Back to School: School Clothes and the Challenges of Poverty

“It is better to feed ten impostors than to run the risk of turning away one honest petition.”
-Joseph Smith, as quoted by Hugh Nibley

“The conditions of sharing demanded by the Lord can only be satisfied by complete equality, a point that is ceaselessly repeated…. We cannot be equal, as the Lord commands, and live on different levels of affluence.”
– Hugh Nibley

I work in social services. Every day I try to help immigrants, people with disabilities, people recently out of incarceration, people overcoming addictions, and people with weak job histories (or often, some combination of the above) try to find stable work and build a better life for themselves. The day before school started, a man came in seeking help for his two sons. He had obviously come in straight from work as he was covered from head to toe in paint and debris from his job.  It pains me to say this now, but in full honesty, when I first saw his “unkempt” appearance I judged him for coming in to ask for help looking as he did. I was very afraid that he saw my eyes and knew that I judged him, but I quickly realized that he was the kind of person that likely didn’t care what I thought of him. He was there because he loved his sons and he was willing to suffer any indignity necessary to help them. As he described his work meme-holland-need-1311922-galleryand schedule, and as I took in his full appearance, from the aforementioned paint chips to his well-worn hands, I realized that he was obviously a person who was used to hard labor and had the kind of “old-fashioned work ethic” that every employer wishes that all of their employees had. He had come in straight off of the job that night still in his work clothes because it was the only time that he had and he was determined to get help his two sons.

His story in a nutshell: Here it was the night before school was to start and he had not yet purchased school clothes or registered his sons for school. He had two very good reasons for this: his long, hard work schedule, and a very tight budget. He told me that he was divorced and trying to make things work as a single dad. The previous year a local organization had given him some vouchers for his son’s school clothes but this year that help was not available. He told me that his sons had little more than the clothes on their backs. He apologized profusely for coming in at the last possible moment as he asked if I had any way to help provide some clothing for his sons to wear to school the next morning. I did not have much on hand that I could give them, but I was able to provide each child with a shirt, a pair of pants, socks, underwear, and shoes.  Before he left I gave him the names and numbers of several local organizations and churches that have vouchers available for school clothes and told him who to contact at his son’s schools that would be able to provide vouchers to a local thrift store.

His sons fell within the age range that places them between the 5th and 8th grades, those tough years where things such as social acceptance and having the right clothes are so vital to a child’s life and psyche. My selection was small but I let them choose as best as they could. The boys were mostly okay with the slim pickings but when it got to the underwear one said, “Don’t you have any boxers? Please don’t make me wear ‘tighty-whities.” When his father stoically replied, “Son, beggars can’t be choosers” my heart broke. A part of me got both sick and angry. We live in the richest nation in the world. All my life I have heard about the “American Dream,” Growing up I was taught the “prosperity gospel” even if that was not the name that was used. I was told that if someone would just “work hard” and especially if they had an important skill and/or a “good education,” then they would be successful, “self-reliant,” and would be able to enjoy life and leave something behind for their children. Well this man’s story is more proof that the American dream is for many people a nightmare. He works very hard and he has important skills. But it is not enough. Even with his hard work and solid ethic he can still scarcely afford to feed, house, and clothe his children.

I can tell you from personal experience that the oft-repeated idea that the majority of people who are on welfare or who need help to get by are “lazy moochers” who just want to get out of work is a lie.  Are there some individuals who abuse the system? Of course there are.  In my 8 years at my job, I have met a few people who just want a hand out, but they are a small minority of those whom I have met.  The vast majority of the people I have worked with are like the man in this experience. They are the “working poor” who are trapped in a system that is designed to exploit them and keep them down to benefit the wealthy few.

Do I know how to fix the system and make true the American Dream? Unfortunately I do not, but I do have a couple of things that I want to say. Those of us who want change who daily see the struggles of those held down by the system cannot be silent any more, we need to speak up. The people of the United States can do better, we must do better. That the United States is a country where people who want to work and support themselves are going to bed hungry and afraid after a long hard day’s work, and are forced to beg to clothe and feed their children, while million and billionaires increase their wealth, hide their money away in foreign accounts, buy politicians, and figure ways out of taxes is beyond obscene. We claim to be a “Christian-nation, but when it comes to providing a Christ-like system where everyone has real chance to get ahead in life, it does not show in the way that our nation functions.

It is time for change.

Categories: Blog, Culture, Feature, Mormonism

3 replies »

    • I originally, to keep things simple, just cited the quote as “Joseph Smith”, then after consultng with a great friend who is a professional researcher, I switched it to “Joseph Smith, as quoted by Hugh Nibley”. The only source either of us can find is the use by Nibley in “Approaching Zion” from his essay “Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free.” As you said, he gives no citation.

      There is a much longer quote by Brigham Young from the Journal of Discourses that says:

      “Suppose that in this community there are ten beggars who beg from door to door for something to eat, and that nine of them are impostors who beg to escape work, and with an evil heart practise imposition upon the generous and sympathetic, and that only one of the ten who visit your doors is worthy of your bounty; which is best, to give food to the ten, to make sure of helping the truly needy one, or to repulse the ten because you do not know which is the worthy one? You will all say, Administer charitable gifts to the ten, rather than turn away the only truly worthy and truly needy person among them. If you do this, it will make no difference in your blessings, whether you administer to worthy or unworthy persons, inasmuch as you give alms with a single eye to assist the truly needy.” (Journal of Discourses 8:12, 5 Mar 1860.)

      I do not know if Nibley was using this or if there is no relation. If anyone knows the source of Nibley’s quote I would love to hear it.

  1. This continues to be on my mind. I wish that the prosperity gospel was not taught/honored/revered, in today’s church. I think it is the spiritual equivalent of “unfettered capitalism,” and does not belong in a church whose work is that of the Savior.

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