How to Help the Poor?: The Muddy Mess of a Moderate Christian

homeless-poor-american-familyI try to avoid discussions about politics with other Christians, especially when it involves economics and poverty. The reason being is that we are very quick to assign the right vs. left label.  As soon as I give support for free markets, limited government and reasons not to raise the minimum wage, I get lumped in with the conservative/ right/Tea Party camp with the caricature of not caring for the poor. But let me talk about issues related to poverty and how some form of government support is needed, I get lumped in with the left and disregarding sound economic philosophy. We love putting people in boxes And once you’re assigned to a particular camp, it then becomes ineffective to have discussions around policy issues.

It’s messy and that’s where moderates like me find ourselves. So when I say a muddy mess,  I don’t necessarily mean in a pejorative sense. This is where I get frustrated with evangelicals who would rather assign affiliations than talk about the issues. If we’re going to have honest discussions about solutions to poverty, we can’t let them get lost in a right vs. left debate.

I’ve been a registered independent for ages. I am a capitalist and believe in the free market system. I agree with this superb article by Peter Cove, who speaks about benefits of work, any work, to lift people out of poverty. We do need to take serious the culture of dependency that’s not only created generational poverty, but the overall failure to reduce federal expenditures. So I’ve wanted to register Republican for some time now but I just can’t bring myself to full alignment. Poverty is a complex animal involving disparities in resources and skills. But these complexities tend to get overlooked regarding the solutions needed to become independent of any type of government assistance.  There’s also the working poor who fail to earn a sufficient income. Its not as simple as ‘oh they just need to get a better job’. I also find it fascinating when those who uphold total depravity are less forgiving in how that has worked itself out regarding personal responsibility.

Joe Carter, of the Gospel Coalition and Acton Institute, provided these statistics about 9 Things You Should Know About Poverty in America;

Of concern were numbers 4, 8 and 9, which I think emphasizes my point about the messiness.

4) Most antipoverty efforts by churches are not reflected in the official poverty calculations. Government and private programs aimed at relieving poverty do not lower the official poverty rate since that measure counts only monetary income. Antipoverty programs such as food stamps, housing assistance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, school lunches, as well as all private food, clothing, and service donations are considered “in-kind benefits” —— and hence not income.

There shouldn’t be a separation between private organizations and churches regarding poverty relief if the criteria is increasing monetary income. A good private organization will have as its goal increasing monetary income and greater self-sufficiency. Depending on the type of programs and mission of the organization, there will be a diverse portfolio of public-private resources. I’m not sure how he can say that private organizations have not made a difference in this regard or that churches have done better.

8) According to the U.S. Census Bureau figures, the average household living in poverty in America has more amenities and a higher standard of living than in most other countries. The typical poor household, as defined by the government, has a car and air conditioning, two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR. If there are children, especially boys, the family has a game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation. In the kitchen, the household has a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave. Other household conveniences include a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone, and a coffee maker. The home of the typical poor family is in good repair and is not overcrowded. In fact, the typical average poor American has more living space in his home than the average (non-poor) European has. By its own report, the typical poor family was not hungry, was able to obtain medical care when needed, and had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs.

As I wrote about here, to measure poverty on the basis of electronic conveniences really ignores the root cause related to a family’s inability to increase economic self-sufficiency. Comparing conveniences to other parts of the world says nothing about the burdens of poverty to be overcome towards this goal.

9) The most destitute Americans are often those classified as either temporary and chronic homeless. On a single night in 2012 there were 633,782 homeless people in the United States (0.2% of the total population), including 394,379 who were homeless as individuals and 239,403 people who were homeless in families. In 2012, 99,894 people were chronically homeless, representing just fewer than 16 percent of all homeless people. Chronic homelessness has declined by 19.3 percent since 2007.

It is interesting that chronic homelessness has decreased since this is due in large part to the U.S. Dept of Housing and Urban Development’s McKinney Vento Act programs for permanent supportive housing and housing first initiatives developed by various nonprofits throughout the country. This is what has been largely instrumental in this decline. It is worth noting that chronic homelessness means the presence of persistent and long-term homelessness and a disabling condition that needs some serious intervention in terms of removing the barriers to self-sufficiency. It also should be noted that mental illness is a significant contributor. These are not folks who can just get it together and take responsibility. Who pays for the intervention?

poverty_girl walking through dumpWhen it comes to issues related to poverty, who pays to help the poor is the core difference.  And that’s where it gets muddy for moderates like me.  Yes, out of love for neighbor, we should care about the poor and outcast and encourage private outlays through church and other organizations. But if we think there are enough private resources to help those who truly need it, then I think that is a bit myopic. On the other hand, we should be concerned with large government outlays and the dependence on government to fix the problem.

It takes more than saying “the right does this” or “the left does that”. Caricatures of the poor and dependency don’t help either.  Creating this simplified, polarized discussion also ignores that corruption resides on both sides. I really appreciated Jon’s Stewarts little rant (especially the last 2 minutes) about giving corporate corruption a pass to help the wealthy but zero tolerance for those without any resources. Ironic.

The bottom line is that I think it takes some thoughtful dialogue and analysis not punting to convenient partisan corners. More importantly, we should be looking through Christ-centered lens before a political-centered lens. Perhaps more on that next time.


2 thoughts on “How to Help the Poor?: The Muddy Mess of a Moderate Christian

  1. Invisible Mikey February 8, 2014 / 10:10 am

    This was a thoughtful examination, Lisa. I tend to prefer acts of direct service more as I get older. Because “what to do about the poor” (or oppressed) was always too big a question for me to answer and understand comprehensively, I have gradually dedicated more time and effort to just doing things that help. Because I’m not in a position to change things systemically, instead I’ll act to help one person or one family at a time. My wife and I volunteer more, and I switched from working in showbiz to health care. Back when we used to live more materialistically, and had more robust incomes, we gave a lot of money sort of generically. I never knew how much got swallowed up in administrative cost. Now I’m more able to see the needs of individuals right before my eyes, and I’m freer to act in direct support. I don’t know if that’s more effective, but it is more satisfying because the person in need and I are in a relationship, working together on a problem.

  2. Brian March 30, 2014 / 9:36 pm

    I am an agnostic and a capitalist but do not believe in unregulated free markets. Free markets would never have allowed me to escape from the poverty of my parents. Socialist policies in Europe achieved enormous change socially after the Second World War. The answer lies in the compromise between capitalism and democratic socialism which allows everyone to SHARE in the benefits of the economic growth they contribute too. American politics are a mess – how can a Christian support the Tea Party. Jesus believed in tolerance and helping the poor. So do I, an agnostic, trying to help the poor of Guatemala who have been condemned to poverty by extreme right wing politics in Guatemala and the UNITED STATES. Religion cannot separate itself from politics but it does. In 19th Century Europe the churches realised that preaching to the poor was useless without challenging the rich through politics.
    The right is defining how you think. That is why you feel so uncomfortable.

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