by Elgin Husbeck, Jr.
One of the key differences between left and the right, both religiously and politically is over how they view the “rich” and the “poor.” The Bible has a lot to say about both of these. For example, in response to an earlier article I wrote, the writer cited, Luke 19:25 “Indeed, it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the kingdom of God.” He contrasted this with the poor saying, “Jesus, for instance, extols poverty ‘blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.’”
While the latter is probably not the best verse to cite in this context as it is referring to spiritual rather than economic poverty, there is no doubt that we are called to be concerned for the poor and to minister to their needs. But does this mean that God only wants poor people in his church? If you are “rich” must you, like the rich man in Mark 10:17-21, sell everything you own and give it to the poor?If so this would be a very strange commandment; after all, are we called to help the poor, or to be the poor? Is poverty a condition to be obtained or relieved? If we are all poor, who will be left to relieve our poverty? As I pointed out in an earlier article, it is pretty clear that selling all of one’s possessions was not a universal injunction.
But that still leaves us with the question of who are the rich and who are the poor. For rest of this article I will focus on the poor. In the time of Jesus, the dividing line was pretty clear and stark. That is no longer true in the developed world as “poor” here has a vastly different meaning than in the third world. With the possible exception of the homeless, the “poor” in western countries would often be considered “rich” in developing countries.
But the difference even varies among western countries. For example, it is common to hear criticism about how little the United States does for the “poor” when compared to the Social Democracies in Europe. But again definitions vary from country to country. Some define “poverty” as simply being lower than the national median income, others define it as the lower 30% of median income or some other value. The income level chosen will have a huge effect on the number of people in poverty.
Another problem is that US poverty statistics often do not take into account assistance such as the earned income tax credit and food stamps. A study in 2000 showed that when these difference are taken into account the differences in the poverty rates between the US and European countries becomes very small. While poverty in the US has increased since that study, benefits have increased even faster, such that when adjusted for inflation those receiving benefits are slightly better off.
When government assistance is taken into account the poor in the US are nowhere near poverty as it would have been understood in Jesus’s time. In fact, based on Census Bureau data of those classified as “poor,” 80% have air conditioning, 75% have a car and 31% have two. Most have cable or satellite TV, and over 50% have a computer with over 10% having 2 or more. More than half have a PlayStation, Xbox or other gaming system, and over 40% have internet access and a wide screen TV, and 25% of these have a digital recording system such as TIVO.
In a recent GCP, co-host Chris Eyre commented on how difficult was to get by on assistance in England and often people did not even have enough food week to week. Yet here in the US, only 4% of poor children and 18% of poor adults report being hungry for lack of money within the last year, and on average their nutrition is virtually identical to the middle class. Only 4% report being temporarily homeless, nearly 50% live in single family homes or townhouses, while 42% own their own home. The average home of the poor in the US has 3 bedrooms, and over 2/3 have more than two rooms for each person.
This means that he average poor person in America has more living space than the average person in most European countries. By their own descriptions, most of the poor in America had enough money to meet their essential needs and were able to access medical care for their family. In fact when factors such as buying power and cost of living are factored in, the standard of living for the poor in America falls into the range of the middle class in much of Europe.
Now to be sure, these are statistics based on the whole. There will be exceptions and special cases. There will be those who fall between the cracks, so to speak. While the vast majority live homes that are “in good repair and without significant defects,” the vast majority is not all. But it is just as true that this hardly paints a picture of neglect.
As a percentage of GDP, total US spending on social welfare is less than in Europe, but since the US is wealthier, per capita spending is higher. In addition, there are the personal factors. Some people, such as the mentally ill and drug addicts are particularly difficult to help and we need to do more in this area. But for most people in the US, the statistics are pretty clear that if you finish High school, and wait to get married before having children your chances of being poor are greatly reduced. In addition, there is a generational component here in that children who are raised in a married family are 80% less likely to be poor.
Given this, perhaps the real way to combat poverty is to be found more in the church, and society as a whole, taking about the values of intact families, rather than pushing for a larger government and increased benefits.
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