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Deepak Chopra

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Excuse Me, How Does It Feel to Be Poor?

Posted: 08/07/08 03:14 PM ET

An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question:
What's your response to this question from a Post national poll of low-wage workers? "What role does God or your faith play in helping you get through tough financial times?"

The new poll on poverty has a certain brazen quality about it, or is it rubbing salt in the wound accidentally? The poorest people in any society are the most vulnerable to economic anxiety. They are the least able to afford downturns and have almost no power to improve their lot through political leverage. The poll revealed that the poor are aware of their teetering situation. Did anyone expect that they would discover anything other than pessimism?

To the degree that the poor still believe in the American dream, a Marxist would say that they have been duped. There are more opiates of the masses than just religion. However, there are no unbesmirched Marxists left, it seems, so the social wheel must turn in a new direction. Having abandoned the welfare state in its most liberal and generous aspects, America ignores the poor as never before -- the idealism of the "respectable poor," the compassion shown to victims of the Great Depression, and the social crusades of the sixties are gone. Is there a new idea that can bridge the immense gap between rich and poor in income, education, health, and opportunities?

Religion certainly isn't that new idea. Asking the poor if they turn to God in hard times -- and discovering that the vast majority do -- revives the specter of Barack Obama's "clinging" episode. It also validates, if validation was needed, that clinging to religion is a very real phenomenon, one that has its own dignity and worth. Few people in any income bracket fail to pray in a dire crisis or to hope that a higher power sees their plight. There may be no atheists in the foxholes, as the wartime slogan went, but there are few on a sinking ship, either. The pessimism revealed in the poll is simple realism as seen from the lowest deck.

Forty years after Michael Harrington's groundbreaking book, "Poverty in America," which launched the War on Poverty with high ideals that never materialized, our knowledge about poverty is enormous, but our will to attack the problem is slim. One reason is obvious. As many economists point out, the poor subsidize America's enviable lifestyle. Every underpaid hotel maid, McDonald's cook, migrant farm worker, and school janitor living below the poverty line is contributing money to the rest of us. Without the poor there would be no American dream, and yet they are the least likely to benefit from it.

If I am being asked what sustains me in economic hard times, my answer isn't conventional religious piety but a new vision of possibilities. Such a vision must be spiritual at its core. Begin with the notion that all souls are equal, and that each person can evolve in consciousness. Give the poorest people -- and everyone else -- the tools to expand their own awareness, and heartless questions about how it feels to be poor won't be necessary anymore.

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