“God, Poverty....& Us.”
“Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” Proverbs 22: 22-23
“For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” Matt. 26: 11
Poverty — this one challenge has proven to be the greatest we face, both in Christian and other “faith-based” communities as well as to our larger local, state and national communities as well. What are we to do about poverty in our own local community, not to mention our country and in our world? How can we, in a world of such technological achievement which has resulted in a high standard of living for so many, help those who are left so far behind to where they struggle to survive? You have an insert in your worship bulletin which shares some statistics in case you are like me and until recently fairly ignorant about the depth of the situation.
Recently High Point came out at #2 on a national rating; unfortunately it was a rating as a “food-hardship” community, based upon the number of persons who responded that they had wanted for food in the previous month. Last week Rev. Carl Vierling had an excellent article in the High Point Enterprise explaining this study and how we came to our current ranking. He addresses many of the question we might have, so I encourage you to read it. In case you missed it, also on the insert are some statistics prepared by Carl and our own Dr. Joe Blosser.
What are the Causes of poverty and hunger?
Poverty is nothing new to humankind; unfortunately neither is malnutrition. Israel was commanded to set aside grain at the harvest that the poor might be able to glean after the workers. Further, the Jubilee Year was engrained into their law and tradition: every 49 years they were to remit all debts and return the land taken to the original families. The purpose was to prevent a permanent underclass from developing. As we saw in our text from Proverbs God is said to take the side of the poor and hungry; there are over 2,000 scripture verses which speak to the plight of the poor and our responsibility before God. If we believe the Bible is the word of God, the challenge is pretty clear.
What is disconcerting to so many, including myself, is that we have worked for decades in areas ranging from public and foreign policy to local food banks and community meals, yet the challenge is unending. Every significant church of which I am aware has ministries such as ours which strive to address this challenge, and yet poverty & hunger persist beyond all belief. Why can we not eradicate these evils? What are the root causes which entrench it into our world?
- A lack of education/illiteracy which results in a lack of employable skills.
- A failure of personal responsibility combined with poor decision making. Often alcohol & drug addiction go hand in hand with poverty.
- Crime and the environment of poverty are integrally related in cause and effect. It is quite difficult to ascertain which is first, like the chicken or the egg. Poverty breeds crime and crime breeds poverty.
- Single family homes with children: these are far more likely to be headed by females and to be living at or below the poverty level. The number one predictor of whether a boy will grow up to go to prison is growing up in a single family home, headed by a single mother, and living in poverty.
- The impact of poverty upon one’s cultural environment or mindset cannot be dismissed. Poor people tend to have more children, to live in environs of mental illness or depression, and to have an outlook of hopelessness toward their plight. Poverty becomes an intergenerational legacy for family after family.
- Poor governmental decisions and governmental corruption. Much of the monies we have given, both at home and overseas, have been coopted by corruption.
- War — with the violence and instability that it creates. We see this currently in Africa and in the Middle East where millions of formerly stable families are now reduced to living in refugee camps.
The Conditions of Poverty
Poverty brings with it a set of conditions which are incredibly similar from one geographical setting to another. These include:
- Less access to medical care and therefore weakened physical condition. Poor children miss more days of school due to illness or come unable to learn due to an illness.
- Less access to healthy food choices and education about what to eat. Children in poverty are more likely to be obese as they eat whatever is cheap.
- A lowered self-esteem so that one “gives up” before one starts. Self-esteem is vital to a “can-do” attitude that produces learning and growth.
- Residing in neighborhoods of violence and imminent danger. The poor are much more likely to experience crime of all sorts, including violent crime. They are much less likely to report this crime.
- Malnutrition, childhood diseases and early death surround the poor in many countries.
There is a prevailing narrative which I often hear — and I once thought myself — that if the poor would just work harder and apply themselves, then they would lift themselves out of poverty, be proud of their success and go onto greater success. The challenge to that narrative is that psychologically poverty is incredibly disruptive to a healthy and whole sense of self. Regardless of the conditions which brought on the poverty, the result is that one feels helpless to do anything about one’s conditions. The mindset of poverty can reduce one’s ability to strive and cope.
As a seminary student I was about as broke as one could be. I had put everything into one trunk and two suitcases, sold my car, and traveled by bus from Little Rock, Arkansas to Louisville, Kentucky. (When you spend the night in the Nashville bus station you soon learn what poverty is like.) However, I never thought of myself as poor, for I had been taught to never do that. I was just in a temporary situation where my bank account was not as deep as I wanted it to be. In conversations with others in similar situations I realized how fortunate and blessed I was to have been given the gift of vision. Poverty can be as psychologically imprisoning as any cell we have seen. We need to help set people free from this prison.
Possible Cures for Poverty
There is no “one-size fits all” cure for poverty and anyone who says that has never really looked at the issue. Further, the cure for poverty does not come in throwing money at the situation. Too often we have done that — it has been the main modus operandi of many well meaning ministries and programs. However, though the last 50 years have seen a decline in poverty for Seniors (primarily due to mandatory participation in the Social Security program,) the reality is that we are not reducing poverty in numbers anywhere near relative to the amount of monies spent. There are some actions and changes that I believe if we, the church, would incorporate into our response to poverty and hunger that would make tremendous changes in the lives of those who need a helping hand:
- Emphasis on education, with tutoring and male mentors for young men. Until a diploma, a vocation and a career is as valued as an athletic trophy we will see eyes opened for many young men way too late.
- Higher rates of education not only increase one’s opportunities for employment and therefore one’s potential income, they also decrease the number of children born in single family homes and therefore break the cycle of poverty that is so endemic in many communities.
- Education also applies to issues such as how one handles one’s money, i.e., concepts of budgeting and a disciplined approach to how one spends one’s money. What would happen if we were to join other churches in adopting one or two families a year and working with them to help them move from dependency and poverty to independence and economic stability? Our Mission and Children’s Ministry are currently taking the lead in this area.
- Proclaim and live a holistic gospel which centers on a relationship with Jesus Christ, central to which is an understanding of the values and ideals which following Christ entails. Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus Christ which results in a change in how we live and relate to God and one another. Most of us are the beneficiaries of these values, many of which have been incorporated into our culture and which we take for granted.
- A change in the attitude and focus of the “helpers” is also needed if we are to see progress. We do not need to come to any situation with the attitude of “do-gooders” or that we are better than anyone we may help. Economic situation often has less to do with innate ability and more to do with the cultural conditions and environment into which one is born. When I see people “pat themselves on the back” because they provide gifts at Christmas or turkeys at Thanksgiving, I want to just scream. This attitude is a central part of the problem: these share because this makes them feel good, not for the other. If we were really concerned about hunger in High Point then we would be involved in a year round process and not just show up at these appointed times. Are not poor people hungry other than at Thanksgiving?
- Our own Mission Team and leadership are looking at a project entitled the “Greater High Point Food Alliance.” Dr. Blosser is on the development team whose focus is a better coordination of food resources in High Point. This is well needed and will, I believe, will be well received by our faith community and others. We need to join together and increase the effectiveness of our response.
If we are to make a difference in the poverty and hunger situation in our society and world then we must open our eyes and realize the stratification of wealth, i.e., the extent to which relationship and societal status engender wealth and enable wealth to pass from one generation to another. There is no doubt that many in our own community have had the education, intelligence and drive to rise above what we would consider “modest beginnings” and live in relative economic ease. I could not be prouder of these and I salute their achievement. We also must recognize that in many situations, being in the right place at the right time, with the right name and the proper connections, was all determinative in their success. In private discussions with successful people I have asked them how they made it and the conversation has eventually turned to that one person or persons who gave them a truly golden opportunity. They are forever grateful — and I am glad for them.
What about those who do not have those opportunities presented to them? What about those who do not have these connections or those helping hands which provide such significant assistance? What about those whose medical conditions or innate intellectual abilities provide insurmountable obstacles to rising out of poverty? What about those who work in careers which are vital and important to our society, but are not avenues to wealth? I am thinking here of teachers, counselors in our schools and EMT personnel, police and fire department employees? Often these work long hours and exist from paycheck to paycheck. Are there ways in which we can work together so as to ensure that such people are rewarded and enabled to live relatively stress free in an economic sense?
In a recent email conversation with Rev. Vierling he shared that the helping agencies are seeing many, many people need assistance who are nothing more than victims of a changing economic structure. To quote: “Many that are now seeking assistance have never sought help in the past. They find themselves in a position they never imagined. All their life they played by the rules, being loyal to their employer working hard, doing all that is asked, and then one day they are no longer employed through no fault of their own.”
We need a faith understanding which sees issues of social justice as essential to what it means for us to be a follower of Jesus Christ. When the prophets called upon people to promote justice in their communities, they were calling upon them to correct the injustices of society. Remember the Jubilee Year which I mentioned earlier as a part of the Jewish Torah? Before long the wealthy had manipulated the process and the last I read there was no indication that it had ever been practiced to any significant extent, if at all. If we are not careful we will also manipulate the gospel so that it fits our culture, rather than changing the culture to fit the gospel.
For instance: from time to time people will state that the only purpose of the church is to “win people to Jesus Christ.” Quite honestly, I find that a truncated gospel. Yes, I want you to be converted to Jesus. But I want you to be so converted that you see the other as one to loved, identified with, and cared for — regardless of cultural or ethnic boundaries. The gospel I know is a gospel that changes us completely, from the inside out, so that we see others with the eyes of Jesus — and not with our cultural spectacles.
We must see ourselves as interconnected and our plight as inseparably bound with every person upon the face of this earth, wealthy and poor alike. Do you remember the story Jesus told of Dives and Lazarus? In this Dives is presented as a good man — but he winds up in hell. Lazarus — whom all the listeners would have assumed was a “sinner,” wound up in heaven. Dives’ sin was not that he hated Lazarus, but that he never saw Lazarus; when he did he saw him as one to do his bidding, not as a brother before God. When we really get converted, when Jesus Christ really comes in and becomes the Lord of our lives, we will see the other as essential to our relationship with God and therefore as our brothers and sisters in Christ. Then, and only then, will we begin to make a difference in the cycles of poverty, illiteracy, hunger and violence which plague our city and our world.
Robert U. Ferguson, Jr., Ph.d.
March 1, 2015
- Almost half the world — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
- The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the 41 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (567 million people) is less than the wealth of the world’s 7 richest people combined.
- Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
- Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it didn’t happen.
- 1 billion children live in poverty (1 in 2 children in the world); 640 million live without adequate shelter, 400 million have no access to safe water, 270 million have no access to health services. 10.6 million died in 2003 before they reached the age of 5 (or roughly 29,000 children per day).
- Every day approximately 21,000 children in the world die, primarily from poverty or malnutrition issues.
Poverty in High Point
From Dr. Joe Blosser and Rev. Carl Vierling
- The poverty rate in High Point is 19.2% versus a state wide number of 15.5%2.
- Five of the 100 poorest neighborhoods in North Carolina are in High Point3.
- The poverty rate in these neighborhoods range from 42.2%-59.5%3.
- 77.5% of the children living in those neighborhoods live in poverty3.
- 35.7% of males under the age of 5 live below poverty4.
- 37.9% of females age 15 live below the poverty level4.
- 39.6% of females 18-24 live below the poverty level4.
- Poor families by family type4:
- Married-couple family (27.9%)
- Male, no wife present (10.4%)
- Female, no husband present (61.7%)
- Homelessness in Greensboro/High Point
- 897 total persons experience homelessness on any given day5.
- 101 persons experience chronic homelessness5.
- 98 vets are homeless any given day5.
- 327 persons are experiencing a disabling mental health condition or addiction5.
- 2222 Guilford County students experienced homelessness according to the January 29, 2014 Point In Time Homeless Student Count.5
- 92 school students are staying in a shelter5.
- 97 students are living in a hotel/motel or some other place not meant for human habitation5.
- 1927 students are staying with a friend or family member because their family cannot afford housing5.
- Community Resource Network (CRN)-Emergency Assistance from July 2013 through June 2014.
- Total rent assistance for 462 households- $138,004.74. 18% increase over last year.
- Total utility assistance for 4701 households-$947,917.45. This is a decrease of 25% since last year.
- Crisis Intervention Program (CIP) $947,917.45
- Total households receiving food 12,692. 8.3% increase over last year.
- Total households served 17,393. 5% decrease since last year.
- North Carolina ranks 4th worst in the nation for food insecurity1.
- Greensboro/High Point MSA ranks 4th in the nation for food insecurity with Winston-Salem ranked as 3rd worst in the nation1.
- 19.3% of the population of Guilford County is food insecure — meaning they are not sure where their next meal will come from1.
- Of those that are food insecure 31% do not qualify for government assistance1.
- Greensboro/High Point ranks 2nd (tied with New Orleans) for food hardship in the nation6. (Food hardship means that at some point in the last 12 months that you did not have enough money to buy food for you and your family.)
- 25% of those that are at risk for hunger in North Carolina are children1.
- 31% of the food pantries in North Carolina have reduced the amount of food that they give away and more than 28% of the pantries in North Carolina have had to turn people away because they did not have enough food.
- There are 24 food deserts in Guilford County with 7 being in High Point.7
Notes for the paper from Dr. Blosser and Rev. Vierling:
12nd Harvest Food Bank-http://www.hungernwnc.org/about-hunger/index.html: accessed 5/1/13.
2United States Census Bureau-http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/37/3731400.html:accessed 4/2/12.
3The N.C. Budget and Tax Center as published in the High Point Enterprise.
4http://www.city-data.com/poverty/poverty-High-Point-North-Carolina.html: accessed 4/2/12.
5Partners Ending Homelessness-http://www.partnersendinghomelessness.org/research/index.php: accessed 7/21/14
6Food Research and Action Center-http://frac.org/pdf/food_hardship_2012.pdf: Accessed 05/23/14
7Food Deserts in Guilford County, Guilford County Department of Public Health