Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Solution to American Poverty

“The war on poverty has been a complete catastrophe because welfare discourages work and sabotages marriage,” Rector said. “And what you need to do is fix those problems.”  - Robert Rector via BuzzFeed

Ten years ago, I was tapping these keys, combing data and writing reports that not many people read, but that could be distilled quickly and easily into a pithy sound-bite. "Think in sound-bites, Shannan." That's what my favorite boss used to tell me.

Back then, I sat in a cubicle in my Banana Republic separates and did my best to hide from the Scholars closing in around me. They were all so much smarter than I felt, far wiser and savvier, their shoes infinitely shinier.

In the afternoons, small groups of us would lunch in a tucked-away cafe on Capital Hill. Then we'd sit in meetings with Congressmen/women and government officials. We'd roll out the red carpets for them and feel so validated when they sipped our right-wing drinking water in their Brooks Brothers ties and seersucker suits.

We told them about the solutions to American poverty and the stats fell from our lips like air kisses. Marriage is the greatest key to reducing child poverty. Recipients of government assistance should be required to work.

Ten years later, I can't argue with any of that.

In a perfect world, every person would have access to gainful employment and every Baby Mama would be a wife.

The problem is, I know names now. The whole (airquotes) poverty issue isn't hypothetical or theoretical anymore, and it can't be squashed with a mouthful of social science jargon.

The problem is, I know a girl with long, brown hair. Her wariness of the world coupled with her deepest desires to create stability and cobble together a make-shift family cost her her children. I know right this minute, her mama is bundled up in a camper at the back of someone's lot. Her dad is long-gone. I know the roots of generational poverty coil up and around her family tree, taking on a positively viney appearance. She doesn't see the vines as a problem. She doesn't see them at all. They're simply part of the landscape, green-on-green, so all-encompassing and eternal as to be rendered invisible.

I know she sat in jail for half a year for a crime that wasn't hers and I know every time I saw her there, I felt the thrum of hopeful humanity reverberate from her to me through that tiny screen. I know she was too shy to ask for much, but when I pressed her, her request was a bra. I couldn't fathom she had already gone months without one.

She hooted and hollered when she walked out of that jail, shackled for 12 more months with an ankle bracelet but very sure life was taking a hard turn toward sun on her face and cloudless skies.

But I know she has lived in upheaval, chaos, and abuse since that day.
I know she has been hungry. I know she has almost given up.

Years ago, the solution was so simple - just find a job.

But my friend has no high school diploma (this wasn't valued in the fabric of her upbringing), a criminal record, and no transportation.

(Having walked a very similar road with my oldest son, I know applications say a felony conviction won't preclude you from employment, but I also know when pressed (as they were by my husband) they will admit they simply "throw those away".)

The light is peeking into the end of the tunnel for my sweet-smiling friend. In just over a month, the ankle bracelet comes off, but her children are a state away, and she can't get to them until she pays her home detention fees, to the tune of nearly $2,000.

There have been more moments than I can count in the past two years when Cory and I have been left fumbling with our heads hanging low, vicariously feeling the slow crush of a system that works against the poor. The most recent moment was when this friend of ours finally secured a job interview at McDonald's, only to be told 1) she needed a very specific interview uniform and 2) there was no guarantee of a job, given her criminal record.

This girl is beyond poor. She left jail without a single possession. She's been destitute and struggling since that day, leverage God-knows-what for a roof over her head, proud in a way we can't comprehend that "at least I'm not in a shelter".

After months of searching for a job within walking distance, this was it.

The "very specific uniform" was rounded up and I lost half a day inside my head, the minutes and hours blurring past as I begged God for a break and pleaded him to show her he's so much larger than all our crap and the mistakes we've made.

She got the job.

It'll be a couple weeks until she's paid and the food smells so good while she's working, but she doesn't have a penny to her name. Her walk to work is dark and cold, but she's smiling in her non-slip shoes and I promise you, you'd buzz through her drive-thru every single day if you knew it'd be her smile at the window.

We drop off gloves and the fleece scarf I bought 12 years back. We drop off granola bars, a loaf of bread, peanut butter, because she happens to live with oppressors, who view nothing as belonging to her and are quick to assure her she owes them the world.

Peanut butter isn't exactly a standard of excellence as far as gifts are concerned, but it feels particularly paltry right about now.

So we pray for God to turn her water into wine and remind ourselves that she is his prized lily of the field, the very singular reason his blood was spilled.

We thank him one hundred times a day for the grace of McDonald's.

All the while, political rhetoric rumbles, and sometimes the intentions are even good.

It doesn't matter. There's a reason both sides of our government will continue to bicker over the shortest road to a turn-around, there's a reason they'll both keep failing.

They do not know the names. Not really, and often, not at all.

If our hope dangles on a spindly thread of political best practices, it's time to shear it off.
If we find ourselves caught up in the puppet-string politics where society's easiest targets dance on demand, a jazzy chorus line to our real concerns, let's remember God's kingdom is theirs and the responsibility to right their wrongs was handed straight to us.

I could line a city block with potential husbands for this friend of mine, but her judgment in men proves faulty and all she knows of love is that it leaves, often taking the best of her with it.

I could dangle her fast-food job like a carrot in front of her so she keeps on trucking, but her kids will grow in inches and lose baby teeth while she works the fryer, their memories of her unfurling with its smoke.

A husband and a job - those quick-witted words, though perhaps technically true, are no more than marbles in my mouth now. They get in the way of real action and garble my American sensibilities.

God entrusted the poor to you and me. Not to a ballot or a platform or a piece of whip-smart legislation.

He gave them to us because we're actual humans with lives, families, problems and worldviews, in the unique position to learn their names, make them our own and love them straight into the arms of their fixer.


  1. Oh Shannan.....this issue IS so complex! We have have fretted and debated up one side and down the other with no long term and broad solutions. So, for us, we try to care for the one that is put right in front of us...the Walmart cashier who now says "I love you" as she hugs me close.....the lady at the deli who beams with pride because I listen to her stories about her grandbaby.....the lady in the food line who smiles big and hugs me tight because I can understand Spanish and she tells me she has missed me.

    I am not solving their poverty issue, but I pray I am giving them a bit of hope!

  2. Karen: first Shannan had me crying and now your comment has me crying more. You look for people through out your day who you can encourage and bring a little hope to! Oh if we all did that?!?!? Blessings to you!!

    Shannan: There are no words for how I feel about what you just wrote. It did something in my heart! Life is all about getting to know people and building relationships. First we love God and then we love others. Thank you for your words!!

  3. well said. i learned this in a very small way and will judge no more.

  4. Shannan, you have a gift! Thank you for your words, honesty, compassion, and love for ALL!

  5. Shannan, your post today really touched me. As a small business owner, we employ 10-15 people as bartenders, waitresses, and cooks. They are relatively low-skilled jobs that would be perfect for those without high school diplomas. Yet somehow, most of our employees are college-educated, and this is their second job. I'd like to reach out to those less fortunate (and I know there are plenty in our rural community, many who are patrons), but sadly very few have even applied to work here....and the cycle continues...

  6. You are whip smart. Sharing on FB. Thank you.

  7. Will there be a follow-up post. I am so confused. What is the right thing to do in situations like this. How do you know if the seed sown is landing on fertile ground?

    1. I don't think it's important for us to know if the ground is fertile. We just walk beside those around us and leave it to God, doing all we can to help and encourage but knowing we, on our own, won't ever solve anything.

      Thanks for caring enough to ask! Would love to hear your thoughts on my answer.

    2. Your answer to this question is just what I needed to hear... :o)

    3. it is so good for us all to remember that the results aren't up to us, and we don't do the "right" thing because we're promised good results. Jesus' last command before he left was to love others. Period. The ground in their lives is HIS….

  8. Oh, Shannon. Thank you for this. I learned not to trust in politics/government as a solution to poverty a long time ago but since that time, I've sat in Christian circles that at worst weekly congratulate ourselves for being aligned with the correct ideology and go home feeling self-satisfied or at best open-mindedly struggle with what the right solutions might be, rather than ever BEING Christ's hands and feet. I've been guilty of imagining that I first must figure out the "right thing" to do so that if I am ever confronted with poverty, I will know how to handle it.

    I think it is important for me to see that you encountered this beautiful girl you now love and walk beside not in church or Bible study but by positioning yourself in a prison.

  9. I love your heart, Shannan Martin. "God entrusted the poor to you and me...He gave them to us." Thank you.

  10. "He gave them to us..." Such powerful words. It's easy to get swept up in our ever day lives with our blinders on. I'm completely guilty of this, yet part of me is overwhelmed at where would we start. Thank you for these words, for this food for thought! Can't wait to hear you during Hope Spoken!

  11. Is there a way we, your readers can help her pay the home detention fees?
    Our Nicole was blessed when she got out with one full time job (hired by a former addict who is all about 2nd chances) and another part time job helping out through tax season.
    Encouragement means so much.

    1. Friend. Your generosity is blinding me at the moment. :)
      Cory and I have talked about how to help, though our "extra" cash is at a minimum right now. We thought about doing some type of a matching grant (smile) where we match a portion of what she pays each week? We want to be careful not to diminish the power and pride of her work, but we also know it will take many months of McNuggets before she can save that much, and her kids needed her a year ago. If this is something you're interested in helping with, shoot me an email! shannandmartin@gmail.com
      Love you, Lady.

    2. I'd love to do something too. We don't have a big budget, but even little bits in large numbers would help, right? I so respect what you mean when you say, "We want to be careful not to diminish the power and pride of her work". We'll follow your lead.

  12. "The problem is, I know names now."

    We went through this eye-opening experience during the adoption process. On paper, birth mom L looks like this:

    Unmarried African-American woman, mid 30s
    4 children, expecting her 5th
    Receiving government assistance including Medicaid.

    But that is not who L is. At least, it is not ALL she is.

    L is a loving, caring mother that realized she could not emotionally or financially support another child. Her choice to put her child up for adoption was motivated entirely by love.

    L goes to church every Sunday. She sings in the choir and I heard her tear it up on "How Great is our God"

    L is has finished her schooling as a pharmacy tech and is looking for a job.

    L is this, and so much more than this.

    The few months of close contact we had with L changed my perceptions. I got to know her name, and once I did, her demographics were no longer what I defined her by.

    Great post, Shannan. Keep on truckin'.

  13. Yes. Oh, Shannan. Your words.

    What Caleb said...and this:

    "God entrusted the poor to you and me. Not to a ballot or a platform or a piece of whip-smart legislation.

    He gave them to us because we're actual humans with lives, families, problems and worldviews, in the unique position to learn their names, make them our own and love them straight into the arms of their fixer."

    You would love Seven: The Bible Study Experiment. The Final Wrap Up discusses this sameeee issue. WE HAVE TO do something. God told us to and he EXPECTS us to do it.

    Why are we still sitting here?


  14. Such a tearful story. So many times we don't put ourselves in situations like these and therefore forget about those that suffer. I know from raising an abused adopted child that many people choose not to believe this exists. If in some little way some of us could help her, please tell us how.

  15. This is AMAZING! Great job.
    I recently drove across the U.S. for the first time. While I had anticipated being enlightened by seeing the country for the first time I was surprised what really stood out. I stopped at a McDonald's in rural Texas to get lunch with my family. There was a "Hiring" sign with information about benefits. They provide transportation to and from work and employees eat for free until they receive their first pay check. I ached in the center of my being imagining a new employee, happy to have a job, hungry and surrounded by food. It made me reflect on the time I spent in Ethiopia. Nothing on my 4,000 mile trip across the U.S. made me so aware of the people around me across my country. I've never been so grateful for McDonald's.

    1. I'm in love with this rural Texas McDonalds story!
      Thanks for sharing.

  16. McDonalds - service with a smile at the drive-thru, always. We just don't always know the story behind the smile. We live in the poorest county in our state and my heart has been searching for ways to help, ways that don't necessarily require money (since our own budget is tight) but may. Getting to know the people (and thus the truest of needs) is the first step isn't it? Thanks for the reminder - even if it comes with tears. Love your heart...

    1. Meaning money is often easy to give compared with time - time to drive someone to an appointment. Time to watch their child etc. Just praying to be willing to meet the need.

  17. There is such a cognitive disconnect for me, between the fact that most right wing conservatives proclaim themselves as the most religious, the most christian people in our country; but they are the ones saying they don't want to help the poor. The poor should just get a job. Etcetera, everything that you said. How is that possible??? How do christians not see the poor the way that christ saw them??? With love and an overwhelming desire to help, whether that help is person-to-person or government assistance, it's help they need! What would jesus do? Right?

    1. Yes. The problem is, most of these people, if pressed, would say they totally believe they should help the poor, but that "it's not the job of the government". I agree with this statement to a point, but it all hinges on us - actual human Christians - picking up the slack. It requires all of us. And sadly, studies have shown that Christians as a whole are no more generous with their money as non-Christians. So it comes across to me as a tax-funded passing of the buck. Literally!

  18. I want to help your friend get her babies back. Nearly all people who work minimum wage jobs, especially single, head-of-household individuals, don't earn enough to live on, and must rely on food stamps to fill the gap. Trying to get by AND save up the money to pay off that $2000 debt? I have a pit in my stomach thinking about it. Can I set up a fund? I can't let the sun set today without knowing there's a way to continue her positive momentum. It makes my heart sing that you and this young woman found each other. God is so good.

    1. Girl, you aren't the first one to ask. I want to facilitate the generosity of you awesome people. Can you email me at shannandmartin@gmail.com?
      Thanks, Love!

  19. Shannan God bless you and the words you put out there for the rest of us to hear. This is both a huge problem and a small one. On a federal level it's so big, looks insurmountable, must figure out the programs that will help. And in my town, in my community the problem can be as small as helping one person. One woman who needs an outfit to wear to a job interview, one young man who needs a haircut to be able to start his new job.
    In the last couple of years of my son's life he lived in some "interesting" places. Despite family members telling me I shouldn't I always visited him, always kept communication open, drove into "those neighborhoods" and hung out with him. He and I learned so much. Matt was a white kid from the suburbs and I was his mom. We had to stand out like, I don't know what. I could hear the song from Sesame St., "one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong". That was often us. The thing is though I met and got to know actual people, with names and families and stories and voices and senses of humor and problems. It's not so easy to just walk away from that and forget.
    Even now with Matthew gone, I still know what's out there, who's out there just a few miles from my front door. I don't know what the big solutions are, what needs to be done at a federal level or even a state level. All I can do is pray that I am open to whatever part God would have me play. Right now, it means I tutor the women who are studying for the GED at a homeless shelter downtown. It's once a week and it's actually fun and kind of humbling. (I'm glad I don't have to take the test and I'm a college graduate!) I'm working towards a non-profit to help fund addiction treatment for those who want it and cannot afford it. I want, I need to do something to prevent another mother from having to endure what I have. It's not much but it's what I can do. Where would we be I wonder if we all did just what we could?

    1. Mary Beth,
      I don't know you, nor you me but I read your comments often here about your Matthew. I just wanted to let you know that I blessed to hear your stories and am inspired by what you have experienced and how you continue to reach out to your community. Thank you for sharing!

    2. Mary Beth - I agree with Brenda, and so thankful for this community that loves each other as well as a bunch of cyber-friends possibly can.

      Thank you for continuing to share more about Matthew. We all benefit from your openness. He's got a good Mama. Much love to you tonight!

    3. Thank you Brenda and Shannan so much. Shannan, for some reason this has felt like a safe space to me. Your sharing bits of R's story in the blog inspired me to mention Matthew initially and now your graciousness and the kindness of other readers makes me feel ok to share a bit of my pain and joy. Losing Matthew to a drug overdose has been the worst experience of my life but I was blessed to be his mom for 27 years, 10 months and 19 days. I miss him, I miss trading books with him and sharing Netflix recommendations, I miss all things I would have continued to learn from being his mom. Mostly though I just miss being with him, hearing his voice on the phone, cooking for him, you know just being mom.
      If I were to share anything that I've learned it would only be that life can change utterly in the space of a single breath. Love your family and friends and make sure they know you do. My son's last words to me are carved on his grave marker. We spoke briefly the night before he died. We laughed about something I can't even remember now and then I said, goodnight and I love you. And he said, "Bye Mom, love you too."

  20. would you please email me her name...and the names of her babies.
    i want our family to pray for them. by name.
    shannan you have SUCH a gift. girl. thank you for sharing.

  21. So very, very hard to read. I'm sure it's incredibly hard to see firsthand and I can't imagine living that life. How could I? You are doing good things Shanny even when I'm sure it feels to you like you are hardly doing anything. YOU ARE.

  22. Your true Christian love is shinning through and what can make the difference in the long run. These people need jobs, and more than that they need Jesus.

  23. Thank you Shannan. God led me to read your post today after too many days of being too busy to read anything. I needed to hear what your heart poured out. It's such a complicated thing for me to figure out and I actually have been grappling with the issue of poverty in America and where my responsibility to it lies. Anyway, thanks for sharing your heart. After I read your blog I always walk away either contemplating and important issue or admiring your beautiful life.

  24. This post brings me to tears. We are walking with a family in similar circumstances. Their baby boy has been with us for 17 months now, but they are working so hard. Seventeen months ago, I was no where near the point of liking them. Today, I love them and care so deeply for them and the life they've had to walk. Poverty has quite a few names now. There is no turning back. Praise the Lord for breaking my heart and callousness.

  25. I evaluate federally funded programs for people who are homeless, and I know there is such value in being able to use taxes to pay for housing and supportive services valued in the thousands per household. But people need so much more than a place to live and a caring case manager. Most of the clients of these programs are very much alone. Thank you for showing us what it looks like to love our neighbors. I cried through reading the post and comments because I know I need to do so much more.

  26. I have known so many people like the woman described. But, like with so many social issues, a lot of people see the ones abusing the system and assume that they are in the majority. And Christians forget that our giving isn't actually about the integrity of the recipient, it's about offering up our good deeds to the Father. We forget that God forgets our past mistakes as we dismiss our responsibility to help because the one in need brought it on themselves. Perhaps casting a few pearls before swine is better than hording them until we deem someone as deserving.
    Thank you for your thoughts. I pray that the notion goes viral!

    1. "our giving isn't actually about the integrity of the recipient, it's about offering up our good deeds to the Father."
      YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!! To all of it, actually. :)

  27. Powerful. I have tears, and I know this is true, and there is no solution that is quick or easy. God bless you for your care and love of this girl with long, brown hair. Thank you for reminding me how blessed my own life is, and for making me want to find a girl with long, brown hair to whom I might show the Love of Christ.

  28. I'm reading this, again. I've shared it on FB. To completely sound like a creeper, I feel like I know you personally, and yet I wish I could even partially live up to your example. Thank you for your willingness to be transparent with your life and insights. ~Shannon

  29. So true. I realize more and more how the world between where I live now, and where my church sits, and where I grew up, is vastly different. (I live 2.5 miles from my church. Those miles change a lot!) I don't have answers. I have questions. I have love. I have no idea how to give the love away at times. So I offer smiles, and hugs, and words of encouragement to the young girls in my daughters school. I pray for the women on the corner because maybe they don't have a mother praying for them like I do. Maybe I can be that mother for a moment and make a difference in the heavenly battle that is playing out for their souls. I wonder what else God has for me to do while I try to use what he has put before me.

  30. OMG! What a blessing you have with your writing. You open hearts and minds and are making a difference in this world! This is a very powerful post.
    Love this blog.

  31. Knowing their names does make all the difference. Working with those in poverty is a hard business and words alone won't solve the problem, just like handing out cash won't. I'm convinced that relationships are the way out of this mess we are in and a relationship with Jesus is the most important one of all. Keep doing what you are doing and sharing it with us. It is an encouragement to others to keep doing what they are doing to help. xoxo

  32. Oh, yes. Just yes. You and I? We speak the same language...This brought tears to my eyes. Knowing my love of the broken is shared? Hope.


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