I believe poverty is more than a matter of personal behavior. People are poor not primarily because of bad decisions (though financial stress can disrupt a person’s decision-making ability) but because of other factors, many of them external, which trap them in poverty.
That said, I’ve seen the other kind of poverty — the kind that’s at least partly self-inflicted and more than a little self-destructive. I got an up-close view when my wife and I had to rent out our house while we were living out-of-state.
When the company we’d hired to look after our house told us that one of the tenants had lost their job, we asked them to lower the rent. We told them we didn’t want our tenants to worry about having a place to live.
The tenants thanked us by practically destroying our house.
What we didn’t know at the time was the property management company had neglected to do the promised screening and had put the worst sort of tenants in our house. The kind who don’t pay rent, who damage property, terrorize the neighbors, game the system, and get themselves evicted from one place after another.
Once they were gone, we began the slow (and expensive) task of fixing up our house. Surrounded by piles of garbage, broken windows, soiled carpet, and trashed appliances, it was hard not to be angry. I found myself thinking the worst of them and anyone remotely like them.
One day as I was cleaning out the basement, I found an opened Christmas card left by one of our tenants. It was from her dad. The return address indicated it had been sent from jail. Judging by the message, he’d been there a long time. There didn’t seem to be much of a relationship between him and his daughter, and the words inside were those of a man filled with regret.
It made me stop, there in the midst of my simmering resentment. I didn’t stop feeling angry. But I did pause to wonder what my life would’ve been like if I’d grown up in similar circumstances, if my father had spent most of my formative years in prison. How would the experience have shaped me? How would my development have been affected by the all lost opportunities, economic hardship, and stigma?
It made me realize I knew nothing of my tenant’s life and what had brought her to this point, where she evidently cared so little for herself and others that she couldn’t imagine another way to live.
None of which justified what she did. We can all choose to be more than the product of our circumstances. But sometimes our circumstances are so overwhelming, it’s difficult to see another way.
When I wrote my post on 20 things the poor really do, a number of the more critical responses essentially boiled down to, “I’ve seen somebody poor making bad choices, gaming the system, etc… so that’s what all poor people are like.” We typecast an entire group based on our limited observation of one or two people we barely know.
We never bother to learn more about them. We never listen their story. God forbid we humanize them in any way. That just makes it harder to sit in judgment.
But my faith teaches that people are image-bearers, made in the likeness of God himself. No matter how tarnished that image may get, it never completely vanishes.
Even now, it’s not easy to think of my former tenants as divine image-bearers, made and loved by God. But they are.
My faith teaches another concept—grace, which says that even when people are partly complicit in making a mess of their lives, they are not beyond compassion. God didn’t write us off, so we don’t have the luxury of writing off others.
I try to remember this when I see someone who seems to be causing or contributing to their own poverty. In addition to remembering that they are the exception, not the rule, I try to remember that they are still loved by God. They are still his creation. There is more to their story than I realize. And perhaps — just maybe — their story could start to look a little different if people started treating them like human beings.