A Jewish man had two sons, the story goes. He loved his boys intensely and worked to raise them with the traditions and the moral values that had given him his own success. One day the younger of the two came to his father. “Father, I know that someday I would inherit a portion of this land and of your belongings. I would like that now.” The father was saddened by this mindset and broken hearted that this son of his would so reject him. Yet, with a heavy heart he gave the younger son his share of the estate. A short time later the son sold off all of his share and left to explore the world. Each and every day the father went to a small hilltop where he could see the road and look for his son. Day after day he was disappointed and returned to his home to pray, fast and hope for the best for this son of his. The elder son was dutiful and cared for the family business and tried to keep his father’s spirits up.
Meanwhile, the younger son was living large in the big city. With a large purse of gold coins he was the life of the party. At first it was difficult for him to overcome the moral teachings of his father, but eventually his heart was calloused to such old fashioned thinking. Each night he would drink until late in the night and each morning wake up with a different woman. Rarely if ever did he even remember his family back home.
Day after day the father continued to go to that hilltop and look for his son. Travelers coming through would share with the elder brother about the wild living the younger was doing in the city. The stories were always told in whispers so that the father would not hear and be even more broken hearted. Bitterness, and to be totally honest, a little bit of envy came over the older brother. Each day the elder brother woke up with the sun and would work all day. “Why should he get to have fun and have no responsibility?” Despite the bitterness the elder brother continued to do his work and served his father faithfully.
After a particularly long losing streak the younger brother realized that his change purse was getting lighter and lighter. As the purse shrunk so did his list of friends. Soon he found himself broke and alone. With no money the young man noticed that his stomach that had been enlarged with rich foods was shrinking quickly. But with the famine raging in the land there was little work to be found. Local businesses chased him away from their front entrances knowing that he had no money. The young man was desperate.
A well worn path know showed the route the father took day after day to his hilltop look out, hoping and waiting for his son to return.
One day as he looked through some piles of garbage hoping to find something to eat, a man took compassion on him and took him to an inn and bought him a nice meal and gave him a few coins to “help him get on his feet.” The young man was ecstatic and ran off to gamble and multiply his good fortune. Over the next several days his purse expanded and shrunk until he was again broke, alone and hungry. Again wandering the street and looking for garbage behind a building that was used as a synagogue the local rabbi came along and took pity on the boy. He too bought him a meal and gave him a few coins. Again the excited young man took off and gambled the windfall and repeated the process. Week after week and month after month, the now aging man would expend his life in wild living and someone would take compassion on him and he would survive. He was always grateful and typically polite. He had learned where to hang out in order to get the best meals and the most money when he again experienced the loss that he learned was just a normal part of life.
The father continued to wait for his son. Some days he felt hopeful and some days he lost all hope. However, the youngest son was never going to return home. The son would never feel the consequences of his choice. People with good intentions kept feeling pity for him and rescuing him. Unlike the original story the younger son never made it to the pig sty so that he could “come to himself” and return to his father. Ultimately the father died broken hearted. The younger son died on a cold night before he could be rescued. He was buried in an unmarked grave because nobody knew who he was.
While this nation has many flaws and has failed in so many ways. It is still a great nation. People from around the world still want to come here and be called citizens. The people of this nation routinely donate money to help people for a wide array of causes. Among those causes that often are given focus is the homeless. Great passion is expressed in churches and among the social workers that we must help these people who are living on the streets. Businesses are hurt by people begging in front of their store fronts. Incredible government programs are developed to get them housed and out of our sight so that we might not be burdened by the sight of these dirty, ragged masses of humanity.
Unfortunately, most of these programs only provide handouts and temporary reprieve. These programs take on multiple names but are typically the same. Churches particularly reach out to the homeless and advocate for them to get help. Social workers go to lobby congress to give more money for program to help these men and women.
There is one fatal flaw with all of these good hearted intentions. They all prevent the person in poverty from returning to the father. They never get to feel the shame of being a Jewish man working in a pig sty. They are given resources that enable them to continue in the lifestyles that led them into poverty in first place. As a result the numbers of those who are in poverty continue to multiply.
Imagine a ten story building. On the tenth floor of this building are the ultra wealthy. The second floor is filled with those that are living a stable and moral life just above the poverty line. In between those two extremes is where most of us live. Between floors there are stairwells that enable people to move up or down between floors. The stairwells going up represent hard work, education and healthy relationships. The stairwells going down are representing laziness, lack of education and choosing unhealthy relationships. Within this building are elevators. There are some with special skills (think athletes and artists) who use those skills to quickly rise to the top. Most do not get to use the elevators but they are there.
On the ground floor is where those that are living in poverty live. Because it is the ground floor there is much instability there. People come and go and crime is common. Nobody really enjoys the ground floor and most dream of winning the lottery and getting to live on the top floor. Alas, there is no elevator or even a stairwell from the ground floor even to the 2nd floor. There is only a rickety ladder. Many are paralyzed by fear of climbing the ladder. Often people in society shake the ladder if they even try to climb until they fall back to the ground. (Think Jim Crow and similar laws). Even others living in poverty shake the ladder if they attempt to climb. They are like lobsters who when caught and put in a bucket must be secured with a lid if there are only one but have no need of a lid if there are two. The lobsters pull each other down if they try to escape.
The last group that keeps them on the ground floor are the incentive stealers. Those on the ground know about the stability of the ground floor and if they get hungry enough or feel unsafe enough will make new choices so that they can climb. While the others who are knocking them off of the ladder are mean and cruel, these are loving and compassionate. But the result is the exact same.
In this series we will explore what can be done to greatly reduce and even end poverty in this great nation. We will look at how our society often keeps people in poverty and consider what we should do to actually help these men and women climb the ladder out of poverty.
There will be disagreement and that is good. We need to have discussion without calling each other names or demonstrating hate. We just simply see things differently. Let us work together to make a difference. Let us work together to complete this quest of ending poverty in America.