Poverty in America

The Rich and the Rest of Us

In a recent interview on the CBS show Face the Nation, PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West, co-authors of the new book The Rich and the Rest of Us, said that half of Americans—150 million people—are poor. Their definition of poverty includes more than lacking basic resources and living below the official poverty line. The poor are also those who live one or two paychecks away from poverty.

The authors argue that poverty is a lack of money, not a character flaw. Poverty is “a result of unemployment, war, the Great Recession, corporate greed, and income inequality.” They write that we can no longer indulge “shame-and-blame” attitudes. “We can no longer judge anyone who is living poor in America as someone who is lazy or who has made a series of avoidable bad choices. Such pat indictments and stereotypes obscure a fundamental truth: there is a poverty of opportunity in America.”

Smiley and West believe that as a nation, we tend to “ignore the poor and deny the extent of poverty.” They believe policymakers of our nation are not taking poverty seriously: “There seems to be a bipartisan consensus in this town—and you know how hard that is to do—but a bipartisan consensus that the poor just don’t matter, that poverty is just not an important issue,” Smiley said in the Face the Nation interview. “We cannot abide another campaign for the White House where the issue of poverty isn’t raised higher on the American agenda.”

Smiley and West see poverty as a societal crisis, saying it “threatens our very democracy” because of the extent to which both parties are influenced by “big money.”

Big money includes rich corporations as well as very rich people. Smiley and West write that since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision ruled that corporations are people and without disclosure can spend whatever they want to influence elections, corporations have more power in elections than “real people.”

The New Poor

The number of people in poverty include the “new poor” like Vicki Jones, who wrote a recent commentary in the Chicago Sun-Times entitled “I’m on Food Stamps. Don’t Hate Me for It.” Her story and feelings are all too common. A college graduate, she was studying to be a chiropractor when the recession hit. Her husband lost his job, they lost their house and declared bankruptcy, and their marriage ended. Now Jones is a single mom who lives on $60 a week and food stamps. Student loans allow her to stay in school. She wrote the piece to inform those who criticize people on food stamps for taking advantage of the system. She says she is tired of the hate and ignorance she encounters and tired of being embarrassed. “Unless you’ve lost everything, you cannot possibly understand what drives someone to accept food stamps.”

Jones was interviewed in an NPR segment on the new poor in America. She said she receives $367 a month in food stamps. In a 30-day month, that’s $12 a day for two people, or $2 a meal. Jones is one of the 18 million Americans who have had to apply for food stamps since the economic crisis began in 2007. Currently 46 million Americans rely on food stamps, which have replaced cash assistance as the most common safety net in America.

Paying Attention

What can Christians do to prevent and reduce poverty? A first step is to pay attention to poverty. The popular novel and film The Hunger Games portrays a country ruled by a central Capitol in which the wealthy elite are distracted by the entertainment of the Hunger Games, a televised survival game in which poor children must kill or be killed. The adults can’t see the injustice of the games. The novel and film have been instrumental in raising awareness about social justice, including how a society’s systems and structures contribute to poverty.

John Wesley expected early Methodists to visit the poor and be in ministry with them. He said, “One great reason why the rich in general have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is that . . . one part of the world does not know what the other suffers.”

A second step is to understand poverty as a moral issue. In his book The Great Awakening, Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine says, “Just as our religious forebears . . . declared that slavery was morally intolerable, we must now insist that widespread poverty in the midst of plenty is a moral wrong and a religious offense that we refuse to accept any longer.” Calling poverty “the new slavery,” Wallis says, “It is time to lift up practical policies and practices that help the poor escape their poverty and clearly challenge the increasing wealth gap between rich and poor.”

Advocates for Justice

Genuine compassion and awareness that poverty is a moral issue lead to questions about justice. In a nation as wealthy as the United States, why is it that so many people need charity? What are the root causes of poverty?

Asking the justice questions leads to a third critical step to prevent and reduce poverty. It involves working for justice—that is, working to change public policy, supporting legislation and programs that reduce poverty. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World (BFW), writes, “When I ask people in churches whether they have ever contacted an elected official about the national nutrition programs, such as food stamps and school lunches, only a few people raise their hands. Yet all the food provided by all the charities in the country amounts to about 6 percent of the amount of food that poor people receive from federal food programs such as school lunches and food stamps.”

Ministries such as food banks and homeless shelters are essential in alleviating the suffering of poverty. However, such direct services don’t address the root causes of poverty. Beckmann writes, “Most churches in this country encourage people to help poor people directly and through charities, but say little about changing laws and structures that keep people poor—even though the God of the Bible insists on just laws and is concerned about the behavior of nations as well as individuals.”

Beckmann continues, “I have come to see this generation’s struggle against hunger and poverty as a great exodus in our own time. It is like the Lord’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt on a much larger scale, and God did not send Moses to Pharaoh’s court to take up a collection of canned goods and blankets. God sent Moses to Pharaoh with a political challenge: to let Hebrew slaves go free.” Beckmann holds that “charitable programs are important to hungry people, but it is impossible to food-bank our way to the end of hunger in America. If we are to make serious progress against hunger, we also need to make our government an active and effective part of the solution.” To do so, people of faith need to be advocates for the poor. We need to be in touch with our legislators.

In election campaigns, poverty is not high on the agenda for public discourse. Jim Wallis says, “Politicians prefer to talk about issues that affect the middle class because they know where the votes are, and they know that low-income people have the lowest voter turnout of any group in society (and don’t make many political donations either!).”

Christians can make a difference by insisting that reducing poverty be high on the agenda of public officials. We can write letters, make phone calls, and visit our legislators. The 2008 United Methodist General Conference included a call for congregations to become Bread for the World Covenant Churches (#4055) and participate in BFW letter-writing campaigns to members of Congress. In addition, it issued this statement: “Jesus fed hungry people, befriended outcasts and called for radical sharing. . . . Those of us who have been embraced by this ‘good news’ are drawn to be concerned about people in need and we are compelled to work to make our society’s laws fair and helpful toward poor and hungry people.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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