The Problem with Poverty

December 17, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Poverty 1“The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said (Matthew 26:11).  This is most certainly true.  Our best-laid plans to abolish poverty have fallen woefully short.  New York Times journalist Nicholas D. Kristof shines a spotlight on just how short our plans have fallen in his recent column titled, “Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy.”[1]  His opening paragraphs are bone chilling:

This is what poverty sometimes looks like in America:  parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability.

Many people in hillside mobile homes here are poor and desperate, and a $698 monthly check per child from the Supplemental Security Income program goes a long way – and those checks continue until the child turns 18.

A plan that seeks to alleviate poverty in the form of Supplemental Security Income in some instances actually perpetuates it.  After all, there is no immediate economic payoff for having a son or daughter learn how to read, only a potential loss.  And though a myriad of statistics could be marshaled concerning how, over the long haul, children who enjoy solid educations early in life enjoy economic and social stability later in life, these parents can’t afford to concern themselves with “the long haul.”  They’re just concerned about their next meal.  And so these parents are pressed into a self-perpetuating poverty.

“The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said.  This means two things.  First, it means that the sinfulness that leads to poverty will always be with us and in us, at least on this side of the Eschaton.  There will always be some people who are lazy and refuse to work, placing themselves in poverty’s grip and on the government’s dole.  There will always be some people who are victims of economic injustice – just ask those who were bamboozled by Bernie Madoff.  There will always be some people who, because of some fortuitous tragic circumstance – a devastating illness, a lost job, a natural disaster – find themselves with bills they can’t pay and a family they can’t support.  Satan will continue to find delight in impoverishing people.

And yet, Jesus’ words are not only a commentary on human sinfulness, they are also a call to Christian action.  For with His words, Jesus opens for us plenty of opportunities to show mercy.  After all, there are hungry people for us to feed.  There are naked people for us to clothe.  There are hopeless people for us to encourage.  There are plenty of people to which we can offer a cup of water in Jesus’ name (cf. Mark 9:41).  In fact, I love how Mark records Jesus’ statement:  “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want” (Mark 14:27).

Jesus says, “You can help.”  So let’s get to it!  How and who can you help this holiday season?  Maybe you can serve at a soup kitchen.  Maybe you can visit someone who is lonely.  That’s your mission.  That’s your calling.  And, as Jesus says, you can carry out that mission “any time you want” – even beyond the holidays.

I hope you will.

[1] Nicholas D. Kristof, “Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy,” New York Times (12.7.12).

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