Ronnie attends this very $30,000-a-year liberal arts college. He’s traveled across Europe for Interim. He owns his own car, which he uses to commute to school. He eats three meals a day, one catered for him at Commons. He has a laptop and an iPhone. But when his friends ask him to go with them to see a movie, he laughs and says that he’s “too poor.”
Yeah, we all know that Ronnie’s joking, but this casual phrase is almost ubiquitous at this school. And while saying that you’re poor may seem harmless at first, I believe that this phrase has actual harmful repercussions. But first, let’s talk about our attitude toward charity.
In Peter Singer’s most well-known essay, “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” the philosopher posits that it is immoral to fail to prevent suffering if one has the means to do so. As he says, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.” Singer goes on to critique how, as a society, we have encouraged spending money on trivial needs, but to give aid to people who would die without it is only seen as “charity.” He goes so far as to say that we should be morally obligated to give to the point where we would have to live frugal lifestyles ourselves.
While Singer himself is an atheist, I believe that his philosophical argument supports the core Christian value of looking after the poor and less fortunate. I believe that one cannot call herself a Christian if giving is not central to her life. Jesus extols the generous widow and the Good Samaritan. He says that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and hungry. He orders the rich man to give away his possessions to the poor. Jesus leaves no room to justify economic greed.
A recent report by the Pew Research Center shows that 71 percent of the world’s population lives on less than $10 a day. Households in 15 percent of that 71 percent live on less than $2 a day. A discounted movie ticket at Celebration North costs $8.50. Add $5 for popcorn and a drink. This is not opinion: this is fact.
Even within the context of student debt, for a Calvin student to say that he or she is poor is an affront to actual poor people. Tuition alone costs hundreds a day, an expense that, according to a joint study by the Asian Development Bank and Harvard, only 6.7 percent of the world has been able to afford. This is not to mention the relatively high cost of living in Grand Rapids, an affluent part of one of the wealthiest countries in the current world.
Saying “I’m poor” when we would rather just not spend our money on that particular drink or movie ticket insulates us against the reality of the actual poor. The underprivileged, like us, are made in the image of God — with extraordinary worth and boundless potential. But when we ignore our wealth and instead focus on the little we don’t have, we slight and ignore their suffering. We should instead recognize our many privileges so that we can use them to reduce suffering in the world. And the first step to doing that is to stop saying “I’m poor,” but instead say, “I’m lucky.