- LIVING FAITH: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty by Susan Crawford Sullivan
In late 2012, The New York Times followed the family of Dasani, one of New York City’s increasing number of homeless children. Mayor Michael Bloomberg explained entrenched poverty like Dasani’s to Politiker, “This kid was dealt a bad hand. I don’t know quite why. That’s just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not.”
Bloomberg’s comments angered those who blame rising inequality, welfare reform that moved many mothers into severe poverty, limited jobs, and structural racism—but not the Divine—for poverty. But, according to Susan Crawford Sullivan’s Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty, Bloomberg might have accurately captured poor mothers’ own explanations for their poverty: God, according to many of the forty-five Boston women Sullivan interviewed, is working in their poverty, though they would disagree with Bloomberg’s implication that their suffering is inexplicable. Sullivan explores the topic with compassion and concision in her book, which has won prizes from the American Sociological Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Despite the moral language aimed at poor women, few of Sullivan’s respondents attended church, where many judged themselves to be unfit to attend or feared, rightly, as some of the pastors Sullivan interviewed noted, others’ judgment (181). Yet 80% of them identified religion as personally important, and they engaged religion in their personal lives, through prayer, reading, and other practices. Importantly, they believed that God was actively intervening in their lives for their long-term benefit, even if God’s ways were mysterious or even painful. Through their trials, they believed that God was present and that they were experiencing hardships for a purpose; indeed, writes Sullivan, they are living in “an overall plan orchestrated by God with the women’s greater well-being in mind” (145). On a more practical level, their spiritual lives allowed them to live with hope and renewed strength for dealing with chaotic lives, increasing resilience and agency. Further, they saw themselves as acting on opportunities God provided. Sullivan makes a compelling case that, at least for some women, personal religiosity makes meaning out of a demeaning experience while also motivating action. [End Page 92]
This sense of partnering with God, though, invites women to believe that “they have not tried hard enough and thus have disappointed God” or, more commonly, blame other welfare recipients for using welfare services (77). Such shaming reveals their acceptance of the (non-Biblical) claim that “God helps those who help themselves.” Indeed, nearly all accept the dominant narrative that those in poverty are at fault for their poverty, for poor people “particularly embrace the notion that hard work by self-reliant individuals yields economic success” (72). As Sullivan suggests, “[P]oor mothers’ cultural religious repertoire most often reflects the adoption of an American ideal of self-sufficiency” (53). At the same time that they are surrounded by messages that invalidate their worth as citizens, mothers, and believers, the respondents recognized the need for the government, not churches, to alleviate poverty. In this way, though these women argued that poverty is often the result of personal moral failings, they also understood poverty as a social problem to be addressed at a larger level.
Sullivan’s work reminds scholars of the work needed on the lived religions of the poor, women, and people of color. Sullivan’s work will surely be frequently invoked by scholars working at these intersections.