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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Christians and Poverty

Being Biblically Wise When It comes to Poverty

Christians rightly want to be caring people. They are aware that the Word of God speaks in many places about God’s love for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. We are not to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the weight of true poverty under which some languish. God calls us to be compassionate and not to withhold true help and aid when it is within our power to give it.

For the longest time, it has been believed that those who are either Presbyterian or Reformed are so busy arguing the finer points of theology that they have little or no time for those who are in need. It is believed that these folks only have time for philosophical and theological hairsplitting and care little, if anything, about the destitute. For those jaded folks—and the not-so-jaded as well—I want to direct your attention to a web site that Dr. E. Calvin Beisner began (www.WeGetIt.org) that is doing something very practical about the poor and the environment. You will want to go to this site and take your time looking at the resources that are there. I urge you to sign up as well. This is a very worthwhile and long overdue endeavor.

I’m thrilled to see that efforts are being put forward to provide biblical answers and solutions to the ethical situations surrounding the poor and the environment. Dr. Beisner has already provided us with an excellent book that is a very worthwhile read: Prosperity and Poverty.[1] Beisner offers sound biblical exegesis for his positions, which is a breath of fresh air if you’ve endured the tendentious eisegesis of Jim “The Prophet Amos Despised Dick Cheney” Wallis or Brian “Never Met a Text I Didn’t Like to Distort” McLaren. Both of these men are tedious to a fault and pretend they have no agenda when in reality they both are about as far left as you can get.

Both of them tell us that they care about the poor and poverty. McLaren devotes quite a bit of ink to these issues in his book,[2] as does Wallis.[3] What neither McLaren nor Wallis take the time to do is to describe carefully what poverty actually is. Why is that necessary? You might ask. Don’t we all know what poverty is and what is looks like? In some of the extreme cases, yes we do, but we also suffer from the stereotype of certain images that are etched in our minds and we superimpose those images onto what we perceive to be reality. Therefore, I’ve decided to aid us in our quest to approximate more accurately what poverty is by providing us with some facts to go along with our stereotypic thinking.

These images that we carry around with us are bolstered by the media with their advertisements and 15-second video clips, not to mention the way our illustrious politicians throw the word “poverty” or its synonyms around. Do you recall that then Vice-President for the Democrat Party, John Edwards, reminded us that there are two Americas? He declared that there is one America that does the work and another America that reaps the reward. Then Democrat Party presidential hopeful, John “Reporting for Duty” Kerry unequivocally stated that George Bush’s failed economic plan gave us another year of lower incomes and higher poverty rates. Is that true? Many didn’t pause long enough to answer that question, but it really is one that demands an answer if we are to deal with truth and not merely truth claims.

The media wants to give the impression that the poor in our country suffer in worse than Dickensian destitution. One “info babe” for CBS Evening News, Cynthia Bowers, reported in 2003 that each year an estimated 30 million Americans go hungry. 60 Minutes reporter, Scott Pelley, said that one out of six children in America—and that works out to about 12 million—faces hunger. These numbers are staggering, if they are true, but even if they’re inflated, that does not minimize our need as Christians to care for the poor. But in our compassion, we must not throw reason and caution to the wind. We should be prepared to dig a little deeper to insure that these numbers correspond with reality.

We know, for example, that the major health problem in a number of Third World countries is malnutrition. And even though the U.S. has thrown millions upon millions of dollars into international health care and food for the hungry, the problem perpetuates itself for a variety of reasons. How does this relate to America? It is a study in contrasts. The primary medical problem in poor foreign countries does not mean that we have the same problem on our shores. In fact, the major health problem in America is not malnutrition, but—ironically—obesity. In the words of Ben Stein, “Never before have so many people who can’t afford enough to eat been so overweight.”[4]

So what are the “stats” on poverty in our country? We all know that they vary from reporting bureau to reporting bureau, but according to the Department of Agriculture (2002) a whopping 97% of our citizens live in families that reported they had “enough to eat.” Here’s the shocker: “half of one percent said that they ‘often’ didn’t have enough to eat due to lack of funds.”[5] Half of one percent!

This type of factual data provided a lot of grist for the mill when, in 2004, Robert Rector and Kirk Johnson wrote their article “Understanding Poverty in America.” Their opening sentence is enlightening: “If poverty means lacking nutritious food, adequate warm housing, and clothing for a family, relatively few of the 35 million people identified as being ‘in poverty’ by the Census Bureau could be characterized as poor.”[6] They immediately added, “While material hardship does exist in the United States, it is quite restricted in scope and severity.”[7]

Quite concretely and specifically, this means that most of us have a distorted view of what truly constitutes poverty in America. Or, “The average ‘poor’ person, as defined by the government, has a living standard far higher than the public imagines.”[8] Ah, the government! Always there to lend a helping hand—at a cost, tax, or fee, of course. Here are just a few of Rector’s and Johnson’s findings about the poor in America. First, 46% of all poor households actually own their own homes.[9] Given our current housing crisis, that number might be somewhat lower now, but still a percentage in the high 30s or low 40s ought to surprise us.

Second, 76% of poor households have air conditioning.[10] When I was growing up only around 30% of the more opulent households had air conditioning, but now 76% of those considered poor have it.

Third, only 6% of poor households are overcrowded. More than 66% have more than two rooms per person.[11]

Fourth, the typical poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe and the rest of the world.[12]

Fifth, almost 75% of poor households in America own a car; 30% own two or more cars.[13]

Sixth, 97% of poor households have a color TV; over 50% own two or more color TVs.[14]

Seventh, 78% of poor Americans own a VCR or DVD player; 62% have cable or satellite reception.

Finally, 73% own microwaves, more than 50% have some kind of stereo or iPod, and 33% have automatic dishwashers.[15]

I would add to this list: the Lord only knows how many poor Americans have a cell phone, X-box, smoke, drink, and eat out in restaurants regularly.

The authors summarize their findings in this way:

Overall, the typical American defined as poor by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry, and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family’s essential needs. While this individual’s life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, liberal activists, and politicians.[16]

Thanks to Medicaid, poor Americans receive free (it’s really not “free,” but that’s what we’ve accepted calling it) medical care. And what they receive is not the bare bones (no pun intended), cheap-o stuff either. Medicaid covers “biofeedback, impotence treatment, sex-change operations, computerized tomography,[17] and even obesity treatment.”[18] Take the time to go to Medicaid web site and you can find a list of all the goodies covered (Go to “Medicaid Coverage—What’s New.”) Some of these procedures cost quite a bit of money, but are available for recipients.

Add to this growing list the fact that the “poor” currently receive free (it really isn’t…well, you know) elementary and high school education. After that, there are still abundant opportunities provided by the state. For example, in the 2000-2001 school year, $3.5 billion in “need-based” scholarships were granted by state universities.

The upshot of this is that poverty really isn’t what it used to be, but that does not negate the fact that Christians should be engaged in aiding those who are truly poor. We simply need to designate those who qualify and then not merely throw money at their problems, but come alongside them and present the Good News of Jesus Christ to them. The government has thrown money at poverty—real and perceived—for decades and there has been no improvement. For our purposes, I want to focus only on domestic poverty and leave the international scene out of the discussion for the time being.

Certain areas can easily pinpoint a number of poor folks who need our assistance, but other areas will have a little more difficulty. For instance, my home church is located in Orange County, California, which is an affluent area of our country. You see the odd homeless person at the end of a freeway off ramp, but we do not often encounter those types of people face to face, but it does happen. Therefore, our task is a bit more complex, but with the help of the city and county, we can find families who are in need. Another possibility for those living near military installations is to help low-income non-commissioned officer families. I’m not certain what the pay is for a Private First Class, but if he’s married and has a family, he is probably struggling to make ends meet. A local church could be of immense help to such a family.

What should this help look like? Maybe it would be easier to say what it would not look like. For the longest time, many congregations have sufficed with handing out food boxes and bags, which certainly has its place. What has been missing often is having the recipient perform some tasks around the church in order to earn the food. This would be easy to put into practice. The Elders and Deacons could set certain standards in terms of hours worked for food given. If we “give,” say, twenty-five dollars worth of food to the poor is it unreasonable to expect them to perform vacuuming and cleaning tasks to receive it? Is it unreasonable to expect for them to sit through a presentation of the gospel and an invitation for them to come back and worship?

In our next installment, we will take a look at the Consumer Price Index, by which the poverty rate in our country is calculated annually. There are a number of sound economists who believe that the CPI overstates inflation by about one percentage point per year! Think of the overall effects this would have in the long run; say, over a period of thirty years. Improper adjustment means artificially categorizing people as “poor,” who aren’t. In addition, we will want to investigate poverty as a temporary condition for many and an intractable problem for only about 1-4% of Americans.


[1] E. Calvin Beisner, Prosperity and Poverty, The Compassionate use of Resources in a World of Scarcity, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001).

[2] See, for example, “Capitalism as God,” “Obligations to Nonexistent Future People,” & “Collaboration for Co-liberation” in his latest book, Everything Must Change.

[3] See Part IV (When Did Jesus Become Pro-Rich? [pp. 209-296]) in God’s Politics.

[4] Ben Stein & Phil DeMuth, Can America Survive? (Carlsbad, CA: New Beginnings Press, 2004), p. 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Robert E. Rector & Kirk A. Johnson, “Understanding Poverty in America,” in Executive Summary Backgrounder (Heritage Foundation), no. 1713, (January 5, 2004), p. 1.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. The authors add, “These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.”

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] This is a method of radiography displaying details in a selected plane within the body—RG.

[18] Stein, CAS, 5.

16 Comments:

Blogger wordsmith said...

Ron, how can you be so heartless? Asking food aid recipients to actually do something in return? What's next, having trick-or-treaters rake your leaves before they get any Halloween candy? ;)

Seriously, the "poor" in this country are a lot better off than people realize, or are willing to admit. When my son was born almost three years ago, the hospital bill alone cost me $10-12k (caesarean was necessary). Sure would have been nice for the public to pick up that tab. Instead, I had to pay it myself, along with the medicaid bills of illegals and others who have no compunction about milking the system.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Solameanie said...

Ron,

Shame on you. How dare you pass judgment and consign the poor to eternity in the Lake of Fire? I'm shocked at your arrogance.

Just kidding. I wanted to role-play and pretend to be Randy for a moment. Now I have a splitting headache and advanced nausea. Serves me right.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Solameanie said...

BTW, forgot to add my praise for Cal Beisner. It's been a while, but he's been a guest on our radio program and if I remember right, is on Kevin's advisory board. He's top notch.

And Ron, your article is spot on.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Ron said...

Ron,
Thank you for this series. We can all sit and discuss the downfalls and pitfalls of our current system and how we arrived, wilst not looking at, or accepting, the responsibility God has placed on us through His word. What's needed, in my opinion, is to ascertain scripturally God's mandates, not just for His church, but for individual Christians as well, then press on toward obedience of these precepts. Then we need to determine a course of transitioning from what we have to where God intended us to be. I'm not so sure a "cold turkey" approach is appropriate, but am open to any ideas.
I feel this series is leading us in this direction, and I'm thankful for that. Since I serve at a "rescue" type mission, I am confronted with the ills of the system we have, and also am frustrated with fellow brothers and sisters who seem to see their responsibilities limited to finger pointing.
Lest I forget, and you have mentioned this previously, caring for the mentally ill and handicaped. Speaking from experience, though I've seen God work in some miraculous ways, I am shocked at the high percentage of poor and homeless that have serious mental issues.
Once again, thanks for starting the discussion.

5:58 AM  
Blogger Kim said...

Great article! Could you expound on how we can go about actually locating and helping the poor in our local communities? You said the county can help, but how? This has been my dilemma for years, and besides helping in migrant camps (which technically isn't domestic poverty, IMHO), I haven't been able to find the people who truly need help. I suppose that is just another fact to bolster the contention that true poverty is NOT rampant in our country when we have to look so hard to find it. Thanks.

7:32 AM  
Blogger Reicheru said...

Thoughtful post. It probably would be good to do some thinking about how our giving can best be spent.

I think it's okay to give a little money or food to people on the street. When we give to the "least of these" (and I want to include myself in that category in a non-materialistic way), perhaps we can imagine we are giving to God. So how do we know whether or not people are genuinely in the "least of these" category (in terms of physical needs) in America? I think we don't always know. And I think a big problem is bad habits and a lack of knowledge of how to spend money. And another problem is that it's hard for people to rent if they have a criminal record or no/bad credit, so they may end up in run-down motels that cost an arm and a leg. The church can reach out by giving meals and welcoming them to church social events, a food pantry, and church. I think it's not 100% about providing for the materialistic needs (though hopefully the food helps), but I hope the larger hope is that God will use that to draw people closer to Himself. A meal can't change a life, but God can, and it's possible he may use meals and love toward that end.

Thank you for thinking so carefully about this research. If a lot of finances were going to be given to help local "poverty", it probably would be best to thoughtfully consider the options as you clearly have.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

Kim,
Great questions. What we do is to work hand-in-hand with our Deacons. In the PCA, they work specifically in the area of mercy ministry. Clearly, this is a calling for all Christians, but we use our Deacons to spearhead this calling.
There are various means to find families in need. Our sources tend to be police departments (we have 3 law enforcement officers in our congregation)because they tend to have names of those in financial need, the Salvation Army, a battered women's shelter, or word of mouth. The last is the least productive since I live in an affluent part of America.
Ask your church leaders to join you and aid you in your search. Then you can make it something that engages more in the local congregation. Thanks again for your provocative comments.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

Reicheru,
You wrote, "I think it's okay to give a little money or food to people on the street." Probably food--as in buying them a meal and witnessing to them while they eat--is a better bet. Money tends to go for drugs or cheap booze.
When we give on the street, we don't know the status of the person. As Christians, I'm not convinced that we have to know every detail of a person's dilemma before we offer Christian charity.

"And another problem is that it's hard for people to rent if they have a criminal record or no/bad credit, so they may end up in run-down motels that cost an arm and a leg." Yes. Actions do have consequences. For example, once a person is convicted of being a sex offender, it is on their record for life. Drug addicts typically have to deal with the consequences of a number of bad decisions. We cannot completely undo them, but we can offer to come along side, work with them, and love them in Christ.
You are exactly correct that the larger objective is presenting them with the gospel, all the while not making them a "project" or a notch on our spiritual gun.
Thanks for your kind comments. All we need now if for the pastors to get on board!

12:40 PM  
Blogger Kim said...

Thanks for your answer. I will check with our deacons and see what our congregation is doing, if anything.

12:53 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

doing a post on the CPI is fine and good, but, if you go there, then you must examine the relevancy of the original poverty thresshold design. it was based around a budget that was 3x the amount it would take to feed a family. in other words, it was based on an estimate that food was 33% of a family's expenses.

Now, food might only be 15%-- which means, everything else being equal, the poverty line is only at 45% of what it used to be because of the adjustments of the CPI being "too low."

but overall i agree with your assessment-- i don't think the CPI being too low/high really changes your point.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

ironic how you are tank driver, theologian, economist, and businessman along with being a great politician.

Perhaps your understanding of poverty is not complete. Perhaps not being able to pay your heat bill in December in Michigan constitutes poverty? Perhaps having to choose between food or perscription drugs constitutes poverty?

Perhaps we need to recognize that our worldview isn't complete no matter how good our theology may be?

12:29 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

Randy,
How ironic that you a non-tank commander type--tank commander, not tank driver--non-theologian (you wasted your money at Calvin), non-economist, and non-businessman like comments.

"Perhaps your understanding of poverty is not complete. Perhaps not being able to pay your heat bill in December in Michigan constitutes poverty? Perhaps having to choose between food or perscription drugs constitutes poverty?"

My understanding of poverty isn't complete any more than yours is, but it is more adequate, substantial, non-emotive, and based on more facts than yours is.

Not being able to pay a heating bill doesn't--necessarily--constitute poverty. What if the person or persons in question squandered their money on meth or crack cocaine?

Where is their church is they have fallen on such hard times? Where is their family and relatives. What happened before the days of creeping socialism in this country? How did people survive. The same comments apply to prescription drugs.

"Perhaps we need to recognize that our worldview isn't complete no matter how good our theology may be?"

If our worldview isn't complete, have you asked old Bri lately why he knows he discovered the secret message of Jesus and wrote a book about it? Or did you ever ask Rob Bell why he concluded his book about the emergent "journey" with these modernist words: "But I can't do it alone. I need you. We need you. We need you to rediscover wonder and awe. We need you to believe that it is really possible. We need you to join us. IT'S BETTER THAT WAY. IT'S WHAT JESUS HAD IN MIND."?

You guys don't know, but then you discover Jesus' secret message; you don't know, but you know it's better a particular way and that it is what Jesus had in mind. You emergents are a bunch of inconsequentialists, who, at one time, were slightly amusing, but are now growing very tedious.

Since you stopped by, why don't you give us a good article on poverty.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Jamie said...

You have great points. All your comments seem to be US-centric.

Are you going to touch on meeting the needs of the truly poor in the world? The 1 billion or so people who live on less than $2/day?

9:39 AM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

Jamie,
I probably won't devote an entire article to global poverty, since I believe that it's next to impossible to regulate the aid that you send to foreign countries.
For example, all the aid we sent to Mogadishu, Somalia was confiscated by the war lords and the people who really needed it never got it or got it at the going price the war lord set.
A few decades ago, the amount of rice sent to India for aid would feed the entire population of Canada two-and-a-half times over, but it never got to the people because of the caste system. Instead, it was fed to the temple rats.

5:35 PM  
Blogger jazzact13 said...

--ironic how you are tank driver, theologian, economist, and businessman along with being a great politician.--

Hmm, have you been taking lessons from Alec Baldwin (remember when thought calling Sean Hannity a "former construction worker" was an insult?)?

9:36 AM  
Blogger james said...

Greetings in name of our lord Jesus Christ, who gave his life for us.
With heart full of happiness, joy and love, I found it honor to visit you today, I appreciate your effort in sharing the gospel to people, giving the world the meaning of life and the exposition of the kingdom of God which is at hand, I say more grace to your strength (1 Corinthians 15 v 58)(Isaiah 40 v 29-31)(Isaiah 3 v 10)(1corinthians 2 v 9).

I was going through your church programmers and activities, in fat I like the way you are carrying your programmers and activities.
I also came to understand that I must learn something from your programmers.

As a new person coming up to handle a church because I have just finished from the bible school, I don’t want to make mistake I heard others made, that Is why am looking for a direction as to be a successful preacher.

I have chosen you as my mentor in the ministry of the gospel I need guidance and direction on how to fulfill my destiny in God.

I wish to thank you for your helpful advice you will give to me.
Yours truly
Amburskelly James.

4:08 AM  

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