Christianity and the presenting problem of poverty in America today

NOTE TO READERS: This essay reflects a sampling of literature on Christian ethical principles regarding alleviation of poverty in America. Throughout the article, there are links to the articles referenced for the reader to review. In addition, the contributor has provided links to books that are recommended and are available for purchase through Amazon.com. By purchasing the recommended books, you are supporting this website for timely, thought-provoking essays. The views expressed in this Essay are the express viewpoints of the contributing writer. 

…the Church can only have a legitimate and significant role to play when focused in a local and particular context and when guided by a sound theological rationale, which is quite explicit in the Bible (Ayiemba, Theuri, Mungai, 2015)


Christian Ethics on Poverty
“They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do” (Galatians 2: 10). I begin with Paul’s report of what he was asked to do by the church in Jerusalem as a reminder that to be asked to remember the poor is an ongoing Christian obligation.

Stanley Hauerwas published an Op-Ed article on February 10, 2014 at the ABC Religion and Ethics column. His article, The End of Charity: How Christians are [not] to ‘remember the poor’, is a critique and response to what Hauerwas calls severe criticism for the treatment of those in poverty. He writes:

We are supposed to care for those less well off. Almsgiving is constitutive of what it means to be a Christian. Yet how Christians have cared for those who have less has recently come under severe criticism.

The essential problem, Hauerwas and others have commented on, regarding poverty is based on a two-fold question: How are the poor identified? And, what leads individuals to experience poverty? According to Hauerwas, failing to address these two pertinent questions appear to lead toward failure in addressing and alleviating poverty. Therefore, this essay explores a sampling of literature regarding Christianity, the Bible, and Ethics in relation to poverty and the Christian duty in addressing and assisting in resolving those who are impoverished.

First, we will explore an understanding of the presenting problem in America today. This is based on a recent research and study that was published by the Washington Post. Based on a poll conducted between April 13 and May 1, the statistics appear to report that majority of the Christians remark how poverty is due to a lack of effort on the individual’s part. In contrast, the same poll appeared to reveal those with no religious affiliation appear to report those suffering poverty because of difficult circumstances.

Second, we will explore a review of sampling literature on the subject of Christian Ethics and alleviation of poverty. This will be the most significant aspect in addressing the Christian Duty (both, individually, and corporately) toward addressing the issues individuals face because of poverty.

Next, the essay will present information from sound theological and Biblical perspectives as it relates to the teachings surrounding the poor (which the sampling literature reflects) and solidifying the Biblical nature of one’s Christian duty toward those who are impoverished.

Finally, a conclusion will provide a call to action for each individual Christian, Pastor, and local Christian Churches to take necessary steps and actions in implementing policies and procedures that may lead to greater influence and impact within the local community. This goes beyond operating a food and clothing bank, referral sources to secular non-profit agencies (e.g., Shelters, Social Services), and other such resources. The call to action is based on sound Biblical teaching and admonishment.

Understanding the presenting problem in America today

The Washington Post published an article entitled: Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on a lack of effort. Working with the Kaiser Family Foundation, a poll asked 1,686 Americans to answer whether a person’s state of poverty was due to lack of effort or circumstances beyond one’s control.

One of the interesting components of the Post’s article is the summation of how this is not merely an ethical issue, it is also wrapped up within a political issue as well. A review of the graph presented by the Post appears to show that “…Among Democrats, 26 percent blamed lack of effort and 72 percent blamed circumstances.” This is compared to “…Republicans, 63 percent blamed lack of effort and 32 percent blamed circumstances.” It further breaks down to denominational perceptions, gender, race, and other considerations. Overall, the article appears to focus on the majority of the Christians who blame an individual’s lack of effort are those Christians who identify as White and Evangelical.

Statistics aside, one of the most interesting anecdotal stories circulating around social media reflects a newly appointed pastor. It shares how this pastor showed up on his first Sunday to deliver a sermon. However, he sat outside the church for sometime, dressed as a homeless person. As the story progresses, it shares how no one paid him attention, ignored him, or looked upon him with certain disgust. As the service came to a start, he walked in and sat at the front, was then escorted by the ushers to sit in the back of the sanctuary. The service started with praise and worship. When it came time, one of the deacons approached and introduced the pastor. Everyone appeared to look around and noticed the same man get up from the back of the church, and coming to the pulpit. He revealed to them who he was and shared with them his disappointment in how he was treated. He ended the service with people hanging their heads in shame and disbelief.


and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” James 2:3 ESV


According to blogger, Sheila Kennedy, she appears to perceive the Washington Post article as a reflection of “…the continuing cultural influence of Calvinism, which taught that God had decided who would be saved or damned before the beginning of history, and that this decision would not be affected by how human beings behaved during their lives.” While the Post does separate the understanding between Premillinialists and Postmillinialists, I personally see no reflection of any Calvinistic tradition (this is due in part of my study of Calvinism and the rise of the Protestant Reformation over the years). However, Kennedy does make quite an astute observation in her post:

Over time, as the presumed connection between wealth and elect status fostered by Calvinism became part of American Culture, it influenced today’s common belief that poverty indicates moral deficit and wealth is a marker of merit. Those attitudes, together, with America’s emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility, continue to overshadow recognition of the important role played by policies and systematic influences.

She concludes how this particular survey

...results illuminate the dilemma for public policy: if people are poor because of minimum wage levels facilitate exploitation, or because automation is eliminating jobs, or because of inadequacies in America’s social safety net, the policies to be pursued will look very different from policies based upon a belief that poverty is a result of personal moral failure.

Kennedy also mentions how Christian economic realism is far better than the well-to-do Christian Charity. I am leaning to agree with the perspective Kennedy offers in relation to Charity vs. Christian Economic Realism.

America, Capitalism, Adam Smith, and the Bible

As part of our understanding of the presenting social problem of poverty in America, and reflection of Christian ethical principles in alleviating poverty within the local communities, we are to also understand the nature of capitalism in American culture. This is more true today since we are ascribed to being in a Post-Modern society. William Bole discusses this in his article Relative Poverty: Where Adam Smith and the Bible Agreeas published in the Christian Century on December 14, 2011. According to Bale, his premise focused on which viewpoint of economic inequality held greater merit. He reflects how the father of Capitalism (Adam Smith) and the Biblical writers opposed “…gross income inequality“.

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Bole makes two references. The first reference regards Pope Benedict XVI and a publication by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace that appears to highlight “…urgent need of a true world political authority” to address these disparities within and between nations. The second reference deals with a publication by the Heritage Foundation where senior scholars, Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, “…declared that the poor today live better than the rich did a century ago and enjoy conveniences that the middle class couldn’t afford in the recent past.”  

The observation Bole appears to present is that the “We got stuff school of thought” (as represented by Rector and Sheffield, fail to take into account that American’s do not live in a past-gone-by era of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Neither do American’s live in lands that are impoverished and lack the modern technology and conveniences we do enjoy today. According to Bole, “Americans inhabit a particular space and time. They live in communities and need access to the resources that will help them participate fully within those communities.” These resources are basic: decent-gainful employment that has a decent salary, affordable health insurance and retirement security, and ability to utilize cell phones, computers, reliable vehicles and/or transportation.

The most poignant observation Bole makes is how the Jewish Prophets, and Jesus himself, were not concerned about previous generations of people lacking modern conveniences of their time. His observation reflects how the Old Testament prophets, and Jesus himself “…spoke precisely against the marginalization of economically disadvantaged people within their social contexts.”

Furthermore, the continued observation Bole presents is that which is reflected in Ronald J. Sider’s work: Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America 41WXj3Vz1cL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

William Bole writes: Ronald J. Sider offers a compelling analysis of this biblical tradition. This work is available on Amazon. By clicking the link above, you are able to review and purchase this work.

Just Generosity calls Christians to examine their priorities and their pocketbooks in the face of a scandalous tendency to overlook those among us who suffer while we live in practical opulence. This holistic approach to helping the poor goes far beyond donating clothes or money, envisioning a world in which faith based groups work with businesses, the media, and the government to help end poverty in the world’s richest nation. This updated edition includes current statistics, policy recommendations, and discussions covering everything from welfare reform, changes to Medicaid, and the Social Security debate.”Sider’s most important book since Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.”Jim Wallis, author, God’s Politics “Sider knows how to lift up people in need. . . . [An] important and challenging book.”John Ashcroft, former Attorney General of the United States

The focal point of this work, Bole refers to, is on how Leviticus 25:35-36 provides insight in how the poor are seen as “being on the verge of ‘falling out of the community‘.”

Going back to Adam Smith, William Bole also mentions how the father of Capitalism explains in Wealth of Nations certain principle doctrines of “necessities”:

Smith explains…that human needs include not just the rudimentary supports of life but “whatever the customs of the country render it indecent for creditable people, even the lowest order, to be without.” What is it that is “necessities”? Citing Smith’s examples, Bole shares how a creditable day-laborer might be ashamed to appear in public without a “linen shirt”, and the want of which may be seen as a disgraceful degree of poverty.


The Wealth of Nations was published 9 March 1776, during the Scottish Enlightenment and the Scottish Agricultural Revolution. It influenced a number of authors and 71dsU1pQbiLeconomists, as well as governments and organization s. For example, Alexander Hamilton was influenced in part by The Wealth of Nations to write his Report on Manufactures, in which he argued against many of Smith’s policies. Interestingly, Hamilton based much of this report on the ideas of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, and it was, in part, Colbert’s ideas that Smith responded to with The Wealth of Nations. Many other authors were influenced by the book and used it as a starting point in their own work, including Jean-Baptiste Say, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus and, later, Ludwig von Mises. The Russian national poet Aleksandr Pushkin refers to The Wealth of Nations in his 1833 verse-novel Eugene Onegin.


Who are America’s Poor? 

A review of the available literature shows a predominate question: Who are the Poor in America? The subsequent question is, how is this a difficult question to answer? And, depending on ones perspective, determines how one may answer the first question. In an article, Below the line: Poverty in Americapublished at the Christian Science Monitor: contributing writer, Jina Moore interviews, and shares, Linda Criswell’s story of stealing fruit from the day care she is employed at. Moore posits the question: Is Linda Criswell poor? Moore then makes this observation:

This turns out to be a very difficult question to answer. How you answer may depend as much on who you are – liberal or conservative, city-dweller or rural homesteader, low-wage laborer or salaried middle-class – as on any single set of criteria. Even the government isn’t sure how to think about the question: in some states, making $1,000 a month might qualify you for food stamps but could be too much income to qualify for medicaid.

According to report by the US Census Bureau, released in 2012, the official figures of American’s experiencing poverty is about 46.2 million; or, about 15% of the US Population. Moore reflects how poverty threshold increases since the government started tracking poverty records, beginning in 1969. Furthermore, Moore reflects how the increase in America’s poverty may be attributed to the ripple effects from the Great Recession. Quoting Professor Mark Rank of Washington University in St. Louis, the reason for increase in poverty is not due to individuals working less, or are not working harder, it is because there appears to be a lack in decent paying jobs.

Moore also provides insight from former Clinton administration official, Peter Edelman, where people are working, however, they are not climbing out of poverty. According to Edelman, many of these individuals are low-wage laborers. Along with this, she cites the National Employment Law Project where it appears low-paying employment opportunities were added to the economy between 2008 and 2010. And, she further comments how the projection of employment growth to 2020 will be six low-wage employment opportunities out of every ten. Even more distressing is the view that since 1979, Moore reflects how the American economy has significantly lost approximately 1/3 of it’s capacity to generate good jobs. This, she writes, is according to a paper published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

What, then, is the presenting problem in America today?

While I am in agreement, it is perception based on how one defines poverty among the American populace, and within specific defined local communities, there are some tell-tale signs of what is being construed as poverty. In a news report by King 5 News (and other News sources) on April 26, 2017, a family of four that brings in 72,000 per year is considered “low-income”.

The Seattle Times published an article on May 1, 2017 reflecting how poverty is considered a suburban challenge now.  And, one of the biggest issues facing this region is the substantial increase in housing within King County and the City of Seattle. This comes on the heels of the increase of Washington State voter approved minimum wage of 11.00 per hour. In the City of Seattle, minimum wage is increased to 15.00 per hour. It is interesting that the Seattle Times, the Stranger, and other local news sources are publishing articles relating to the local area and the increase in poverty among those residents (see my article Seattle is Number 1 Ranked Nation Wide in Rental Increase).

Here are some factors to consider:

This is just the rise in housing cost and the burden it is becoming for many Americans today.

Along with the rise in housing cost, the lack in affordable housing, there is also the increase in the lacking of gainful employment. Even in the City of Seattle, a person working full time (approximately 30 hours per week) at 15.00 per hour may not be able to afford the “necessities” earlier referenced. Additionally, factor in the cost of health care (including the Affordable Care Act), health premiums and insurance rates have dramatically increased.

According to the National Conference of State Legislation, it is reported the following on July 1, 2017:

The increased cost of health insurance is a central fact in any discussion of health policy and health delivery.  Annual premiums reached $18,142 in 2016 for an average family,  up 3 percent from 2015, with workers on average paying $5,277 towards the cost of their coverage.* For those Americans who are fully-covered, these cost realities affect employers, both large and small, plus the “pocket-book impact” on ordinary families. Yet for those buying insurance on an exchange or private market plan for 2017, the average increase before subsidies was a shocking 25 percent. For 2016 among the roughly 85 percent of HealthCare.gov consumers with premium tax credits, the average monthly net premium increased just $4, or 4 percent, from 2015 to 2016, according to an HHS report.

This may appear to include those who do not receive significant health benefits through their employer, or, a family pays out of pocket in a shared-premium with their employer. Since the Obama Administration Era, and now under a Trump Administration Government, Health Care is an ongoing, and quite volatile, topic of conversation. The failed repeal of Obama Care (Affordable Care Act) and the Republican parties replacement health care is significant awareness that neither party is in agreement with appropriate health care regulation.

With the rise in housing, the rise in health care and the volatile political divide on health care being a right vs. a privilege, we also look at the nature of employment. Referring back to Jina Moore, the increase in employment opportunities between gainful employment and low-wage employment is a ratio of 6 low paying jobs out of every 10 employment opportunities.

So, what is the presenting problem in America today when it comes to the question of who is poor? It is my opinion that based on the review of the literature collected, that the answer are those who are lacking the ability to obtain the “necessities” of life in present post-modern American society: Namely, adequate, affordable housing, stable and gainful employment, appropriate and affordable health care and insurance, and the ability to save for retirement.

We will explore the Christian Ethical dilemma and obligation in how to not only respond, work toward alleviating poverty within local communities. This will focus on sound theological principles as laid out in the Biblical text, and what the sampling of literature reports in relation to the Christian duty and obligation to “remember the Poor.”

 

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