Understanding Poverty: The Reading List

Understanding Poverty: The Reading List

This is the first post of the Understanding Poverty series.

 

For the past several months, my reading theme has been understanding poverty, particularly poverty in America. Some of the questions that driven me throughout this quest were: What are people’s lives like at the bottom of the market? What are the biggest struggles of their lives? How do they cope? What government policies help people’s lives? What policies worsen their lives? Where did the negative attitudes towards the poor come from (living in America, I sensed this from various sources)? From the religious standpoint, what should the role of religious institutions be? What should the attitude of a Christian be? What are the biblical perspectives on the poor?

 

Poverty, being such a complex subject, cannot be summarized neatly in a series of books. My quest hasn’t ended and I feel like this reading list has only skimmed the surface lightly. But I decided to begin a series of posts on my reflections throughout this journey to organize my thoughts, share learnings, and begin a conversation with you, readers of the blog. I am very much a blank slate on the topic–I do not know much. So I’m eager to learn.

 

As the launchpad for the essay series, I’m sharing my Understanding Poverty Reading List, which is likely to evolve further. If you have recommendations to add to my list, let me know!

 

1. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Evicted is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It deals with the deep struggle for housing for the poorest of the poor in America. One of the biggest points of the book is that eviction is not only caused by poverty, but it also causes poverty. Matthew Desmond wrote out his research brilliantly in a very engaging narrative nonfiction form. He followed the lives of several families and individuals for an extended amount of time and recorded their challenges every step of the way.

Desmond’s work has also been spotlighted in the news recently. His Eviction Lab at Princeton University just released a nationwide database on evictions. For the nerds out there, he has made the raw data available for you to crunch and analyze, and share with your communities.

 

2. $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

This book was what sparked my quest into the topic of poverty. I got it through a Kindle sale a few years ago because the title was very intriguing. Imagine, I got it for $1.99, the same amount some people live on for a day. $2.00 a Day also follows the lives of a few people, but also covers some policy background that has historically impacted–for better or for worse–the lives of the poorest in America. Several common themes emerge from this book and Evicted, especially on how people cope at this level of poverty.

 

3. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Hillbilly Elegy has been credited as one of the explainers of the protectionist movement that arises from those who feel left behind by globalization, modern economy, and society. I don’t think J.D. Vance set out to play this role–he was really just telling the story of his upbringing–but he certainly opened the eyes of many to a specific culture and community that doesn’t really get represented much in most media. I can’t really do it justice in this summary, other than to say, it’s an important read.

 

4. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Bryan Stevenson is my modern-day hero. In Just Mercy, poverty intersects criminal justice and race. While Hillbilly Elegy is about a poor white community, Just Mercy sheds lights on those who have historically bore the brunt of injustice in criminal law, the poor blacks. One of Stevenson’s main talking points is that in this country, you get treated better by the law if you were rich and guilty than if you were poor and innocent.

Stevenson’s work with the Equal Justice Initiative has also been spotlighted in the news very recently with the opening of the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice dedicated to African Americans terrorized by lynching in 19th and 20th century America.

 

5. Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service

Mary Poplin wrote about her experience working with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. This book is not about poverty in America, but it is about poverty and the heart of an immensely influential figure in human history. To me, Poplin becomes a vehicle that carries a common-to-me mindset and attitudes towards this radical social justice work, and how Mother Teresa’s approach challenges these mindset and attitudes.

 

6. Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption

Similar to Finding Calcutta, Katie Davis’ radical decision to live in Uganda and her mission to love, love, and love the children there is a challenge to a complacent, convenient, and comfortable involvement in social justice work, especially in the Christian context.

 

7. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

Greg Boyle’s work with Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program in Los Angeles that provides gang members with jobs and support, is simply incredible. But this book, and Boyle’s message, stands out to me in that he doesn’t focus much on how to help the poor. His main message is to be with the poor. He calls it kinship, something I will talk about extensively in the essay series, as it unlocks a profound way of thinking about altruism for me.

 

8. Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship

See #7 above.

 

9. The Other America – A Speech from The Radical King (Free)

This is Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on the lives of “the other America”, the part where rights are not fully realized. It’s a great reminder that there are lives out there that may be very dissimilar to ours, and we ought not to close out minds and hearts towards those “other people.”

 

To read

 

10. The Other America: Poverty in the United States

 

11. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

 

12. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

 

I think this initial reading list gives a glimpse on how complex poverty is. It intersects housing, race, crime, drugs, abuse, and many other big issues that are not easily summarized, let alone solved. But I don’t believe in a fatalistic view that says if you can’t do anything about it, why bother knowing at all. I think there’s value in understanding what’s going on, even if one still doesn’t know what to do with it at the moment.

I fully realize that the point of view I take here is one of privilege–everything about poverty in these books is foreign to me. Each of this book opens up a whole new world that I am not familiar with, or even aware of. But I guess there’s a first step for everyone. And this is mine.

 

The Reformers Timeline

The Reformers Timeline

The year 2017 marks the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. October 31, 1517 is traditionally believed as the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, which started the wave of theological movements all throughout Europe.

 

To commemorate this quincentennial, my church is doing a series on the Protestant Reformers, which syncs well with my current preoccupation with timelines. I was curious to see how the lives of the Reformers overlapped each other, since they certainly influenced each other’s work and ministry.

 

This Reformers timeline is based on the names mentioned in the book the Great Controversy. It’s by no means the most comprehensive list, but it transcends the 16th century Reformers to a few individuals who were precursors to the Reformation and to a few who influenced Christianity in the succeeding centuries. Here it is.

 

Reformers Timeline

(Click image to enlarge)

 

A few interesting things to note:

  • In 1517, Martin Luther was about 34 years old, younger than I initially imagined.
  • Most of the other Reformers were also in their 20s and early 30s. Their protests would continue for the rest of their lives.
  • From this chart, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were executed (burned at the stake) together.
  • These Reformers were in different countries, England, Bohemia, Germany, Switzerland, France, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Scotland. William Miller was in America. I probably should have differentiated these locations in the plot. Next time.

 

Now the interesting part for me, and the whole reason of doing these timelines, is to combine different historical narratives in one visualization. In the image below, I added William Wilberforce, the English MP who championed the abolition of the slave trade (a personal hero), to see who were his contemporaries. One of the last letters that John Wesley wrote was for Wilberforce, encouraging him in his work to abolish the slave trade. John Newton, a former captain of a slave ship, author of the popular hymn “Amazing Grace”, was also Wilberforce’s mentor (also on the plot).

Reformers and U.S. Presidential Timeline

Adding to the fun, here’s a combined timeline of the Reformers and the U.S. Presidential Timeline from the last post.

 

It’s interesting to see that William Miller, a preacher during the Second Great Awakening in America, lived through 12 presidents. He died during the short presidency of Zachary Taylor. William Wilberforce corresponded with some of America’s founding fathers. There are probably many more fun facts that can be unearthed from this timeline. If you know any, let me know!

 

 

Tribe: Home in Community

Tribe: Home in Community

Part 2 of a series of posts on Home-Longing. Read Part 1, Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing.

 

Ever since I joined the ranks of homeowners, I finally see and feel this pattern of life called the American suburbia. Before this, I was that urban person who was only minutes away to major grocery stores, bookstores—both chain and independent—and delicious, diverse, ethnic restaurants. Not anymore. Part of me is still trying to understand why some call this the American Dream…

 

One thing that is markedly distinct about the change to suburban life, with all the space that comes with it, is its isolation. Perhaps people enjoy their nice houses so much that they don’t come out? Over the past months, I kept saying, “Where is everybody?” All these houses, and I didn’t see anybody in their front or backyards, or on the streets. Maybe because it was winter. I saw their parked cars though, so there was evidence of life.

 

People. Not that I’m the most social being on earth, but I do like to see people. People working, people doing activities, walking, even at times yelling at each other. Seeing people at the same place signals a common interest. Even though you may not be interacting with all of them, the fact that you’re there together is a sign of camaraderie. “Oh, you love books too!”

 

But when there are not many places to gather, how in the world are you supposed to find or form a tribe?

 

Tribe and Belonging

Sebastian Junger’s concise and poignant book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, was especially resonant when I read it earlier this year. It delves into the role of community in a person’s mental health and well being, except that that description is so watered down and doesn’t do the book justice. Junger calls on the properties of ancient tribal social structures that, though seen as primitive by modern people, in fact supply a sense of home and belonging to their members commonly lacking in modern society.

 

In its introduction, he writes:

The word “tribe” is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with… This book is about why that sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning. It’s about why—for many people—war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.

 

It begs the question, is there a group of people whose survival is so important to me that I would share my last food with?

How Money Pulls Us Apart

Wealth and affluence, I daresay the mark of modern society, come with many great blessings. With them, many basic human sufferings are avoided and we are enabled to enjoy and entertain ourselves with much delight. Vacation, eating out, hobbies, etc.

 

But there are shadows that lurk behind these blessings that may catch people unaware. The fact that our money can satisfy so much of our needs, bolstering our independence, by definition lessens our need of other people. We like this. We like to be able to move and do things on our own and not depend on someone else’s good graces.

 

Take exercise equipment. In my last apartment I lived in (and boy, what a great apartment it was), I used to walk to my local gym to work out. I saw other people exercising and running, which inspired you and boosted your own motivation. I interacted with the staff and also increased the chances of running into coworkers who lived in the area too.

 

When my husband and I decided to buy a treadmill instead of paying for gym membership, the convenience of running at home was great to have, but it came at the expense of the people exposure at a communal space. The only “interaction” I would have while running was maybe a podcast, the recorded voice of another human being.

 

Obviously, there are pros and cons of each option—I’m not saying one is absolutely better than the other. But it is a trade-off. The pros and cons differ.

 

Junger stretches this privatization of resources and links it further to mental health. Perhaps one of the big cons of independence and self-sufficiency is loneliness and depression.

First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.

 

The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming. Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not. Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society—despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.

 

Money doesn’t buy everything, obviously. Especially in an individualistic culture, the lack of people interaction can have a serious effect on someone’s mental health.

Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. This might be a fair trade for a generally wealthier society—but a trade it is.

The Leveling Effect of Suffering

In contrast, one of the blessings of “financial dependence” is the community aspect of shared resources. Sure, it comes with many frustrations—you have to deal with other people—but loneliness is likely not part of it. Junger argues that often people cherish the memories of disasters, whether natural or manmade (war), because they seem to level and ennoble human nature. They bring the best in everyone, because each has a role to play in the survival of the community. Everyone feels needed and important.

 

Yet…

The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good. Protected by police and fire departments and relieved of most of the challenges of survival, an urban man might go through his entire life without having to come to the aid of someone in danger—or even give up his dinner. Likewise, a woman in a society that has codified its moral behavior into a set of laws and penalties might never have to make a choice that puts her very life at risk. What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss. It is a loss because having to face that question has, for tens of millennia, been one of the ways that we have defined ourselves as people. And it is a blessing because life has gotten far less difficult and traumatic than it was for most people even a century ago.

 

To belong to a tribe, a community with shared experiences, is to find a home. How do you find your tribe?

 

For more, read Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. It goes deeper into the tribal psychology of war, PTSD, and what a society should do with regards to war veterans.

This article is Part 2 of a series of posts on Home-Longing. Read Part 1, Home in Language: Why Speaking in Your Mother Tongue is So Refreshing.