by John Ellis
Seventeen years ago, I was homeless. Sleeping in my car; taking showers in truck stops; worrying about finding a good spot to park at night that was simultaneously safe and where I wouldn’t be hassled by the police. Over the course of a couple of months, on a night here and a night there, I managed to bum a bed or couch off friends or acquaintances. Most of the time, though, I did my best to fall asleep in the front seat of my 1998 Pontiac Grand Am.
A few months later, at the age of 27, I found myself, once again, living in my parent’s house. My parents were traveling at the time. On the road for a few months for my dad’s ministry. So, late December of 2002, I moved my belongings from my Grand Am into their empty house, deposited my books, clothes, and records on the floor of my old bedroom, and sat with my head in my hands, fighting despair. Down to my last few bucks, I cried tears of relief when I finally got a job four weeks later.
That January had been spent filling out applications at every restaurant, store, or small business I could get to give me an application. Nothing. And I had done what I was supposed to do, making finding a job my full-time job. The closest I got was a Starbucks inside a Barnes & Noble. The coffee shop’s manager wanted to hire me, but I had to interview for the store manager first. Sitting across from me, he worriedly turned my application over and over, rubbing his forehead.
“You seem like a good fit,” he said. “But.”
I could tell that “but” was coming before he had even started speaking. I just didn’t know why.
“Your job history concerns me,” he finished.
I was confused. “My job history?”
“Yes,” he said as he pushed my application over to me, as if I didn’t already know what was on it. “You don’t stay at jobs for very long. You only lasted at most of these jobs for a few months.”
‘Oh,” I laughed. “Those are theatre gigs. The shows ended, so there was no job for me to stay at.”
“Still,” he replied.
I didn’t get the job.
Assuming that people would find my acting gigs interesting, hence, landing me interviews, I had filled applications up with my theatre jobs. Leaving that Barnes & Noble, though, I doubted my tactics. Too smart by half, rang in my mind.
Ironically, it turned out that putting theatre gigs on applications was what finally got me a job. The day after unloading my car at my parent’s house, I filled out an application at Seville Quarter in downtown Pensacola. It was the first place I applied. But it took over a month before I heard back.
The hiring manager told me that she was throwing out stacks of old applications and happened to notice theatre jobs on mine. Curious she picked it up. Even more curious, she called me in for an interview.
“I wasn’t really planning on hiring you,” she confessed. “I just wanted to find out what kind of person puts acting jobs on an application to be a bartender.”
I got the job.
The weeks between filling out that application and my eventual hiring was a steady decline into feelings of deepening despair and worthlessness. By the end of that month, I had no money and was running out of food. And I was alone in my parent’s house. During that time, a providential interaction with the administrator of my old Christian school prevented my suicide. I was also on the precipice of financial ruin, although I didn’t know it yet. A crash that would soon swamp my elation at finally getting a job.
Nearly a year before, I had allowed my ex to have all our money and possessions while I took all our bills. At the time, I had a job, a theatre gig. She was on the cusp of getting fired, again. Our marriage had been a disaster from the beginning and as it approached its end, I felt guilty.
Neither one of us were innocent, but she had baggage that I believed I had made worse. Baggage that translated into substance abuse that led to her firing. At the time of our final split, I had a good job and the handwriting on the wall was clear – she was about to get fired. The thing was, I didn’t think about the fact that my good job was a theatre gig with a short shelf life.
About a month after our split, I found myself unemployed, saddled with debt, and no place to live. I had another theatre gig lined up, but it was paying me based on a percentage of the ticket sales. A paycheck wouldn’t be forthcoming until four months later.
Eventually, my new director found out that I was living in my car. She put me up in a boarding house for the remaining month and a half of the production. But the dominoes of poverty’s trap had already started falling. By January of the next year, after a series of “unfortunate” events that were, by and large, out my control that combined with my poor and, frankly, often sinful choices, I found myself unemployed and living in my parent’s house, I had begun to emotionally spiral out of control, not to mention financially.
Desperate to keep up with my bills but with no income, I called the phone number for the debt consolidation company I saw on the TV commercial. A few days later, Seville Quarter’s hiring manager called me in for the interview.
About five years after I dialed that number, I received a check in the mail for a little over $30. I was one among many plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit initiated by the Federal Trade Commission against AmeriDept. I just looked it up, and almost $13 million was returned to consumers defrauded by AmeriDept. My best estimate is that they took a little over $1,000 from me over the course of three months before I realized that I’d been had. Not to mention the mounting late-fees from my creditors who, unbeknownst to me, were not being paid, nor my ruined credit rating. A little over $30 was my recompense.
For many Americans, losing $1,000 over the course of three months is a big deal, but not a tragedy. For others, they lose $1,000 over the course of a single month in the restaurants they frequent. For me in 2003? Like others living in poverty, that’s an unbearable financial hit.
The falling dominoes of poverty’s trap, and there were many other dominoes I could recount, were all part of the means that culminated in God bringing me to the end of myself and saving me from my sins. And as thankful as I am for His sovereign plan, the effects were and remain real. Life among the lower classes is hard. My ups and downs ran me ragged: emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
Those ups and downs are not unique to me. Having lived and worked among the so-called lowest classes, I watched worse tales of misfortune and woe play out before me.
I’ve rejoiced with co-workers who stumbled upon a bit of good “luck,” enabling them to pay for the repairs their car desperately needed. I’ve given up my couch for a bed-less co-worker. I’ve watched faces of strangers fall upon hearing my boss say, “Sorry, we’re not hiring at the moment.” I’ve gotten into fights attempting to ward off the repo man so that a buddy could attempt to make his car disappear. I’ve agonized with friends who, desperate to pay their rent, contemplate acting on morally compromising choices presented to them. I’ve seen the elation of false hope given to those who believe that being accepted to the local community college’s paralegal program or dental hygienist program or whatever program being shilled on late-night TV commercials is their ticket to the dreamed about middleclass. I’ve attempted to explain to desperate friends that pay day loan institutions are a trap, only to watch them plunge into the never-ending cycle of oppression perpetuated by the predatory lending industry. And because of the modern miracle of social media, I still get to watch many of those that I worked with and lived with continue to miserably spiral in a context of struggle they were born into.
Even at the time, as difficult as those years were, a part of me realized that I was really just a “tourist” in poverty. Those around me sensed it, too. Because of the family I had been born into, I had the requisite tools to help mitigate the effects of poverty’s blows to some degree. Not to mention that stupid decisions on my part were large contributors to my entrance into the world of poverty. I knew that I had wasted my privilege. My friends and coworkers, though? They were truly stuck because poverty is, without question, a trap. A trap that I escaped, although I deserve no credit for it, because unlike most of those around me, it was trap that my own poor choices had caused me to stumble into. And it was a trap that I always had a lifeline out of. That lifeline isn’t there for the vast majority of those living in poverty.
Seventeen years after sleeping fitfully in my car night after night, I have zero financial worries. In the coming months, my wife and I are planning on buying a house. At times, as we poke around sights like Zillow or drive through Winter Park’s neighborhoods, scoping out “For Sale” signs, we stop and chuckle at the absurdity of the houses we’re considering. For me, still bearing the scars of my past life and still reaping the consequences of my poor choices during my youth, the contrast between what I’ve actually earned/deserve and what I have induces guilt.
I escaped from poverty’s trap; a gift that most never receive. Worse, I earned the sentence I served in poverty, while most of those toiling under its scourge did not.
Many of my brothers and sisters in Christ, though, appear to operate under the belief that poverty is usually a product of the individual’s sins. We’re a nation that prides itself on being self-made. In 2012, President Obama was roundly denounced when he dared uttered the blasphemous claim that, “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. … If you were successful, someone along the line gave you some help.” As bad as those American Dream “heresies” were, though, the rhetorical torch that set off the conservative dynamite were his concluding thoughts, “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that.”
The fury from many on the right was overwhelming.
Except, you know what? President Obama was 100% correct.
There is such a thing as privilege. Often times, that privilege works out in our lives as children when our parents make decisions that have great impact on our future. For the record, and make no mistake, and this is not false humility on my part, I squandered my privilege; I’m well aware that I’m a walking cautionary tale. Yet, I’ve still managed to reap the benefits of privilege anyway.
Along with my work in title 1 schools and my training in poverty’s effects on education, my personal experiences in the world of poverty give me a unique perspective on society, especially the class divides that do exist in America. My perspective also prompts me to anger at the way poverty is viewed and discussed among fellow conservatives, especially conservative Christians. You see, while it’s easy to see that I haven’t earned my luxuries, neither has my wife, and neither has anyone else reading this. And that’s hard to accept because we are filled with pride that demands our right to own the label of self-sufficient.
Make no mistake, though, and to be clear, my wife is incredibly hard working, smart, and talented. There are reasons why, at a firm party, the CEO kept thanking me profusely for letting her take over the Florida offices. Yet, the reality is that being in position to take advantage of those qualities and talents are largely a product of her good “fortune” of being born into her family, among other privileges that she can’t claim responsibility for.
Like me, she was raised by parents that prioritized continued education outside of the classroom. Studies have shown that in title 1 schools, the academic gains from the school year are mostly wiped away during the summer months. Kids growing up in poverty often have parents who are too stressed out attempting to make ends meet (not to mention the time constraints) to prioritize education away from school. Worse, because of how their own lives and minds have been shaped, education is often seen as fool’s gold. The context of poverty is lorded over by the lie that the tools needed to survive do not include “book knowledge.”
J.D. Vance mentions this phenomenon in Hillbilly Elegy, writing about how education is viewed with much suspicion among the so-called lowest class. I’ve met and know people who truly believe that using “big” words is a character flaw. A friend who has reached the top rung of the economic and social ladder has mentioned to me several times how whenever he returns home to Appalachia, he’s ridiculed and viewed with suspicion. His education is seen as a betrayal. His old friends and many of his family members operate under the suspicion that he made some kind of deal with the devil. They may be poor, but, in their minds, they have their integrity.
And that perspective probably makes very little sense to many of you, and I’m not defending it. It’s a self-destructive philosophy. But, to be fair, it’s a philosophy that’s ingrained into the fabric of poverty and it shapes those suffocating under poverty’s burden. The language of poverty is unique. As is the language of the upper classes. Crossing socio-economic boundaries creates communication barriers. Most Americans don’t understand that.
Look, there is a lot to unpack in all that before circling back to me and my wife’s privilege, and I’m only going to unpack a little of it. For one thing, I’ve not touched on the sad reality that many of the kids growing up in poverty do so in a single parent home. That’s a whole other cycle of poverty that deserves attention but that I’m only going to briefly touch on – a cycle they’ve been inserted into through no fault or choice of their own, for the record. For another thing, kids in poverty are often surrounded by violence.
God didn’t create His Image Bearers to hurt one another. Because of that – because of the Fall and sin’s curse – violence has a negative effect on our brains. When brains are developing, those effects are even more pronounced. Studies demonstrate that when surrounded by violence on a constant basis, children develop a form of PTSD similar to soldiers returning from war. As to be expected, that has quite the harmful impact on education and greatly impedes the ability to escape the cycle of poverty. Again, more needs to be said about that – including the fact that kids surrounded by violence do not choose that variable that has a huge negative affect on their chances at success. However, using two anecdotes, I’m going to spin this back to the basic fact that education apart from the classroom is frequently not a priority for those living in poverty. And that lack of priority aids in building obstacles to future success.
Several years ago, I went back to college. Taking classes at the local community college, many of my classmates were adults who were desperately seeking a way out of poverty. FAFSA enabled them to make the attempt via a college education. Sadly, because FAFSA is free money for schools, many of my classmates did not have the educational background nor cognitive skills necessary to succeed. Schools don’t care if they wash out as long as FAFSA continues to fill the till.
Anyway, during my Intro to Psychology class, I was saddened to hear the parents in my class, most of them single moms, scoff at the notion that watching TV was an obstacle to the cognitive development of children. Likewise, they scoffed at the notion that eating too much fast food stunted their kids’ development. Concepts that most of us in the middleclass and up understand and implement were concepts that take effort to lodge into the minds of those living in poverty. The professor spent a great deal of time going over the data in the desperate hope to change someone, anyone. Cultural cues, beliefs, and the language of poverty were so ingrained, though, that more than a couple of class hours over the course of a single semester were needed to affect change.
The second anecdote involves my son’s current school. At the moment, we’re renting a house located on the map’s border separating affluence and poverty. My wife has commented how odd it is in Florida that the wealthy live so closely to those living in poverty. I hadn’t really thought about it for years, but I remember having that same thought when I delivered pizzas in Pensacola way back in 1997. All that to say, my son currently attends a title 1 school and many of his classmates’ economic situations are not similar to his.
So, I was not surprised to discover that none of his classmates were taking advantage of the free afterschool computer coding class being offered. Frankly, when my son came to me with the information, excited about learning computer coding, I was prepared to write a check. That’s part of his privilege. Before even finding out the cost, I was planning on paying it so that my son can begin learning a useful, highly marketable skill. Another of my son’s privilege is that his parents understand the value of the opportunity.
There’s a good chance that my wife and I would be making our son go to the once-a-week class even if he didn’t want to. My word! Beginning to learn computer coding as a third grader?!? That’s an almost invaluable skill. His classmates, though, have parents who have different priorities that have been shaped by the circumstances and variables of lives lived in poverty.
Obviously, my research connected to this anecdote is nil; I haven’t surveyed the other parents to find out why their children are not taking advantage of the opportunity. No doubt, some have scheduling conflicts. However, my acknowledgment of my dreadful methodology aside, if I were a betting man (I’m not), I would bet a large sum of money that my conjecture is backed up by legitimate studies. I could make that bet, because I’ve seen some of those studies. What’s more, I’ve seen the data those studies utilize in real time while living in poverty and while working in title 1 schools. Frequently, education, the “book knowledge kind, is not seen as an advantage by those trapped in the cycle of poverty.
Here’s the thing, point the finger all you want; blame the parents; laugh at their obvious stupidity. Show your classism. But the reality is that those parents’ choices, from my time in community college and the parents of my son’s classmates and the countless other anecdotes playing out across this country and in your community, are creating obstacles in the lives of their children. Obstacles that neither you (most likely), nor my wife, nor I had to navigate.
Instead of encouraging their children to read and to play outside, many parents trapped in the cycle of poverty don’t see a problem with allowing their children to watch TV endlessly. From a privileged perch, it’s easy to condemn those parents. However, that’s the cycle they’re trapped in. The grew up deprived of important nutrients, adequate sleep, and intellectual stimulation. Many of them were surrounded by violence during their important formative years. They didn’t choose that life. Their lack of say in the matter, though, has next to no bearing on the fact that they’re unwittingly bearing the brunt of the negative consequences and passing those same consequences on to their children.
So, yes, my wife owes a huge debt of gratitude to others for her success and status. As do you. So will my children. None of that demeans the accomplishments and good choices made by successful people. The reality is, though, that no one builds anything on their own, including their success. Likewise, failures are rarely built by one person, too.
Lack of gratitude for the gift of privilege and unearned pride in believing that “you built this” is sin and requires repentance. Of all people, Christians should understand and embrace this. Our worldview begins and ends with the truth that we did not build this, any of this. Everything about us, most importantly our union with Christ through grace by faith, is not of our doing. We are graciously privileged, and our standing before God calls for a humble acknowledgment of that.
So, how does one escape poverty’s trap? How did you escape poverty’s trap?
For many of us, we escaped by never entering it because of the privilege of the family and situation into which we were born. For others, they’ve escaped via the encouragement and aid of others. No one escapes poverty by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, though.
So, what does this mean for us, specifically followers of Jesus?
It means that we are to apply the ethics of Christ’s Kingdom to how we discuss and interact with poverty. It means that we have a responsibility before our King to use the resources and privilege that we’ve been given to serve others. Notice that I’ve never once said that we should apologize or feel guilty for our privilege. That helps no one. Recognizing that we owe much means recognizing that out of thankfulness we should seek ways to help others.
Of all people, Christians should be the most generous towards those trapped by poverty. We should be generous in how we view and speak about trapped Image Bearers, starting with recognizing that poverty is, indeed, a trap. We should also be generous with our time, resources, and how we vote in ways that lend a hand to people instead of perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
Stop believing and promoting the harmful lie that people can build something on their own. Stop viewing those trapped in poverty through the lens of classism. Stop expecting people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Stop asking, “Jesus, whose sin caused this man to be blind?” Instead, start being grateful for your privilege. Start finding ways to use your privilege to serve others. Start viewing those in poverty as the Image Bearers that they are in need of God’s saving grace and in need of your love and aid.
Christians were all once spiritually homeless. By God’s grace, those of us who are repenting of our sins and placing our faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ have been adopted into God’s family. We have an eternal inheritance of great privilege. That reality should drive us to use the gifts and privileges we have now to serve others and not ourselves.
Soli Deo Gloria
 It should be noted that being poor and living in poverty are not the same thing. One is purely an economic status, the other includes that but is also an oppressive worldview that’s inherited. In short, poverty is a mindset; being poor is not.