Summary: The average American is deeply in debt; some Bible-based advice for how we handle money matters.
Colossians 2:13-14, “You were dead because of your sins, and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ. He forgave all our sins. He cancelled the record that contained the charges against us. He took it and cancelled our debt and destroyed it by nailing it to Christ’s cross.”
Over the weekend I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s bestselling book Nickel and Dimed, “on not getting by in America”. The author spent a year working entry-level jobs to see how the poor survive on minimum wages and no healthcare. She barely survived, attempting physically-demanding, demeaning, low wage jobs. She mentions the unspoken rule in such jobs, that of not discussing one’s wages. In some workplaces, employees can be fired for comparing salaries. Ehrenreich observes, “If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what your are actually worth.” The hopelessness of entry-level workers is evident on every page of this important yet distressing book. I’ve had a mild taste of this lifestyle. In seminary I took several minimum wage jobs--as a restaurant busboy, a supermarket stockboy, mowing lawns, and working in a discount department store.
The poor are cleverly disguised in thrift store clothes; we don’t see them in rags, so we are made to think in our casually-dressed society that they are doing OK. In reality, the discount department store clerk, the waitress, the custodian we pass, often with a blind eye, may be barely scraping by, often doing without many of the necessities of life, some living out of their cars. Corporations need to do more for their employees. Psalm 14:6, “The wicked frustrate the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.” In response to an article on poverty in Business Week magazine, a woman said the first thing she did when faced with poverty was to find a church. There she found not only emotional support but housing and job referrals along with food assistance.
Ehrenreich worked several jobs in several states. In one stint as a waitress she describes how a large group of vocal, happy Christians ordered meals totaling around $100, then left a dollar tip. They overlooked something in the course of having fellowship—their testimony. The author, an admitted atheist, had an understandably negative response to the poor impression these overtly religious people made. It was painful to read, and I can’t say I blame her for her negative opinion of a few of my fellow-believers. The secular world is watching us. Jesus identified with the poor, and we desperately need to follow in His steps. It’s not what we say, it’s what we do that communicates the reality of our faith to others. If we can’t leave a decent tip, we should stay home.
There are many available social agencies and programs. Here in Saugus we have a homeless coalition and a food pantry, and in neighboring towns there are agencies dealing with housing, fuel, legal aid, healthcare, food, and other services for the poor. Many of these agencies rely on volunteer helpers. On my Palm Pilot and office computer I have listed scores of such social agencies, which I use as a basis for referrals.
I don’t claim to know what the answer to poverty is. I found my way in life due to supportive parents and a career in the military, a subculture that takes care of its own. I believe God opens and closes doors in our lives. I also believe that poverty of the spirit is worse than economic distress.
There are wealthy people who will never be happy because they’ll never have enough. In Acquired Tastes, British writer Peter Mayle describes about how the rich rarely are content, because since they are paying so much for their luxuries, they expect everything to be absolutely perfect. If something isn’t up to their high expectations (and what really can be?), they’re upset. The Apostle Paul writes how he’s been both well off and poor, and decided that his attitude made all the difference in personal happiness.
How do we attain joy? We can acquire more, or we can be content with what we have. But for those who are scraping by, barely surviving, we need to do more to raise their minimal standards of life. More affordable housing, and economic reform in the workplace may be the answers. I’m not an economist, but I am concerned.
One sad way people try to get more is through gambling. If probability and statistics were mandatory subjects in high school, fewer people would bet away their earnings. The lottery is a tax on those who failed math. I play potto, not lotto; I flush a five-dollar bill down the toilet, with the same result! The odds simply are against the player. If skill were involved, casinos would close; they bar the “card counters” who’ve figured out how to play intelligently and place the odds more in their favor. A group of MIT students developed a winning system and wrote a book, Bringing Down the House. Casinos all over have the authors’ photos posted and they’re not welcome.