Category Archives: Poverty

Do Black Lives Matter?

Of course all lives matter. But whites, and in particular white Christians, must stop using that response as an excuse when others say that Black Lives Matter.

The Apostle Paul, speaking to the early church in Galatia, expresses this concept well when he says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NRSV).

Paul writes this letter in response to his critics’ attacks about the way he is teaching what it means to be Christian in this fledgling movement.  There is absolutely no question, however, that the free people of his time enjoyed privileges that slaves did not or that men enjoyed privileges that women did not.

And yet how often we Christians forget that the foundation of our faith is that Jesus died fighting for the poor and the disenfranchised to be heard and cared for and that he commanded us to do the same.  We keep repeating history because we fail to grasp the notion that while all lives matter, our charge is to see that those who are ignored and swept aside get the attention that free, white, wealthy males have enjoyed since the beginning of civilization.

Just 52 years ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., died preaching the same message.  Five years before his death he was jailed for protesting in Birmingham, and like Paul, he wrote a letter to his critics.

From that jail, like Jesus and Paul before him, Dr. King responds to the clergymen (yes, pastors and, yes, all men!) to address their claim that he had no right to be in Birmingham.  In part, he writes: 

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.  Just as…the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town…It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In a new century, when Blacks are still denied privilege and even justice by a deeply ingrained white power structure, Christians are still commanded by the Christ we follow to seek privilege and justice for the powerless.

Even poor white Christians must follow this command.  Let us not forget the story Christ once told of a poor widow:

He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12: 41-44, NRSV).

He watches the rich people give, as they are certainly expected to do, but he doesn’t praise them for their largess.  Instead, Jesus points to the poor woman as an example of how we should all behave.  As a woman and a widow, even in the dominant culture, this widow certainly had little privilege, yet she feels a responsibility to give.

Black lives matter.

Not because they matter more than poor whites who also struggle for survival in the wealthiest country in the world.  They matter because race ensures that they must strive harder to get privilege and justice.

As a white child of poverty who once lived in a house with an outdoor toilet and no hot water, I was still privileged in ways that Blacks in my first hometown were not.  Yes, I worked hard in school to escape poverty.  But now that I am securely ensconced in the upper middle class, I do not have to worry about how I’ll be treated by police if I’m pulled over for speeding or for having an expired registration.  I have several black male friends, also firmly upper middle class, who cannot say the same.

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates tells the story of how his friend Prince Jones was killed by police yards from his fiancee’s home by a policeman who didn’t even work in the jurisdiction where Jones was killed.  In the book and the recent film Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer for the Equal Justice Initiative, gives a harrowing account of being stopped by police, who hold a gun to his head solely for the purpose of intimidating him for his work on the case of an innocent man on death row.

These are not unusual stories.  This is why Black Lives Matter.

As long as our skin is white, even if that is the only privilege we have because we are part of the lower class, we still have a responsibility to those who are even less privileged.  Until those who are poor and white understand this, those in power will continue to divide and conquer to maintain the existing power structure, which benefits them little more than their brothers and sisters of another race.

In her book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg, a historian on the faculty of Louisiana State University, recounts the consistent ways that those in power in America have used race and class to stay in power.  She concludes the book in this way:

It was just as easy to ignore inequality by claiming that certain breeds could never be improved. As W.E.B. Du Bois explained in 1909, southern politicians were lost in the vacuity of illogic. They had fallen to arguing that any form of social intervention was pointless, because man could not repel nature’s force; some races and classes were invariably stuck with their inferior mental and physical endowments…[America’s poor] are drummed into the worst jobs, the worst-paid positions, and provide the labor force that works in coal mines, cleans toilets and barn stalls, picks and plucks in fields as migrant laborers, or slaughters animals. Waste people remain the ‘mudsills’ who fill out the bottom layer of the labor pool on which society’s wealth rests. Poor whites are still taught to hate—but not to hate those who are keeping them in line.

Black Lives Matter.  And that all lives matter cannot be an excuse for inaction.

White Christians, in particular, whether rich or poor, have a responsibility to follow the example of Christ.  We are still commanded not to hate, and we need to remind ourselves daily that the greatest commandment is love.  And like the poor widow, we are still commanded to give what we can and to root out poverty and injustice when we are witness to it.

Like Jesus and Paul and Martin before us, we must live lives worthy of the calling we have accepted. 

(Un)Christian Blame for the Poor

Quote on FDR’s Memorial: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Quoting the Bible out of context as the authoritative Word of God is a uniquely American phenomena—one that is, sadly, becoming the primary tool of Christians who want to ignore their responsibility to the nation’s poor. Continue reading (Un)Christian Blame for the Poor

The Single Story that Threatens Appalachia

Like people in every culture, Appalachian people are complex. Why, then, do we insist on clinging to the single narrative that plagues its people and obstructs solutions to its overwhelming problems?

In my 30 years of living in southern West Virginia, I had many friends and acquaintances who fit the stereotypes. But I also have lifelong friends, still living there, who do not.

My favorite teacher is an avid reader and a gardener whose manicured lawn and radiant flowers were the envy of my mother, who struggled to get anything to grow in her stereotypical dirt yard. My mother’s best friend is a female lay minister in a progressive church who uses her skill to advocate for the poor and the elderly. One of my best friends is a former teacher turned small business owner, who is married to a lawyer. Another was the office manager for a United States congressman who was voted out of office when the once blue state turned red. I attended a progressive church there where the wife of a doctor spent her life engaged in philanthropic projects, not the least of which was to establish a shelter for victims of spousal abuse. The pastor at the time was a learned man with a PhD in theology—a man who later became one of the first leaders in the Presbyterian Church to advocate for LGBTQ persons.

These are not the people we hear about—the people who have the credibility and the knowledge that could bring about change if given the right resources.

The single narrative we hear has changed little over time. Consider that defining narrative of the early years, the story of a bitter feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. The drama of the bloody battle between two families that threatened to engulf two states has been re-enacted at an amphitheater in West Virginia’s Grandview State Park for over fifty years. For many years, summer visitors from out of state carried that single view of the passion and violence of Appalachians back home with them as a memory of its people.

Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, first published in 2005, told a similar story of the poverty and mental instability of the people. Her tale of her own grit and her escape from this world remained on the New York Times’ bestseller list for over seven years, and it is scheduled to be released this year as a movie.

Most recently, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of the author’s escape from abuse, addiction, and poverty. It is a tale of admirable strength in the face of adversity, but, to me, the people in his family sound much like the characters in the Hatfields and McCoys saga. He concludes, “I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother.”

As a child of Appalachia, I have lived among the vulnerable, those who, despite their faith in God, can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps—those whose voices are not heard in the most well-known tales about my culture. Though the men in Vance’s story sound somewhat familiar to me, the women bear no resemblance to most of the Appalachian women I know.

Even my experience is only a single story. A personal story is just that—one person’s story. The danger is when the stories we hear follow the same basic plotline and create a single perception of an entire culture.

Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian writer, says in her famous TedTalk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Yet even Adichie is guilty of stereotyping—as are we all. In her novel Americanah, she creates one character who hails from West Virginia. That character argues with the narrator’s professor boyfriend about white privilege: “How can I be privileged? I grew up fucking poor in West Virginia. I’m an Appalachian hick. My family is on welfare.”

This story of Appalachian people is the single greatest barrier to finding solutions to poverty, not just in Appalachia but across our nation.

Even President Obama, who I believe cared deeply about the poor from all cultures, stereotyped people in rural America during his campaign: “It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” This grave mistake allowed his opponents to use his stereotype to stoke the anger of the people he hoped to help.

Over and over again, the single story threatens to become our national narrative. We generalize about every culture. We generalize about immigrants. We generalize about sexual orientation. We generalize about religions. We generalize about the media. We generalize about our elected officials.

And in the end, because of these stereotypes, we can do nothing more than stand on opposite sides and lob insults at one another.

We need to begin to listen to one another’s stories—to all the varied perspectives that make us a colorful and complex people. The storytellers need to avoid the urge to editorialize—to allow the stories to speak for themselves without pushing a political agenda. The story-hearers need to listen to hear, not just to respond with their own political views.

This is a tall order. Like Adichie, we will not always be able to live up to this ideal. But if there is an American story, it is one with thousands of subplots.

If we want to avoid a tragedy, we must outgrow our need to believe in a simple story in a picture book with an unrealistic rescue at the end.

The American story is an epic, not a fairy tale.

Clinton Email Investigation Closed?

FBI Page

I’d like to be more excited about my November vote, but I can’t quite get there. If I were a politician, I’d have a hard time coming to the place where I could stand up and say enthusiastically, “I stand here today to endorse Hillary Clinton.” I’m pretty certain that what I’m about to say will never be retweeted from Hillary’s Twitter page, though I’ll support her in November.

Why? I’m a child of poverty who overcame adversity to become a teacher. I’m the daughter of a coal miner who was often out of work and who died of black lung. I’m the sister of heroin addicts who knows first-hand the devastation of the opioid epidemic. I’m a cancer survivor who wouldn’t be alive without good health insurance that paid for an expensive new drug with no generic equivalent. Though I’d never be invited to Hillary’s box if she is elected, I could be one of those visual props presidents like to point to during every State of the Union address.

But if Hillary Clinton does become president, it will be because of me and people like me. Continue reading Clinton Email Investigation Closed?

Courageous Conversations about Race and Poverty?

I Voted

“Why do you keep trying to reason with those people?” It is a question I’m asked repeatedly by my liberal friends on social media when I attempt to engage in a discussion with relatives and childhood friends who support Donald Trump.

Why? Because I believe that well-meaning liberals who dismiss the concerns of poor whites and call them ignorant might as well be the warm-up act for the next Trump rally. Our refusal to acknowledge their concerns has helped set the tone for Trump’s stage appearances.

Continue reading Courageous Conversations about Race and Poverty?

Does Poverty Affect Electoral Votes?

Poverty Map

How many of our presidential candidates have made campaign stops in the rural areas of our country most impacted by poverty? Could it be that their lack of attention has something to do with the electoral votes these states carry?  Here are five of those areas, which cross the racial lines that divide us, affecting African-Americans, Native Americans, and whites with equal force:

Arkansas                                   6

Eastern Kentucky                8

Mississippi                                6

Southern West Virginia    5

South Dakota                          3

Instead of visiting areas where Americans struggle the most to rise above the poverty line, candidates schedule rallies in populous urban areas in states that offer the greatest number of electoral votes, or in early voting states that offer the best opportunities for national media coverage.

All five of these rural states’ electoral votes have gone to Republicans in every presidential election since 2000. The last time any went to a Democrat were in 1996, when Bill Clinton carried all but Mississippi to win a second term in the White House.

Democrats have long since ceded these states—and their poverty-stricken residents—to the opposition. Republicans give them little attention either. But they do play on voters’ anger and fear, an easy campaign strategy given that many liberals dismiss the people in these areas as uneducated, gun-toting racists.

Having grown up in one of those pockets of poverty and then having moved to a state in the shadow of our nation’s capital, I find it exasperating that it seems impossible for the media to move past the stereotypes of the poor in both areas. At the risk of stating the obvious, not all poor African-Americans in urban areas are criminals who are killing each other. And neither are all poor white people in rural areas lazy and racist.

We know this, of course. But we allow our politicians to operate as if the stereotype is the single story of the poor in America.

Candidates on both sides of the aisle are allowed to perpetuate these stereotypes in ways that are both explicit and implied. They spout platitudes about helping Americans and renewing hope in the American Dream, but none seem to understand the magnitude of what poor Americans face in their struggle to survive.

What would happen if even one of these candidates would do as Kennedy did during the 1960 campaign? I was four years old when he came to my hometown, and I have no memory of his standing on that iconic kitchen stool in front of Shaheen’s Grocery to tell voters that if they elected him, he would do his best to help them. But I do remember that for most of my childhood, I heard adults, even those who usually voted Republican, talk about how Jack Kennedy listened more than he gave speeches—and that that is how he won over an electorate that was initially distrustful of a millionaire. Fifty years later, in an interview for the Logan Banner, Joe Cottone, one of Kennedy’s volunteers, had this to say:

I loved him. He just had this ability to relate to the common guy. One time, he met with some coal miners between shifts. At first, they wouldn’t shake his hand. But he sat down on a rail outside the mine and asked them about their economic situation and job security, and when he was done, one of the miners stood up and said, “I want to shake hands with a president.”

Though the pervasiveness of visual media would make that kind of conversation harder in the current climate, social media could also work to the advantage of a sincere candidate who isn’t getting air time in the mainstream media. A candidate who could somehow figure out how to meet the poor where they live and find common ground would, as Kennedy did, come away changed.

And perhaps might even come away not just as president—but as a president worthy of our respect.

Who are the Dreamers?


Dear Mr. Coates:

As a child I, too, stood in the face of a brandished gun. Like you, “I recall it in the slowest motion, as though in a dream.” Like you, I did not tell my teachers, and I did not tell my friends.

I did not tell my parents. Because they were there. My mother, too, stared down the barrel of the gun—a gun wielded by my drunken father.

Like you I asked, “What was the exact problem? Who could know?” It’s taken me the better part of a lifetime to understand the demons that drove my father to hold the people he loved at gunpoint. Continue reading Who are the Dreamers?

Is the Accuplacer Accurate?

Dr. Shrewsbury

This week I took the Accuplacer, a College Board placement test currently used by many community colleges. Thank God, I’m “college and career ready.” I say “thank God” because I believe that my performance on that test owes little to my intellect and reasoning ability. I struggled so much with the test that I was surprised when I got my scores that I seemed to have only missed one question on reading and one question on sentence structure. Here’s the thing: I graduated both high school and college at the head of my class, I attended college on scholarships and grants that left me with no college debt, I earned an MA that certified me as a reading specialist, I taught English for 30 years, and I’ve worked in my district’s curriculum office for over eight years.

Take a moment to absorb that. Continue reading Is the Accuplacer Accurate?

What does history tell an undecided voter?

Atlantic Graph

“He’s just talking to hear his head rattle.” This was a comment I heard often from my mother during election cycles. It was her way of dismissing politicians she considered empty-headed and devoid of ideas.

As I listen to presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle talk about income inequality, my mother’s comment swirls in my own overcrowded brain as I try to sort through whether any of the candidates offer practical ideas for restoring some sense of balance to our country. And for the first time in my life, I am an undecided voter. Continue reading What does history tell an undecided voter?