On Relative Wealth

Are you wealthy?
Why do you think you are/n’t wealthy?
If you need a moment to think about your answers, that’s fine. I’ll wait.

Ready? Good. If I’m right (and I think I am) your answer to the second question involved a comparison. You looked at someone else’s state of wealth or poverty and decided where you sit in comparison to that other person or people. This very neatly demonstrates that wealth is not a binary, on/off sort of thing. There is no one, magical number where once your net worth exceeds that number you are now officially, objectively wealthy. Certainly economists, and policy makers have created such lines but they are clumsy and don’t really capture the lived reality of the people involved.

Something I find very interesting is in the area of charitable donations. I myself have gone through the mental exercise of saying “well we can’t afford to donate money now, but when we have more money then we’ll be able to give.” Only to find that when we did have more money, we didn’t feel that much richer and the things we were spending that ‘new’ money on seemed to be just as necessary as anything else. What’s more is that there will always, always be someone richer than you. So you can always, always point to that person and say “Them! They’re wealthy, not me[1].”

To avoid making that sort of mistake I’ve been making an effort to ‘face the poor.’
To explain what I mean by ‘face the poor.’ Imagine, if you will, a long line of people arranged in order of their wealth. At one end the very richest, and at the other the very poorest, and you are somewhere in the middle (you may be closer to one end than the other, but you’re still somewhere in the middle).

Now imagine that you physically turn to to face the wealthiest people. Suddenly it’s as if all the people behind you aren’t there anymore, and you are poorest person you can see. You see all the things that the wealthier people have that you don’t. You feel sorry for yourself, you feel jealous, you wonder why they have such nice things and you don’t. It makes you selfish, and insatiable. It makes you want to spend money you don’t have. Living within your means feels like an enormous burden or sacrifice. I think western society very much teaches us to turn our faces towards the wealthy. Celebrity worship, lifestyles of the rich and famous, even the real estate pages in the newspaper are among the obvious examples of this. The insatiable need for more things this fixation creates helps goad people into spending more and more money.

Now imagine that you’ve turned the other way, to face the poorest people. Again, it is as if all the people behind you aren’t there anymore, but now you’re the wealthiest person you can see. You see people with so much less than you have, and you feel compassion for them. You see people who work just as hard (if not harder) than you and get so little reward for it. You also see people who are not only getting by with less, but are thriving and happy; they aren’t people to pity, they’re people to emulate. Your desire for things decreases, and suddenly living within your means is far easier than it used to be. You even begin to see many of the status symbols you once wanted as little more than burdens.

I think it is fairly obvious which of the two orientations is spiritually, emotionally, and even financially healthier. But I think it is also obvious which of the two requires, not necessarily more effort, but more mindfulness. Simply avoiding the effects of all the wealth oriented media and social pressure around us is no mean feat. That said, a large concern I have about efforts to turn anyone’s thoughts (mine included) towards the poor is being careful to do so in a non-exploitative way. A way which doesn’t turn into poverty porn. Turning my thoughts towards the poor in such a way that doesn’t put me in the role of a benevolent savior, while relegating other people to being mere props in the story of my altruistic adventures.

So what do you do? How do you turn to face the poor?

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[1] This boundary shifting technique is used to great effect by people engaging in racist or sexist behaviors. They can always point to someone more racist or sexist than themselves, and declare themselves to not be a racist or misogynist because ‘I’m not like those people.’ All the while they’re saying or doing very offensive things.

Starfoxy

Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.

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19 Responses

  1. Ashley says:

    Very interesting to think about.

  2. Emily U says:

    This is a thought-provoking post. I’ve been wondering how to face the poor myself, although I didn’t call it that. It’s a very good image.

    Recently as I was coming out of Walgreens with my kids I saw a man looking through the garbage who very clearly doesn’t get enough to eat. I quickly asked if he was hungry or thirsty and he said “I’m thirsty.” So I gave him the bottle of water and box of crackers I’d just bought. I was surprised at my 4 year old son’s reaction. He was pretty upset with me for giving those things away, and said “But Mommy, if you give away ALL our food, we won’t have any left!”

    I tell this story because it made me think about how focusing on scarcity is such a natural human reaction – even children do it. We fear that if we give, we will be left wanting. Contrast this to Section 104 in the D&C regarding the united order, The Lord says “the Earth is full, and there is enough to spare.” I want to believe that if I give freely and generously there will be enough left for me, but my humanity constantly says “Wait, wait, you might need that.” I would really like to overcome the “natural” woman here, but having the faith to do it is hard.

  3. Kirsten says:

    I’ve just started volunteering for a local, non-profit organization which assists the poor in our community. The group offers budget counseling, job-search help, and small financial assistance in tight situations. After my first day of shadowing one of the counselors, I drove home with a tightness in my chest that I have not felt in a long time. There were so many people in need– so many with difficult situations- divorce, unemployment, illness. For me it was just as you said in your post– looking to face the poorer people. It is my hope that I can be of use to help those who come to the center, by giving a listening ear and helping them to self-sufficiency. It is my intention to treat everyone who comes for help with dignity and compassion, and not to judge them, for I am not in their shoes.

    Thanks for this post… It truly should make each of us think.

  4. Diane says:

    I fall into the newest statistic of those living in below the poverty level(due to income requirements). However, I am not blind to the fact that I don’t know there are people worse than myself. There was a post yesterday which dealt with identifying gifts. If this were a gift I would say that I know how to cook meals that can last at least a week.(and be appreciative about it) because I know what it was like when I wasn’t even able to provide for that.

    I think for me I have much more respect because I do know what it is like to be homeless and on the street that I do not judge others. I always make sure I carry the number to the outreach center in our area to come and get people who are in need, especially during inclement weather. And I always speak out, during out last community meeting a District Police Chief for our local area actually stated,” People who are homeless, are that way because they want to be,” I was furious and I told him that I was once homeless and really had no desire to be on the street, He tried to both imply and infer that I got myself cleaned up. I let it be known that I was not now, or ever a junkie. I was simply out of work and sick when I was homeless and couldn’t get help.

    I think this is the biggest way that we can face the poor. We need to be their advocates, especially those of us who are, or were formerly homeless. If any of us have been formerly homeless, we have a voice and a quite possibly a mechanism, either by speaking and or writing(not my forte either) to dispel myths about the poor.(i.e.) their lazy, they are drug addicts. they have mental health issues.

  5. Petra says:

    I “face the poor,” as it were, by facing myself a few years ago. I’m much wealthier now that I’m not a graduate student anymore, and back when I was a graduate student I lived within my means and contributed to charity fairly regularly and felt that most of my needs and wants were satisfied, so I often have to remind myself “if I could do it then, why not now?”

    That won’t work for everyone, of course, but I find it a helpful orientation, as it means that I’m not envying or exploiting anyone else.

    • Janell says:

      Ditto. My comparison was not of another person, but of my grad-student-self 5 years ago. Back then I wasn’t trying to figure out how to make $3/meals, but how to get 3 meals on $3 a day. (I do realize that for some people even $3/day is extravagant. This is just my personal comparison point to remind myself that, yes, I can make do with far less.)

  6. honey says:

    Just having returned from serving a mission in the southern U.S. as a senior missionary I don’t believe we should look at haves and have nots in judging poverty. Personally I had never lived in an economically challenged area in my entire life until last year. The area was very diverse racially and economically and so was the ward. We stayed in one ward for the entire duration and got to know the members and their problems intimately.
    I decided that if I used the words of Christ, ‘poor in spirit’ it was helpful in knowing WHO I could best serve. Almost all were having basic needs met, food stamps, disablity, welfare, charity etc. Every one had a cell phone, they might not have minutes all month, they all had housing, multi-family, living with friends etc. no one was homeless, they all had enough food from multiple sources. But some were poorer than others and it didn’t have much to do with the amount of money they had. Managing it was often a problem, and their attitudes about their living conditions ran the gamut.
    My husband and I did lots of social type work, getting utilities taken care of, moving people, feeding people etc. But really the most we could do for some was listen, empathize and encourage. Money really wouldn’t have made much difference and I love that you call it “poverty porn”. When we feel we have “More than” some tend to get the “ministering angel” attitude! It is extremely demeaning to have someone come to you and “bestow” blessings on you! I know, not because of poverty in my life, but other struggles in my past. The people who ‘serve you’ out of pity most often look self-righteous. We just tried to befriend and assist when ask. It worked pretty well, we have lots of new friends! (sorry this is long)

    • spunky says:

      Excellent points. Thank you.

      DH and I were just talking about a similar issue- we know of a teen and 2 young adult who are related and live on thier own. The situation is difficult- they all have different fathers, 2 have the same mother- who is on drugs, etc. They applied for welfare -on their own- with an eye to moving away from the mother- so they could finish high school. The oldest was awarded custody of the younger. They moved out, are going to school and looking for work. One has even worked hard enough to get a car for them.

      They don’t want money from us; they want to come to our place sometimes, crash out, have us cook dinner, listen to them as a non-judgemental parent might, and just have a break. Even then, though we have offered to have them move in or whatever– they are okay to do their own thing and come by for a night or two once a month or so. They are awesome kids. Financially, they are much more challenged than DH and I are; but emotionally, from where I was at their age– they are rich beyond my own comprehension.

  7. Cynthia L. says:

    Here’s a calculator that will visually show you how wealthy you are. http://www.globalrichlist.com/index.php

    • Diane says:

      Cynthia

      The problem that I have with this calculator is that it list your wealth in comparison to the rest of the world, and while I am concerned about poverty in the rest of world, my main concern right now is in my own backyard. Showing how”wealthy” you think someone is when using this calculator IMO is rather dismissive and marginalizes the poor in our own nation.
      In the mist of our nations capitol lies the some of the poorest of the poor. Children who go to bed hungry. There is a food pantry behind the steps of capitol building which gets food from the wealthiest people all of whom live with in a few blocks from one another. The woman who runs the pantry has stated that there has been a steady increase in the number of children in need from the past years. if it wasn’t for the pantry these children would go to bed hungry.

  8. Howard says:

    That’s a good exercise it begins to give you perspective. In 2010 I did away with 95% of my possessions and beginning with just the clothes on my back spent 9 months in several cities living with and like the homeless it was an introspective journey as well as an educational one. I never went without food or water but I lived frugally and learned to appreciate a $22 motel. The experience is very freeing and facilitates spirituality apparently because material things are a great diversion. Even while sleeping on the ground I realized that I was no where close to the experience of those facing malnutrition thirst and disease.

  9. IdahoG-ma says:

    I am humbled and thankful for this post and the thoughtful comments. Much to ponder. The basic elements have circulated through my thoughts for a while, but this has brought them together in a meaningful, growth producing way. Thank you.

  10. Jessawhy says:

    Starfoxy,
    This is a great post. I haven’t ever thought about the way I’m “facing” but I recognize those behaviors in my life.

    I always feel better when I have a more grateful perspective.

    Last spring I attended the CARE conference for the first time. CARE is an international NGO devoted to helping poor women and children around the world. I was surprised at how emotional I was as they discussed the real needs of people around the world. There were many stories of success, not so much of poverty porn, but it was a real awakening for me.

  11. Sijbrich says:

    It’s hard for me to prioritize sometimes where to be charitable. Some say it’s best to serve those in your own community, that there’s a need no matter where you live, but I still believe that internationally there is a more dire need for help. Yes, children go to bed hungry here in the U.S., and I absolutely support food pantries and whatever other amazing organizations there are to help feed them and their families, but then you hear about something like the famine that is currently going on in Somalia and surrounding areas of Africa. I heard one little clip of a mother who, while walking to a neighboring country to seek for help and food left her child in the desert to die because she didn’t have the strength to carry him and that the look in her child’s eyes will haunt her forever. Shouldn’t we be helping these people first? It is a compeling subject, and I’m not saying that I’ve done extensive research and know for sure the answer to my own question, but I’m wondering what others’ perspectives are on this.

  12. Anonymous says:

    We’re definitely middle-class by income standards, but our budget frequently falls into the red due to my husband’s expensive student loans.

    Like you said, the problem is I’m often facing the wrong side of the line. I compare myself to my friends from high school and college, the other people in the ward, (everyone’s husband seems to be a doctor ’cause they’re all in town to go to med school at the local uni) and my coworkers at work.

    This spring, finding I didn’t have enough money to make ends meet a little too often, I took to going downtown to donate plasma once a week on my day off. There’s nowhere to park downtown that doesn’t cost more than bus fare, so I take the bus. This is my weekly reminder of how good I have it. Compared to 90% of the people I meet and talk with at the plasma center, I am very wealthy. I don’t have to worry about not having enough to feed my children. I don’t have to worry about being evicted. I may have a car that’s not reliable and is getting to the point that it’s more expensive to repair than it’s worth, but if I get into the worst situation I know one of my parents would help me out in a pinch.

  13. Naismith says:

    I don’t think the answer to the second question involves a comparison. It is simply the answer to another question, “Do you have health insurance that will protect you from bankruptcy?”

    If the answer is no, then you cannot be wealthy, irregardless of your bank balance at this point in time. You are one major medical event (accident or surgery) away from financial disaster.

    Medical bills are the most common reason for USAmericans to declare bankruptcy.

    And it is a non-issue in Canada, UK, Germany and every other developed country.

  14. Caroline says:

    Thanks for this post, Starfoxy!

    My husband is an economist and studies people’s feelings of well-being. Apparently economists say that people’s sense of financial well-being generally does arise out of comparisons, like you indicate in your post, Starfoxy. They compare where they are financially to a) how they grew up and b) what kind of money their peers have. If they have a little more than most of their friends and more than when they grew up, they give high scores to their financial well-being, (even if they might be rated as poor by objective standards.)

    I do see this at work in my own life, though I’m not really proud of the fact that I have to feel wealthier than my peers to feel good about my financial situation. I also notice that when I’m watching HGTV and seeing all these beautiful homes that I’m suddenly less satisfied with my own. I’m sure more evolved people have figured out ways to feel good or bad about their situations that don’t involve so many comparisons.

  15. Diane says:

    Re: Shouldn’t we be helping these people.

    That’s an excellent question, but, let’s answer it from a child’s point of view. As I stated in past post, I grew up in foster care. I had a cleft palate which needed to be corrected and wasn’t for the longest time because according to the health insurance I was covered under my surgery was considered cosmetic. I went to speech therapy four times a week, but, what’s the point of speech therapy without the necessary surgery to help the disfigurement and to also help the sound of one’s speech. ( My cleft was not repaired until I was 9 years old. which is ridiculous because had it been corrected earlier I would not have had to withstand the intense amount of bullying that I did)

    I distinctively remember as a young child, children being brought in from other countries with all their expenses taken care of for similar surgeries, yet, I couldn’t receive the same care. I distinctively remember on of my doctors telling me that I should be thankful because according to the state of New York he didn’t even have to do the work. (Which in one way he was right, but in another he agreed to do the work once he accepted and signed the rules of Medicaid.) And I remember feeling like less than. Like I didn’t matter and they were being treated better than I was.

    And now as adult, I have no problem with providing aid to children in other countries, but, I still say I would rather provide aid to children in my own, particularly since a lot of people are under the false misconception that the needs of our children born into poverty in our own country are taken care of when they are not.

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