The Bible talks a lot about the rich and the poor. The Bible never talks about the middle class. One is either rich or one is poor. There seems to be no in-between.
This becomes an interesting dilemma for me when I write about poverty and wealth. Recently I used the term rich to describe what had happened in the loss of a neighborhood that had previously been home for a lot of people who lived in poverty. Someone later suggested that I use the term “financially stable” rather than rich.
Not long ago one of my grandchildren asked me if I was rich. I had no idea where this question came from but I took a breath and tried to answer as truthfully as I could. I said, “Well, that’s kind of a difficult question. Some people might think that I am not rich but I feel rich because I have a home and a car and a family who loves me and work that I enjoy doing. So yes, I’m rich.” That answer was satisfactory.
But I’ve been thinking more about how to define “rich.” I have a handout I developed to use with my Our Eyes Were Opened work titled Definitions of Poverty. I decided to use that model to work on Definitions of Rich.
Definitions of Poverty begins with an academic definition from Charles Karelis. He states: “[Poverty is]having insufficient resources to meet what are typically seen as basic needs in that place and time whether those needs stem from our animal (physical) natures or not.”
Using that definition indicates that if one has sufficient resources to meet what are typically seen as basic needs in that place and time, then one must be rich, in other words, not poor. Therefore, I am indeed rich.
Definitions of Poverty then uses a numerical definition based on the federal poverty guidelines. With that formula, if a family of four has income of $24,250 or less, then the family is poor. If they have $24,250.25, they are not officially poor because they are over the guideline.
This is where my model became quite challenging. I discovered that “rich” had subdivisions. For example, the Pew Research Organization talked about middle class and upper income …not rich (http:www.pewresearch.org, web search 7.14.15) On the other hand, The Wealth Report states that for wealthy people, one million dollars is “chump change.” One survey the Report cited said that 45% of the respondents said that it took $5 million or more to be rich; 25% said $25 million or more; and 8% said $100 million or more. (http://blogs.wsj.com web search 7.13.15) One person defined rich as having more than twice the income that he had.
The Washington Post had as a headline: “Americans define ‘rich’ as anyone who makes more money than they do.” They then used the Pew Research Center’s definition: “Lower income homes make less than two thirds of the median , middle income homes make between two thirds and twice the median, and upper income families make more than twice the median.” (Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post , workblog, March 13 web search 7.13.15)
I now had a formula just like the federal poverty guidelines have a formula. According to the US Census Bureau, the median income in South Carolina is $44,779. Applying the Pew Research Center’s formula, in South Carolina lower income households have income of $29,853 or less, middle income households have between $29,853 and $89,558, and upper income households have more than $89,558. One could argue that just as a family of four is not poor if they have income of $24,250.25 (twenty-five cents over the poverty guideline), then one might be rich if they have twenty –five cents more than the median income or $44,779.25.
I suspect that this definition of rich will not be widely accepted by those who are not poor.
Returning to the format of the Definition of Poverty document, the third definition of poverty involved experiential understandings of living in poverty. It included such statements as:
- having few dreams.
- feeling frightened deep inside…all the time.
- walking everywhere…for miles sometimes.
- ..and crying…when neither makes sense.
- having no bookcase because you have few, if any books.
- anger and frustration and anxiety and hopelessness and resignation.
So what kinds of experiences might go on the Definitions of Rich handout?
- attending live theater or eating a tables with white tablecloths
- having more shoes than I could keep in my closet
- having a home in good repair
- being able to go where I wanted when I wanted
- feeling my family was relatively healthy
- security and hope
People will argue about the experiences of being rich, and rightly so. There are opportunities even when one has little income…if one feels welcome and has a sense of well-being to take advantage of experiences. And people with resources may have had experiences such as laughing and crying when neither makes sense. That’s not the point. The reality is that overall the experiences of people who are poor and those who are rich are different!
So why does all this matter? It matters because when those of us with resources, who are financially stable, who are middle income or upper income, or however we define not being poor refuse the label of rich we refuse to accept the responsibility that being rich brings with it. Read the Gospels and find out that the rich are to care for others. One guy was even told by Jesus to sell everything he had and give it to the poor (Luke 18:18-23). When we refuse to claim that we are rich, do we refuse to accept that some of the things that allow the continuance of persistent poverty rest on our shoulders? Do we refuse to accept our part of our responsibility for why poverty exists in our community?