PHOTO © DESIGN PICS/CON TANASIUK
HOW POOR IS POOR? For
some, economic hardship
reducing the number of
meals eaten in restaurants,
skipping a vacation, going from being
a two-car family to one car. For others,
it’s much more grave—losing a job, a
house or health care.
People in both situations are pained,
but for those where it’s the difference
between eating and going hungry, complaining
about having to give up cable
TV can look insensitive and frivolous.
So how does a person of faith respond
to the very real suffering that we all
face—both major and minor—during
these hard economic times?
What Not to Do
To start from the negatives, here are
some suggestions about what not to do
at this critical time:
DON’T view economic adversity as
a punishment from God.
In some theologies, wealth is seen as a
sign of God’s favor. Thus, the converse—poverty—indicates that one has
in some way sinned, led a reckless,
immoral life or offended God. Although
Church teaching does not support this
view, those who are financially comfortable
may find it tempting to attribute
their bounty to hard work and virtuous
Sometimes the two go hand in hand.
But just as there are innocent people
who are born into poverty, so too some
wealthy people did not achieve their
riches through virtuous living. One
does not necessarily cause the other. A
person of faith needs to remember that
we are all God’s children and God loves
DON’T hoard what you have.
It’s also tempting during hard economic
times to cling more tightly to what we
do have. If my family is in survival
mode, we have to take care of ourselves
first. If I barely have enough food, why
should I share? This all makes human
sense, but it’s not what Jesus did. When
Jesus fed the multitudes, a few generous
disciples offered their bread and fishes,
and when the food was blessed, it was
During the last recession, friends of
ours, Al and Jan, made a decision to
donate more than they usually would
to charity, even though their own
income was sparse. They saw it as a
way to trust that God would provide for
them as they provided for others in
Remember, too, the prosperous
farmer who had such a good harvest that he pulled down his barn and
planned to build bigger ones in which
to store his crops. “But God said to
him, ‘You fool, this night your life will
be demanded of you; and the things
you have prepared, to whom will they
belong?’ Thus it will be for the one
who stores up treasure for himself...”
DON’T nurse your anger, complain
and do whatever it takes to get what you need—even if it’s
illegal or immoral.
In hard economic times people feel
angry and complain. That’s natural. In
fact, venting and crying out to God in
pain are common refrains in the
psalms. Still, there comes a time when
nursing anger and unproductive complaining
rob us of the energy to find
positive solutions. In desperate situations
we might even understand why a
person feels driven to illegal or immoral
means to survive.
For example, cheating on our taxes
might be tempting, especially if it’s
hard to pay for groceries. That doesn’t
make it right. Remember Job? His trials
included both economic devastation
and personal physical pain. His uprightness
in the face of adversity is why his
story is so compelling and a model for
DON’T count on credit to bail you
Unless it is truly a matter of life and
death, using credit cards to maintain a
lifestyle that your income cannot support
is a false savior. Better to downsize
your expectations, home, wardrobe and
lifestyle. Paying later (on credit) means
paying more and that just digs the hole
of debt deeper, increases fear and lowers
Governments may be able to sustain
deficit spending for a time, but individuals
and families cannot. Remember
the mantra, “If you can’t afford it, don’t
Now let’s turn to the positive side of the
DO embrace Christian simplicity.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Be not
afraid of poverty: some men are born
poor, some achieve poverty and some
have poverty thrust upon them.”
Although some Christians have long
embraced voluntary poverty as a means
of growing in holiness, too many of
our brothers and sisters find themselves
living in a poverty that is neither willed
With the current economic downturn
even those of us who do not
choose voluntary poverty as a way of
life are being pushed to simplify our
lifestyles to be more consistent with
Church teaching. That teaching calls us
to “practice poverty of spirit and generosity
of heart. These virtues liberate
us from being slaves to money and possessions....They also enable us to adopt
a simplicity of life that frees us from
consumerism and helps us preserve
God’s creation” (U.S. Catholic Catechism
for Adults, pp. 449-450).
DO downsize your lifestyle.
Jesus asked us not to worry about
“‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we
to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’...Your heavenly Father knows that you
need them all” (Matthew 6:31-32).
For many of us, the downsizing that
is being thrust upon us is the lifestyle
that Christians should aspire to anyway.
It’s just that now we may not have a
choice. Once we have an attitude of
valuing simplicity, the next step is actually
to downsize our lifestyle—whether
we have to or not.
As Henry David Thoreau said, “We
make ourselves rich by making our
wants few.” True, we genuinely need
food, clothing, shelter, health care and
loving relationships. But differentiating
our legitimate needs from our desired,
but optional, wants is a challenge for
the Christian. How much is enough
and how much is too much are the
nagging questions that we continually
For several years we grappled with
whether to install a whirlpool tub when
we renovated our bathroom. It seemed
like such a luxury. Eventually, we justified
it as physical therapy for Susan,
who has a bad back. Besides, it would
increase the value of our home if we
ever decided to sell.
A rationalization? Probably. Few of
us are pure in this regard, but it’s important
to keep checking ourselves for
DO rub shoulders with those
poorer than yourself.
The best way we’ve found to keep our
needs in perspective is to rub shoulders
with the poor. It’s so easy to regard
ourselves as the “poor” when those
around us and in the media seem
to have more. Exposure to the poor
doesn’t require selling one’s home and
moving to India to work like Mother
Teresa. We have found, however, that
how rich or poor we feel has a lot to do
with whom we compare ourselves.
Another friend, Ken, challenged our
faith community one evening. He said,
“We always say how much we care
about and pray for those who are poor,
but do we know anybody who is really
poor?” Ken decided to start visiting inmates at the local jail on a regular
As a result of his challenge, Susan
decided to start tutoring at a local inner-city
grade school. Sometimes Jim takes
the bus to an event, even though it
takes longer, because he comes face-to-face with those who often don’t have
the luxury of a car.
In one sense we don’t have the time
to do any of these things, but we keep
reminding ourselves that rubbing
shoulders with those who have less
than we do enriches us and keeps us
humble. We gain perspective in honestly
evaluating our needs versus our
wants. It opens our eyes to the needs
around us, for “If you keep your food
in a refrigerator, your clothes in a closet,
if you have a bed to sleep in, and a
roof over your head, you are richer
than 75 percent of the people in the
DO take into consideration your
On a scale of one (tightwad) to 10
(spendthrift), where are you?
Most of us would like to think of
ourselves as nicely balanced in the middle.
Most of us give ourselves the benefit
of the doubt. If you’re honest,
however, and realize that you have
spendthrift tendencies, your challenge
is to buy modestly, save when possible
and cultivate the virtue of delayed gratification.
If you truly are a middle “five” personality,
continue to spend wisely, but
it wouldn’t hurt to move toward frugality.
It’s good for the soul not to buy
everything you can.
If your natural inclination is to be
ultra-frugal, then your challenge is to be
generous and nonjudgmental.
DO be generous.
Generosity, however, is not just for
those who have a little extra to give. It
may sound counterintuitive to give
things away when money and goods
are scarce but, still, the Christian is
called to generosity. Does everyone on
your block really need a lawn mower,
camping gear or basketball hoop? Yes,
it’s convenient to have your own property,
but the effort to coordinate sharing
not only reduces cost but also builds
Of course, it can also create conflict if some neighbors are not as responsible
as others. Sharing is not pain-free,
but it offers us a chance to hone communication
and negotiation skills.
Sometimes, hard times prompt us to
learn skills we’d otherwise neglect.
DO steward resources with care.
Although, presumably, we have long
been trying to be good stewards of our
money and possessions, hard economic
times force us to evaluate how to do
more. Where is there waste in my life?
Do I waste electricity, gas, food, water,
paper...? Am I recycling as much as
possible? Do I wear clothes that are
practical or am I a slave to fashion? Do
I try to repair things that are broken or
is my first impulse to buy something
new? Does every family really need
that second car that sits in the driveway
much of the time because I want the
convenience of being able to go to the
store when the urge hits me?
Ever hear of “Zip Cars” (www.zipcar.com)? It’s a car-sharing service available
in many cities in which folks sign
up for a conveniently located “common
car.” It makes letting go of a car
Do I try to buy locally produced
foods as much as possible? Is my recreation
truly renewing of my spirit or do
I spend my limited discretionary funds
on watching sports rather than playing
them, listening to music rather than
making it, traveling to far-off lands
rather than enjoying the beauty of my
DO keep a budget.
Keeping to a budget may be bothersome,
but it’s also a way to be a responsible
steward. If we don’t know where
our money is going, it’s hard to make
responsible decisions about where to
“Which of you wishing to construct
a tower does not first sit down and calculate
the cost to see if there is enough
for its completion?” (Luke 14:28). Plan
DO spend to save.
Related to being good stewards of property
and the earth is the way we spend
money. Some would say that those who
are fortunate enough to have a job and
not be in debt have a responsibility to
spend money in order to support the
economy and save others’ jobs. The
accuracy of this viewpoint depends on
the merits of the products or services
purchased. Buying bottled water when
we can get inexpensive and pure water
from the tap in the United States promotes
an artificially created need. Paying
taxes to support clean water for
everyone is a worthy use of money.
Generally, high-quality goods that
are needed and will last are items worth
investing in. Thus, spending money
on most anything “green” pays dividends
both in money saved and in a
reduced carbon footprint over the long
By Susan Hines-Brigger
“DON’T FREAK OUT.”
You would think that after almost 14
years of marriage, my husband, Mark, would
know not to say things like that to me. He
knows I’m going to freak out, especially now
that he told me not to. I can’t help it. I’ve always been a glass-half-empty kind of girl.
But that’s what he said to me last fall—two days before
Thanksgiving—right before he told me he was being offered
a buyout from his job.
“Don’t freak out.” Right. In this economy, with three
kids—two of whom are in Catholic school—babysitting, a
mortgage, groceries...I could go on and on. I’d seen the
news reports filled with words like recession and depression and the unemployment numbers rising every day. So I did
But then Mark said something else to me that stopped me
in my tracks: “Geesh, have some faith, will ya?”
Faith in what, I thought, the government, the economy, that
we’ll win the lottery? But I tried to take his words to heart. I
prayed that he would get a job fast. I offered up a novena
that we wouldn’t be one of the unfortunate ones who have
lost their homes. I entered a self-imposed Lent and offered
things up for answers—and faith that things would somehow
be O.K. And that’s when things started to change.
We started eating together more often as a family because
hitting the drive-thru was out of the budget. And at those
dinners we all started talking and sharing. We played outside
with our kids, went on walks and scoured the paper and
Internet for free entertainment. We connected and in some
cases reconnected with friends and family on a deeper level.
My mom shared with me how when my dad lost his job
they used to pray the Rosary together at night. And while
Mark and I didn’t exactly do that, we did start sitting down
and talking more—really talking. And this was not just
about money, even though we did do a lot of that, but
about our life, the future, our dreams. We snapped at each
other less and laughed more.
Luckily, Mark was able to find a new job relatively quickly.
The time he was out of a job was not always easy, but it did
force us to slow down and put things in perspective. And
most importantly, it reminded us to have some faith.
We recently increased the insulation
in our attic. It wasn’t cheap, but it will
be worth it. On the other hand, we
once bought a small inexpensive plastic
swimming pool for our kids that
didn’t even last the summer season.
The next year we got smart and paid
more money for a more durable one,
and it lasted many years.
Green America (www.GreenAmericaToday.org) has many more ideas of
how to save money and energy by
spending on products that preserve
Perhaps it’s already too late to spend in
order to save.
Sadly, too many people in the United
States have lost their jobs, are losing
their homes or are too far in debt to
have money to spend—even wisely.
Often, this is not through laziness or
irresponsibility but rather a result of
the recession. It can be embarrassing,
even humiliating, for those who have
worked hard all their lives to be on the
receiving end of charity—if they can
even get charity since the nonprofit
sector is also hurting.
There’s no magic potion, but here
are some practical tips from someone
who has been there:
Reassess your needs and wants. Perhaps periodically eating out was a
custom. It wasn’t a bad custom, but it’s always cheaper to prepare your own
food. Likewise, paying money for a
health-club membership might have
motivated you to exercise, but now
you have to self-motivate and walk at
Barter and share. What are you
good at? What do you own that would
be of value to someone else? We
recently dropped two newspapers and
now trade subscriptions with our next-door
neighbor. Each day we exchange
our read newspapers with each other
and catch up on neighborhood news in
the process. We share cars and garden
produce and used to trade child care. It’s
good to have close friends.
Repair and reuse.We wouldn’t go
so far as recommending reuse of dental
floss, but our throw-away culture
has trained us too well. Recover the
lost art of sewing, learn how to change
your own oil or glue a broken chair. Jim
has gotten into the habit of having his
shoes resoled to lengthen their life, and
Susan—with the help of a neighbor—fixed our whole-house fan.
Recreate creatively. Movies can
prompt stimulating conversation, but
so can playing a game with the family
or taking a walk in the woods.
Teach yourself a new skill. This
may mean leaning on your kids to
update your technology skills or spending
time at the library or on the Internet
to learn something new that might
later translate into a paying job.
Be humble. Don’t be too proud
to ask for help. If necessary, lean on
family and the Church community.
You’ve probably helped others in the
past. Perhaps this is the time you give
others the opportunity to be generous.
Pray and cultivate a grateful
heart. At a time when so much around
you seems beyond your control, rely on
things that will sustain you.
But how can I pray when I feel as if my
world is crumbling and God has abandoned
If hard times just make us bitter and
selfish, they’re not deepening our spiritual
lives. We must stay true to the
core value of people being more important
than things. Caring for each other
is what Jesus would do.
To lessen feelings of deprivation,
however, revisit the section on rubbing
shoulders with the poor. A house with
more bedrooms than kids and a family
with more cars than drivers may not be
evil, but must be evaluated in light of
the needs of the poor. One of the marks
of a mature and holy person is to know
how to live with and how to live without.
As Job said, “The LORD gave and the
LORD has taken away: blessed be the
name of the LORD!” (Job 1:21).
Few people welcome hardships, but
when they come our way, they may
prick our conscience or push us through
a door we might not have tried.
They may drive us to deeper prayer.
They place us in solidarity with those
who have gone without for ages, not
just when the stock market tanks.
In the end, we place our lives in
God’s hands, remembering that the
same God who created the lilies of the
fields loves and watches over us.