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Written by Jim Jordal   
Friday, 13 July 2007


By Jim Jordal

I've just finished reading a book that alternately saddens me at the desperate plight of many citizens at the economic margins of society; angers me at the callused disregard displayed by many social service agencies for the welfare of families afflicted by mental disability; disgusts me at how the richest society on earth ignores the cries of its poor; and gives me great joy at the God-given ability of these same people to not only survive, but to find meaning in their struggles. The book is My Name is Child of God…not "those people" A first person look at poverty, by Julia K. Dinsmore, published by Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis.

I've known Julia Dinsmore for somewhat over a year now, in conjunction with the St. Paul Area Synod of the ELCA and its statewide crusade to end poverty in Minnesota, aptly named 20/20 Vision: A Minnesota Without Poverty. We hold periodic meetings in St. Paul to plan strategy and encourage and inform one another, and that's where I first heard Julia sing, read poetry, and give her powerful testimony of life below the "safety net."

The preface to the book includes Dinsmore's penetrating insight: "Poverty has long arms that reach through generations of people, leaving telltale bruise marks on its victims even after they are blessed enough to get out. Poverty is a powerful teacher when you survive it with your humanity intact. People in poverty are good. It's just that we got a bad rap from the world and we're hurt. It is the deepest hope of my heart that this little book will shed some light into the confusing mix of conversation about who gets to have their basic needs met, who does not, and why."

This quote sets the tone for any realistic assessment of poverty in the United States. Many years ago college textbooks on sociology tended to label crime, poverty, mental illness, homelessness and other such disabilities as social disorganization, implying that they existed because society was somehow not properly organized. Julia Dinsmore asserts that poverty is more a matter of (intentional?) neglect by the power brokers of society than a result of personal and familial dysfunction.

Our tendency as Americans is to view poverty as an individual moral issue, rather than as a moral and ethical failing of socio-economic, political, and religious systems. We blame the poor for being poor, using comments such as "If they'd only get a job they wouldn't be poor," "They wouldn't be poor if they'd quit buying big TVs, stereos and junk food."

But Julia Dinsmore looks at poverty more as a national moral problem involving institutions of society contrived--we hope not deliberately--to "keep the poor in their place." As she says, the real issue is "who gets to have their basic needs met, who does not, and why."

I've read scores of books on poverty and various forms of economic injustice. Most define whatever problem they are considering, proclaim how serious it is, discuss causation, then conclude with recommendations for a cure, or at least amelioration. A few others attempt personal interest stories of people facing these problems, but usually in the second person. But very few combine first person accounts of human pathos with provoking insights into what causes the problem. As Dinsmore asks, "Why is there so much information about poor people but so little of it in their own words?"

Dinsmore's chapter on her meeting up with the Lutherans--they of the Swedish meatballs and green jello potlucks--tells of her early incredulity that they were actually serious about a fifteen-year program for ending poverty in Minnesota. Were they just well meaning do-gooders who would drop the program like a hot potato after the first reversals? Or were they--wonder of wonders--actually committed for life to achieve what really would be a miracle--the ending of voluntary poverty in even one state?

Dinsmore's vision of justice for the poor would include rising consciousness by national leaders of the moral imperative of seriously dealing with poverty, and increased recognition by mainline churches of the biblical mandate to help "the least among us." She would add sensitivity by social welfare programs to the hurts and vulnerabilities of their clients, restrictions on predatory lending and other financial barriers to the poor helping themselves, and removal of odious state provisions often requiring poor parents to surrender custody of their children in order to receive medical aid.

If you wish to better understand poverty, not from the viewpoint of academicians, but from the "underbelly of the beast," read this book. You won't be sorry!