Christians and 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. 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, as does Wallis. 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.”
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.” 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.” They immediately added, “While material hardship does exist in the United States, it is quite restricted in scope and severity.”
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.” 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. 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. 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.
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.
Fifth, almost 75% of poor households in America own a car; 30% own two or more cars.
Sixth, 97% of poor households have a color TV; over 50% own two or more color TVs.
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.
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.
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, and even obesity treatment.” 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?
 E. Calvin Beisner, Prosperity and Poverty, The Compassionate use of Resources in a World of Scarcity, (
 See, for example, “Capitalism as God,” “Obligations to Nonexistent Future People,” & “Collaboration for Co-liberation” in his latest book, Everything Must Change.
 See Part IV (When Did Jesus Become Pro-Rich? [pp. 209-296]) in God’s Politics.
 Ben Stein & Phil DeMuth, Can America Survive? (Carlsbad, CA: New Beginnings Press, 2004), p. 3.
 Robert E. Rector & Kirk A. Johnson, “Understanding Poverty in America,” in Executive Summary Backgrounder (Heritage Foundation), no. 1713, (January 5, 2004), p. 1.
 Ibid. The authors add, “These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.”
 This is a method of radiography displaying details in a selected plane within the body—RG.
 Stein, CAS, 5.