Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Difference Between "Broke", "Poor" and "Po' "

I was recently asked to write this article to briefly explore poverty, the history of achieverism and non-achieverism, and the nihilism that pervades the 'hood today.

I went to my brother to ask for a loan cause I was busted,
I hate to beg like a dog without his bone, but I’m busted;
My brother said there ain’t a thing I can do,
My wife and my kids are all down with the flu,
And I was just thinking about calling on you ‘cause I'm busted.
Harlan Howard, 1962, Performed by Ray Charles, 1963

By 2005, after the Dot-com bubble burst, in the after-shocks of 9/11, and the wake of the Enron collapse, many in America assumed the worst was over.  Better times seemed to be settling in with economic stability and a false sense of security; only a few raised an eyebrow at the obvious underlying signs of danger.  For most of us, the difficulties only extended to ‘someone else we knew’, distressed and anonymous faces on the nightly news. Then came the housing collapse, Bernie Madoff’s high-end ponzi scheme, the “great recession” and Occupy Wall Street.

A casual visit to the American urban centers will reveal that those economic good times never came for the economically depressed.  The emergence of this “underclass” captured much media attention in the 1980s, yet now things are far worse. 

Several have offered theories for why the underclass grew in spite of the well-intentioned efforts to eradicate it.  Thinkers like Nicholas Lemann pointed out that the political “liberals” and “conservatives” alike blamed “shifting economic incentives” for this phenomenon.

The liberals said it stemmed from poor education and a lack of employment opportunities.  Just when the urban poor were most dependent on unskilled labor jobs in heavy industry, that part of the economy collapsed.  Thus the life-style of young men in the ‘hood degenerated into non-schooling, drifting, crime, bullying and gang banging.

The conservatives, on the other hand, said the welfare system and the Great Society programs of the 1960s were to blame.  These well-meaning programs made the underclass worse off by encouraging government dependency, rewarding non-employment, and providing incentives for having children out of wedlock.

William Julius Wilson pointed out that liberals and conservatives alike failed to factor in the fundamental shifts in the US economy, which had a disproportionate effect on the urban poor.

Truly, these economic factors have exacerbated the tragic situation of the urban poor.  However, a mere economic analysis is an inadequate basis to develop a fuller understanding of the rise of the underclass.  We must remember the key role that our culture and value systems play in all this.

Mother teaching her children in a sharecropper home.

Lemann correctly pointed out that this underclass culture did not develop overnight.  The Black underclass, for example, can trace aspects of its roots to the sharecropper system in the rural South and its devastating assault on the family structure’s positive values.  Yet in spite of their poverty, many under the sharecropper system maintained intact families and instilled achiever values in their children. From 1900 through the early 1970s there was a massive migration to the northern cities.  By the early 1920s, institutional racism was fully functioning, forcing all African Americans to reside in the ‘hood regardless of values.

Those equipped with the appropriate value system were able to achieve and succeed, becoming the working and middle classes.  Once the Civil Rights movement resulted in the easing of housing discrimination, these achievers exited the ‘hood, emptying it of most leaders and institutions which had a positive and stabilizing influence.  Those remaining in the ‘hood were left without the value system needed to succeed, living alongside the influence of various criminal elements.  Like the removal of magnesium rods from a nuclear reactor, this exodus resulted in a melt down of the ‘hood into cultural chaos.  This was the raw material that gave rise to a non-achiever culture, and its subsequent nihilistic value system.

My colleague, the late Lem Tucker made a helpful distinction between being “broke” and “poor.”  To be broke is to be without resources; to be poor is to be without the means to acquire resources.  I add to this a third distinction, with the term “po'.”  To be po' is to be without any chance of gaining the means to acquire resources.

One reason for the failure of the welfare system stems from not understanding the difference between “poor” and “broke.”  The welfare system tends to be formulated by leaders who do not take into account non-achiever values.  Thus, while broke people with achiever values intact might recover by way of welfare, the same welfare system would lock non-achievers into poverty. 

It took more than one generation for the underclass to develop and it will take a trans-generational and trans-cultural strategy to eliminate it.  After all, it took two generations to “de-Egyptianize” the Israelites before they could enter the Promised Land.  We must begin to understand the cultural principles and strategize around them now, or we will lose several more generations to hopelessness, non-achievement, and despair.

First, we must reexamine the substantial biblical teachings concerning justice, economic development, and compassion for the poor.  Next, we must realign our own values and reconstruct the values of the underclass generation accordingly.  One way to actualize this is through a partnership between creative urban discipleship ministries and principled businessmen and other professionals, where achievers themselves can be the primary providers of applied values-based teaching.  Principled professionals can take on these young people, not only as employees, but also in a mentoring relationship, providing them an outlet to develop and work out achiever values.  In my judgment, this binary approach is crucial if we are going to put a dent in the growing problem of urban poverty and nihilism.

This may seem to be a “drop in the bucket” approach, but we must take into consideration the impact such an endeavor will have on society as a whole.  The larger the problem grows, the more desperate society will be to search for a solution.  If we are successful, we will have scores of imitators.

This proposal should not sound strange, radical or boring.  It is merely a reinstatement of principles that existed in a time when community worked together to better itself; placing it on a larger scale creates not a ‘return’ to a former value system, but the creation of one that is entirely new.

Rather than issuing a detached cry against the government’s involvement in sustaining a culture of poverty, we can certainly involve ourselves more fully to empower non-achievers to break the cycle of poverty and welfare.  One thing is for sure we cannot afford to do nothing while the poor continue to become po' (Matthew 25:45).

Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. is a theological anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, TX.  Follow Dr. Ellis on Twitter: @CarlEllisJr


  1. I agree with everything you say...Thanks for encouraging the body of Christ.

  2. Wonderful Summary of many of the things we have discussed over the years. The "one life at a time" approach recognizes that people cannot be herded as raw material by programmatic solutions and be spit out the other end changed like finished products. The "projects" proved that. But at the same time, a "detached cry" assumes exposing the problem and beating on the perpetrators will make it go away. No, somebody somewhere has to get down and dirty with somebody somewhere and help that person break the cycle. Get enough people doing that,either in groups or just with one, and things can turn around or a witness can be created that shows deterioration is not the only future option we have. Thanks Carl

  3. I love this post. One of my old InterVaristy staff workers posted a link to your marriage debate and the Black church, and after checking that out I'm now following your blog. I'm so glad to see someone else likes the one on one approach - I've been telling my friends for years I think this is our best option. Now I actually have to do something about it - reach out and build a real relationship.