People seem to approach this time of year with an unparalleled spirit of generosity. The media often fills the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas with human interest stories showcasing acts of benevolence across the country. It is a season of giving: soup kitchens swell with volunteers; bell-ringers collect cash donations from busy shoppers; and holiday gifts are purchased to be shared with low income families. As a Christian, I find hope in both the ancient Christmas story and these modern parables of human compassion and kindness. Still, I can’t help but lament that for most of the year, blaming poor people for their poverty continues to be an unofficial but obvious American pastime.
Alain de Botton, author of the book Status Anxiety, writes that poor people in the United Kingdom have historically been known as “unfortunate,” meaning those whose situations were due to misfortune and not necessarily through any fault of their own. By contrast, the United States (long known as the “land of opportunity”) has held up the belief that anyone can achieve their dream of success in this nation if they work hard enough. While the idea of universal access to the “American Dream” may be great, it is unrealistic and sets up people who don’t achieve their dreams to be seen as failures and losers. “In America,” de Botton says, “A loser is somebody who has failed according to the rules of the game that they have signed up to. In other words, we have made, in the United States, a meritocratic society where success is deserved, but failure is also deserved.”
The most recent U.S. Census data shows that in 2012, almost 16 percent of Americans were living below the poverty line. Behind the statistics is the disturbing reality that millions of people who live in poverty are working part to full time at wages that prevent them from attaining financial stability, let alone prosperity. Meanwhile, Congress is still wrestling over details of the federal budget, including proposed spending cuts that would further chip away at the safety net programs many people count on in difficult times. Condemning people who are already struggling to survive adds insult to injury. It also contributes to our society’s toleration of political leaders who want to put the financial interests of corporations and moguls before the common good.
It is heartening that this season moves people to reach out with greater generosity toward our less fortunate neighbors, but I pray that it will motivate us to become more faithful advocates and allies as well. We each have the ability to dismantle negative stereotypes about poverty and help people to better understand the realities that keep people in financial need. We have the power to advocate for federal and local policies and programs that sustain the poor and support their efforts to provide for themselves and their families. May this season of generosity move us to do justice; it is one of very few gifts that truly keep on giving.
For more information and insights on how to be a faithful advocate for economic justice, see http://www.ucc.org/justice/economic-justice/.
The United Church of Christ has more than 5,154 churches throughout the United States. Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation. UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.