Let's Talk About Poverty
Developing nations endure it. All of human history has witnessed it. Political overtones deeply color it. But what is poverty exactly? And why does it exist? How close have you been to it really? It is increasingly easy and enjoyable to travel across the planet in the name of the Great Commission for the orphan and the widow of James 1:27; it is even easier to forget that poverty exists apart from the religious tourism and Instagrammable moments of those trips.
The easiest way to categorize and define poverty is in financial terms because “money makes the world go ‘round, and not having money puts you at a disadvantage,” states Katie Walker of Starkville’s Salvation Army. So let’s look at some local poverty statistics. The US Department of Health and Human Services sets the American poverty guideline at $24,600/year in income for a family of four¹. Data USA shows that in Oktibbeha County, one in three people lives at or below that financial measure, well over the 22% poverty rate of the state of Mississippi². But poverty is about so much more than not having enough money: it is deeply psychological. When asked why poverty is such a big deal, Vanessa Shaffer of Helping Hands said, “Imagine having kids and not being able to feed them. As a parent, that’s the worst thing in the world. [The] long-term impact [of that] psychologically [is] helpless[ness], hopeless[ness].”
As believers, we are called to care for the orphan and the widow (James 1:27), to give generously to the poor (Deuteronomy 15:7 & 11), and as representatives of a God who cares about the cause of the oppressed (Psalm 12:5), we are to do the same. Acts 1:8 sends us as witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth, but with a multi-billion dollar mission trip industry and people lost and suffering in our own community, I would argue that we invest in the latter far better than owning our own Jerusalem. For those unfamiliar with local poverty rates or the fact that poverty exists nearby at all, the initial response is likely pity. But I strongly urge against that, for pity sees pain and turns its back, but compassion sees pain and is propelled towards it. Chattanooga’s Chalmers Center says poverty is “rooted in broken relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation³.” By that definition, we all experience poverty on some level; in order to work towards an end to it in our Jerusalem, we must embrace our mutual brokenness and work with the materially poor from a place of humility rather than self-righteousness. Human dignity loses when pity (or pride) is the response to suffering; it triumphs when compassion answers the call to respond.
Taking on poverty can be a daunting task, particularly when we remember the words of our Savior in Matthew 26:11 saying that the poor will always be among us. That is where a look to physicians is encouraging; their role with a patient is not to eradicate a disease, but to promote the overall health and quality of life of that person. The same must be true of working with the poor: building empowering relationships that promote human dignity with our neighbors will not cure global poverty, but it will speak love into the life of a child of the living God. President of the Board of Helping Hands, David Hartung, wishes that middle class and wealthy people would “develop a sense of responsibility, not in sharing the blame [for poverty], but with the idea that we have [a] responsibility to the community to look after the poorest among us as individuals and believers; then solutions will present themselves.” That simply starts with relationships that point all involved to Christ and reach beyond earthly characteristics like socioeconomic status.
The problem of poverty is incredibly complex; it is at once global and individual. Sustainable solutions must be community-driven and address all four areas of poverty research—exploitation, political and economic structures, human and social capital in the community, and individual behaviors⁴. But “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit the soul” (Mark 8:36)? Therefore, the church must step up, because the only eternal solution to any problem is Jesus; the government cannot fix a broken soul.
The task is great, but our calling is clear. Join me in working towards biblical solutions to poverty in our community. Give to organizations like Helping Hands or the Salvation Army, which seek to share the love of Christ and get people back on their feet after a financial crisis. Partner with local food pantries or the Casserole Kitchen, which serves hot meals three times a week without applications or prerequisites. Ultimately, though, the heart of any great movement must be prayer if the results are to be lasting and God-honoring. If you want to work to move beyond the Band-Aid and seek sustainable solutions to poverty in the community God has given us, I want to invite you to be a part of a new, monthly prayer meeting supplicating for just that. Find us on Facebook at the Starkville Poverty Coalition, and join us Thursday, September 21 at the Helping Hands Office, 603 University Drive, from noon to one. Before jumping in with our own ideas and biases, let us humbly seek the Lord together in order to see where He is already moving in our community; then we may move with confidence in the direction of His will, unified with the purpose of alleviating poverty in our Jerusalem and beyond.
- “Poverty Guidelines.” ASPE, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 22 Mar. 2017, aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines.
- “Oktibbeha County, MS vs. Mississippi.” Data USA, datausa.io/profile/geo/oktibbeha-county-ms/?compare=mississippi.
- “What Is Poverty?” The Chalmers Center, www.chalmers.org/our-work/redefining-poverty/what-is-poverty.
- Payne, Ruby K. A Framework for Understanding Poverty. 4th ed., Aha! Process, Inc., 2005.