How much do you really know about the day-to-day struggles of the poor in the U.S.? If, like me, you find yourself comfortably in the middle class, you might find it difficult to understand the worldview of a person in generational poverty.  This raises serious questions about the appropriate moral responses to such situations, given our call to be in solidarity with the poor and to transform sinful social structures.

According to the U.S. Census, the official poverty rate in 2009 was 14.3%, up from 13.2% in 2008. In 2009, 43.6 million people were in poverty in the U.S. Between 2008-2009, the poverty rate increased for children under the age of 18 (from 19% to 20.7%).

The current economic downturn has made it even more difficult for families who were already at or below the poverty line. And, as Alison St. John reported yesterday morning on my local public radio station, many California families have found that the social safety net is stretched thinner and thinner. The recent California budget cuts will have a devastating effect in many poor families in California. Starting next week, if families earn even 88% of the federal poverty level ($22,050 for a family of four), they no longer qualify for state welfare benefits. The lifetime limit on receiving benefits will drop from five years to four. And thousands of single moms could lose childcare benefits, making it difficult to go to work even if they can find a job.

Alison St. John interviewed Julie, who explained that she has been coming to apply for benefits on and off for years. She has always had low-wage jobs and she raised her kids with the help of what is now called Cal Works. She said that the line is usually out the door, and she tries to be patient.

When you hear stories such as Julie’s, how does your own social location influence your political and religious views about these and other cuts in government spending? After reading Ruby Payne’s book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty (Highland, TX: aha!, 2005), I have found that I have great empathy for Julie and a better understanding of the complex world of constrained choices for someone in her situation.  But Payne’s analysis also challenges me to avoid inserting my own “middle class fix,” or making assumptions about what I think Julia and others in her situation can or should do. Payne’s book is an accessible text written to help educators, social workers, doctors, and other service providers who work with families in poverty. Payne encouraged me to see that my worldview has been formed by my life experiences. (I had a similar “aha!” moment when I first read Peggy McIntosh’s seminal article on the “invisible knapsack,” which helped me to understand how I benefited from white privilege.) Payne’s book focuses on economic privilege and the cultural formation that occurs as a result of one’s status as poor, middle class, or wealthy. For example, based on the following questions, would you identify your upbringing as poverty, middle class, or wealth?

Indicators of Poverty

I know which churches and sections of town have the best rummage sales.

I know which rummage sales have “bag sales” and when.

I know which grocery stores’ garbage bins can be accessed for thrown-away food.

I know how to get someone out of jail.

I know how to physically fight and defend myself physically.

I know how to get a gun, even if I have a police record.

I know how to keep my clothes from being stolen at the Laundromat.

I know what problems to look for in a used car.

I know how to live without a checking account, debit card, or credit card.

I know how to live without electricity and a phone.

I know how to use a knife as scissors.

I can entertain a group of friends with my personality and my stories.

I know what to do when I don’t have money to pay the bills.

I know how to move in half a day.

I know how to get and use food stamps or an electric card for benefits.

I know where the free medical clinics are.

I am very good at trading and bartering.

I can get by without a car.


Indicators of Middle Class

I know how to get my children into Little League, piano lessons, soccer, etc.

I know how to properly set a table.

I know which stores are most likely to carry the clothing brands my family wears.

My children know the best name brands in clothing.

I know how to order in a nice restaurant.

I know how to use a credit card, checking account, and savings account—and I understand an annuity. I understand term life insurance, disability insurance, and 20/80 medical insurance policy.

I talk to my children about going to college.

I know how to get one of the best interest rates on my new-car loan.

I understand the difference among the principal, interest, and escrow statements on my house payment.

I know how to help my children with their homework and do not hesitate to call the school if I need additional information.

I know how to decorate the house for the different holidays.

I know how to get a library card.

I know how to use most of the tools in the garage.

I repair items in my house almost immediately when they break—or know a repair service and call it.


Indicators of Wealth

I can read a menu in French, English, and another language.

I have several favorite restaurants in different countries of the world.

During the holidays, I know how to hire a decorator to identify the appropriate themes and items with which to decorate the house.

I know how to enroll my children in the preferred private schools.

I know how to host the parties that important people attend.

I am on the boards of at least two charities.

I know the hidden rules of the Junior League.

I support or buy the work of a particular artist.

I know how to read a corporate financial statement and analyze my own financial statements.


Ruby Payne explains that this exercise can help readers to identify the “hidden rules” that govern their own day-to-day worldview. For someone in generational poverty, in comparison to someone in the middle class, there are often different understandings of gender roles, discipline, school/work, money, relationships, responsibility, and concern for the future (38-41).  This will make it difficult for someone from a middle-class culture to fully understand and respond in a helpful way. Take the case of SueAnn:

You are SueAnn, a 33-year old female. You have four children. You are working two jobs right now because your husband has been laid off. He is supposed to be taking care of the kids, but he doesn’t like to be tied down. Your oldest daughter is 15 years old and pregnant. Your second daughter, Sally, is 8 years old. You bring home $400 a week, and you are exhausted. You make the girls cook and clean to help you at home. Lately you and your husband have been fighting a lot.  All you wish for now is sleep. You may have to move again soon because you’re so far behind on the bills.

Today you got a call at work. You had let your husband drop you off at work because he was going to fix the muffler. Your husband is now in jail. He was caught driving while intoxicated. This is the second time he has been caught. You need $500 to pay the bondsman to get him out of jail. Furthermore, he was driving your car, which didn’t have insurance. They have towed the car, and the towing bill is $80. Each day it’s impounded it will cost you $40 in parking fees, and you can’t get the car out until you have proof of insurance. When and if your husband gets out of jail, he will need to see the probation officer, which will cost him $60 each visit.

Your pregnant daughter needs $400 to pay the doctor so that he will keep seeing her. You have told her she needs to go to the clinic where the service is free. However, the wait is usually 3-4 hours, and she misses a half day of school. There is also the problem of getting her there. It’s in a bad part of town, and it will be dark before you can get there to pick her up.

The bill collector calls you at work and tells you he is going to take you to court for overdue electric bills at the last place you lived. You now live in an apartment where the utilities are paid, but you are behind on your rent by a month. You were OK until your husband got laid off.

You are out of birth control pills. To refill the prescription, you have to go to the clinic and wait 3-4 hours, and you can’t take that much time off work. Also, you need $20 for the pills (adapted from case #7, pg. 20-21).


When I first read this and other cases in Payne’s book, I thought, “Whoa! That’s one helluva mess!” SueAnn’s predicament is complicated, and it makes sense that she is exhausted. SueAnn has two jobs, four kids, one of whom is pregnant, an unemployed husband with a drinking problem, and more bills than money in her paychecks.  She has a desire to prevent future pregnancies, but the picture of SueAnn’s marriage is not exactly a portrait of loving egalitarian mutuality. And her family has difficulty accessing affordable health care.

So, how would a Catholic moral theologian respond to SueAnn?

I hope that we would first respond with compassion and sensitivity.  And in order to do that, we need to understand more about her worldview and the scope of her own agency. We should have special concern for those most vulnerable, including her children. But we must avoid the assumption that SueAnn and others in her shoes are needy, deficient, diseased, lazy, stupid, or unworthy of our trust. Payne’s portrait of people in poverty indicates that people in poverty cope and survive by “developing relationships of mutual reliance and facing down problems with courage and humor” (164). So we begin by asking questions, and we avoid making assumptions.

Payne’s analysis, together with emerging data from the fields of sociology, ethnic studies, critical race theory, and postcolonial feminist studies, encourages us to begin from the complex, hybrid, plural ground of human experience. While her conclusions are similar to claims that arise from Catholic social ethics or liberation theology (promotion of full human flourishing, thick understanding of interdependence, attention to social justice, compassion for the poor), her starting point and methodology challenge some of the traditional methods of moral theology. I would suggest that moral theologians proceed with caution. When we make claims about marriage, parenting, prevention of teen pregnancy, unemployment, immigration, or other moral issues, do our solutions arise out of a middle-class mindset, inattentive to the “hidden rules” of life in poverty? SueAnn’s day-to-day life is a challenge of survival, of getting by. She could use some help. But what kind of help?

Payne suggests that one of the best ways for a student to break out of poverty is through educational opportunities and consistent role models.  Payne concludes her analysis by encouraging readers to build relationships with individuals in poverty (112-113).

For many middle class Americans, this is precisely the problem. Our suburban neighborhoods and even our Catholic parishes can insulate us from SueAnn’s story and struggles. Scholars such as Andrea Smith argue that investment in the middle-class nuclear family makes it difficult for people to invest in more public forms of social connection; then investment in the suburban private family masks public disinvestment in urban areas. The social decay in urban areas that results from middle-class disinvestment is then construed as the result of deviance from the white/Christian/middle-class family ideal, rather than as the result of political and economic forces (see Andrea Smith, “Dismantling the Master’s House with the Master’s Tools,” in Hope Abundant, ed. Kwok Pui-Lan, 82. Smith is drawing on the work of Ann Burlein in this section).

Catholic moral theologians who are in the middle class can and should continue to advocate for the poor in ongoing debates about fiscal policy and the common good, but we should also strive for ways to build authentic relationships with people in poverty. This got me thinking… if SueAnn knew she could count on me, I probably would have received a phone call already. If I hope to influence her decisions, maybe I can start by offering her oldest daughter a ride to the clinic for her prenatal care, bringing over dinner one night a week, tutoring SueAnn’s eight-year old daughter and planting seeds about college. I’m challenged by the idea that solidarity requires more than “a feeling of vague compassion,” as John Paul II argued in On Social Concerns:

“Solidarity is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”