Some 46 million Americans are classified as poor, a figure that's risen slightly in the past few years. Although programs such as Social Security, tax credits and food stamps are helping, low-wage jobs and the rising cost of living are holding many back.
One pastor believes the major cause of poverty is the breakdown of the family unit. Pastor Phillip Meek of the Love and Truth Church in Savannah, Tenn., says that once the family breaks down, people's motivation to better provide for themselves is lost. “Some people are not motivated to improve their situation and are only looking for a handout. Many are trying to find a job but struggle in an area ... that has little to no new employment opportunities,” he says.
Meek also blames Christians for the plight of the poor. “If Christians gave anywhere close to the 10% asked of them by God ... we would have enough to go around to help those who are really needy. Because the church has not done what it is supposed to do, the government has taken over.”
Q: Do you agree? Could Christians do more, or is this an issue that should mainly involve businesses and government?
In the long run, the most effective way to extend a helping hand to the needy is through the combined teamwork of government entities, the private sector, nonprofit social service organizations, and religious institutions. In my view, caring for the less fortunate should never be wholly relegated to government institutions — not only because such bureaucracies can be inefficient, but because delegating our responsibility to a distant authority allows us to become isolated from those in need and desensitized to their acute pain.
Jewish teachings explain that taking care of the poor and the underprivileged is primarily the obligation of the general populace. We all have a duty to care for each other, and this responsibility falls on both individuals and the community as a whole. Those who have more should obviously help more, while those of lesser means should assist based on their abilities. But every member of society is obliged to help one another, and even the poor should strive to help those who have less than they do.
Why is this personal and community-based assistance so important? Studies have shown that when we simply send money to the government and ask them care for the needy, we end up with programs that may help people just scrape by but fail to offer them enough to stabilize their situation so they can resolve their problems. Furthermore, people can sometimes grow dependent on government aid and lose their motivation to stand on their own feet again.
I truly do believe that programs like food stamps offer a vitally important lifeline for many who are under- or unemployed. At the same time, I feel that many such programs would be more efficient if administered by community-based organizations and local religious groups with direct knowledge of grass-roots needs. When customized assistance is delivered by competent individuals with ties to the community, there is less chance of fraud, more help can be provided for the recipients, and the beneficiaries may have a greater incentive to improve their lot.
I feel that a reasonable way to tackle the problem of poverty would be for government to reach out to local nonprofit and religious organizations and work together with them to better the lives of the poor. At the same time, the leaders of these local institutions have a responsibility to encourage people with means to contribute additional funds to aid the needy. This approach would create a win-win situation for the poor, and might go a long way in alleviating the poverty that persists in our country.
Chabad Jewish Center
In addition to Pastor Meek's full commentary, contributors to this week's question were sent a link to “Poverty in America: Why Can't We End It?”, by law professor Peter Edelman, New York Times, July 28.
It is worth looking up, and while on the New York Times website, you should also check out multibillionaire capitalist Warren Buffett's Nov. 25 column, “A Minimum Tax for the Wealthy.”
Together they bookend the issue: the poor — who and why — and the rich, whose failure to pay their fair share contributes to inequality.
The alleged breakdown of the family is not the cause of poverty. My hunch is that the opposite is true. I wonder if my marriage would have survived child-rearing if we couldn't have afforded date nights and family dinners out once in a while.
Poverty's cause is not having enough money. Edelman documents that too many U.S. jobs are low-wage. Half the jobs in the nation pay less than $34,000 a year, and a quarter pay below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually.
Yet income support to poor families with children has largely disappeared. AFDC's replacement, Temporary Assistance to Needy Children, has stringent time limits and some states don't provide it at all. Reportedly 40% of single-parent families are below poverty, set at an unrealistically low figure. Six million people have no income other than food stamps, which provide $120 weekly for a family of three. I challenge readers to feed three on that, and remember it can't be used for soap, toothpaste, sanitary supplies and more.
Christians, atheists, and everyone else should do more. Not private charity, which is a stop-gap, but by insisting that even the most humble jobs pay a living wage and that government (meaning us) provide a basic safety net. It would be a huge boost to our economy, and cheaper than the long-term costs of poverty.
Christians can always do more. In fact, all of us can do more. But is our present plight in society the fault of those who don't give at least 10%? That's hard to say, but I'm guessing the answer is no.
In my own church, as we get older and smaller, our pledging has not gone up, according to our treasurer — but our giving has! That's an interesting statistic. So I am grateful for the generosity in my own congregation. Maybe elsewhere giving has been more skimpy. But we really need to look at the broader picture. If the economy is bad and jobs are scarce, then it seems a no-brainer that there will be less money in the poor box. Think about it: If you normally give a certain percentage of your income, and then your income becomes zero, I'm guessing your giving will approach zero, also.
But before I make any more broad projections, let's remember the story of the widow's mite (Mark 12: 41-44). Jesus notices a poor widow who puts into the temple treasury two copper coins, and we are told that that was all the money she had. One interpretation of that story could be that your giving to charity should hurt a little. If you make $10,000 dollars a month and drop $1,000 into the pot, that's fine — but that represents no big sacrifice compared to what the widow put in. The poor can give something, and may even want to give something. We should not deny anybody the freedom to give.
There is a story of church members calling on various members of the congregation during the annual stewardship drive. When they come to the poorest member's house, she wants to give them something, but they don't want to take her donation because she is so poor. But she cries out in anguish, and says something like, “Don't you dare take away from me my one opportunity to give!”
Regarding businesses and government doing more, as well as religious institutions, why not? We are all in this together. Let's all climb out of this mess together.
The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge
I pity the families under Pastor Meek's spiritual care. His lack of understanding of why people are poor in America today translates into a theology of shame and degradation for the struggling people of his community. How painful must it be to come to church in search of a good word about God's love, or a message that gives you some calm in the storm, only to hear that you are a Dependent Unmotivated Loser.
Interestingly, the editors of the Christian Post (which published Meek's editorial), along with leaders in the National Evangelical Assn., the evangelical interdenominational Sojourners' movement, and a number of mainline and progressive faith leaders just sent an open letter to President Obama, stating: “As we do all we can to help families and individuals living in poverty, we need our elected leaders in Washington to do the same. Our country faces many long-term fiscal challenges and must act now to grow the economy, create jobs, and begin reducing our deficits. These are significant challenges that will require sacrifices from many, but we cannot solve them on the backs of the poor.”
This letter more accurately reflects the conversation (and action) among the Christian community, which sees the fragility of communities whose good jobs have been moved overseas or exited by a foundering economy, and which mourns with communities who have been disproportionately affected by subprime and fraudulent mortgages and subsequent foreclosures. These are the shakedowns that lead to the breakdowns of families — not the other way around.
The mainstream Christian community understands that scripture points toward works of compassion (distributing food, creating emergency shelter, giving emergency funds) as well as works of justice (advocating for good jobs with living wages, fair lending practices, rich educational opportunities for all, tax policies that promote a healthy economy, affordable loans for small-business entrepreneurs).
Pastor Meek's call for a greater spirit of generosity among Christians is legitimate, for that spirit shapes not only our giving but also our prophetic advocacy. Religious organizations, businesses, and government — we all have a role in shaping the world in which we want to live.
The Rev. Paige Eaves
Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church
I agree with Pastor Meek regarding family breakdown. It's difficult surviving with two parents working together, but when families have only one parent doing it all, it's overmuch. If families were strong, and strong through generations, family wealth would increase. We should all be millionaires by now. But with divorce, abandonment and promiscuity, broken families remain broken for decades. I'm personally aware of families that have made reliance upon government aid their support through several generations, and their perspective seems to be one of always “receive” rather than ever “making it” and so “give.”
I don't agree regarding the church. God never asks Christians for 10% (a tithe) of their income. The New Testament doesn't teach that, but it does refer to Old Testament regulations specifically directed at ancient Israelites to mandatorily present 10% of their increase to the then-existent Temple (never money, but always livestock and produce). Christians are enjoined to “Be as generous as you can” (1Co 16:2 MSG). For people who abandon church, who don't work, or who can't work, the government should concern itself.
Churches exist to perpetuate the Gospel first, then help their communities, but when ignored and disparaged by the wider community until desperation occurs, it's funny how suddenly there are knocks on the door for expected handouts. Nonetheless, they are forthcoming because Christians give to the needy.
Statistics show that America is the most giving of any country in the world. Overall, it's the conservative Christian that donates the lion's share of charity; not liberals and certainly not secularists. There are billionaires who can out-give us, but it's not always for poverty, and it is often just for tax deductions.
I think we do have to stop categorizing people as “poor” just because they haven't been able to graduate from box TVs to flat-screens, and appropriately apply the term to such as those in Appalachia with dirt floors, and no plumbing or food. Give to those poor, and then teach them to fish.
Could Christians do more? Yes, but could everyone else please join in? “God loves a cheerful giver” (2Co 9:7 NIV).
The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
Yeah, that's it. Put it on the Christians. Not the government bureaucracy that approves spending $400 on a hammer and $6 trillion on defense; not the insanely wealthy 1% robber-barons, or the corporations who buy elections to protect their ill-gotten gain. Let's blame the good Christian folks of — what is it? Oh, yeah, rural Tennessee — for poverty in America. It's mostly their fault. If those pikers would just pony up, all the problems of our country would be solved.
Not! Among other things, here's what's wrong with Meek's reasoning: The biblical tithe was the tax of the day. There was no separation of church/Temple and state. “The 10% asked of them by God,” went into the government coffers of the Temple, which was run by royally appointed officials. And they used it pretty much the way taxes are used now — for their own food first (it was mostly food offerings), sold for the upkeep of the Temple and other royal infrastructures, and a percentage was distributed to the poor.
[People of St. George's Episcopal Church, La Cañada: Don't read this paragraph. Skip ahead.] Since most of us pay somewhere between 15 and 35% of our income to taxes, we're already paying above and beyond the original intent of the biblical 10% tithe. Anything that's given to the church, or to any other charity, is gravy.
That's not to let the people of God off the hook from doing their level best to help their neighbor. Christians who want to justify dodging their tithe by pointing to their tax bracket have to answer to Jesus, who shrugs and says, “Bracket schmackett,” (I'm paraphrasing here), “Sell all you have, and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19:21; Luke 12:33; Acts 2:45). I'm pretty sure he meant it as a personal spiritual imperative, not as a political fundraising slogan.
So sure, Christians could do more to help the poor; we all could. But if you're looking for people to blame for poverty, then really, there are better places to look than in the church pews. The guys in $5,000 suits come to mind.
The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George's Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge
The Bible is rich in examples and encouragement to give to the poor. Jesus said “the poor you always have with you, and whenever you wish, you can do them good...” (Mark 14:7). He told a rich man “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matthew 19:21). When the apostles in Jerusalem commissioned Paul and Barnabas to preach the good news about Jesus to people of all ethnicities, “they only asked us to remember the poor,” said Paul, “ the very thing I also was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10). Paul encouraged Titus: “Let our people also learn to engage in good deeds to meet pressing needs, that they may not be unfruitful” (3:14). Even the Macedonian believers, themselves impoverished, gave: “In a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability they gave of their own accord, begging us with much entreaty for the favor of participation in the support of the saints” (2 Corinthians 8:2-4).
Christians in America can do more and I believe we should. It's not the government's job to fulfill our responsibility to give to the poor in Jesus' name. When Christians give to the poor great things happen: God is honored, the gospel is proclaimed, people's needs are met and the church is encouraged.
Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
Poverty is a complex issue that churches alone cannot solve. The U.S. Census Bureau released poverty figures this year stating that there are 46.2 million poor people in the United States, which is about 15% of the population. There is lack of agreement on how poverty is defined, what causes poverty and how to solve poverty. This poverty percentage, while high, is significantly lower than it was before the 1960s, when Social Security began lifting most retired seniors out of poverty.
The solution to poverty likely requires concerted social, political, business and religious thought and action. What is needed by individuals in different situations to lift them out of poverty is different. Individuals living in farming communities have different economic aid needs than people living in cities. Mothers raising small children need different services than single adults. Healthcare, housing, transportation and child care are all different by region and neighborhood. I think more needs to be done by businesses, government and religious groups. Reducing poverty was accomplished by the implementation of the Social Security Act of 1935, so it is possible to address this problem.
South Pasadena Atheist Meetup
The issue of care for the poor reminds me of a story I heard about a Princeton theological professor, who asked each of his students to prepare a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan. They were to present their sermon individually and he would evaluate their work.
Unknown to the students, the professor arranged for a man to portray a needy poor person and approach each student asking for help. Not one of his students stopped to help the needy man. They were coming to preach about the Good Samaritan, but not one recognized the parable when it was presented to them in real life.
Unfortunately I feel this is too often the case in the church. We talk a good line, but we don't always deliver. Today, the church has largely abdicated caring for its own poor to government programs and social agencies. We may provide stopgap assistance to a family in need, run a soup kitchen, food pantry or clothes closet, but we seldom see our poor as an ongoing responsibility.
While I don't think the local church can completely supplant government assistance, it can provide what no government program can, individual care. Individual care is personal. It has a face that sees individual needs, ears that hear individual stories, and a heart of compassion that feels individual pain and suffering. It says to them, “You are important as a person. You are valuable and worth my time and attention.”
The church today needs to rediscover its historic priority of caring for the poor. It needs to remember God's attitude toward the poor as stated in Proverbs 19:17: “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done.”
Pastor Ché Ahn
Jesus always called people of faith to do more in alleviating the plight of the poor, and he called them to do it from a decided perspective. Jesus, in response to criticism for allowing his feet to be anointed with costly oil, oil which mostly likely would have fetched a high price in the market place, and possibly have been used to alleviate the plight of some of the poor, responded in this way: “ the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me (Gospel of John 12:8).”
Jesus well may have been referring to Deuteronomy 15 where the scriptures admonish the people to always be generous to the poor. However, I think that the latter part of Jesus' statement is even more telling. Many Christians give to the poor but not with the sense of being in the presence of Jesus. Jesus reminded his followers to love their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 18:19, Matthew 25:13). So we are to always seek to alleviate the desperate situation of the poor and bring their circumstance into better circumstances that resemble our own. But there is something more. Jesus himself was poor, and so in giving to the poor, Christians give to the very one that refocused the faithful as to what righteousness really meant.
Abundant giving is giving to the poor with a clear picture of Jesus. His clear self-location of being poor and abiding with the poor stands above religion, dogma and any denomination. Jesus' lessons and his very life reminds his followers that goodness is not centered on personal holiness or public displays of piety but rather with being in ongoing compassionate relationship with those who are suffering. To only give menial scraps to the poor is to acknowledge the poor, but to not acknowledge Jesus' presence. That means givers are then free to impose their own sanctions on their gifts.
People of faith may say: We will give but you must believe this way or that. You must dress this way or that. You must worship this way or that. If you don't we will withhold our generosity until you do. That is not generous giving, that is conscription. If people of faith withhold their gifts, what else can business and government do except become involved?
The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel