(This is the third article in a series on poverty. If you missed the previous two, please back up a few weeks and read those posts.)
What does poverty look like around the world?
Before we get any further, let me clarify some terminology. It turns out that sociologists use the terms absolute poverty and relative poverty, and it’s important to know the difference. According to the UNESCO website,
Absolute poverty measures poverty in relation to the amount of money necessary to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. The concept of absolute poverty is not concerned with broader quality of life issues or with the overall level of inequality in society. The concept therefore fails to recognise that individuals have important social and cultural needs. This, and similar criticisms, led to the development of the concept of relative poverty. Relative poverty defines poverty in relation to the economic status of other members of the society: people are poor if they fall below prevailing standards of living in a given societal context.
Last week we learned that, while a lot of people fall below the poverty line, that situation is often temporary. Also, while the poor don’t earn much by US standards, it’s still over $10,000 a year—plus government and other benefits. What does that buy you? Today I want to address what life under the poverty line is like.
Granted, it’s not fun being poor. Having fewer resources means you have fewer options—and the answer too often is “no.” Opportunities may be limited. Sometimes, things cost more for those who can least afford it—prices at stores in poor neighborhoods tend to be higher than in middle class areas, and you can’t afford to take advantage of items on sale or discounted in bulk. Add to that frustration—being poor typically correlates with reduced influence, both socially and politically. I’ve always imagined desperate families in cars, skinny, hungry children in ragged clothing, and crime-ridden neighborhoods.
“Sure, there are poor people overseas, but we have poor people right here in America. It’s more important that we help them first.”
“I want to live in the United States, where even the poor people are fat!” –Indian laborer
“The poor you will always have with you.” –Jesus
It’s common knowledge that we have poor people here in America. There are families without homes, elderly retirees having to choose between buy food or filling a prescription, and children going to bed hungry.
But just how many families are homeless? How common is it for senior citizens to be unable to afford their medications? What percentage of children lack enough food to eat? How big a problem do we have, and how does it compare with the rest of the world?
Sitting in our Global Sunday School class yesterday, I listened while the speaker pleaded for everyone’s involvement in caring for orphans. He cited numerous statistics portraying the church as insensitive and uncaring when dealing with marginalized people groups. Then he read James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”
Meanwhile, I’m reading yet another book, written by a ministry leader from Asia, that scolds the American church for our misplaced priorities. Here are a few quotes to give you the idea:
I don’t know about you, but I always struggle when confronted by someone asking for money. Whether they’re sitting at an intersection with a cardboard sign or they approach me on the sidewalk, I get the same conflicted feelings:
Give them money. Jesus said to give to those who ask.
Don’t give them money. They’ll spend it on drugs or alcohol.
Give them money. God loves the poor.
Don’t give them money. They should be working!
Give them money. The Bible says we are to love our neighbor.
Don’t give them money. There are soup kitchens and homeless shelters for that purpose.
I either end up giving a half-hearted offering that won’t solve their problems and only leaves me feeling slightly less guilty, or I just avoid eye contact altogether. Neither response feels right.
It was with immense relief that I read the following article in “Christianity Today,” written by a group of people I respect, a group focused on exactly the sort of issues I’m struggling with here. I trust their wisdom in this area.
Please click on the link and read the short article,