I remember listening to it on the radio when I was a kid riding in my father’s Chevy Nova. Now it’s playing on the radio again with my kids in the backseat.
The song is “Fast Car. Written and originally recorded by Tracy Chapman, country music star Luke Combs released a cover version of the hit last year. Combs’ 2023 version peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 chart shortly after its release.
Chapman originated the song in 1988 from her self-titled debut album. The hit charted at No. 6 on Billboard Hot 100, but Chapman earned notoriety and won the 1989 Best Female Pop Vocal Performance Grammy.
“Fast Car” is about poverty and desperation. Chapman’s recording expresses lament and depicts her struggle for independence through themes of dead-end jobs, family troubles, addiction, lost potential, and escape:
“You got a fast car
I got a plan to get us out of here
I been working at the convenience store
Managed to save just a little bit of money”
I remember later listening to Chapman’s recording in college. It was then that I had my first experience observing persistent poverty. I was serving a downtown church and driving kids home from an after-school program in a van owned by a small United Methodist church.
It was common for these kids to sleep four or five on a mattress on the floor. I had never seen poverty like that before and thought I learned all about it then.
As a young college student, I believed poverty was exclusively “downtown and urban.” It was most found in the area with more liquor stores than grocery stores, more pawn shops than places to buy produce and more payday loan offices than credit unions.
Now, “Fast Car” is a country song. Luke Combs sings the exact words and the same tune to a new audience.
The song also resonates in areas of persistent rural poverty because poverty is not just downtown and urban. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), poverty rate percentages in most states are higher in rural areas than in urban areas.
The tune sings the song of hourly wage earners and low-income workers and the potential freedom found in a simple drive:
“You got a fast car
We go cruising to entertain ourselves
You still ain’t got a job
And I work in a market as a checkout girl”
“Fast Car” keeps on singing due to the persistence of poverty. In “Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty,” Rank, Eppard and Bullock write, “A majority of Americans will experience poverty firsthand. Research indicates that most of us will encounter poverty at some point during our lives.”
Like me, you may have always thought that poverty was ‘out there.’ It was for “them”—people with bad jobs, selfish habits or lazy dispositions.
Instead, it’s for “us”—people with kids who get sick, cars that break down, unpaid student loans and debts that accrue interest. For many Americans, no amount of fiscal conservatism could remove us or them from such insolvency.
Does this change our view of poverty? It should.
Jesus said we would always have the poor (Mark 14:7), but this is far from extending permission to ignore the plight of the impoverished and needy. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to consider the life and ministry of Jesus as one that does not prioritize the needs of the poor and downtrodden.
Perhaps the charge for the church is to lean into advocacy and out of charity, which assumes the flawed assumption of the superior helping the inferior.
Advocacy does more than corner the impoverished in a mode of survival– a few more groceries to supplement the food budget, a gift card to assist in making ends meet and paying an overdue utility bill to keep the lights on until next month.
Advocacy looks deeper into the systemic inequalities that persist for people experiencing poverty.
Maybe the most significant lesson is also found in “Fast Car.” Chapman and Combs sing, “And your arm felt nice wrapped ’round my shoulder, I had a feeling that I belonged. I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone.”
Research and advocacy can inspire followers of Christ to lean in, nearer to those they are serving, closer to the poor. Close enough to put an arm around their shoulder, to help us all have the feeling that we belong and that we can be someone.