poverty & hidden rules & the best place to start

mother teresa poverty

“but woe to you pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God” – luke 11:42

last week a friend sent me the dave ramsey article–20 things the rich do every day. the list was a mixed bag and then i started to read the comments and had to click out of there as fast i could before i went a little crazy. rachel held evans wrote a great response  and i saw a few other articles about it that i haven’t really had time to read. certain things get buzz for a short period of time, but i really wish that this conversation about poverty & a christian response to it would last for much longer than it probably will.

it’s an important one that deserves a lot of attention.

i don’t proclaim to know all the ins and outs of poverty; there are many others who work in far more impoverished places than i do, but i do know this–poverty is complicated and it’s always unfair when people who have no idea what it’s really like are the ones talking about it.  as i always say, it’s easy to be against health care reform when we have insurance, or equal rights when we have them, or against immigration reform when we have papers.  it’s also easy to have solutions to poverty when we are sitting in our warm houses with plenty of food in the refrigerator, two cars with gas in the garage, and a good full-time job to go to in the morning.

so here i am, in my warm house with food in my refrigerator, two cars with gas in the garage, and a minimum-wage-ministry-job to go to in the morning–talking about poverty.

yes, i know i am a hypocrite.  i have also been learning things from my friends.

i thought i’d just share a few things i keep learning about it because i know more and more people who live below the poverty line who deal with pawn shops, empty refrigerators & the long hill up and struggle to make it from day to day, financially, practically, emotionally. always, the best teachers are those who live it.  i learn more from my friends in real life than i can ever glean from a book. here are a few thoughts that always rise to the surface for me in this conversation:

1. it’s helpful to learn more about the hidden rules between classes. ruby payne’s book understanding poverty has some helpful stuff in it to at least consider. i wrote about it once before, a little poverty quiz, but never got around to posting this summary of the “hidden rules” for poverty, middle class, and wealth from her book.  these hidden rules are the ways each class operates. these rules aren’t stated; they are embedded into our values and practice. middle class rules reign in our society and are what’s used for business & education. i was raised on the bubble of poverty in a single mom family and absolutely everything was about making it to the middle class. once i got to college, i stumbled and bumbled into a whole new set of rules. many of our judgments come from others not doing it “our way” when in reality we just have a completely different set of rules we play by.  it’s not the end all and the be all chart  & her work can be picked apart but is worth considering; you can download the pdf of the chart here.

Hidden Rules Among Classes

2. it’s easy to say “but the resources are there, people just need to access them” when in reality, finding the help people really need is often like finding a needle in a haystack.  seriously, the handing out of lists of resources is not very helpful when people can’t read or process or drive or initiate for all kinds of reasons. in recently helping a few people sign up for expanded medicaid and the affordable care act, it was infuriating seeing how complicated the system was and how unlikely it was that people who needed to sign up could actually do it without help.  this is why everyone needs an advocate (and we should be making advocates, not buildings, to actually walk through the process with us.  it is true, there are great programs through government agencies, ministries, nonprofits, but we need guides, advocates, and friends who will stay for the long haul to help find jobs, retain jobs, learn skills, secure stable housing, get solid mental health care, and begin to build a safety net of community.

3. the way out of poverty begins with relationship. this is foundational for almost any solid organization that works with people in poverty.  this is also why the church on the whole has fallen short.  we spend millions and millions of dollars and hours feeding ourselves with church services, bible studies, books and programs that perpetuate our comfort and tickle our ears.  but engaging the in-the-flesh reality of poverty–even though that was Jesus’ call to us as Christ-followers–is usually considered “too hard” or “not our gift” or “for people who are trained in that kind of stuff.”  i’m sorry, but we are  not off the hook because we don’t have the “mercy gift” on the spiritual gifts test.  we are all qualified because we are human beings and that’s enough. so many people i know who live in poverty don’t need someone to solve their problems; they need a friend, a hug, a laugh, a kind word, a little bit of dignity restored even for a moment.

because that’s what we all need.

some would scoff that those simple things won’t get people out of poverty, but it sure is a better start than sitting on our comfy couches spouting proverbs and talking about “those people who need to get off their lazy butts and work harder if they want their lives to be better.” we can get off our safely distanced butts and learn how other lives actually work and don’t work.

there’s a lifetime of learning to do. 

maybe the first step for all of us–and the hardest part of all–is to enter into real relationship with someone in poverty. not to help, not to fix, not to teach.  but just to be with as friends, as equals, as fellow-human beings.

then this conversation won’t be a theory or a statistic or a list-that-someone-makes-up-that-just-reinforces-stereotypes.

it’ll be about the real lives of our real friends.

and that changes everything.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Thanks for sharing this! Is this from Ruby Payne’s Framework for Understanding Poverty?

    • the hidden rules are. she’s come under fire for them for different reasons (more stereotyping, etc.) but i think they are at least someplace to start for basic understanding of what’s going on underneath in some of these areas.

  • This is good, Kathy – so much truth here!
    I always thought Ruby Payne’s work was something of a made up list that reinforces stereotypes. But others have told me they found it helpful as a starting point for forming a new perspective, so I’ve made some peace with it. The list on DR’s site was unsound as “research” and poorly presented, but I’ve appreciated some of the conversations that have come out of the pushback.
    I appreciate your response most, though, because it can’t be an us/them conversation. It needs to be a conversation with our friends who are living it.

    • thanks, daisha. yeah, there’s no perfect work on it for sure but i think her stuff at least sets the stage for considering some of the realities and gets us talking. when we did the suburban poverty & pain tour and the justice panel a few years ago with t hose kids from indiana, i kept thinking “everyone needs to hear this!” it was such truth and often their voice is never even heard. in most of the conversations about it. even though i’m not a DR fan, i do like that this stirred up some good conversation, though.

  • I agree with you. There are no easy solutions for poverty for most people. As our government has discovered, handing out money doesn’t work, nor do courses on how to get rich. Maybe we don’t have easy solutions, but we can come alongside, love, and help when possible.

    • Actually, straight up handing money to poor people may be one of the most effective interventions available. It’s rarely used with poor people, however, due to concerns about how poor folks will use the money, and out of concern that it will encourage laziness and dependency. Instead, anti-poverty programs normally either provide goods and services or provide money that can only be used for approved goods and services.

      • i think so many of the programs have good intentions but because systemic poverty–either generational or situational–is so complicated, the answers aren’t easy and require much more than money.

  • Nelson Mandela had this to say about poverty:

    “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of
    justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to
    dignity and a decent life,”

    With an Amercan worker’s union he said:
    “Sisters and brothers, friends and comrades, the man who is speaking is not a stranger here”

    It is an interesting point you make Kathy about the way out of poverty beginning with friendship. Perhaps you are right. Perhaps seeing others as “the poor” does marginalise even if help is given by way of aid.

    It seems to me that “the poor” sometimes are the rich materially. Poor in relationships, community etc. And that freedom from such poverty is in using the position of financial privilege to benefit those without financial means.

    And that those rich in community, relationships etc (often the financially poor) share with community relationship to benefit those that a poor in this regard.

    The sense that those of us that have their financial needs met are blessed because those needs are met. And those without the needs being met are blessed because God knows their need.

    If we have friendships and connection with each other will it not come naturally to us that we will not want our “sisters and brothers” to be without? When our friends have need, won’t we experience empathy with that through our connection with them and want to be there for them in their needs? And when we have needs, won’t our friends want to be there for us when we have need?

    Reminds me of the Bill Withers song “Lean on Me. “Some times in our live we all have pain, we all have sorrow but if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow. Lean on me when you’re not strong, I’ll be your friend , I’ll help you carry on. For it won’t be long ’till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on”.

  • My mother has a friend she met through inter faith hospitality network, who went for a month last year without heat in December in Wisconsin (with a toddler and teen daughter). When my mother suggested she call the mg&e co bc she suggested there are resources. Turns out they got her a new heater for free thru some grant. You have to know to ask. Incredible.

  • Thank you! No one truly knows what doing without is like until they face it day after day, decision after decision etc. Choose the lesser of two evils…. milk or gas. Not always an easy choice… and never a position one wishes to be at.


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