Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Post 3--Poverty and Wealth--Dad's Disappointing Degrees

I'm going to quote an email referencing an article reviewing a book, which is kind of like a repeating decimal, as D. E. Stevenson once said.

This is from a Simple Dollar email from Trent Hamm, and is typical of what you find when you look up "How to escape poverty."

In an article in The Atlantic, Gillian B. White writes about inequality in American society. She reviews a book by Peter Temin called The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy

Temin argues that, following decades of growing inequality, America is now left with what is more or less a two-class system: One small, predominantly white upper class that wields a disproportionate share of money, power, and political influence and a much larger, minority-heavy (but still mostly white) lower class that is all too frequently subject to the first group’s whims.

Temin identifies two types of workers in what he calls “the dual economy.” The first are skilled, tech-savvy workers and managers with college degrees and high salaries who are concentrated heavily in fields such as finance, technology, and electronics. . .. The other group is the low-skilled workers, which he simply calls the “low-wage sector.”
. . .
[And especially this:]
And how is one to move up from the lower group to the higher one? Education is key, Temin writes, but notes that this means plotting, starting in early childhood, a successful path to, and through, college. 

You can find lots of insightful material on overcoming poverty, coming from many angles and proposing many solutions. But they all promote education. Many imply that to really leave poverty behind and get somewhere in the world, you not only have to finish high school but also go to college, and a college degree is a pretty sure ticket out of poverty forever.

Which brings us to my dad and the strange Anabaptist economy.

Most Amish people attend school only through the 8th grade. The same is true for other conservative Anabaptist branches, such as the Fellowship and Holdeman churches.

My dad was, in his day, the only Amishman in history who got a college degree and stayed Amish. It seems he had a bishop who recognized that Dad was unusually gifted academically but didn't have a rebellious bone in his body, so the bishop gave him permission to go to college. He not only got a Bachelor's degree in German at Eastern Mennonite College, but he also studied at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and got a Master's in elementary education.

All the while, he wore his Amish clothes and didn't drive a car.

In Iowa and Ohio and Minnesota, we lived in Amish or Beachy-Amish or Fellowship communities where everyone else had quit school after the 8th grade. In addition, English was their second language, and it was sometimes shocking how poorly they read and spelled and spoke.

With the "worldly" experts' emphasis on education, you'd think Dad would have been powerful in such a community, wealthy and admired, and maybe even ordained minister or bishop.

Instead, we were always among the poorest, struggling and scratching and desperate among efficient carpenters and prosperous farmers. 

The Amish economy had no place for someone with his education. Why pay him what he was worth as a teacher if you could just as easily hire an 18-year-old girl putting in a few years before she got married? Either way, your children would learn to read and do basic arithmetic.

The Amish respected physical strength and hard work and a good head for business. Dad was small and in fragile health and not, as they said, a "good manager."

When we lived in rural Minnesota, Dad quit teaching and focused on farming, instead of trying to do both. He was far more educated than our Englisch neighbors and most of our public school teachers, so he could probably have walked into a local high school and gotten a teaching job with a salary that would have seemed astronomical.

But he really wanted to farm. I don't know if he really loved farming that much, or if he wanted to prove that he was a real Amishman, but his farms never thrived like everyone else's. 

In the H.G. Wells story, "The Country of the Blind," a mountaineer happens to find an isolated valley where all the residents are blind. From Wikipedia:  Upon discovering that everyone is blind, Nuñez begins reciting to himself the refrain, "In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King". He realises that he can teach and rule them, but the villagers have no concept of sight, and do not understand his attempts to explain this fifth sense to them. Frustrated, Nuñez becomes angry, but the villagers calm him, and he reluctantly submits to their way of life, because returning to the outside world seems impossible.

Eventually the mountaineer realizes that the blind people in this community have figured out how to fully live life, and he is actually at a disadvantage despite this phenomenal gift of sight that he has and they don't.

I think that's kind of what it was like for Dad. He really wanted to teach and reach his own people with this valuable commodity of education that he brought with him, but they liked their lives just as they were, thank you very much. And who can blame them, when their children had new shoes and a big box of crayons apiece?

Tomorrow: more on the Anabaptist economy.


  1. Currently, I am reading the book, “Class..A guide through the American Status System”. (Paul Fussel, 1983, Simon & Schuster). It is undeniable, even in the Amish and Mennonite cultures, that class exists. I wonder what the author’s verdict would be in the 21st century. Hats off to your Dad! His education obviously had impact on you! Anticipating tomorrow’s post!

  2. There seems to be no pat answers to the question of poverty. A basic education is necessary, but a tradesman (electrician, plumber, carpenter, mechanic, etc.) can make as much if not more than many college graduates. Perhaps more of the answer is in attitude; hopefulness, hard work, living within ones means, saving for a rainy day, avoiding debt, living contentedly, and giving generously have more to do with wealth than just how much money ones earns. Loving family relationships, contentment, pursuit of interests, and joyful living are hard to quantify when counting wealth. I certainly wouldn't trade any of our five children for more money to spend. I wish I could have had five more children to count as part of my wealth! There are also many kinds of poverty: of body, such as bad health, of mind, such as uneducated, and of soul, such as lacking in knowledge of God and Christ. I feel very wealthy at the moment because I have a loving husband, five wonderful adult children, fairly good health, and a sure knowledge of God and Christ as my Savior. You seem to me to be a "wealthy" woman too! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  3. Rozy, I love your comment!! So true. And I am enjoying this series.... money is a huge and often silent subject in many Christian homes. Looking forward to tomorrow and its article

  4. Hi Dorcas, have you read 'Hillbilly Elegy'? You should if you haven't. You'll connect to J.D. Vance's perceptions of poverty in Kentucky and Ohio. Another book you've reminded me of is Chaim Potok's 'My Name Is Asher Lev,' about a Hasidic Jewish boy who has a gift, and his rebbe allows him to work with an artist. Your dad reminds me of him.

    Thanks so much for sharing this. I really appreciate it.


    1. I've read reviews of Hillbilly Elegy and want to read the book. I read My Name is Asher Lev years ago but this is the first time I saw the parallel to my dad.

    2. The Chaim Potok books are very good, especially THE CHOSEN and THE PROMISE. Have you seen the movie FIDDLER ON THE ROOF? The rabbis, the most educated, are the most revered among the villagers.

  5. Dorcas... I also would recommend Hillbilly Elegy. Your series has given me a lot to ponder on. It's gotten my writing wheels turning.:)