Systemic Oppression: Understanding the Nature of Poverty in the U.S.


poor people's campaign
I still remember the first time I left the United States for a country other than Canada. The year was 2000 and I had just finished the 11th grade. After getting through the Y2K craze that year and all of the fearmongering that went with it (whatever were we thinking), I decided that I wanted to spend the first few weeks of my summer vacation on a mission’s trip. So I packed my bags and headed to the country of El Salvador, chosen because it was still fairly close to home and it would give me an opportunity to practice my Spanish speaking skills.

When we first arrived, I felt completely out of my element. I was in a strange land, eating strange food, with strange customs and surroundings that six years of taking Spanish couldn’t prepare me for. On top of that, I was not bonding with my teammates and one of the youth leaders got under my skin. Day two or three on the trip, I sat down and told God that He was going to have to make things better in order for me to be able to survive the next few weeks. And surprisingly, He did.

Things picked up very quickly. I adapted to my surroundings, and started to enjoy the open roof style of housing. I became accustomed to a steady diet of beans and rice in the morning and pupusas and Fanta in the evening, eaten while watching endless games of fútbol no doubt. And I grew to tolerate the bumpy rides between our ministry destination spots. Most of all, I took great joy in our ministry endeavors, knowing that because of us the salvadoran people might have a chance at eternal life. And not only did I think our efforts could transform their heavenly homes, but I thought that because of us, they might be able to find themselves out of their impoverished situations. I believed that if these folks could just put their trust in Jesus, that He would improve their way of living and transform their way of being.

When I returned to the States, once again I felt out of place but for a different reason. This time, my discomfort was as result of sensing that countries like El Salvador was where I needed to be. I needed to be ‘there’ instead of ‘here’ because of the devastation, because of the poverty, because of the despondency and I just knew that God would use me to transform the situation of ‘these’ people. It was this analysis that led me to pursue a degree in missions in college and is what defined my own faith experience for several years into my adult life. And as I looked around me, this same analysis is what defined the efforts of many ministries both here and abroad.

Many of us in the West have foolishly believed that individual choices, sin and poor values are what causes the poor to be poor, even we often find ourselves poor as well. We somehow think that if people would just get right and make good decisions, including following Jesus, pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps and just work harder that they would not find themselves in the predicaments they are in. But this analysis is not only shallow but it is flat out wrong for three reasons: (1) It fails to take into account the systems and acts of oppression that cause poverty and thereby fails to challenge those systems (2) It places the onus on the poor to find themselves out of it (3) It falsely equates material possessions with God’s blessing.

Systems of Oppression that Cause Poverty

The idea that all that it takes to escape poverty is the ability to make good decisions and work hard comes up short because it does not take into account the very systems that cause poverty. Immigration represents a great example of this, and particularly the immigration of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Central and South America. Political pundits, and whites who fear that undocumented latinos are after their jobs, tend to strongly resist immigration and only wish that these would go back to their country of origin. However, those who resist, including our government, never looks at policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which take away their lands, stripping them of their home and livelihood. With little hope of finding a job in their own country as a result of our policies, many undocumented immigrants come to America hoping to find greener pastures and are met with hostility. Largely, discussions revolve around who belongs and who doesn’t – we never talk about how revising or dismantling destructive foreign policies could make a difference here.

After decades of warring against drugs, we are just beginning to talk about how Reagan’s policies have wrecked utter havoc in the black community. Over the last 30 years, the war has unfairly profiled black children, women and men, arresting them for carrying small amounts of recreational drugs – sometimes with mandatory minimum sentences of 5 years (even with no other history of arrest or encounters with the law). Yet, the same war has ignored white users. Some estimates suggest that 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.

This war has had negative impacts on many families within the African American community, including my own. When someone is sent to prison for possession, their family loses a potential income earner. After that person gets out of prison, they are often unable to find work because many employers will not hire someone with a record. But it gets worse: someone with a prison record cannot apply for many forms of government assistance, they cannot live in subsidized housing, they cannot apply for college loans, and in many cases they cannot vote so that they can have the power to elect someone into office who can change all of these policies. With no income, housing, or hope at building a brighter future after serving time that they never should have served in the first place, many become repeat offenders. This cycle of recidivism keeps many individuals and their families trapped in poverty. It is not about having good morals, believing Jesus, or working hard: it is about reforming a system completely designed to make profit at the expense of people of color.

Individualism and the Bootstrap Mentality

The analysis of hard work in order to exit poverty is also faulty because it places the onus on the poor to find themselves out of it, often further entrenching their situation. Safety nets that are so to say designed to lift up those who find themselves in desperate circumstances can sometimes prove to be more harmful than they are helpful. A July 2014 broadcast on MPR News tells of a young single mother named Lauren Boria who recently lost her job. Unable to find work, she decided to get on welfare so that she could meet some of her financial needs while she continued to search for work. But for Boria, welfare proved to be a huge an unanticipated burden. MPR reports:

Once Boria enrolled (in welfare), she started getting a check for $145 twice a month. But what she didn’t anticipate was that those checks would come with a whole new list of responsibilities.

The big requirement was that Boria had to show up for what’s called a work preparedness program, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for three months. “It’s like a job, but you get no money for it,” she told me. “You have to go there ready for an interview, every day.”

But Boria says there never were any actual job interviews.

Boria’s story goes on to tell the transportation and child care costs associated with participating in the program, not to mention the big time suck it required. While $145 twice a month is not a whole lot of money, it is everything when you don’t have anything coming in. Is it better to take the money and jump through all of the hoops to get it? Is it better to put one’s job search literally on hold for 3 months just to get some semblance of security? Or is it better to walk away from the little bit that is guaranteed and risk complete financial ruin?

The poor are often forced to make choices that people of means would never have to. On a daily basis, those who are most vulnerable in our society are forced to choose between putting food on the table or putting gas in the car. Desperate parents choose to feed their kids and go to bed wallowing in hunger themselves. Not even qualified to get a job pushing carts at WalMart, the unemployed turn to alternative methods to get by. The underemployed string part time work together, balancing 2, 3 and sometimes 4 jobs – sometimes suffering fatal consequences. The decisions that people in this predicament face have less to do with failing to work hard and more to do with systemic inequities that privilege the 1 percent at the expense of the rest of us.

Material Possessions Does Not Equal God’s Blessing

This past fall, I had an opportunity to do some speaking on using the Lord’s Prayer as a Model for Social Justice, a model that I had recently put together. One of the points that I emphasized is that God has nearly 7 billion children (who are alive right now) that He loves and cares for. Understanding that God is holding it down for so many others should lead us to a place of also understanding that we are to share our resources and reject our tendency to hoard, to consume, to amass wealth and resources at the expense of others. As I taught this principle, someone pushed back against this idea believing that God just wants us to be happy. “He is my daddy and just wants to bless me,” the person suggested. She continued to suggest that because God wanted her to be happy, that she could essentially have access to anything and everything she wanted.

God is our Father, no doubt about it. And surely He wants us to be blessed. But He does not want us to be blessed at the expense of other people. He is not now, or has ever been, supportive of us amassing wealth and resources by oppressing other people. In fact, blessings derived from the wealth, work, and life of others is not blessing at all: it’s called theft!

In the West, and particularly in the United States, this is hard for many people to understand. Because our country, who claims to be influenced by Judeo-Christian values, has so much wealth and power in the world, many people assume that what we have is a sign of God’s blessing or favor upon us. We forget that our wealth was ill-gotten, built by exploiting American Indians, African Americans and others through the centuries of the nation’s existence.

For this reason, we cannot continue to believe that access to goods is a sign of divine providence. And the absence of it does not mean that God is withholding his favor. In fact, both are often very clear signs that there is a system of oppression at work, allowing those in the upper echelons of society to get filthy rich by exploiting others. Consider the widow whose story is told in 2 Kings 4.1-4:

A certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha, saying, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the Lord. And the creditor is coming to take my two sons to be his slaves.” So Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?” And she said, “Your maidservant has nothing in the house but a jar of oil.” Then he said, “Go, borrow vessels from everywhere, from all your neighbors—empty vessels; do not gather just a few. And when you have come in, you shall shut the door behind you and your sons; then pour it into all those vessels, and set aside the full ones (NASB).”

The widow’s story is a clear example of a system of oppression fully at work. Throughout the Old Testament text, God makes it expressly clear that the people of Israel are to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant among them. But instead of being taken care of after the death of her husband, who worshipped God, the system intended to make her situation even worse by taking away her sons to be slaves – most likely her only hope of economic security.

Unfortunately, this country is full of people whose stories mirror that of the widow’s. And Boria’s. Who have lost their land as a result of U.S. Foreign and Trade policies. Who have been unjustly profiled for generations simply because of the color of their skin. Who have lost jobs in the recession. Who have lost homes after caring for a loved one. We are not suffering as a result of not working hard or for our lack of belief in God who provides; we are being destroyed because the system is unfairly stacked against us. The sooner that we realize this, that poverty is a result of systemic oppression, the sooner we can rally together to change it.

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