The Thirty Minute Blogger

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Pulling Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps" Nonsense

For decades we've used the pull yourself up by your bootstraps story as a means to prove anyone can get ahead and to beat those who don't about the head and shoulders, to shame them for their life circumstances, and to wash our hands of helping them in any way. Sure, there are a precious, lucky few who manage the feat against the odds, but here's why for most the bootstrap story is a vile myth.

First, what is poverty. To be poor is to be entirely under-equipped to face nearly every aspect of human existence today. Poverty falls into six pernicious snares, most or all of which the truly poor fall into and struggle mightily against. These six snares are: material poverty (there's an obvious one), vulnerability, powerlessness, isolation, physical weakness, and spiritual poverty (yeah, I have my M.Div. degree).

Let's look at each snare a little more closely (watch out, you might get drawn in, you might feel compelled to do something ... it's a risk). 

  1. To be materially poor means you and your family have little or no income, wealth of any sort, livestock, or land. 
  2. To be vulnerable means the poor person and his/her family have very few if any reserves against emergencies or disasters. They have no margin of safety in their lives. All their funds are taken up by struggling to live. It is impossible for the poor to save or protect themselves. When disasters strike, either natural or human, they can do nothing but suffer (and die, many die under such circumstances ... I'm sure you can think of many instances in the news without me naming them). Being this vulnerable can lead to abuse from within the household (mental, emotional, and sexual ... someone striving for power and control in twisted ways), which leads to substance abuse, increased vulnerability, and deeper poverty (by the way, October is domestic violence awareness month).
  3. To be powerless in this case means lacing in both the knowledge and therefore the ability to influence your society and your society's public policy. To be powerless in this way is to lack the tools necessary to have a voice and influence any sort of positive change for yourself, your family, and/or your community. See what not supporting your education system leads to in life?
  4. Isolation adds to the depth and desperation of this situation. The urban poor are isolated from goods and services that are readily available close at hand but that they simply cannot afford. However, the vast majority of the poor live in rural areas where they are physically isolated from information and services, including what most of us take for granted (until we're hit with some natural disaster and cut off from those services and that information temporarily ... and how we howl if the situation persists for any length of time and gives us a taste of poverty's isolation), including access to main roads, water lines, and electricity. Isolation from any means to wrestle free from poverty, including isolation from assets, good education, counselors, and safety nets, leads to depression, which isolates the poor further and tangles them ever deeper into poverty's snares. 
  5. Another snare comes in the form of physical weakness. This weakness may stem from many sources including inadequate medical care for illnesses, inadequate treatment for diseases, and too many dependents to care for (attempting to care for the very young and very old). Many women find themselves ensnared in this trap, struggling to maintain households with kids and the elderly present. 
  6. Finally, spiritual poverty occurs in households suffering from dysfunctional relationships with both God and each other. Those who have no faith institutions to offer them with help against the other five snares have lost a vital safety net. Further, they have no guidance in a different way of living in the world that is provided in healthy faith communities. (I hope you appreciate how hard I'm working not to preach here ...)
So, true poverty is all encompassing. It is hateful to speak of bootstraps to people who cannot purchase the boots, and even if they had them, would not be physically strong enough to pull them up nor equipped in other ways to make proper use of them. That old saw is mean-spirited and far too often used (along with other pernicious myths like the "welfare queen") to absolve us of guilt for not being proactive in helping the poor. And before you fall back on the line, "But Jesus said we'd have the poor with us always," let me provide some other verses you might find more illuminating (and if you think about that line really hard you might find that it is more of an indictment of us and our behavior rather than an excuse): 
Isaiah 1:16-17
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;    remove the evil of your doings    from before my eyes; cease to do evil,
   learn to do good; seek justice,    rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan,    plead for the widow.

James 1:27
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Matthew 25:31-46
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

Of course, having the old bootstraps saying disproven, how will we help the poor out of these pernicious six snares? What say you???

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