Bedtime Theology (and ethics) with the 10 yo...  

(Discussing a news story about a controversy in which the CEO of Tesla could receive a $55 million/year salary)

Me: 55 million a year. That’s so much money. I just read this book for work that said that with $177 billion, the US could lift every single person above the poverty level. And this guy is getting $55 million a year.

10 yo: Wow. But are there enough homes and jobs for all those people? If they’re not poor?

Me: That’s a great question. I don’t know. There’s already not enough affordable housing.

10 yo: Don’t we kind of depend on some people to be homeless, then?

This conversation nearly didn't make it into a Bedtime Theology post. There's no mention of God, Jesus or scripture to be found. But Jesus talked about money more than anything else in the New Testament so if it's important to Jesus, it's probably a theology conversation. Or perhaps more to the point, it's ethics, which is about the moral principles that guide our decisions and behaviors. 

The book I refer to is one we're reading as a staff for my denominational office staff day job -- Poverty, by America, by Matthew Desmond. The author examines the unique and often maddening nature of poverty in the United States, what's been tried, why it might not be working and  -- and this is something you don't hear as much -- how the more affluent are benefitting from the poor. Desmond writes that a better question than asking poor folks why the don't have a job or why they are in debt is to wonder who benefits from their poverty? Who is feeding off of this.

A few answers, via Desmond: landlords can make a lot of money on substandard housing; payday lenders charge insane rates that trap people in poverty; employers cut costs by using contractors, which depresses wages and allows them not to offer benefits. 

This was all interesting reading. But the chapter that cause me to squirm in my chair a little bit, and that my 10-year-old was picking up on, was entitled: "How we rely on welfare." Spoiler alert: Desmond doesn't just mean social welfare programs like Medicaid and SNAP benefits. The author means tax breaks, primarily offered to middle and higher income Americans, that provide grossly more benefits to those who are already financial stable. Consider, says Desmond, that the lifetime limit for cash welfare to poor parents is 5 years, but homeowners can claim a mortgage interest deduction for a 30-year mortgage - for all 30 years. Who is getting the greater government handout?

Desmond says 96% of Americans have relied on a government program during their lives (hey, I thought we were all pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps?), including mortgage interest deduction, student loans, 529 college savings plans and/or government subsidized health insurance through an employer (yup, big employer tax break). The US spent $1.8 trillion on tax breaks in 2021, Desmond writes. Who is really on the dole?

These are all pretty complicated things to explain to a 10-year-old and might not seem to apply to childhood faith development. But I have tried to teach my children gratitude for the benefits we have received in this life. I've heard it said that you can't congratulate yourself for your ball playing skills if you were born on third base. I'm saying this as someone who was raised poor enough to qualify for free and reduced lunch. I got a Pell Grant and federal student loans, went to college and got a good-enough paying job. I wasn't a trust fund baby, but I relied on others to get me this far. I hope my children can amass a sense of gratitude and thankfulness, which is part of the life of faith. We all need a community to surround us, whether our poverty is physical or spiritual. This is the way of Jesus.

I haven't yet finished the poverty book, so I don't know how Desmond will wrap this up. Already, he's offered some ideas on alleviating poverty, which may require some discomfort -- such as supporting zoning for multi-family homes in an area where it's been prohibited to drive single family home values up (maybe our own home value!) This too, is the work of faith. Jesus is not interested in our comfort, especially for those of us who are relatively comfortable. This is also a tough lesson to teach children but I know it's invaluable. 

So far my approach has been to model gratitude and generosity, and to explore the nuances of poverty and our economic system. I explained payday lending to my 10-year-old son the other day and he finally asked me to change the subject because it was too depressing. But maybe he'll have a little compassion for someone forced into that choice, a choice his parents have been privileged not to make. 

Gratitude. Compassion. Understanding nuance. Listening for the backstory. Prayer. Generosity. Advocacy for anti-poverty ordinances and legislation. These feel like spiritual practices that in the end, may or may not change the state of poverty in the US, but may transform our hearts and minds. 


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