Archives: Poverty

Being poor

Down in comments, Lance wrote:

Poor has been well (and overly) defined by Mr. Scalzi on his blog.

I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I went poking.

And I found this: Being Poor



A brief addendum to “Responsibility”

I had a couple more thoughts to append to my post on privilege and responsibility.

1) When I say that the rich have certain responsibilities, I mean that they have certain ethical responsibilities. This is different than saying that they have certain legal responsibilities. It is the responsibility of the government to protect people from each other by (say) enforcing contracts and the like. It is not the responsibility of the government to require that the rich be charitable. Confiscatory taxation to fund social programs is totally contrary to what I’m talking about.

2) When I say that the rich have certain responsibilities, I’m generally talking about anyone who can read this blog. Is this a generalization? You betcha. However, I’ve noticed that people have a tendency to avoid calling themselves rich.

Here’s an example. For the last couple of years, my GenCon demo for Dirty Secrets has featured various members of the independent roleplaying community, who have graciously agreed to appear in my demo. As a result, I’ve asked several people to “stat” themselves out in Dirty Secrets terms. This means writing down your age, sex, race, social class, and legal status, each chosen from a specific list. The options for “social class” are simply rich, middle class, and poor. Most people were very uncomfortable identifying their social class, even though they generally settled on “middle class”. And, to be fair, it’s an awkward question. How do you go about answering that one? I mean, what social class are you?

But when these discussions come up, it’s often human nature to push ourselves toward the median. I mean, I’m not living in a house with a dirt floor, but I’m not in a mansion, you know? So I must not be poor or rich, right?

Of course, these categories aren’t tight; rather, they form a spectrum that shifts from “dirt poor” to “poor” to “working class” to “middle class” to “upper middle class” to “rich” to “filthy rich” to “Vanderbilt”. And that’s not really a fair spectrum either.

So, when considering these issues, don’t think about the “poor”. Think about “those who are poorer than me”. Specifically, think about “my neighbors who are poorer than me”. Because, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, Jesus didn’t say, “Love humanity”. He said, “Love your neighbor.”


Sigh. I feel like I’m in the middle of a series of blog posts dedicated to removing whatever conservative credentials I might have left. Hmm. Never mind. That’s not really a bad thing. Because I’m not really a liberal, either. Be that as it may, I’m about to do something dangerous.

I’m going to talk about privilege.

Wikipedia files this concept under “dominant privilege” and offers this definition:

“Dominant privilege is a sociological concept describing the unearned advantages enjoyed by members of the dominant culture.”

There’s also a link to a syllabus about privilege (PDF).

Now, I’ll wave the tattered remnants of my conservatism and say that I generally get irritated by discussions of privilege. I’ve seen my share of privilege discussions, and they often go like this:

Non-white non-male: Waah! My life is so hard because The Man keeps me down.
White male: Are you sure The Man is keeping you down?
Non-white non-male: Shut up! You have privilege and therefore are incapable of understanding me or having any wisdom at all!

Or like this:

White male: I have privilege, and now I have guilt! I am a terrible person and refuse to be consoled, because I am white and male. I abase myself for my genetics.

Yeah, these sorts of conversations irritate me. A lot. So much that I’d be tempted to pitch the whole concept.

Except that it’s kinda true.

I tend to focus on socio-economic privilege, so let’s talk about the rich and the poor.

I love the wisdom literature of the Bible. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes just lay it out there without apology, explaining life the way it is. And, not surprisingly, both books say a lot about the rich and poor. For example, Proverbs 10:15 says:

A rich man’s wealth is his strong city;
the poverty of the poor is their ruin.

In a related passage, Ecclesiastes 7:12 says:

For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money,
and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.

These passages lay out a simple fact: having money protects you. The rich have protection from the world, but the poor are exposed to additional suffering. Or, as my mother put it, having money makes life easier.

That’s privilege.

(Yes, I’m aware that the Bible is full of warnings about the deceitfulness of wealth. However, this is because wealth actually does bestow power, though not as much as the rich think.)

The conservative response to this fact tends to be something like this: “Sure, having money makes life easier. But, this is America. We all have an equal chance to get money. Those with money just did the work, while the poor just refused to work hard.” Really? Proverbs 22:7 says:

The rich rules over the poor,
and the borrower is the slave of the lender.

For all that we want to deny it, the poor are at the mercy of the rich. This is a fact of life. We are not all equal. Some are stronger than others, and that will not go away.

In other words, we will not be able to rid ourselves of privilege. This is simply true, and we need to stop lying to each other and ourselves about this.

So, what then?

If the rich are stronger than the poor, then the rich have a greater responsibility than the poor. The Biblical principle is that the strong care for the weak. As an example of this, Romans 15:1 says:

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.

Think about it like this. I’m a pretty big guy. It’s a rare occasion to meet someone who is taller than me. Over time, I’ve realized that this means that I need to be very careful when I move around people, especially children. If I’m not careful, I will knock someone over or step on someone. Because I’m bigger and stronger, I have a greater responsibility to consider the impact of my actions.

Privilege is often used to attempt silence the strong. That’s wrong, because it’s simply an attempt to attack the strong. Instead, the powerful should be reminded of their privilege in order to remind them of their responsibilities to those who are not privileged.

Of course, this goes side-by-side with the need to remind those who are not privileged that they should not envy those who are privileged. Rather, the strong should help the weak because it is their responsibility, and the weak should humble themselves to accept help from the strong.

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD,
and he will repay him for his deed. (Proverbs 19:17)

In light of all this, next time I’ll talk about an issue that’s been on my mind recently: gentrification.

See you then.

Why I Live Here

I wrote this for the Spring 2009 issue of our neighborhood newsletter, but I wanted to share it with those of you who are outside the circulating area of that newsletter.

I remember being poor. I remember trying to provide for a growing family on a meager income. I remember going over our budget with a man from our church who stared at us incredulously, amazed that we were getting by on so little.

I remember being on food stamps. I remember how my wife dreaded going to the assistance office for the next dole. She would make sure that her wedding band was prominent, like a talisman against the disapproving glares. She wished that she could just yell, “I was married before I had these children!” But it wouldn’t matter. The steady stream of supplicants were despised by the case-workers. And so, each month, Crystal would swallow her pride and endure their scorn and condescension so that we could afford to eat another month.

And I remember one night when Crystal came home from the grocery store with a tale to tell. The Hispanic couple in front of her in the checkout line were struggling with their food stamp card. Their PIN wasn’t working, so they couldn’t buy their food. Eventually, they had to leave their shopping order and walk away. It broke my wife’s heart. She wished that she could have just stepped up and bought them those groceries. But we were sinking into financial morass ourselves, and all she could do was watch.

Much time has passed since those days. A friend rescued us from the tyranny of the assistance office and helped us dig ourselves out of the debt that we racked up trying to climb out of poverty ourselves. Now I have a good job, making decent money. We’re out of debt and feeding our family, which has continued to grow.

But I remember being poor.

In our society, it seems that the poor are treated either as a plague that must be eradicated or a social ill that must be addressed by some philosophical position or government program. But all these responses hold the poor at arm’s length. Everyone talks about the poor as a group, but few talk about specific people. Everyone talks about helping the poor, but few talk about loving the poor.

I want to love the poor. I want to help provide for their needs as best I can. I want to be the warm embrace, the stern word given in love, the shoulder to cry on when it’s just too hard. And I want to be
the protest and outcry, the public conscience that speaks for those who are powerless and will not be heard.

But it is not enough to live in some upscale neighborhood and occasionally descend from the mountaintop, deigning to bless the underclass with my presence. That would be condescending and
insulting. Instead, I look to the example that Jesus set. The Apostle Paul talks about the love of Jesus in these terms: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) If Jesus loved me like this, shouldn’t I love those around me in the same way?

And that is why I live here.

This is my heart

Yes. This.

Beautiful Feet

Lord God, John Knox once prayed, “Give me Scotland or I die.” I confess that my vision is not as broad as his. But Lord…give me Peoria. Give me the South Side. Give me the Near North Side and Downtown and Bradley University and Renaissance Park. Give me the poor and the broken. Give me the prostitutes and the johns, the crack addicts and the drug dealers, the abused children and their abusers, the poor and the rich. Give me the broken of our city, the discarded detritus of our society, and build from them a temple for Your name.

And with it, Lord, give me an open and willing heart. Give me the love and compassion to reach out once again to the hurting who lash out. Give me the hospitality to open my home to the dirty and inconvenient. Give me the willingness to sacrifice my comfort, my sanity, and my privacy for the sake of those you send my way. Make me the kind of man that I need to be to carry out this mission.

Lord, I walk the streets and alleys of my city, and I see a people who desperately need You. Do not be far off.

Give me Peoria, Lord, or I die.

Quote of the moment

“The U.S. government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.”—Ronald Reagan

The collapsing suburbs

I came across this on

Is America’s suburban dream collapsing into a nightmare?

Instead, they are looking for what Leinberger calls “walkable urbanism” — both small communities and big cities characterized by efficient mass transit systems and high density developments enabling residents to walk virtually everywhere for everything — from home to work to restaurants to movie theaters.

The so-called New Urbanism movement emerged in the mid-90s and has been steadily gaining momentum, especially with rising energy costs, environmental concerns and health problems associated with what Leinberger calls “drivable suburbanism” — a low-density built environment plan that emerged around the end of the World War II and has been the dominant design in the U.S. ever since.

Yep. We’ve been seeing some of this happening here in Peoria, too. And, generally, I happen to think that this is a positive trend. There’s something a little too sterile about suburban living, or at least the way that we’ve practiced it here in America.

However, this comes with its own price:

Yet Nelson also estimates that in 2025 there will be a surplus of 22 million large-lot homes that will not be left vacant in a suburban wasteland but instead occupied by lower classes who have been driven out of their once affordable inner-city apartments and houses.

The so-called McMansion, he said, will become the new multi-family home for the poor.

“What is going to happen is lower and lower-middle income families squeezed out of downtown and glamorous suburban locations are going to be pushed economically into these McMansions at the suburban fringe,” said Nelson. “There will probably be 10 people living in one house.”

In Shaun Yandell’s neighborhood, this has already started to happen. Houses once filled with single families are now rented out by low-income tenants. Yandell speculates that they’re coming from nearby Sacramento, where the downtown is undergoing substantial gentrification, or perhaps from some other area where prices have gotten too high. He isn’t really sure.

(Emphasis mine.)

So, yeah, what about them poor folk that used to live in the urban cores? Where are they going to live?

We’re seeing some of that here, too. My neighborhood is poised to be a part of the ongoing urban renewal in Peoria, which means that real estate prices in University East are pretty high, compared to what they were just a few years ago. This is going to make it more difficult for working-class families to be able to live here.

Sure, this is really just a mirror development of the previous migration of the poor to the urban cores. However, there’s at least one significant difference. The urban centers actually had generally well-built buildings. For example, my home started its existence as a single-family dwelling, was divided up into three separate apartments, and then was returned to being a single-family dwelling by the time that we bought it. It’s a solidly constructed house.

The McMansions of the suburbs, though, are not so well built. The quality of materials and construction simply isn’t as good as the older homes. As the working class moves into the suburbs, are they also going to be trapped in rapidly decaying buildings?

And where will they work? If you live in town, at least you can use mass transit or hoof it yourself. If you’re out in the ‘burbs, your options are limited. After all, the suburbs only work as long as those who live there have automobiles.

Now, I say this as one who really enjoys the thought of living in the proposed Renaissance Park area. My idea of a good night is hanging out at One World Eats or Water Street Wines, Cafe and Coffee on the riverfront, both of which are the results of the sort of urban renewal that we’re talking about. Personally, I like the idea of living in a bustling urban area, filled with arts and music and coffee houses and restaurants, all within walking distance of my house. That sounds fantastic!

And yet, I have to raise the question: who are we displacing? Are we forcing the working poor into another migration, simply because we want to have our beautiful urban centers?

Or is there another way?

These are real questions. I don’t have answers. But I think that the time is rapidly approaching where we need to begin thinking about how to answer them.

Dropping an air conditioner on the poor

So, there I am, working on my computer, when I get an instant message from Bryan. “Your blood pressure seems a bit low,” he says. “Maybe this will help.”

So he passes me this story.

He knows me too well. It combines all my hot buttons. Government interference. Check. Oppression of the poor. Check. An obsession about property values. Check.

Great. Now I’ll have to blog about it. So here goes….

A Chicago suburb has just banned visible window-mounted air conditioners.

From the Chicago Tribune:

In an effort to improve Addison’s aesthetics, the Village Board in March passed an ordinance that prohibits window-mounted air conditioners on walls that face the street or on side windows within 12 feet of a street-facing wall.

My bedroom faces the street. Since we don’t have air conditioning upstairs, I’ve placed a window unit in my window to cool down my bedroom. If I lived in Addison, that would make me a criminal.

And for what reason did the village of Addison make this ordinance? Were they pulling a Berkeley and trying to save the environment from leaking coolant? Were they trying to impose some sort of energy efficiency on the citizenry? Not that I’d be pleased with these sorts of reasons.

Oh no. The answer is far worse.

Village officials said the ordinance is geared toward window-mounted units that tend to look shabby, especially when spaces around the units are jammed with cardboard or boards. Also unsightly, they said, are the slap-dash braces made of two-by-fours that support some units on outside walls.

(emphasis mine)

Yep. The government of Addison said that the window units were ugly. Therefore, “ugly” is now illegal. And, tell me, why is “ugly” now illegal in Addison?

[John Berly, assistant village manager said,] “The front yard is what the public sees. The condition of the front is a major factor in determining property values, and it reflects the community norms of acceptable maintenance.”

There it is. Property values. That constant bugaboo.

So, what’s the expected outcome?

[C]ontractors have advised the village that the cost of cutting a hole in a wall and installing a rectangular sleeve and an air conditioner would range from about $600 to about $1,000 depending on the type of wall construction and the complexity of the job.

[A local landlord Vito] Mossa said profit margins in apartment buildings have been trimmed to the bone in recent years because of stable rents but rising costs for heat, taxes, insurance, water and garbage removal. Retrofitting for legal air conditioners would cost too much, he said.

“I would probably just tell [tenants] they can’t put an air conditioner in the window. . . . I’m going to lose tenants,” Mossa said.

(emphasis mine)

Let’s parse this out, shall we?

Who is most likely to be using window-mounted air conditioners? People who can’t afford central air conditioning or aren’t in a position to have it installed. In other words, renters and home-owners who are poor. Also, who is most likely to have “unsightly” improvised home repairs? That’s right; poor people. So, who is this ordinance going to affect the most? (All together now.) Poor people.

But, it’s okay if they leave, right? I mean, do we really want those sorts of people in our neighborhoods? Look what they do to the property values. It’s better for everyone, or at least, it’s better for property owners. And then, our neighborhood will be a better, happier, more prosperous place, right?

But will it?

Vito Mossa doesn’t think so. He thinks that he is going to lose tenants because he can’t afford to install air conditioning the way that the Village Council has demanded. So then what happens? In order to attract tenants, he will have to lower his rent. Assuming he can afford to do this, what quality of tenant do you think he will get? Most folk will want the air conditioning, so he will only get tenants who are too poor to afford the nicer apartments. Of course, the lower rent will mean that Mossa will have even less money to put into maintenance of the apartment building. Plus, the lower quality of tenant will probably attract its own trouble.

But what if Mossa can’t afford to lower his rent? Well then, eventually he will have to go out of business as a landlord. So then, what happens to the apartment building? Mossa will have to sell it, but how will he accomplish that? Eventually he will either have to sell at a loss, or he will have to sell to someone with enough money to pay for all the additional air conditioning updates. Do you think that this buyer will be a nice local landlord? I rather think that it will be a real estate holding company of some kind, who will probably be just another “absentee landlord” that the Village Council is already complaining about.

And what if he can’t sell? Do you think that he will be able to rent apartments in a building that is on the market? Again, only the really desperate would rent in that sort of situation. Or perhaps the building merely stands vacant. But, as I know from personal experience, a vacant building is a drag on a neighborhood, attracting all sorts of trouble.

And what about Mossa? His business is destroyed, and probably his personal finances, too. Where does this leave him?

But, hey, in the end, the village of Addison drives away all those nasty poor people and preserves their property values for good, decent people! Hooray! Another win for the middle class!

Another win against those awful poor folk.

Of course, the really sad thing is that this won’t work. In the end, Addison will probably be left with a worse situation than they started with.

So, I don’t live in Addison, right? I live in Peoria. Why am I so exercised about this?

It’s because I see the same pattern playing out right here in my neighborhood.

Last week, Code Enforcement came through the neighborhood, doing a “clean sweep”. The agent was fairly lenient on us, since she admitted that the purpose was mostly to focus on tenants, not on home owners. That didn’t save my neighbor, who managed to pick up a substantive fine for having front stairs in need of repair. Do the stairs need repair? Yes they do, and my neighbor (who I will call D) knew this. In fact, she had been saving money all year so that she could get them repaired over the summer. They are concrete, so you need to wait until the summer heat for best effect. But now, she has to pay a fine. Where is she going to get that money? That’s right: from the money that she saved to repair her steps.

D is a home owner. In fact, she’s lived in the University East neighborhood for a number of years. On top of that, she is raising her five grandchildren by herself, while working a job in the public school system. She’s not exactly made out of money. And yet, she was being responsible, trying to take care of her property as best as she could. She has covered her stairs, trying to decorate them to make the best of a bad situation. But it did not save her.

And then I hear people in the neighborhood who are happy about this. Indeed, they call Code Enforcement to inform on their neighbors. Then they vigorously defend the right of Code Enforcement to trespass onto other people’s property in violation of the Fourth Amendment. They want the city to keep putting pressure on renters. They want to enforce a certain standard of living on this neighborhood, using the power of the government to accomplish it. And their goal? The preservation of their property values. They want to force this neighborhood to be a nice, upscale neighborhood, without any of those “unsightly” rental properties.

Yay! Another victory for the middle class! Another win against those awful poor folk.

But what have we won, really?

Is this how to accomplish our goal of living together peacefully as neighbors? That is our goal, isn’t it? A neighborhood? But how can we form a loving community if we found it on the suffering of the poor? How can we form a trusting community if we enforce it with anonymous calls to government agencies? How can we form an open community if we are constantly watching each other for infractions?

Are we looking to form a neighborhood? Or are we just looking for a nice place to live, regardless of who pays the price?

Quote of the moment

“The poor will always be with us, declared the biblical sages, and this divided nation seems to go out of its way to prove the point.”–David Simon and Edward Burns, The Corner