After reading The Midwife’s Apprentice this morning, I am thinking about the poor. I don’t know anyone who is poor. Really poor, that is, like the girl in this book, who sleeps in a pile of manure because it gives off heat, and who thinks of a turnip stolen from someone’s garden as a meal. Of course, I know plenty of people who complain frequently about having no money, but they are not poor. They have plenty to eat and homes to live in–they just don’t have a lot of discretionary spending money. That’s what America has come to. We no longer have a true concept of poverty.
And before you rush screaming to the comment box to tell me about the inner city people who are truly poor, give me a minute. I am aware that there are people who are homeless, and those who live on food from soup kitchens or what they scrounge from dumpsters. And there are lots of people who are behind on their bills and may have to make some drastic lifestyle changes in order to keep afloat. But how many do you know who are life-or-death poor? I’ve just been wondering about this, because it occurs to me that at one point in history, it was rather a common thing (and expected) for people to die from starvation or exposure. Thankfully, we don’t hear of such things very often in the USA. There are a few, yes, but not many. The number of people who would fall into the category of desperately poor is a tiny percentage.
But how many times have I heard politicians talk about “the poor?” It’s an interesting thing–when they mention the poor, they are not talking about the people living in stairwells or eating restaurant garbage. They are talking about people who can’t make their house payments, who struggle to pay the electric bill. Just like you (I’m betting that anyone who reads this is not wondering where their next meal is coming from) and like me, they have challenges, but they are not truly destitute.
Our definition of poor has changed a lot. At one time, people were born, lived, and died within a few miles of the same spot. They worked long hours, built their own houses, made their own clothes, grew their own food, rationed when the crops didn’t do well, didn’t know the meaning of a vacation, and yet… they weren’t poor. They had shelter from the weather and enough food to keep body and soul together. And they were content because their neighbors’ situations were similar to their own.
Now we have so much more access into one another’s lives–we can see beyond the local village–so we have higher aspirations. We have more leisure time since industrialization, so we have learned to expect it, and we buy toys to fill it. And when we can see that the people in the next village have more toys or more time, or a bigger and nicer house, we want that for ourselves, and we think that we…are…poor. And of course, we are not.
It’s something that bothers me frequently–this lack of poor people. Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.” And I know that there are poverty-stricken people all over the world, but there are certainly none in my village. By “with you” did he mean that you would see them around you, or did he merely mean that you would always be aware of their existence? Obviously, we can and do contribute to all sorts of poor people in many places, but I have never felt that I have the poor “with me.”
Did he mean that there would always be desperately poor people, like the beggars that were so common in his time, or was he talking about something else?
Like for instance, those who are poor in spirit? That phrase in the beatitudes uses the same Greek word, so perhaps that’s what he meant.
What do you think about this? I’m just rambling, exploring my thoughts. Let me know what yours are!