Homeless Man
Homeless Man

Generational Poverty

Two weeks ago, there was a very interesting occurrence in San Antonio, Texas that caused quite a firestorm. The mayor of San Antonio, Ivy Taylor, was participating in a public forum and was asked what she saw as the deepest causes for generational poverty in their city. Her response:

“I’ll go ahead and put it out there,” Taylor said. “To me, it’s broken people. People not being in a relationship with their Creator, and therefore not being in a good relationship with their families and their communities and not being productive members of society. So I mean, I think that’s the ultimate answer.”

In clarifying her comments, she said that “I also believe in Original Sin, and that was the context for my comment. We’re all ‘broken,’ from the richest among us to the poorest, until we forge a relationship with our Maker.”

She is now being harshly criticized for linking poverty to godlessness. However, her critics do not seem to have a good explanation or solution for generational poverty.

Several years ago I read a fascinating book titled Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass. It is a searing account of life in the underclass and why it persists as it does. The book is written by now-retired British psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple. Dalrymple is not a Christian, but treated patients in a slum hospital and a prison in England. He shares his observations of working with the poor:

Most of my intelligent patients complain in their thirties of a vague, persistent, and severe dissatisfaction with their present existence. The excitements of their youth are over: in the culture of the slums, men and women are past their prime by the age of twenty-five. Their personal lives are in disarray, to put it kindly: the men have fathered children with whom they have little or no contact; the women, preoccupied with meeting the increasingly imperious demands of these same children, drudge at ill-paid, boring and impermanent jobs. (The illegitimacy rate in Britain has recently passed the 40 percent mark, and while most births are still registered in the names of two parents, relations between the sexes grow ever more unstable.) The entertainments that once seemed so compelling to both men and women – indeed, the whole purpose of life – seem so no longer. These patients are listless, irritable, and disgruntled. They indulge in self-destructive, anti-social, or irrational behavior: they drink too much, involve themselves in meaningless quarrels, quit their jobs when they can’t afford to, run up debts on trifles, pursue obviously disastrous relationships, and move their home as if the problem were in the walls that surround them.

The diagnosis is boredom, a much underestimated factor in the explanation of undesirable human conduct. As soon as the word is mentioned, they pounce upon it, almost with relief: recognition of the problem is instant, though they had not thought of it before. Yes, they are bored – bored to the very depths of their being.

But why are they bored, they ask me. The answer, of course, is that they have never applied their intelligence either to their work, their personal lives, or their leisure, and the intelligence is a distinct disadvantage when it is not used: it bites back. Reviewing their life stories, they see for the first time that at every point they have chosen the line of least resistance, the least strenuous path. They never received any guidance, because all agreed that one path was as good as another. They never awoke to the fact that a life is a biography, not a series of disconnected moments, more or less pleasurable but increasingly tedious and unsatisfying unless one imposes a purposive pattern upon them.

Their education was an enforced and seemingly interminable irrelevance: nothing their parents or their teachers told them, nothing they absorbed from the culture around them, led them to suppose that their early efforts at school, or lack of them, would have any effect upon their subsequent lives. The jobs they took as soon as they were able were purely to fund their pleasures of the moment. They formed relationships with the opposite sex whimsically, without thought of the future. Their children were born as instruments, either to repair troubled relations or to fill an emotional and spiritual void, and were soon found wanting in either capacity. Their friends – for the first time perceived as of lesser intelligence – now bore them. And, for the first time wishing to escape the artificial, self-stimulated crises that amuse them no longer, they suffer the undisguised weariness of life in the slums.

Dalrymple makes it clear that generational poverty is a result of the worldview of those who are caught in this vicious cycle. One’s worldview is based on the assumptions that we make about life and how life works. It is the lens through which we see everything.

San Antonio Mayor Taylor is merely pointing out the serious repercussions of living life outside of a biblical worldview.

What if, for example, those trapped in generational poverty had a complete transformation in their practice of human sexuality? What if they adopted the biblical view that sex is a sacred gift from God between two people in the covenant of marriage? What if this was their basis for establishing a family? Having and raising children by a mother and a father? What difference might this one change have on  generational poverty?

Christianity teaches that there is a divinely established moral order, and we as humans cannot just follow our desires and decide for ourselves what is good or right. When we choose to defy God’s moral order, there will be a great price to pay.


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