The Coming Collapse of Middle Class Giving

I just watched a youtube video of Elizabeth Warren’s 2008 lecture “The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class.” It was very clear and helpful. I’m going to distill it, and add a few thoughts of my own. I hope that you will chime in on a subject we haven’t explored yet: the intersection between promoting giving and politics. Why is this intersection important?

Between 1970 and 2007, the median 2 parent family increased expenses on:
* houses by 76%,
* health insurance by 74% (if healthy and employer-sponsored),
* cars by 52% (because families used to have 1 car on average),
* child care by 100% (a new expense),
* taxes by 25% (because moms are now working in addition to dads).

The family paid 50% of its income for those five things above on 1 income back in 1970. But now, the family pays 75% of its income for those things on 2 incomes.

The family saved 11% of total income in 1970, and now we save a whopping 0%. In fact, we are in debt. We’re assuming more risk and stress. What happens if one parent loses a job or gets really sick? What happens if we need to care for elderly parents? So how in the world is the average middle class Christian family going to give towards global poverty, when we feel like we’re skating on the edge, or already treading water?

If I’m interested in giving, and in helping other people give, I’ve got to be interested in the system and not just individual choices. I’ve got to care about why our big “non-negotiable-feeling” expenses (housing in wealthy school districts, etc.) have shot up so much, not just why we are in more consumer debt. So why has this happened?

One reason is that in the 1970’s, bank mortgage law changed to consider 2 incomes and not just 1 income; that shifted the entire real estate market towards larger homes. Now in many places, it’s not even possible to get a mortgage without 2 incomes. We need to go back to smaller homes, so that we can afford mortgages on 1 income. We really have to consider living in intentional Christian community, in the city and the burbs. In the long run, Christian real estate developers and policy makers need to leverage their influence in city planning and housing policy. Bringing down housing costs would free up dramatically more money to give.

Our overall health has really changed over the last 40 years, too. For those of you who know me, you know that my family and I are really into eating healthy because society’s change in food is making us sicker. One in three Americans born after the year 2000 will have diabetes. So we’ve got to eat healthier and ask stores to carry healthier foods. We need to stop Monsanto and other companies making genetically modified food, which gives us allergies and inflammation. We need higher standards for testing and packaging. We need to stop giving $8 billion in subsidies to corn producers, which doesn’t go to the farmers anyway but rather chemicals and oil companies. And dare I say that we need a public option to drive down health insurance costs? Private health insurance companies made a 26% profit during 2009, during the depth of this recession! Why is insurance a profit-making industry? Lowering our health costs would free up more money to give in the long run.

We need to raise the tax rate on the rich. It’s fairly clear from the 1920’s, 1980’s, and the 2000’s that rich people do not stimulate the economy or create jobs. They put their money in risky financial investments that then “need” government bail outs. The rich give less as a % of their wealth, so helping the lower and middle classes will result in more giving overall.

We need to reign in banks and financial institutions. They changed the real estate market, then bet against middle class families in the mortgage crisis. They promote overconsumption and debt. They oppose the Consumer Financial Protections Bureau which is like opposing a “list of ingredients” on our food packaging, etc. And on a global level, the IMF and World Bank are dubious. The ancient Jewish, Christian, and Greek suspicion of interest rates was well founded, because they recognized how the rich could further take advantage of the poor through interest rate lending. Unregulated profit motives and unchecked private power will always grind down the face of the poor especially.

I’m sure you can think of more, and I’d like to consider it. If we care about giving, and especially middle class giving, then we need to care about the systems we live in, and not just individual consumer choices, as important as those are. What do you think?

Where Face Paint and Foreign Aid Meet: Fusing Fun with Purpose

When God calls us to “open wide” our hands to the poor (Deuteronomy 15) and pour ourselves out for the hungry (Isaiah 58), He leaves the specifics up to us. We can give to aid organizations or donate canned goods to the food pantry, for example, or volunteer at the soup kitchen.

We can even take those dictates literally by sharing a meal with hungry people. Here in Cambridge, I’ve had the pleasure of befriending Mike, who likes to eat chicken fried rice with his hands, and Harold, a gourmand who makes his own pizza and experienced such horror toward my weekly spam dinners that he once surprised me with a bag of fresh groceries. “Anything but spam, please!” he said. Given his nonexistent income, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

Yet, most of these responses preclude participation by my large and rather diverse network of friends. Few of our calendars are brimming with empty weeknights that allow us to take a volunteer shift, for example, and from experience, I’ve learned that food pantries can accommodate only so many volunteers each evening anyway.

As I celebrated my 26th birthday this year, then, I decided to put another spin on responding biblically to hunger: I threw a huge, “Back to Childhood”-themed, birthday costume party. Culinary highlights included childhood snacks such as Twizzlers and Yoohoo’s as well as my favorite dessert, pecan pie.

Instead of presents, I invited friends to come bearing costumes and a gift of another kind of wealth, one that we sometimes forget about—political capital. I asked guests to bring a letter for their congressman advocating for foreign aid reform. I tracked their gifts on a spreadsheet and set up a letter-writing station next to my face-painting “booth” for those who hadn’t had time to write letters at home.

hand-writing letters at the letter-writing station… in full costume

creating masterpieces at the face-painting booth

With the help of preprinted templates, all it took was five minutes to hand-write a letter, and in the end, I collected a whopping 30 letters from friends across six states.

My party took place the night before my actual birthday, and I ended up spending much of my birthday tracking letters and stuffing envelopes—all over bites of leftover pecan pie, of course.

In the end, I couldn’t have imagined a more meaningful way to celebrate turning 26.









more costumes, snacks and face paint: just further proof that we can fuse fun with Biblical purpose in our day-to-day lives — all very simply



A few weekends ago, June and I hosted a smallgroup.  One of the guys who came was in his early 40’s, a bit quiet, college-educated, lived in Boston, clean-shaven, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans and wire-rimmed glasses, an immigrant with accented English.  With the exception of being an immigrant, that could describe me.  Except our visitor was homeless.

It’s easy to stereotype the homeless with negative connotations, maybe from the media or maybe from contact with panhandlers.  In the same way, it’s easy to stereotype the rich and the poor.  Interestingly, most people in the U.S. think of themselves as middle-class — the “poor” are people who are worse-off, and the “rich” are people who live in mansions.  The danger of such thinking is that it fosters a territorial mentality.  It brings about such thoughts as “tax the rich” or “I don’t want to raise my kids in a poor school district.”

Another danger is that stereotypes erase individuality.  They prevent one from seeing people as unique children of God, with their own gifts and callings and personal histories.  It can be offensive to assume people are a certain way because of a stereotype.  “Hey Mr. Asian, can you help me with my math homework?”  The PC movement has helped raise awareness of such issues in racial stereotypes.  But money and class stereotypes are still strongly entrenched.  And buying into those stereotypes can blind us from seeing individual needs.  Maybe that trust fund kid has money struggles, while that poor retiree does not.  Not every homeless person is looking for a handout, or even a job.

I’m curious to hear about your experiences of being surprised by a “poor” person.  Did it change your way of thinking?

The Simple Living Challenge

“What are you giving up for Lent?”  I usually have mixed feelings when I hear that question this time of year.  On one hand, I deeply value Lent as a way to prepare myself to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ.  I appreciate the opportunity to grow in one specific aspect of my faith and character for a defined amount of time.  On the other hand, I often don’t know what exactly to do, and the churches I’ve attended rarely have done anything together, so I flounder.

But five years ago a group of friends came up with the most inspiring Lenten idea I’ve ever encountered.  They were concerned by the painful fact that one of every eight people today has no access to clean water.  Women and children must trudge long distances to find dirty, bacteria-infested water, keeping them from school or productive work.  Once they drink it, they inevitably get sick.  But my friends also pointed out that those of us from more privileged backgrounds often pass up free, clean, healthy tap water to drink sodas and other high-fructose concoctions that are prime contributors to the obesity and diabetes epidemics.

The great thing about my friends’ response is that they didn’t just think about these hard truths, which feels bad. They did something about it—which feels good! They called it Project 440.  The nine of them, inspired by their faith, decided to drink only tap water for the duration of Lent, bringing attention to the issues while saving themselves money and improving their health.  Meanwhile, through March Madness basketball pools, raffles at house parties, and matching grants, they raised enough money to drill deep-water wells for five villages in Haiti. Not a bad answer to “what are you giving up for Lent?”!

I think Project 440 was so memorable for me because it convinced me that small groups of friends have big potential to make a difference–both for themselves and for people like those in Haiti still drinking clean water today.  In fact, I’d like to celebrate Lent in a similar way every year.  But unfortunately, for the last few years I haven’t been in close proximity to like-minded friends, so I’ve let my vision languish a bit.

So this year, using this space now available in the blogosphere, we’d like to propose a new Lent experiment.   We’re calling it the Simple Living Challenge, and we hope it’s a fun, meaningful way to concretely reflect Jesus’ justice and compassion, even if we’re separated by distance.  Here’s how it works:

  • First, let’s commit to giving up all beverages except tap water for the entire duration of the forty days before Easter.  Every day will be a chance to appreciate the gift of clean water. You’ll save money, simplify your life, and maybe even feel better without the unhealthy stuff we drink in our “comfort beverages.”  If forty days seems too hard, join anyway and challenge yourself to make it as many days as you can!
  • Second, let’s find sponsors to support our tap-water-drinking efforts.  Just as race sponsors donate a certain sum per mile run, we’ll ask folks to donate something for every day we drink only tap water, up to forty.  We’ve set up a page at the charity: water website which will direct 100% of our tax-deductible donations to support clean water efforts throughout the world.  And after Easter we can even see on Google Earth exactly where our donations are put to use.

So what’s next?  This Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we’ll kick off a six-day window for everyone to sign on.  The Simple Living Challenge will begin at sunrise on Tuesday, March 15.  If this sounds like something you’d be excited about, we’d especially encourage you to spread the word and participate together with friends, family or church small groups.  Please consider joining us!

Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For . . . . I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.



Democracy, Protests, and Economic Growth

Sometimes I feel that personal giving is not enough.  No matter how much I myself give, it’s a drop in the ocean of poverty.  Even if the entire developed world gave 0.7% or 1%, no one has any idea how it can be distributed to reach the global poor.  In addition, there is the problem of corruption.  Government officials or militias (sometimes there’s no difference) can intercept food before it gets to civilians.  It makes me think of the Think of the Children problem, in which you can’t help needy kids without dealing with their primary caretakers who can subvert the intended aid.

That’s why I’m encouraged these past few weeks to see protests around the world, local people rising up against harsh dictators and corrupt governments.  I’m also encouraged that technology companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook have helped spread the ideas that better government is possible.  It makes me feel better about working in tech, which can sometimes feel very disconnected from helping the poor.  And I wonder if these tech companies have been more influential than traditional Christian missionaries in those countries.

There are two broad categories of social justice: relief (short-term) and development (long-term).  Most personal donations fall into the relief category.  Even if they go towards, say, microloans for businesses to develop sustainable income, they are still at the mercy of local governments.  In the end, strong and free governments are necessary to provide a business-friendly environment that will create a sustainable economic ecosystem.

I like the Good Paper model.  It provides dignified work and income for the poor and abused.  But by itself it is not a complete and sustainable system — it creates products for consumption by rich Westerners through appealing to their compassion and pity.  For poor countries to grow their economies overall, they must have local businesses and industries that serve themselves, not just luxury exports.  I don’t know how to help this process along, so I’m glad to see locals taking charge of fixing their own governments.  Are you or anyone you know actively involved?

How Do You Build a Wealth-Diverse Community?

My church, Jesus the Recreator, is trying to build a diverse community in San Jose, California.  Diverse not just racially, but also socio-economically.  To me, the latter is the hard part.  Personally, I have a much easier time socializing with other educated people regardless of race.  Do you feel the same?  In the secular non-profit world, I also see this clear class division.  You either work directly with the poor, such as social work, or indirectly as a part of a think tank or foundation.  The former generally don’t write papers or work on policy, and the latter don’t have friends among the poor.

If it’s hard to make friends outside of your socio-economic class, it’s even harder to build a whole church community.  I know of only a few examples of current-day churches which have managed to do this: Mako and Ming’s church in Dorchester, Gary and Jodi’s church in Oakland, and Grace Fellowship Community Church in San Francisco.  My impression is that it takes many years and an extraordinary level of commitment to develop this type of community.  Do you know of other examples, and if you’ve been a part of such a church, what have been the key factors to making it work?

The Poorest Americans and the Richest Indians

Sort everyone in the U.S. by income, and arrange them into 20 groups.  The poorest group makes an average of $6700 per year.  Pretty poor, eh?  Now do the same for everyone in India.  According to the graph above, the poorest group in the U.S. makes more than the richest group in India!  I find that amazing.  Last year I went to a lavish wedding in India which certainly cost more than the life savings of someone who makes $6700 a year.  The only explanation is that my friends who got married must be much higher than the average 95% percentile.  Maybe they’re in the 99.99%.  There must be a lot of poor people in India — poor by U.S. standards — to bring down the average of the top 5%.

Book Review–When Helping Hurts

I see them everywhere in Costa Rica, and they always make me cringe a little:  they are conspicuous because they are mostly white, usually wearing matching t-shirts, walking around like they own the place and taking pictures of everything.  Who are they? Tourists? Space aliens? No, they are Short Term Missionaries.

Why do I cringe? Because I too have been a Short Term Missionary—on seven different occasions, in fact.  These experiences, plus a fair amount of research into the topic, tell me that the burgeoning phenomenon of short term missions is a decidedly mixed blessing.

For example, I recently joined a short-term missionary team for a day’s work in a precario (urban slum).  Unlike some teams, everyone seemed to be motivated by a genuine desire to serve and committed no egregious cultural faux pas.  We did worthwhile labor that really helped several families living in extreme poverty.  I helped to pour a smooth cement floor in the entryway to Maria Rosa’s corrugated iron dwelling, which replaced the slanted mix of mud and excrement that had been there before.

So what was the problem?  Well, nearly everyone in this precario are Nicaraguan immigrants driven to Costa Rica in search of jobs.  In fact, Maria Rosa’s husband was six hours away trying to find work in—you guessed it—construction.  As our team busily worked “for” the poor, the poor themselves sat and watched as North Americans with limited construction skills did work they themselves had left their homes to find.  We had missed a golden opportunity to share resources that could have empowered them to improve their own neighborhood and to learn from them how to build under such exacting circumstances.  Further, a professor at the seminary later told me that there are more than forty ministries operating in that precario.  They rarely cooperate with each other and basically offer short-term handouts that foster dependence.  My heart ached as I realized that we had contributed to this culture of charitable dysfunction.

This example of short term missions raises the larger question of how we can give to and serve with the poor in ways that are empowering and not debilitating.   And this is exactly the question that Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert address in their book When Helping Hurts: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor…and yourself. Corbett and Fikkert, who are professors at the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, have targeted their book at North American Christians who have good intentions but little experience with the complex realities of poverty and development.  When Helping Hurts offers an introduction to the biblical basis for engaging poverty, basic best practices from the development field, and practical advice on how congregations can effectively be involved.

The strongest three themes of the book are ones that wealthy North American Christians desperately need to hear:

First, Corbett and Fikkert insightfully identify the root cause of “hurtful helping.”  They claim that the default mode of middle-class Americans is to assume that they know how to fix poverty by giving away material goods, which reinforces “our” messiah complexes and “their” disempowerment. In the authors’ words,

One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being economically rich—their god complexes—and the poverty of being economically poor—their feelings of inferiority and shame.

Often this dynamic expresses itself when wealthy Christians offer short-term relief in situations that really require long-term rehabilitation and development.

In order to address this hurtful pattern, Corbett and Fikkert emphasize the importance of leveraging the already-existing assets of struggling communities in order to empower greater participation of the poor in their own development.  This is really Development 101, but it is often not followed by well-meaning Christians.  So the authors’ accessible and relevant presentation of these concepts is a valuable contribution indeed.

Finally, When Helping Hurts offers practical strategies for helping without hurting.  In perhaps their best chapter, Corbett and Fikkert offer a number of diagnostic questions that could dramatically improve short term missions teams.  Have local people invited the team and defined the team’s contribution?  Could the cost of the short term trip (say, $20,000) be better invested by simply helping to fund existing local groups’ work?  Is there pre-and post-trip training that helps participants stay involved in Kingdom work for the long term instead of just having a one-off experience of “spiritual tourism?”

When Helping Hurts does have its weaknesses.  It is less than compelling in its presentation of patterns of structural injustice that cause and maintain poverty.  It underemphasizes the radical call for the rich to share with the poor.  It overemphasizes empowering the poor to gain financial independence to the neglect of the New Testament ideal of interdependence within the Body of Christ.  Nevertheless, the next time I lead a short term mission team, I will definitely require that everyone read this book.  I hope When Helping Hurts continues to have wide influence. Perhaps then I will cringe a little less when I see all those matching t-shirts.

Have you read this book?  Did this review make you think of your own short term missions experiences? If so, please share your thoughts below!

“Book Review” — Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!

This is a guest post by Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert), “reviewing” his latest non-Dilbert book.

When I was asked to write something funny but insightful about “economic discipleship,” “simple living,” and “just giving,” I thought you folks must be hurting pretty bad to ask an atheist cartoonist.  But luckily for you, my agent suggested I use it as an opportunity to promote my book.  Even better, I could write about those topics with a few applications of cut-and-paste, saving me the need to do any real work.

While browsing your site, I found “ideas for inexpensive weddings.”  I wish I had seen this before I got married.  More to the point, I wish my wife had.  Luckily I had stashed away a few acorns so I could afford this shindig.  Still, I felt some inner need to keep the budget under control without appearing cheap.  My strategy was to frame all wedding decisions in terms of how many African villagers could be saved from starvation with the equivalent amount of money.  For example:

FIANCEE: Do you think we should have a big cake or a little one?
SCOTT: Well, the difference seems to be … about twelve Rwandans.  It’s up to you, honey.

And speaking of wasting money on wedding stuff, I don’t get the concept of favors.  “Favor” is one of those great ironic names.  To my way of thinking, you’re not doing a guy a favor by giving him something he doesn’t want and can’t throw away.  That’s more like a penalty.  In fact, I could imagine exactly this sort of penalty for minor crimes.

JUDGE: You urinated in public.  Your sentence is that you must keep this functionless knickknack somewhere in your home for the rest of your life.
URINATOR: Noooooo!!!!

I see that your site is not only about saving money, but also the morality of giving money away.  Let me ask you folks a simple question: Who is holier — Mother Teresa or Bill Gates?  Let me being by pointing out that on Mother Teresa’s side of the ledger is her lifetime of spiritual inspiration and helping the poor.  Not too shabby.

On Bill Gates’s side, we have his targeted philanthropy — for vaccines and whatnot — that will probably end up saving the lives of 100 million people.  And he has already convinced his good friend Warren Buffet, and perhaps others, to do similar things with their own fortunes.  So let’s add another 100 million people saved by Bill Gates’s secondary effects.  You could talk me down to an estimate of 10 million eventual saved lives, but still, it’s a big number.

If you can answer the above question, then we can move onto who would win in a fight between Santa and Jesus.  I won’t tell you my favorite answer, but it’s in my book (p. 61).

Finally, let me ask you: What Would Trump Do?  If my religion were based on the teachings of Donald Trump, I would try to make a lot of money and keep it all.  And I’d feel good about it because I was being true to my beliefs.  I’d hate to go through life feeling like a hypocrite.  Nonbelievers have it good, too.  They can keep their money or give it away — whatever feels right.

Things get trickier when you base your religion on a nice fellow who wants you to give most of your money to the poor.  How do you justify buying a third television set when people in New Orleans are living in rolled-up carpets?  That’s not a rhetorical question.  I actually wonder about the answer.  Here are some of my best guesses about your rationalization:

  • Jesus likes me better than poor people.  He’d approve of my second iPod.
  • If I give a poor person a fish, he’d only eat for a day anyway.  What’s one day?
  • I give 10 percent of my money to charity.  God says that’s exactly the right amount.  Eleven percent would anger God.
  • Poor people are lazy or crazy.  My money won’t fix that.
  • There’s a loophole in the Bible that says I can keep my money.  Woo-hoo!
  • I am bad at economics and I am convinced that keeping my money stimulates the economy and helps poor people indirectly.

Am I missing any reasons?

I hope this has interested you in buying the book — it’s chock-full of these annoying but entertaining questions and anecdotes, as well as teaching you how to live on less than $1000/day while saving the world from economic injustice.  Please order it from Amazon using this affiliate link, which as I understand pays a nice kickback to this site’s editors:

Think of the Children

One of the hard parts of doing effective social justice work is the balance between freedom and fairness.  This is most easily seen in the treatment of children.  In my last post, I alluded to different viewpoints of causes and blame for inequality.  But no one can blame infants for making poor choices.  Instead, what makes children poor is simply poor parents.  To remedy this, we would have to balance out wealth levels of the entire family, which brings us back to the question of fairness.  As a specific example, let’s say that a teenage girl makes an unwise choice and gets pregnant.  On one hand, you don’t want to reward her for that choice by making her better off.  On the other hand, you don’t want to penalize the child because he is not to blame.  The extreme-freedom solution is to do nothing and let them both live tough lives as a result of her choice.  The extreme-fairness solution is to take her child away and raise him in a boarding school with all children to make sure every child gets an equal opportunity.  As a logical extension, my child and your children must also be taken away from us to attend this boarding school, lest they be given any unfair advantages of living in a richer household.

The TV show Mad Men provides some more examples of the trade-off between freedom and fairness, with regards to children.  In one show you see a kid punished by being slapped in the face at a party.  No calls to Child Protective Services.  In another episode you notice kids crawling around the inside of a moving car.  Some readers might be old enough to remember that only a few decades ago, there were no car seat laws, and as a kid you could happily sleep stretched across the back seat.  Nowadays that’s illegal, and they continue to increase the age and height requirements.  Quoting from, “Currently, there is a major push to enact laws that require children to be in a booster seat until the age of 8 or 80 lbs.”  As a late grower, I’m pretty sure I was less than 80 lbs *in high school*…

So if taking children away from their parents reeks too much of government dystopia, and letting them suffer in poor homes seems heartless, what can we do?  I can think of two broad categories of help:

  • Child-based When kids are apart from their parents, there is an opportunity to help them directly.  Schools are the obvious venue, but there are also camps and organizations for tutoring and mentoring.  Christina recently profiled Tools for the Mind which aims at helping poor pre-schoolers catch up by learning emotional skills.
  • Family-based I know of organizations that help teenage moms, and ones that provide homeless families with temporary housing.  But I don’t have any direct experience with them, and I’m not sure what to do about recipient dignity and power dynamics.  Does anyone have more experience or thoughts with helping families, or do you recommend focusing on helping kids directly?