How did they get so poor in the first place?

WARNING: sermonizing ahead.

While I’m sure the sight of Air Force One flying low over New Orleans and neighboring regions devasted by the hurricane lifted the spirits of some, I’m equally sure it was booed by others.

As a cultural critic (I’m actually being called that these days), I cannot turn away from the reality that most of those who’ve been through hell this week are the poorest of the poor. Jack Shafer at Slate does an excellent job of pointing this out in a column called Lost in the Flood. I encourage you to read it.

Shafer probes the question of why the media isn’t mentioning race or class in the coverage of the catastrophe, but the real kicker comes at the very end of his column:

What I wouldn’t pay to hear a Fox anchor ask, “Say, Bob, why are these African-Americans so poor to begin with?”

Our culture cannot continue to ignore the issue of poverty and expect to survive. As my friends on the right continue to press the issue of personal responsibility through a series of “messages” that articulate a “what’s in it for me” agenda, they do so with the full knowledge that a large group of Americans will be left behind. This is dismissed with the argument that, well, “they have the same freedom to pursue the American dream that I have.” During my years with conservative Christian broadcasting, I heard the old saying many times: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Common sense says this is true, but does our responsibilty to that man end entirely once he’s equipped with a rod and reel?

Late in my life — and due to a series of circumstances brought about by my own foolishness — I found myself caught up in the world of eviction notices, auto repossession and utility shut-offs. Even my next meal wasn’t a certainty, and I learned the hard way what it’s like to be poor. Trust me, folks. Our culture is for the haves of life. Every institution we’ve created is based on the assumption that we are all dealt the same cards and that we all play by the same rules. We aren’t and we don’t can’t.

My favorite verse in the Bible is Jeremiah 22:16. The prophet is speaking to the unrighteous son of King Josiah, one of the few righteous kings of ancient Israel, about his father:

He made sure that justice and help were given to the poor and needy, and everything went well for him. “Isn’t that what it means to know me?” asks the LORD. (NLT)
So to know God is to plead the cause of the poor and afflicted.

My passion for the personal media revolution and the years of study I’ve devoted to Postmodernism are driven, in part, by this, because the status quo in our culture seems to be looking in another direction. I’m horrified by the pictures and accounts from ground zero along the coast, but if it takes a disaster like this to open all of our eyes, then it’ll be a positive cultural impact in the end.


  1. Cecilia Nall says

    I concur with you, what you forgot to mention is the fact that the marjority of the poor are women and children and old people. America is no better that third world countries who do little or nothing to help the poor. I find it ironic that some of the warning of pre-war Iraq was that moneys would taken away from the most needed of our country the poor to help pay for the war in Iraq and that is exactly what has happened.

  2. Excellent post, Terry. A friend who I do volunteer work with told me last year that the trouble with the media is that they have no idea how expensive it is to be poor. I saw one reference in the Times-Picayune that 100,000 people in New Orleans do not own cars. How are you supposed to evacuate when you cannot afford transportation?

  3. Terry,

    The captions on these two photos are the worst example of the bias that continues to exist, conscious or not:

  4. Matt, the guy who took the picture (and wrote the caption) explains it in a photographer’s discussion board here.

  5. Wonderfully said Terry. Just a question–what if God allowed this disaster to occur so that thousands of people will see a glimpse of His goodness by the efforts of His children in the aftermath? Again, that’s just a question (and a semi-rhetorical one), I haven’t totally processed it yet…

    He is good and His love endures forver.

  6. Jeffrey,

    I appreciate the question. This is one of those areas where, I believe, it’s dangerous to tread, simply because it’s impossible for us to really know. Enough mischief has been foisted on the human race already by people claiming to know the how and why of everything, so it doesn’t need my contribution. And, you know, the truth is we don’t need to know either.

    Does God answer prayer and move storms for believers? I stood there and watched as Pat Robertson — in the middle of running for President — went on the air and prayed that Hurricane Gloria would miss Virginia Beach. It bounced off the coast and went back out to sea. Nobody will ever know what really happened there, but I do know this:

    If you get wet and then sit on an air conditioner, you’re likely to get sick. If you dance around a crowded interstate, you’re likely to get hit. Your golf game is going to get rained out every once in awhile. And if you smoke crack, the chances are you’ll become addicted.

    What the hell does that have to do with God’s will and hurricanes? People who live on the coast, are going to be involved in storms. People who fail to heed warnings are going to be killed. And a government that refuses to deal with the poor and afflicted is doomed.

    Where’s God? Like I’ve said before, He stopped parting the seas when man learned how to build bridges. These aren’t God’s problems; they’re ours.

    Do I believe in Psalms 91? That’s nobody’s business but mine.

    Thanks again,


  7. Terry,
    Thanks for your response, i neglected to mention in my previous comment that that it is infact quite impossible to know what God’s plan was in that disaster (though you did bring that to light, i thank you), but I did include it in my post about the same line of thinking 2 days ago! lol.

    Thanks for your thoughts and efforts in a postmodern context here (pomo is something I’m GREATLY interested in as well, and have been for some time now).

  8. Great post, Terry.

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