It’s a familiar story. On his final journey toward Jerusalem, Jesus stops in Bethany to eat at the home of Simon, a leper. A woman enters with an alabaster jar of expensive ointment; she breaks the jar and pours the ointment on his head. Her gesture invokes the fury of some of those present. The ointment was worth a year’s wage, they grumble. It could have been sold, and the money given to the poor.
“The poor will always be with you” was Jesus’ righteous and innocent enough reply. Jesus clearly did not pretend by his remark to be shedding new light on the problem of poverty. And when we remind ourselves, as we so often do, that “the poor will always be with us” (as they always have been), we are merely borrowing a manner of stating a fact we all accept without a second thought. It was a fact as unquestioned in Jesus’ time as it is today. But it is not exactly a fact about the poor – that they always have been (and always will be) with us. It is one of those collectively held assumptions that constitute the mythology of our culture, the culture of what has become our global civilization.
It is not an idle myth, that the poor will always be with us, but a vital myth, a powerful and essential means of sustaining our culture and the business of it as usual. It is a myth that has haunted me throughout my two and a half decades of feeling and actively expressing both compassion and indignation in relation to the persistence of hunger, homelessness and poverty in our affluent nation and abroad. Most of this time I have spent working in a soup kitchen and homeless shelter, trying, I suppose, to escape my own affluence and privilege as well as meet basic human needs and challenge the political powers.
The cultural ‘purpose’ of the myth is as clearly straightforward as it is debilitating to the caring activist: there’s no sense in trying to end poverty, except in our dreams. The dreams are reflected in our rhetoric, but under the surface we realize that the prize we can reasonably strive for is amelioration.
Consider, on the other hand, that poverty as we know it is not and has never been the fate of humanity, but instead is largely a product of civilization, as we know it. Columbus and other European explorers and colonists, for example, did not discover poverty here in the Americas; they created it. Defined in terms of security, control and access to life-sustaining resources, poverty and affluence take on a meaning apart from our conventional ‘standard of living’ measure. This reinterpretation prompted anthropologist Marshall Sahlins 50 years ago to identify tribal hunter-gatherers as the “original affluent societies”. He recognized a kind of wealth enjoyed – and enjoyed equitably – by tribal people that far surpassed in value the benefits we associate with having wealth in our culture. Perhaps because we have begun to change our own conventional measures of wealth, hunter-gatherers are beginning to be perceived by us in a more favorable light. My students do generally pause to consider if the Native Americans were ‘poor’ when encountered by European explorers, but then uniformly insist that they were not.
And although scientists discovered over a century ago that humans lived in this hunter-gatherer way for hundreds of thousands of years before the ‘Agricultural Revolution’ spawned our civilization and culture a mere 10,000 years ago, our history and our collectively held and lived mythology reduce the human experience to civilization-building. Our collective frame of reference not only omits the vast human experience prior to our history, it excludes the experience of humans flourishing in egalitarian tribes concurrent with our history. There are still today scattered pockets of tribal people who have never known the kind of poverty we take so for granted. This vast experience suggests that poverty is a function of culture, not of nature, which is relatively immutable.
So one way we perpetuate the myth of never-ending poverty is by continuing to believe, against the facts, that our history, the history of our culture, our civilization is the history of humanity itself and that anyone outside or predating this history is a poor, half-human savage. Many of us individually will nod to the facts when confronted by them. This matters little, because mythology is something a culture of people buy into together and give expression to in the way they live as a group.
In the same vein, a second and more recent source of fuel for the myth is that, in an important sense, we really don’t want poverty to go away. It is therefore convenient to believe that the poor will always be with us (as they have always been). We don’t want poverty to go away for at least two broad reasons.
The first is that our economic system necessarily generates poverty; but more specifically, our own employment increasingly depends on it. One day at Amos House, a young man was ejected from the soup kitchen for a rule infraction. On the curb outside, he shouted back at our social worker, “you know, if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t have a job!” I still ponder that remark 10 years later.
Automation and cheap foreign labor have challenged our economy to find new ways to sustain growth and keep people busy, and our economy has responded brilliantly. The service ‘industry’ has taken up the slack. As the Agricultural/Industrial Revolution displaced not only laborers, but also the life-sustaining role of small communities (tribes and then villages), it created tremendous neediness and marginalization, adding to the effects of automation. The demand for services to address mounting social problems provided the new raw material. Private and public service programs nicely fit the bill because they ease the pain and give the appearance of an effective response without actually solving the problem. Indeed, the kinds of short-term, palliative interventions provided by services often permit the problem to worsen long term. Additionally, this neat economic solution has inspired the cultural fabrication of more frivolous needs and wants to which an infinite number of new services can be introduced to stoke the furnace.
A second reason why we cling to the continuation of poverty, and also to marginalization more broadly, is that many of us, at least, need a place to actively express our care and compassion. We need people – beyond our immediate family members – to care for in the absence of the tribal context within which we once freely shared our care with other members in a mutual support network. I’m like my dog, Pearl, who without the opportunity to hunt instinctively, finds herself playing out the hunt in our house or backyard (sometimes in absurdly comical ways). I can’t say that humans are instinctively compassionate or that we were meant by God or anything else to live in tribes. But there is clearly a compassionate streak in us, expressed more in some people than in others, and humans have lived tribally for 99% of our time on earth. Tribalism is a way of life that has tested out, notwithstanding its relatively recent setback in the face of our own civilizational expansion (Despite how the balance of this competition appears to us, it is too early to call the match.)
Mutual care, generated more by survival needs and self interest than by altruism, is the basis of support in the tribe. In our world, this support has been supplanted by services, mainly professional services working within a service system. Service, in fact, is simply the attempt to meet needs outside the context of community. Just as we do not use the word ‘service’ to label the care we provide within our families, likewise there is no equivalent concept of ‘service’ among tribal people. For individuals with an especially caring disposition, the service system provides the only available outlet, other than the care provider’s own family. The weakening nuclear family, however, like the extended family, clan, village and tribe before it, has increasingly surrendered its support function to professional services. Following this trend, we could all soon find ourselves supported by service providers alone.
John McKnight makes a compelling case that the professional service system is a poor substitute for the kind of support system only a genuine community can provide. It is inferior on many counts, not the least of which is that it frustrates the caring service provider who enters the field of teaching, health care or social work in order to give care only to face one systemic obstacle after another. McKnight insists that the professional service system and its network of private and public institutions and agencies are not geared to providing care, only professional services. To give and receive care, there is no substitute for community. I consider the tribe to be the archetype of community in this sense.
So far I have identified our collectively held assumption that “the poor will always be with us” as a tragic, self-fulfilling prophecy based on mistaken assumptions. I have also named four factors contributing to the perpetuation of the myth and the consequent perpetuation of poverty:
- We collectively believe that human poverty is an inevitable part of the natural order in general and of the nature of humans in particular.
- We understand that, in fact, the poor have always been with us.
- An increasing number of jobs and institutions (and the economy itself) depend on the continuation or worsening of poverty and marginalization.
- The marginalized provide caregivers somewhere to direct their compassion.
A revised understanding of the inevitability of poverty lends itself to at least two general change strategies. Although activists like myself tend to favor more action-sounding suggestions, the first and perhaps most radical thing we can do is help surface our cultural mythology and replace it with principles of living that will work better for us – and possibly lead to the elimination of poverty. For “the poor will always be with us” we might substitute something like: “The universe consists of cycles of creation and destruction, birth and death, but within this framework, the earth will provide.” Our planet and its abundant and richly diverse community of life offer an adequate and acceptable support system for us, as they do for all other species. No one should languish in the kind of marginal destitution we commonly call ‘poverty’. This strategy is one of learning and relearning.
The second avenue is building community – finding small and more ambitious ways of reintegrating ourselves into small-scale economies of support founded on trusting relationships. In My Ishmael, Author Daniel Quinn distinguishes between a tribal economy founded on the exchange of human energy:
and our economy that is founded on the exchange of products, including service products:
To the extent that we can transfer our faith and reliance from the products system to the communal support system, we contribute to the atrophy (and eventual elimination) of the products system, its institutions and political structures and jurisdictions. The kind of poverty we are familiar with has been with us through the emergence of our civilization because it is inherent in the culture of our civilization, if not in civilization as a mode of social organization in general. Poverty can be eliminated, but it will require a fundamental break from the way we have been thinking and living.
Our current worldview, allegiances and psychological attachments strongly favor the prevailing way of life, as does the usual default assumption that the world is simply going to continue on its trajectory toward a ‘more and bigger’ version of what we have today. But like a recessive gene, our capacity to trust the earth and live by each other’s support and unique gifts lies within each of us, dormant for the most part, but ready to surface and engage after an initial adjustment process. Many disaffected youth, still partially dependent on the products system, have nevertheless chosen to live tribally simply to support their refusal to eke out a living in the usual way, preferring the freedom and vitality of life on the outside. Less dramatic experiments, ranging from intentional rural communities to urban block association activity, point in the ‘give support/get support’ direction.
By the standards of tribal wealth, even our financially well off are quite poor. In my facilitation work with the materially comfortable in churches and nonprofits, I find a surprising receptivity to this disturbing message. A million dollars, for example, is not enough to insure against having to spend the last decade of life in a nursing home. One source of hope for me – as distant as it appears – lies in the potential for defection within the middle and upper classes. As ‘winning’ the products contest rewards us with a life that is increasingly accelerated, virtual, alienating and superficial – as well as ecologically perilous – the rewards of abandoning the game we play for life with the trees and sky – and each other – will prove increasingly irresistible. The ‘simple living’ trend of the past decade may portend a shift that is deeper and more widespread; this shift could provide a catalyst for the cultural break necessary to end poverty.
It certainly lies outside the box to imagine rich people releasing their hold on product wealth and the means of creating it, but this will be a natural side effect of their shifting attention in the direction of acquiring a different kind of wealth. The marginalized poor would then have a better chance of reestablishing access to land resources. Unfortunately, the prevailing models of development in poor communities and countries are the models offered by the products system, which the poor themselves generally look to as the only way out. Alternatively, organizations committed to reducing poverty should emphasize strategies that regenerate the kind of self-reliant, give support/get support community life that can regenerate the kind of wealth we have paved over with a product-driven culture of winners and losers.
Photograph: “The Louisville Flood” © Margaret Bourke-White, 1937.
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