People came and went at my previous church as they lived fluid and, at times, volatile lives. Families would move suddenly, and we’d never see them again.
When this family left us, at least they got to say goodbye. One Sunday this fellow let me know that he lost his job and could no longer pay the rent. They needed to move to another state to live with family while they figured out what to do. They were leaving that afternoon.
I remember another family, a single mom with three kids, who rented a house across the street from the church. Their last few years had been turbulent, the mom told me, and she needed to move several times. The mom wanted desperately to create a stable life for her kids, but found it elusive. Then we didn’t see them a couple Sundays in a row. The pastor walked over to see how they were doing to find the house empty.
Through many of the people at that church, I came in contact with generational poverty. I saw how incredibly hard it was for them to make their lives better.
As a young adult I was a strong conservative. I agreed that it was important to limit assistance to people in need so that they didn’t grow dependent on it — give them a hand up, not a handout. The idea that people could spend their lives on government assistance bothered me a lot. I believed that most people receiving assistance were happy to let the government support them.
At that church I encountered people who used and gamed the system. But most people wanted better lives and were willing to work for it. Trouble was, their lives had paper thin margins. One wrong move, one bit of bad luck, was all it took to wipe out months or years of forward progress. One small unexpected expense could set off a cascade of crises that could end in homelessness.
These people needed outside help to keep succeeding. The church could do only so much, as we lacked resources. We could occasionally catch someone up on back rent, or buy groceries, or pay to keep the heat on, or cover a car repair. We regularly coached and advised, and connected them to other helpful resources. But we couldn’t do anything systemic or sustained for them. They needed ongoing help so that setbacks did not cascade into crises. Only agencies with sufficient experience, scale, and means could provide this kind of help. Government has this scale and means.
That’s not to say that only government can help, or that government help is best. I saw how limited that help could be and how government red tape often overwhelmed or tripped up recipients. Sometimes that help even placed barriers to further success in their lives, often in the form of a benefit going away at a certain income threshold that didn’t make up for the loss of the benefit.
I just no longer believe the conservative talking points about poverty, which seem to me to boil down to “people need to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” When you’re in this kind of poverty, you need ongoing help or you’re on the hill with Sisyphus.
I really liked this family. The father was kind and gentle, and good to talk to. His kids were good natured and well behaved. I missed them after they were gone. I missed a lot of people after they were gone. I didn’t get to say goodbye to most of them.
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