Kansas leaders who blame poor people for their poverty are promoting a false moral narrative

March 30, 2021 3:33 am

Members of the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign gather March 15 at the Kansas Capitol for a Moral Monday news conference. (Submitted)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Kathy Downing serves on the state coordinating committee for the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign.

My youngest is now 9, but my memories of his baby and toddlerhood are still quite vivid. Pleasant memories of his first steps and other milestones are interspersed with  traumatic memories of near constant threats of disconnection from my utility providers.

Despite working as many hours as I could find child care at my low-wage, no-benefits job, there was never enough money. I recall regularly bracing myself to make calls to utility providers while my son napped, often resorting to begging the representatives for more time to pay. Doing this was humiliating and, frankly, existing like this was distressing.

Poverty itself is traumatic.

Sendhil Mullainathan, a behavioral economist at the University of Chicago, sums up the situation well. Poverty is like a parasite, consuming mental energy. “Put simply, being poor is like having just pulled an all-nighter,” he once told NPR.

In 2013, Science published a landmark study concluding that poverty itself diminishes our ability to make decisions about school, finances and life. It was widely seen as a rebuke to amoral policies that withhold money from the poorest families unless the families behave in a certain way. Policies like adding work requirements to Medicaid. Work requirements are popular with policymakers such as Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson (R-Andover), despite the fact that a substantial body of research indicates “that such requirements fail to improve low-income people’s employment prospects in the long run,” according to labor economist Jared Bernstein.

Such policies reflect a false moral narrative within our society that blames the poor and dispossessed for their condition.

This false narrative surfaced in a December opinion piece in the Kansas Reflector by Jay Plank, an administrative minister and an elder with the RiverWalk Church of Christ.

RiverWalk provides benevolent help to the poor and Plank is the person clients see when they need help, mostly with electric bills. In the article, Plank describes his clients as needing “to be educated on judicious use of utilities in a way they not only understand, but put into practice.”

He objects to calling out utility providers for shutting off power to their most vulnerable customers during a pandemic. Rather, he advises those in the throes of poverty to adjust their thermostats, throw on extra layers and beg providers for mercy.

He’s not in favor of restoring power to those who have had their utilities shut off, unless they meet certain conditions, despite how unsafe it is to go without power and the risk of eviction renters face after a shutoff.

Rather than critically examining the structures, systems and policies in our society that perpetuate and establish poverty, Plank calls out the poor for engaging in practices of mutual aid for their very survival.

In blaming the poor for their poverty, Plank and Masterson deny the agency and leadership of the poor and dispossessed. The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, is calling for a national moratorium on utility shutoffs, without credit penalties, and relief of utility debt. The campaign has put forth solutions to ending poverty in the Poor People’s Moral Budget.

Across the country, poor and low-wealth people are organizing and leading change, countering at every step this false moral narrative.

In the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign, we have leaders who are mobilizing, organizing, and educating. Leaders who have been affected by unjust threats of utility shutoffs in the midst of a pandemic, not because they are unwise with their money but because we all live within a system that cares more about profits than people.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said it best: “We may live in a time that essentializes poverty, but the irony of that line from the Bible on the poor is that Jesus was actually critiquing it (and the rich) by cleverly referencing the law codes of Deuteronomy. “

In his time, the Roman Empire had created a society rife with suffering and death, as well as its own predatory regime of wealth accumulation. Jesus references perhaps the most powerful prescription for justice in the Old Testament with the message that ‘there need be no poor people among us’ and instructs nations to forgive debts, pay people what they deserve, abolish slavery, and organize society around the needs of the poor. That jubilee passage of his was never actually saying that poverty was inevitable, but that the ‘poor will be always with us’ as long as we cater to the rich rather than build a society that cares for everyone. That’s no less true today.

– Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

“May we choose another way,” she said.

The poor and dispossessed of the Kansas Poor People’s Campaign are leading us toward another way. We call on Plank and other faith leaders in Kansas to join us to fight poverty, not the poor.

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Kathy Downing
Kathy Downing

Kathy Downing is a mother of two and lives in the Kansas City metro area. She is a Wichita State University graduate and has spent two decades working in natural foods retail management. She serves on the state coordinating committee for the Kansas Poor People's Campaign.