Love Them Into the Middle Class

A Framework for Understanding PovertyIn A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Ruby Payne describes the unique skills required to live (and survive) in different socioeconomic environments. (Confession, I haven’t read this entire book yet; but I have skimmed through parts, and Joanna has read it already.)

Hidden Rules Among Classes
There are some “hidden rules” for each class that you are expected to know (and you probably do know them if you live in that class). For example, people of wealth are expected to serve on boards, read menus in French, buy the works of a particular artist, and hire decorators for the holidays. Not my life for sure.

Folks in the middle class typically know how to get their kids into sports and music lessons, obtain a library card, shop for good interest rates on loans, obtain and use a credit card, call a repairman when something breaks, and properly set a table. This is the world my family has lived in.

But survival in poverty includes the following skills: getting someone out of jail, knowing where free medical clinics are, using a knife as scissors, living without a checking account, knowing how to fight physically, and keeping your clothes from being stolen at the laundromat. I’m not sure I would make it for long in this setting.

Generational Poverty in Allendale
When we look at the kids in this area, especially the ones we work with in the after school programming, it is obvious that most of them have grown up in poverty. The median household income for Allendale County is about $26,000 (compared to the state average of $45,000). For the kids we work with, over half of their applications indicate that the household income is under $18,000, and less than a quarter of households bring in over $30,000.

This poverty did not just happen overnight, and there are no immediate and simple solutions. A long-term perspective is needed, such as with small business development.

Honestly, I’m not sure how many of the kids in the area recognize their level of poverty. That is good in the sense that it saves them from the pain of knowing (ignorance can be bliss). But it’s bad in that they may not get a vision of what life can be like. We need to help open their eyes to the opportunities that are available in life.

Two Extremes
Since, children in this area are growing up in a culture of poverty, what can be done to help them?

One side will say that we need to make amends for their background, and change our way of thinking to accommodate for them. They would say it is wrong for those of us in middle and wealthy classes to expect these children to look us in the eye, to be quiet and respectful when others are talking, and to not act with physical aggression. This sounds so loving and tolerant, but the problem is that we live in a middle-class nation. For the most part, success comes only when a certain set of expectations are met (like proper conduct on a job interview). You may not like that it has to be this way, but behaviors (fighting, constant conversation, etc) that work well to survive in poverty do not fit for how most of this country operates.

The other side will say that we just need to focus on where they need to be, and to ignore and devalue someone’s background. Despite the truth about needing to change behaviors, this mindset can easily become harsh and discouraging. To have a deep impact in someone’s life, and to help them change their behaviors, requires that you show true love and understanding.

Love Them Into the Middle Class
We need to love people where they are, whether they are children or adults. We cannot discount their experiences and culture. They don’t have to forget and devalue their past. But at the least, these kids will need to act a certain way if they want to get a good education and a good job.

We need to love them where they are and where they have been, to help them get to where there is a future.

God Loves Us the Same Way
There is an innate tension and balance between loving someone where they are and loving them where they should be. But we can see this model in the love we receive from God.

We have a natural self and life; that is where we all come from. But God is offering us a better life, a kingdom life. He doesn’t expect us to “clean up” before we come to Him. But for us to fully experience the life that He has for us, we need to move our hearts and minds toward Him. In doing that, our behavior will naturally follow.

So that’s what we’ll do. We’ll talk to these kids about opportunity. We’ll give them a vision for what the future will be like. We’ll say things like “You are going to get a good job” and “You’ll be a good husband/wife/father/mother.” They will hear it from us over and over, until they know that this is what we hope for in them.

We want these kids to experience success, not because we want to devalue their culture and experiences. Instead, we hope that Christ will redeem their circumstances for His glory and for their own benefit.

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6 responses to “Love Them Into the Middle Class”

  1. Rob says :

    Great thoughts Joey. This community is fortunate to have your family among them.

    “So that's what we'll do. We'll talk to these kids about opportunity. We'll give them a vision for what the future will be like. We'll say things like “You are going to get a good job” and “You'll be a good husband/wife/father/mother.” They will hear it from us over and over, until they know that this is what we hope for in them.”

    I do this daily at work in small ways with nervous kids. I know you will do great, I heard you were really good at opening your mouth, I chose you to be here now because I knew you would be a great example for the boy/girl next door… If you start with “you have to sit still”… you're already implying that they can't do it, so they won't. If I'm honest I do this with my kids at bedtime too. In a low, slow, sleepy voice “you're eyes are very tired and sleep will feel so good!”

    We aren't what we eat, we are what people tell us we are (for better or worse). This is why we grown ups need to hear the Gospel again and again and again. Remind me that I am forgiven, loved, made with a purpose, valuable…. Tell me who I am in Christ.

    “We want these kids to experience success, not because we want to devalue their culture and experiences. Instead, we hope that Christ will redeem their circumstances for His glory and for their own benefit.”

    I don't think I've heard this put any better. We are praying for y'all!

  2. Joey Espinosa says :

    Thanks, Rob, for your thoughts here and continual encouragement.

    I like what you said about the reason grown ups need to hear the Gospel over and over. I need that so much.

    As you know, I mess up with the kids down here at least as much as I help them. But God is bigger.

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