Search This Blog

Friday, April 27, 2018

Rising Out of Poverty

         In Acts chapter 3 Peter and John see a man begging at the temple gate.  The man had been lame all his life and this was his only way to survive.  Daily he laid there and asked for donations so he could eat. There were no government assistance programs back then so his only choice was to depend on charity – beg or die. When Peter saw this man, he looked at him and got his attention.  Then, as now, most people don’t look at the poor.  They are disturbing and it’s easier to ignore them.  However, Peter made personal contact.  The man expected Peter to throw him a few coins.  This would have made Peter feel good about doing his part for the poor.  He could claim some spiritual bonus points and move on.  That’s not what Peter did.  He looked beyond the surface, immediate problem.  Yes, this man was hungry and needed money for food, but that was not his real problem.  He needed a means to support himself.  So, Peter chose to let God heal the deeper problem and reinvent this man’s life.  He prayed for and declared the man’s healing by the power of Christ.  The man walked away praising God into a whole new life.

Our world today is still full of needs.  Even with all the government programs and charities, we have people dying from hunger.  Too many families go to bed not knowing if they will be able to pay their bills or end up on the street.  People fall through the cracks every day.  I volunteer at soup kitchens and food banks.  These ministries meet an urgent need, but they don’t reach the deeper problem.  They don’t provide the resources people need to rise out of poverty. 

I was inspired by Peter’s words to try to find a different way to serve the poor.  I wanted to help people become independent and financially stable.  I wanted them to see true healing in their lives.  So, with very little idea what I was doing, I grabbed a friend and jumped in.  We called the group financial advisory and a pleasant young couple from the church was willing to work with us.

This couple was in crisis.  They had recently moved into the area and were swamped with all the bills that come with a new home – set up for phone and electric, deposit and rent, etc.  They were behind on several monthly bills and had requested funds from the church.  Our first step was to set up a simple budget.  We listed all forms of income on one side of a paper and all their bills on the other side.  We sorted through all the threatening and confusing letters and receipts they had received from their landlord to determine what they actually owed.  Then we discussed options.  The couple was pleased to realize that their income actually did cover their monthly bills.  Seeing the numbers on paper instead of a pile of hungry bills, made it much more manageable.  We decided that they would pay the total amount due to the landlord.  He was the main source of their stress at that time.  Paying back rent and fees meant they would not have enough for electric so we referred them to a local program that assists people in need pay this type of bill.  We did not want them to depend on charity, but we needed to get them to a stable foundation first. 

The next day I got a phone call from my new friend.  She told me that she and her husband had prayed about the electric bill and that day someone came and bought a washer and dryer set they had been trying to sell.  This provided the exact amount they needed for the electric bill.  I was embarrassed to realize that I had not even told them to pray.  At that moment I realized that God was going to use this ministry to teach me and change me as much or more than those I was serving.

The next month I wanted to focus on buying food.  I had planned to discuss how to eat healthy on a budget and how to shop the sales.  I wanted the couple to see the benefits of spreading their food stamps out through the month instead of using the whole amount at once as they were currently doing.  We did not get far into the conversation when the man explained that his mother regularly visited and asked them to buy her food.  Since they owed her money, they did not feel able to say no.  Their only defense was to spend the whole amount so she could not coerce them more than once a month.  So much for my well-planned lesson.  That night’s discussion turned to setting boundaries and saying ‘no’ instead of how to shop sales which they were actually already good at.  The lesson I learned that night was to get to know the person I am trying to serve.  I assumed I knew the reason behind their spending habits, but I was wrong.  To help them I needed to truly see them.  That’s when the group stopped being about finances and became about life.  In the months that followed we would end up discussing parenting, health, relationships and many other things.  God was shaping all our lives.

One big lesson I learned from this couple and others I met was generosity.  Too often when we think of the poor we think of beggars.  All we hear are their requests for help.  However, if you let yourself get involved in their lives, you see the other side.  I have had numerous small gifts from poor people, not as a thank you but just because they had something they thought I might need or like.  Poor people have learned to share to survive.  If they have extra they give it away and if you have extra they are confused when you don’t give them some.  Those of us who grew up being taught to be independent and take care of ourselves see it as an attitude of entitlement.  We don’t realize that this is the way they have stayed alive. This does not mean I say yes to everyone who asks me for something. I have to have boundaries too.  However, I no longer feel used when they ask or guilty when I say no.  We are all in this life together. 

It hasn't always been easy.  We have dealt with frantic calls when food stamps were revoked, frustration and fear when homes were broken into, and numerous other setbacks. With God's grace and guidance, we moved forward.  I am so proud of the progress that first couple made.  They are now living in a nicer trailer park with a cute little yard.  They pay all their bills.  They are working on starting a small-business in hopes of getting off government assistance.  One day they plan to buy their own home.  More importantly, they love Jesus and are active in ministry.  God has done a great work in their lives and in mine.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Happiness Project - month two - Marriage

February was the month Gretchen Rubin in her book The Happiness Project chose to look at marriage.  She called the chapter "Remember Love."  She felt that she had an above average marriage but too often took her spouse for granted.  I agree that it is too easy to fall into the habit of treating strangers better than we do our spouse.  It seems to be human nature to let down your guard with the person with whom you feel safest and end up treating them poorly.  Too often we get annoyed by their faults and ignore or overlook their virtues.

One of her themes for the month was "there is only love".  She chose to avoid criticism and build up tenderness, thoughtfulness, and appreciation.  Realizing that "every day matters more than once in awhile" she endeavored to quit nagging and show proof of love often.

One way to quit nagging is to do the task yourself.  If something is important to you or bothering you, maybe it is your responsibility.  Also, when we ask someone else to do a job we let go of the right to gripe about how they did it.  It is now their task to do as they see fit and on their time schedule.  All the nagging in the world will not get them to do it our way.  Surprisingly, the author found that when she went ahead and did a needed task it brought her more joy than all the cajoling of her husband ever had.

Then she got to the part that stepped on my toes.  She discussed the need for affirmation.  She said that when she does kind things for others she wants to be appreciated and praised.  If she does not get this positive input then she feels resentful of the task.  Ouch - I resemble that remark.  I too like to get my 'gold stars' as she calls them.  I want people to notice what I do and like me because of it.  I've always struggled with being a people pleaser.  The author talks about a way she reframed her thinking that makes a lot of sense to me.  She says that if we say "I did X for him" then we expect the person receiving the action to appreciate us.  However, if we do whatever it is for our self then it takes the other person's reaction out of the equation.  We simply did a good deed because we wanted to and any resulting affirmation is extra.  I would even add that when we dedicate a task to God it does not matter what others think.

Another topic in this chapter was negativity bias.  Human nature is to react faster to negative input and to remember it longer than the positive.  Therefore, it is more important to reduce negative experiences than to build up positive ones.  In addition to avoiding nagging the author also chose to not argue about certain things.  Some issues are not really worth it.  My mom used to say "If it won't matter in ten years, don't waste time being angry about it today."

An additional way to reduce negativity is to reduce expectations.  Too often in marriage we expect that person to fill all our needs.  However, relationships don't work that way.  For instance women want to share long, deep conversations when men often want to share activities.  We think face-to-face is intimacy and they desire working on a project together.  It took me a long time to realize that my husband did not want to hear every detail of my day and that was ok.  He supports me in the big stuff but gets lost in the minutia.

A couple other tid-bits:
     - to see how people want to be treated, look at their actions
     - the more readily you respond to your spouse's bids for attention, the stronger your marriage
     - remind yourself 'I love _______, just as he/she is.'

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Why does the middle class resent the poor?

As I was growing up I learned to dislike two of my cousins.  They were pleasant enough people and we had fun when they babysat me.  However, they were known for mooching off their mom.  They followed a pattern of moving out, getting a job, living with a girlfriend, losing the job, getting in trouble for drugs, and moving back in with mom.  She would let them stay there rent-free for as long as they wanted to.  Then the pattern would repeat.  My aunt was a bus driver and lived in gov’t subsidized housing.  She often had trouble paying her bills.   Other relatives lamented about how the boys were taking advantage of her.  Now, as a mom, I can begin to imagine how hard it would be to turn your child away when they had no place to live, but back then many of us kept telling her to ‘kick their lazy buts out’.

Why was the family so upset about this arrangement?  After all, it was her choice to take care of her children in whatever way she saw fit.  I think it comes down to mind-set.  The relatives that felt it was unjust were the middle class folks who were working hard every day to pay their own bills.  They looked at my young, healthy cousins and said – why should my tax dollars that I worked to earn go to pay for you to do nothing?  So, it was personal.  Not only were these boys abusing their mom, but we were paying for it through welfare and food stamps. 

I believe that is what middle class and rich people most often resent.  It’s not disability or social security benefits.  It’s not even food banks.  They don’t like working for money they never see that goes to pay for other people to not work. 

Now I know that this image of a lazy person living off the public dole has been over-exaggerated and overused.  As an example, in 2010, 73% of public aide went to the elderly and the disabled.  (See chart from The majority was not going to people who just didn’t want to work.  Still, those people do exist and they give the whole group a bad reputation.

As I expressed previously, the poor live in a mindset of sharing to survive.  Their life is often in crisis not knowing what tomorrow will bring.  If they have extra today they share it in hopes that tomorrow someone will share with them.  If sharing does not work they resort to asking for help and seeking government assistance.  That is how they make it from one day to the next.

In contrast, the middle class survive by working.  If the paycheck does not cover the expenses, they get another job or ask for more hours.  They sell things or skip meals.  They have been told that charity is for the weak and all they have to do to survive is to work harder.  It they are talented and lucky, they make it up the rungs of their chosen profession and reach a salary where the bills are paid and they have a little extra left over.  This is security, and security is important.  It means you don’t have to live in fear of foreclosure or bill collectors. 

I’m not saying either of these mindsets is superior.  In fact they both work to help people provide the basics of life for themselves.  However, they are very different and this causes conflict.  When a jobless person asks a struggling worker for some cash to pay their electric bill, the worker thinks about how many hours he put in to get that money.  He earned it.  He wonders why the jobless person can’t take care of himself and subconsciously he feels threatened.  What if he gives that money away and can’t pay his own bills?  He does not see it as sharing resources or believe that someone else will take care of him later.  He sees it as a threat to his security.  So he says no.  Then the confused jobless person walks away confused and maybe even angry.  This friend has more than they need.  Why would they let me suffer? 

Then we have to deal with jealousy and justice.  I currently have a bill for over $1000 for some thyroid testing I needed.  Thankfully, insurance covered much of the cost, but I really don’t have funds to pay this remainder and there may be more bills coming.  It frustrates me that my insurance pulls over $600 a month out of my pay and I still have bills I can’t cover.  Then I look to my friends on Medicare.  They don’t pay $500 to ride an ambulance.  They don’t pay $20-50 every time they visit a doctor.  They don’t have to ask themselves if they can afford to get their child’s cavity filled.  It’s all paid for. (Benefits vary by state, but this is what I have seen here)  So, yes, I get a little jealous.  It’s not fair that my tax dollars are covering their bills and what’s leftover is not enough to pay mine.  I’m not angry at my friends, but I am angry at the system.  However, I begin to realize that I would not want to trade places.  I’ve seen my friends shuffled from doctor to doctor without diagnosis.  Their medications are changed often based on what Medicare will pay for.  They get referred to a specialist out of town and have no transportation to get there.  And I see them struggle daily to keep a roof over their head and food on the table.  Often I see them do it with a smile.  Then I begin to realize that they don’t have it easier than me and I don’t have it easier than them.  We each struggle and we each live and if we are lucky we do it with friends beside us to give joy to the journey.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Happiness Project - Introduction and Month One

I just finished The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin and I decided to do an extended book review. This won't be a pure summary.  I'm going to re-read it and write about not only her ideas but also how each section affected me.

I tend to like the whole social experiment genre.  I love reading about how people challenge themselves and discuss what they learned.  This author realizes she is not appreciating her life as much as she could and therefore goes on a mission to increase her own happiness.  She looks at what brings her joy and satisfaction as well as what brings guilt, anger, and remorse.  Then she writes a year's worth of resolutions to increase the one and decrease the other.

I like the fact that she is not looking to make major changes in her way of living such as moving or changing careers but she is wanting to "change the lens through which I viewed everything familiar" and "find more happiness in my own kitchen".  In other words, she wanted to change her attitude and her outlook rather than her circumstances.

I find it humorous that her method is exactly what mine is whenever I want to make a change in my life: make the decision, go to the library for LOTS of books, and start making charts and lists.  Yep, that's so me.

She struggled with whether seeking happiness was a worthy goal, but finally decided to embrace it because happy people are more productive, helpful, friendlier, and healthier.  In fact, most of our typical goals and resolutions revolve around an underlying premise of becoming happier.

January -

The first month Gretchen decided to focus on increasing her energy level since that would help with all the other resolutions to come.  She focused on getting more sleep which is not really my issue.  I probably have the opposite problem.  Still, many people would be happier, healthier, and more productive if they got enough sleep.

Next she tackled exercise. It's amazing I didn't give up on the book at this point.  I have never found a form of exercise I like and I think the whole endorphin thing is a myth.  Either that or my endorphin pump is broken.  However, another one of the benefits is supposed to be delayed onset of dementia, so maybe I better get to work.

Then she moved on to a topic dear to my heart - decluttering.  For me, piles of unidentified clutter and searching for lost items is very stressful.  Maybe it's because I've lived that way for so much of my life, but I seek the outer order that brings inner peace.  When I can clear out a closet or counter and find homes for everything it feels so open.  I am content and calm.  I love it.  Maintenance, however, is my nemesis.  Those surfaces and shelves just don't stay clear and organized.  I guess that gives me another opportunity to seek the next clutter-clearing high, but I want to create systems that help me keep things straightened out not just keep fixing them.  One of her personal rules might be helpful here - "Identify the problem".  For example, when I cleaned out my walk-in closet, I realized that I dump everything from my pockets on a shelf there each night.  Most of it is trash.  I decided to put a small trash can in there.  Now I can ditch the trash right away and avoid the mess.

For me another part of the problem is bringing too much stuff into the house in the first place.  Several years ago a friend gave me some very important advice.  She said she only buys something if she knows where she is going to put it.  At the time I lived on the Navajo Reservation and if I saw a decoration I liked, I bought it.  When I actually started thinking about where I could display these items, I cut my buying significantly.  Over the years I have also learned to avoid 'freebies' unless I really wanted them. Still, I buy too many unnecessary things for my children and my book collection is a little excessive.

There were some other clutter ideas in the book that I found helpful.  For example, too many choices is overwhelming.  This accounts for why so many people are happier when they reduce their clothes.  It's much more satisfying to face a closet of items you actually like to wear than a crammed space full of things that don't fit or have no matches or you might wear some day.

Another truth is that 'junk attracts junk'.  If a surface already has a pile of random items on it, the natural tendency will be to drop more stuff there.  If the space is clear and organized, it is less likely to attract random mess.  (Unless you are allergic to open space like some of the members of my family seem to be.  Then I use the tactic of putting one or two strategic items to 'claim' the space.)

Two more helpful pieces of advice were "You always find lost things when you clean" which I have found to be true, and "If it takes less than one minute, do it now."  I have some trouble with this last one because sometimes a minute really does make a difference.  Still, most often, a lot of mess could be avoided by taking care of small tasks right away.

Another way she sought to get rid of things draining her energy was to tackle nagging tasks.  These are the things you have been avoiding forever.  They just stay on the to-do list and bring you guilt.  It's time to tackle those ugly things bit by bit.  One of her personal rules is "Do what ought to be done."  I try to follow similar advice - Take the next right step. (title of my blog)  It's easy to spend my free time watching TV or playing games, but getting some of the junk off my to-do list would make me much happier and actually be meaningful.

One reason this book took me years to finish was because I stopped to apply what I was reading.  The author may have changed her sleep schedule, started exercising, and organized her whole apartment in a month, but I think it will take me a little longer. ;p

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Poor, Rich, and Middle Class - who are they?

For the book I'm thinking about I need to define the terms rich, poor, and middle class.

Who are the poor? 
According to the 2018 US Poverty Guidelines, a family of four making $25,100 or below are considered poor.  That sounds straight forward, but what does it really mean?  Does this family have hungry teenagers or a baby that needs expensive formula?  Do they live in income support housing or does their rent take half their income? What about the family making just above the line that has no food stamps or SNAP benefits?  What about the multitudes of families making under the equivalent of $2 a day in US dollars living in other countries?

Who are the rich?
There seems to be much less consensus on what it means to be rich.  Some statistics use twice the average income as a guideline.  In 2016 the median household income was $59,039.  That means any household making  $118,080 or above would be considered rich. This of course does not take into account the number of people in the family or debt.  While people in the lower end of this category are most likely not struggling for daily needs, they also might not have money for extravagant extras.  Is this rich?  Another way to draw the line is to call the top 1% of earners wealthy.  This would include any family making $389,436 or above, but I'm not sure it takes that much to be considered rich.

Who are the middle class?
According to one website, middle class is anyone earning between 67% and 200% of the median income.  For 2016 this range would be $39,560 to $118,080.  This encompasses about 50% of Americans.  That seems to leave a gap between lower middle class and the US Poverty line, but at least it tells us that these are the folks in the middle - in-between rich and poor.

For me the numbers don't tell the whole story.  By these stats, I would be upper-middle class.  If I compare myself to people who make more than my family, who travel and dine at expensive restaurants, I feel much more lower middle class.  My family pays our bills and we are able to put our children in extra-curricular activities, but we are not extravagant and money is tight at times.  Then I compare myself to people making less.  Their kids are not taking gymnastics lessons.  They run out of food before the month is up.  They don't have securities like renter's insurance.  Compared to them, I probably look rich.  Additionally, if we look outside our borders - to so many people without running water or electricity, we would all be considered rich.

So, if the numbers fail me, how do I even get a handle on the title of this book?

I am left with my own, subjective, definitions:

Poor - any person or family that struggles to meet their basic needs of food and shelter.

Middle Class - households that have finances to meet their basic needs and provide a few extras but may not have resources for emergencies or extravagances

Rich - those who are comfortably meeting their needs, provide for future expenses and emergencies and have extra for charity and fun.

My definitions are still inadequate, but they give the reader a general idea of what I mean when I use these terms.  I also want to emphasize that I am putting no emotional connotation on these labels.  Too often our society connects a person's value to the amount of money they earn.  In this book, and in my life, I am hoping to let people see that value has nothing to do with wealth.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Let's Share

Many people have the idea that people living in poverty are always begging for something.  When I was growing up, I experienced this with one of my aunts.   She lived in the inner city and worked a low paying job.  She was a wonderful, loving woman, but it seemed like whenever she visited, she asked for something. For example, if my mom had a new performance tape, my aunt would ask for a copy. (They both sang in church.)  She seemed to think that whatever we had that she did not should be split with her.  It wasn't until years later that I began to understand this mindset.

The light went on when I read a book about a woman who worked in California picking crops.  She discovered that it was the other workers who would teach her how to harvest the food correctly and even share their portion with her when she was first learning.  Neighbors showed up at her door with food when they had extra.  They shared rides and information with her.  This group of strangers bonded together because it was the best way for the whole group to survive.  From this story I began to realize that many poor people  are more than willing to give you whatever you need and they are confused when someone else does not do the same for them.  This sharing mentality is very different from the independent, take care of yourself mindset I grew up with.  I'm not saying either one is better than the other, but I think it helps to see things from someone else's perspective. 

I saw this sharing concept in my own life when a friend of mine got her food stamps for the month.  She went out that day and bought food for herself, for a church breakfast, for a sick neighbor, and a treat for me.  These gifts were given with no strings attached.  She was simply sharing her own blessings.

Maybe my selective memory only recalls the times my aunt asked for help.  Maybe I've forgotten all the times she brought food for us or gave me little gifts.  Maybe living on the boundary between middle class and poverty caused me to cling to whatever I had and fear losing it.  Maybe I can still learn to share.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Poor, Rich and in the Middle

I'm thinking about a new book idea.  I've been learning the past few years that people of various income levels really don't understand each other.  I would like to use some of what I have learned to build a bridge.


"Rich people are greedy."  "Poor people are lazy."  "Why do 'those' people live like that?"  I've heard these statements all my life, but what I've learned is that kind, generous people can be found in all socio-economic levels.  However, it is true that most of these people don't understand each other.  Each of us sees life through a certain point of view.  It's like a pair of tinted glasses that colors our whole life.  Our glasses are shaped by our upbringing, our family, and our life experiences. It takes great effort to get to know someone who is different than you and to see life through their pair of glasses instead of your own.  It's a lot easier to judge people based on our own values and circumstances.  However, if you take time to understand others, they can add diverse and interesting dimensions to your life.

(Chapter 1 or continuation of the Introduction)

I guess I should start with my own background since that, of course, colors my life perspective.  My parents were divorced so I grew up in two different households. My mother worked two jobs most of my childhood years.  When she married my step-dad, he had a lot of debts.  Then they bought a house that they probably could not afford.  So, despite my dad also working full-time, we had no extra money.  My clothes were given to me or bought at thrift stores.  We ate a lot of hot dogs and macaroni and cheese.  I'm pretty sure my mom never chose to ask for or receive charity and we did not qualify for state aide.  The lessons I learned from my mom were to value hard work, to pay your bills, and to live with what you had.  Later, as my mom struggled to get our of debt I learned to hate credit.

My dad came from a family that understood investing money and living below your means.  My dad retired early.  His bank account was stable, but he chose to wear socks with holes in them and repeatedly told me that "money does not grow on trees."  My dad is not a flashy rich guy.  He is a frugal rich guy.  He does not waste a penny if he can avoid it.  From him I learned that having money was security.  Also, it was a tool to be respected.

As I grew up I had the typical middle-class dream.  I wanted a good job and a savings account.  I didn't want a bunch of stuff but enough to be 'comfortable.'  Then I got married.  I knew all the rules for financial safety - avoid debt, save 10% of every check, buy used, don't waste... My husband agreed in theory but then we 'needed' a computer and the store had a 6 months at 0% interest loan.  We paid it off before the interest kicked in but I still felt like a failure for relying on credit.  Over the years we began to build up debt for other things we 'needed'.  My dreams of a safety net savings account never seemed to materialize.  We did start having money pulled out of our checks for retirement investment and I felt joy watching that grow.  So, instead of fighting about money, I try to enjoy the toys we have and I've also found ways to be generous and help others.

That's a brief overview of my perspective on money.  Work hard, pay your own way, save for the future, and avoid debt.  Despite evidence to the contrary, I thought that deep down everyone must agree with me.  Then I started to try to 'help' poor people.  I found out that their reality was very different from mine and my rules did not necessarily work for them.  My colored glasses didn't seem to fit so well any more.  I also found many people who resented rich people.  The pictures they painted were nothing like the actual people I knew.  So, maybe I am in a unique position to explain these groups to each other.  Maybe we can all take off our glasses and see each other as people of value who can enrich each other's lives.

Ideas for Chapters:

Gimme, gimme or let's share?
Why do we feed poor people crappy food?
Maybe they didn't need my help as much as I needed theirs.
You waste money too
Rich people are not heartless