Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Poor Among Us

I thought this post and this post by my wife were so thought provoking.  They have also dovetailed into further discussions we've had regarding the presidential election and comparisons between rich vs. middle class vs. poor.

I confess that, absent my opportunities of service related to my church, my life's personal experiences would remain solidly in my middle class cocoon.  I still  have had very little exposure to the truly rich, but I have had many occasions to interact with the indigent.  Here are some of my thoughts regarding that.

For one thing, I have had several experiences seeing the criminal justice system at work.  I have visited inmates, I have seen the havoc wreaked on the families left behind.  Thankfully, the vast majority of the population has not developed life skills having to do with bailing someone out of jail, or interacting with public defenders, or figuring out jail visiting rules.

One thing that still perplexes me--how does someone with poor credit history, no assets, and is un- or under-employed qualify to rent an apartment?  I'm aware of many cases where the Church has stepped in to help with temporary motel lodging, or up front deposits to get a family into an apartment.  Or to pay the rent to avoid someone getting evicted and ending up unable to find a new place.  I'm aware there are government subsidies and helps, but it seems every case I was involved with the waiting lists were years long for such assistance.  (I suspect many "lifers" consume the available resources.)  What does someone do without the help of a church, or some other benefactor?

I have had extensive experience trying to help people get back on their feet financially and be self sufficient.  This is always the goal.  As bishop I was spread too thin to deal with all the nuts and bolts of every case--in one case I worked closely with a very competent and experienced home teacher to help an indigent single person to manage his money better--create a budget, map out future income and expenses, etc.  This was a person with past history of using payday loans, gambling, and giving money to his daughter.  As a condition of continued church help he needed to cooperate and impose self discipline, and even turned his checkbook over to his home teacher to pay the bills.

It was pretty rough going. and it took several stops and starts to finally achieve some success.  I sometimes find that those in financial distress have a poor grasp of financial basics.  Specifically, everything is "now", and there is no notion of future--limited grasp of budgeting, no need to economize, spend the money in hand and don't worry about tomorrow's bills.  I wonder whether this is a cause or effect.  Is financial distress caused by these poor money management skills, or does the condition of financial distress cause a frame of mind to feel hopeless about the future, so might as well spend now?

Another thing I found is that bad things come in multiples.  In other words, someone loses their job and also wrecked their car.  Or they get an eviction notice and their car was impounded due to illegal parking.  Or the husband was thrown in jail and the kid has a bad illness.

Some of these misfortunes come as a consequence of bad choices, and sometimes they just happen as a natural part of human experience.  When due to bad choices, we teach and encourage repentance, and how to change behaviors.  The engineer in me would tend to get discouraged, because I would want to fix things.  But often I was powerless to do so, and it required action by the afflicted party, and it was distressing when they wouldn't follow through.  And sometimes, in those cases, you just have to let the consequences result, difficult as they might be.


  1. I remember one young couple who had no resources and were temporarily living w/ relatives, until the relatives gave them a date to be out. I was asked for help. Using the internet I squirreled out all the possible agencies that could provide aid to tide them over, shelter them, etc. Then I delegated certain ones of those for them to call and plead their case and I did the same with other agencies. Every agency had a long waiting list, although there are groups that provide vouchers for one or two night's immediate lodging. Otherwise it was a bust. I suspect the "lifers," once they get into the system, suck up all available resources, leaving nothing for those who need temp help. What saved these folks was a phone call from a friend down south who had a job for them, and off they went with the church providing bus tickets.

    I can't imagine being in that bind and in this case, I don't know how much of their situation was pure bad luck, or how much they contributed to it (drugs? lack of interest in education?, etc.) It would be interesting to see how they are doing now. I hope that their predicament at that time wasn't part of a pattern.

  2. Another similar situation: a woman called our house to say she and her husband were newly homeless and had nowhere to go. I picked them up and brought them home to buy time while we figured it out. She asked to use the phone and in a couple of hours she had lined up all kinds of help for themselves. She had obviously been down this road regularly as she knew just who to call.

    She was also lucky to find an entry-level job, but I heard later that "it didn't work out," which is a euphemism for "I got fired because I was habitually late/didn't show up for work/cussed out and flipped off the boss/etc. What a train wreck of a life. I hoped for the best for them, and still do, but the realist in me suspects they continue their pattern.

    The questions are many: why are they in this pattern and how did it begin? Have they lost hope of breaking the pattern? Or are they so comfortable with it that they don't want to break it? Do they feel no guilt about a lifestyle of take-take-take?

    There are genuinely needy people who should have our help, and the government and church have created ways to provide that. But it's not right for a person or family to take constant advantage of the safety net. They should move on to free up resources for the newly unfortunate.

  3. It's great that Craig has this experience and can share it with others. I was once home taught in jail. No, I wasn't the inmate, my home teacher was and I had gone to visit him.

    I am very thankful for smart people who know how to handle money well, like the Walkers! They are good examples for us. Especially in that all-expenses-paid trip to the moon they invited us on.