Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The hiddenness of suburban poverty

Charity Singleton just tipped me off to a news story on this morning's Morning Edition NPR broadcast about poverty in suburban Des Moines and the implications on social services. Here's Charity's summary:

According to the census bureau, for the first time, more poor Americans live in the suburbs than in cities.

Today on Morning Edition, reporter Rachel Jones interviewed a poor woman in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, who was having trouble getting ahead because of problems with her "new" car, which a friend sold to her for $75. Public transportation was nearly non-existent between her suburb and downtown Des Moines, where she could access social services. Like most suburbs, her home and her job were miles apart, which no sidewalks for walking and no local bus service. And the $75 car had already cost her more than $800 for insurance and registration, which she really couldn't afford.

According to Jones, poor individuals are not the only ones struggling to deal with this new demographic. The suburban town and city governments are struggling to come up with the services their "new" constituents need. And though many of us have extensive networks of friends, family and resources that we can rely on in hard times, this is not true for everyone. A lot of Americans are just a divorce, hospitalization, or job loss away from really hard times. And many of those people now live in the suburbs.

As I just said in the comments to my previous post, when I was researching my suburbs book, I came across the statistic that 46% of people living below the poverty line live in the suburbs. And that figure is a few years old, so it doesn't surprise me that it's higher now. (I looked around the Census Bureau's site to see if I could find the report or news release about suburban poverty now being higher than urban poverty, but I couldn't find it offhand. Update: see here.) As Bob Lupton said in his book Renewing the City, "Poverty is suburbanizing."

Compounding the problem of poverty in the suburbs is the dynamic of the hiddenness of poverty in the suburbs - all the surrounding wealth and affluence masks the socioeconomic realities. It's in each local suburb's commercial interest to hide or minimize any poverty issues, since it's bad for business and new investment. But as new suburbs become new cities, old suburbs become old cities, with all the same challenges of infrastructure and poverty, compounded by the spread-out commuter culture.

There's nothing new under the sun. The biblical call to care for the orphan and widow, the poor and oppressed, the alien and the stranger certainly still applies to the modern suburban context. I live in the western suburbs of Chicago, and the county I live in, DuPage County, ranks as one of the most affluent in the country. But it also has a significant homeless population, many of whom are not immediately visible. I'm encouraged by organizations like DuPage PADS, which enlists an extensive network of churches and volunteers to provide shelter and meals. It's a great example of how the nonprofit sector and local churches can partner to minister to a community and seek the welfare of the suburbs.

And one more additional thought - this NPR article was yet another reminder of how car-dependent suburbia is, and as a corollary, how practical and essential car-based ministries can be for suburban churches. My wife and I have donated two of our previous cars to Willow Creek's cars ministry, which restores them and makes them available to single moms and others in need of transportation.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this, Al. I hate to admit that I haven't read The Suburban Christian yet, but it's in the queue. And after reading your comments on this issue, it just moved up in line! I'm wondering how to uncover the hiddenness of suburban poverty, and how to really make a difference. Your car suggestions were great. And I am excited about checking out Dupage PADS as a model. Your $100 might be another way for me to think specifically about suburban poverty.

Craver Vii said...

It’s fine that P.A.D.S. provides material needs, but is it true that volunteers are not allowed to share the gospel? I sure hope that is not true, but If that’s the case, I would rather invest time, talent and treasure elsewhere than be muzzled. I love people because God first loved me, and to provide temporal assistance, while politely holding the door open to a Christless eternity is unthinkable. It must be both/and, not either/or. Does anyone know whether they restrict Christian witness?

Anonymous said...

I read this article earlier in the week and was a little floored.

You know, Craver, I spent ten years "muzzled" in a public school classroom. And I tried to honor my employeers desire. Certainly, it wasn't an appropriate place to prosyletize because I had an unfair influence on the students.

But I certainly shared myself with the students. We had an entire year, so I talked about being a Christian in the same way I talked about being a dad and a husband and an Aggie (whoop!).

After awhile, it didn't feel so much like a muzzle.

Al Hsu said...

Craver - As I understand it, PADS volunteers are free to talk or pray with folks as long as it's done respectfully. For various safety reasons, volunteers are not allowed to give gifts to guests (or sell them anything or buy anything, or lend or give money), so I guess that might include not being able to give folks Bibles or evangelistic literature. But every PADS overnight location is a church, and virtually all of their volunteers are Christian church members, so I can't imagine that there would be a blanket prohibition against Christian witness. Check out the volunteer handbook on the PADS site - I didn't see any prohibition against religious conversations. And maybe ask your supervisor - she coordinates PADS volunteering for her church.

I hear what you're saying about not wanting to be "muzzled." (And thanks, Mark, for your helpful comment! I've heard of many public school teachers who were not to "proselytize" but were free to answer students' questions about their Christian commitments.) Of course you're free to find ministries and service opportunities that best fit your evangelistic preferences and priorities.

But I would just encourage you not to discount the value of nonprofit and social sector work, even if it's not directly evangelistic. My reading of Matthew 25 is that care for the poor is a Christian calling and service to Jesus whether or not the recipients have actual evangelistic conversions. The body of Christ is certainly big and diverse enough for all kinds of ministries, some more directly evangelistic, others more service-oriented. After all, this is why many Christians are social workers, crisis counselors, public school teachers, etc.

PADS is not a Christian organization (though I think many of its staff probably are). The fact that they are a general non-profit gives them access to government and corporate funds and resources that explicitly Christian ministries may not be able to access on their own. Of course, depending on your theological background and tradition, some conservative Christians would see this as compromise and say "come out and be ye separate," but I think it's a healthy model of Christian cultural engagement and "plundering the Egyptians." More Christians need to find creative ways to enter into these kinds of networks and partnerships. The work of the kingdom is certainly not limited to exclusively church-based Christian ministries.

L.L. Barkat said...

Echoing Mark's comment...

I was a public school teacher in a poor urban district. At lunchtime, I prayed with several fellow teachers on-site. I talked with the kids freely about God, and they with me (telling me all about what happened in church, or their beliefs in God).

In the face of great need, sometimes the gospel is more welcome.

Craver Vii said...

Mark, why were you floored? Was it something in the article or was it my comment? In case it was my comment, let’s see if I can do some back-peddling. I am not saying that no one should donate to P.A.D.S. And I certainly did not mean to attack Christians who find themselves under secular limitations. But if the Lord provides me with an opportunity for benevolence, and in that opportunity, if I have two options, one gives credit and honor to God and the other forbids it, in such a scenario, I choose to proclaim the name of the Lord.

I once worked for a large retailer, and my district manager tried to tell me that I was not allowed to share my faith with coworkers, because of my management position. I smiled and said, “If God wanted me to be a preacher, He would have given me a pulpit, and I will not go around just talking about Jesus while I should be earning my salary. But as long as we can have passing conversations about sports or the weather, I cannot be forbidden from giving a straight answer when anyone brings up a faith-related topic. Furthermore, it would be wrong of you to restrict me from ever talking about my faith, since we are allowed to talk about anything else. (still smiling)” He couldn’t argue against that. It helped that I was doing a good job and my work performance was making the DM look good.

That’s just a personal experience and not a blanket recommendation for all who work in a secular environment. I hope this makes sense, and I apologize if I came across too harsh or pharisaic.

L.L. Barkat said...

Craver, you are a brave soul. So, you still had the job after that? I guess you are a persuasive soul too.

Craver Vii said...

No, I'm not brave; I just know that God is always good. My God is able to save me (oh, District Manager), but even if He doesn't...

That meeting was called because they were trying to convince me to work Sundays. I had employees who were willing to work Sundays and didn't see the need to defile the sabbath.

There were three categories that they measured for bonuses. The Lord blessed in each of those areas consistently. My approach to the meeting was that there we had a winning formula that should not be tampered with (micro-managed). I won the battle, but soon got tired of the tussle and sought work where Sunday was not an issue.

The Jesus-talk was a side issue at that meeting.

Anonymous said...

Craver, what floored me was the article itself. Thinking about suburban poverty was scary because of the way the suburbs isolate people geographically.

Still, I appreciate your comments here! Of course, I didn't think you were a "cheap Jesus" kind of guy. I just figured you didn't have a lot of room in one comment for the full substance of the gospel. So you emphasized traditional evangelism. It really is so important.

Here's my approach. I figure Jesus is like family. The way I talk about him at work should be roughly equivalent to the way I talk about my wife and kids at work. I would never try to manipulate a conversation so that I could tell someone how much I love my wife. That would be weird. (And although you are weird, Craver, I'm not trying to imply that you do this : )

jackspar said...

Very sad to hear about the stories of struggling people especially a woman who bought a new car for $75 and was struggling to afford the cost of insurance and registration.I wonder about the responsibilities of the government which failed to provide the basic facilities.I hope your article might help them a little.