Straight Talk on Poverty

Wow. I don’t normally takes sides in partisan races. My real loyalty lies with the poor and oppressed, not with any political party. Political parties are perhaps the greatest instrument of crowd control ever devised by government; they keep the lower classes (and Christians) at each others’ throats, anathematizing each other, lest they band together to begin solving the real problems, such as poverty, racism, rampant militarism, economic inequity, and injustice.

Frankly, and to put it mildly, I don’t like either candidate in this race, and I strongly feel, as a Christian, that if my fellow believers can easily cast their vote for either party, without at least some kind of semblance of a crisis of conscience, then they are not thinking biblically.

Over the past few days, however, issues have arisen that demand a response. I am referring to Mr. Romney’s insensitive, albeit “off-the-cuff” remarks regarding poverty in America. It’s not only his statements but also the response from many of his Christian supporters that demonstrate an astounding level of ignorance on the subject.

So I thought I would address some of the common myths and memes about poverty that people carry these days, a mindset that is completely inappropriate and incongruous for Christians to hold..

Myth #1:  “People on food stamps are inherently lazy.” You may be surprised to learn that the vast majority of the poor are very hard working. They have to be, if they want to survive. Two thirds hold more than one job and yet are still considered underemployed in terms of income. The idea that they could rise out of poverty merely by working harder at low-wage jobs is naive and downright silly.

Myth #2:  “Food stamps and other ‘entitlement programs’ beget dependency and lack of initiative.” Doubtless there are problems with the system and vast room for improvement. But have you ever tried to live on food stamps or public assistance? The average welfare check for a single parent with two children is around $478. It’s not a cushy or enviable existence. Most would gladly do without these supports if they could. But what alternatives do they have? Borrow money from their parents to go to college?

The idea that women are encouraged by the system to have more babies is ludicrous when you consider that states offer only an average of $60 more a month for an additional child. That wouldn’t even pay for diapers. Some states offer only $25 or nothing at all. What kind of incentive is that?

Myth #3:  “Poverty is the result of alcohol or drug use.” True, addiction, if allowed to progress often leads to poverty. Yet the rate of drug use among the poor is about the same as among the middle class and wealthy. It just doesn’t seem that way since the rate of enforcement and prosecution is so heavily tilted against minority communities; the war on drugs is really a war of disenfranchisement and incarceration against people of color. When you are rich and addicted, your friends might hold an intervention and send you to the Betty Ford Clinic. When you are poor, you lose your job and wind up on the street.

This myth also conveniently ignores a leading cause of poverty in this country—systemic injustice. Is it merely a coincidence that such a huge share of poverty is found in minority communities? Follow the thread of poverty and it will lead you to this nation’s long and ongoing history of injustice and racism. Yet poverty is not just a minority issue. Whites still have the largest share of the poor (around 47% of the poor are white—not to be confused with Mr. Romney’s “47%”).

Myth #4: “This is a land of opportunity; anyone can rise to realize his or her potential.” This may be true if one is born white and middle class. The horizon for people of color, however, is not so simple or rosy.

Believing these myths is enormously convenient, as it requires absolutely no soul-searching, effort, or change on one’s own part. Think of it:  with a wave of the hand, one can dismiss half of one’s fellow citizens as well as one’s own personal responsibility in perpetuating injustice.

Myth #5: “The church should take care of the poor. It’s not government’s responsibility.” It is true both the Old and New Testaments clearly command God’s people to care for “the least of these.” Apparently, however, the church neither takes this mandate very seriously, nor has it nearly the level of resources required to fulfill these needs without at least working in partnership with government. Read the Prophets. It is clear what God expects from government, whether godly or pagan:  that it would provide for the poor and protect them from exploitation, robbery and wrong—in short, that government take seriously its role as protector of the weak and not to show favoritism to the rich.

Myth #6: “Charity should be voluntary. It was so under the Old Testament.” Yes and no. Israelites were commanded to help the poor whenever they could (Deut 15:7,8), but they were also required to pay a tax, or tithe, in accordance with their income, a portion of which went to the maintenance of the poor (Deut 26:12). No, we are not under OT civil law today, and yes ancient Israel was a theocracy; yet the OT law demonstrates important principles which show us what pleases God, form a foundation for all Western systems of law, as well as revealing the divine intention, or goal, for good government.

Sadly, the mindset among many middle class and affluent white voters in this country is “I’ve got mine. Go get yours.” The majority of us have no concept what it is like growing up in a racially divided and economically unjust nation. We act as if we worked and slaved to gain everything we have, without considering that we were handed a great deal from the start, that the system is rigged to work for us, but not for them.

If Mr. Romney is characterized as “out of touch,” then so are the Christians who try to defend what is indefensible. It is a case of what the apostle Paul describes, ”For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3). The prophets of greed massage our prejudices, lulling us with words that appeal to our innate selfishness.

I really wish that Jesus had specifically forbade his disciples to join political parties. Party loyalty points to that which is most ugly and false in the other party, while blinding us to the chasm-like faults of our own. Today I overheard a friend who is a believer talking about Romney’s remarks. “I’m more angry at the guy with the tape recorder,” he said.

I would comment further, but such a statement causes me to sputter in disbelief.

For more surprising facts about poverty in America:



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2 responses to “Straight Talk on Poverty

  1. A man after my own heart. I wish I could articulate the way you can. I miss you, Steve!

  2. sjmunson

    Thanks. I miss you too.

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