Whatever happened to respectable poverty?

One of the weirdnesses of American conservative life is the way in which everyone tries to label themselves middle class or even upper middle class no matter how low their actual station and income.  Conservatives, even the very devout Christian sort, really do seem to buy into the “temporarily embarrassed millionaire” self-image.  So the idea that poverty is sometimes a thing that can happen even to people who work hard and live clean is lost, even though as recently as the 1970s in America it was still a whisper here and there (mostly of course in the context of black Americans, but not exclusively).  Living among the poor sincerely and functionally, not on a temporary basis where you go back to your high-income zip code a year later (there are easily half a dozen pastors I can think of who have done that kind of thing and dozens of non-pastors who think it’s “missional living” to do it for a few months), is something worth more than getting into a good school district via scrimping.

Americans have always recoiled from respectable poverty and only grudgingly accepted its existence, but in post-America, it’s worth remembering that poverty is always going to be with us until the Lord returns, so having it be respectable is better than having it be unrespectable.

This is the very model of a bagatelle.

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9 thoughts on “Whatever happened to respectable poverty?”

  1. I’ve been reading a couple of books about American dysfunction in various sectors, so this post struck a nerve. Bear with me, friend. I have a lot to say.

    In this country, wealth (whether real or perceived) is accounted as virtue:” I work hard (or am smart, resourceful, confident, beautiful take your pick) ergo I have all that I have because I deserve it. If you don’t have all that I have, it is because something about YOU is unworthy.” Or the way it was said where I’m from: “I got mine, you go get yours.”

    Further. when the church preaches 3 John 1:2 as if it is the sum total of what Christians can expect in this life, to the exclusion of all the verses about doing without, tribulation, and being content in whatever state, this is what you get. Never mind that the Scriptures say that belief and faith are accounted to us as righteousness.

    When you put all these things together; equating health and wealth with virtue and God’s favor, then toss in a little of our American obsession with making a good impression, and you get people swimming in debt, filling houses with things they can’t afford with things they don’t need. Or when they haven’t done that, pretending that their simple way of life is not one of necessity but choice, implying that they have a million dollars stashed away as a result. Because heaven forbid anyone know that you have to live on a tight budget!

    You hear a lot about Proverbs 31 (and recently Proverbs 7, 😉 ), but very little of Proverbs 15: 16. 15:17, or 16:8.

    Excellent thoughts.

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  2. This is a really good post. I also blame a few prosperity ministers, because they have really perverted the gospel and encouraged people to perceive wealth as a virtue. I also have a dislike for the simple living people, the people who have trust funds but live as if there is something noble and fashionable about poverty. Needless to say they usually drive a new Prius every year and endlessly brag about how they can all their own food. If everyone could just learn how to live “simply” like them, the world would be a better place. I work for these kind of people, what they skimp on the most are actually wages, the payment those of us who are genuinely poor would like to receive.

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  3. I wonder if this is a somewhat natural response in an era where poor and rich mingle together at school and other places from such a young age. In different times, perhaps the poor and the rich were only ever perceived by the others and not known so well.

    Also, in other times young adults generally followed in their ancestors’ footsteps until the country became little more than an empty promise of abandoning your shackles of generational family business in search of a ladder to climb to higher success.

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  4. Been thinking about this some more, TPC. I’m wondering if we don’t need to define “poverty”. Because there really is nothing to respect about poverty per se. Now, “the working poor”, meaning that a family is honest, hard-working, and generating enough income to provide their basic needs and nothing more?

    That is not my definition of poverty. It’s certainly not luxury, nor is it abundance, but when I hear the word “poverty”, I don’t view though the same lens as “poor”. I can’t count the number of people I’ve met who say that in retrospect they grew up poor, but they didn’t know that they were poor. They had food, clothing, shelter, a loving family. Even without all the *stuff* other kids got, they didn’t feel particularly deprived. Poverty is felt and usually is symptomatic of a greater lack of the intangible.

    Or am I just seeking to justify my own lack of respect for “respectable poverty”?

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  5. Your comment about Whitopia not being utopia ignores those whiteopias tend to be whiteopias because non Asian minorities can not function in any house that needs maintenance. In areas with lots of coal heat non Asian minorities simply are not smart/reliable enough to live there. The free houses built for musicians by Habitat for humanity after Katrina fell apart before 10 years because of no maintenance/ hard partying. If you stick to whitopeas that the only minority is Asian you get the Utopia people speak of.

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  6. I believe respectable poverty is possible, but what about class?

    Our modern notions about class are quite convoluted. Class and income are linked, but most don’t realize they aren’t the same thing. It took me a while to understand the distinction. It is possible for those in poverty to be very upstanding in their behaviors and mores, and garner respect despite their station. This is something lost in American culture because of the pursuit of the “American dream” which doesn’t really exist.

    It’s difficult to respect something which doesn’t truly exist.

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    1. But the problem is that material factors steadily reorder behavior, so with every generation the virtuous working class are eroded and the lumpenproletariat expand.

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