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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

How Should the Church Respond to Recent Poverty Update?

Treat one another justly.
Love your neighbors.
Be compassionate with each other.
Don't take advantage of widows,
orphans, visitors, and the poor.
Don't plot and scheme against one another—that's evil.'
Zech. 7:9

Poverty Update

Finally some good news on the fight against poverty! A slight decrease in poverty figures was announced Tuesday by the US Census Bureau. The 2006 poverty rate was 12.3% which is down from 12.6% in 2005. This is the first time the poverty rate has declined since 1999.

This is good news but the overall report is mixed because the median income across the country increased slightly (to $48,451)but is still not above a "pre-recession high in 1999" according to the Washington Post. Other bad news is that 2.2 million people have been added to the uninsured ranks, mostly due to declining employer-sponsored programs. The total percentage is 15.8 of all Americans lack health insurance, unfortunately 11.7% of children (those under 18) lack health coverage (a significant leap from 10.9% in 2005). This also represents the second year in a row that this number has increased.

The new census data show that many of the newly uninsured are working Americans from middle- and high-income families. Of the 2.2 million people who became uninsured in 2006, 1.4 million had a household income of $75,000 or higher. About 1.2 million of the newly uninsured worked full time. WaPo

An interesting study done at Washington University in St. Louis and reported by the Christian Science Monitor says that while poverty figures at any given time may be declining, more Americans are experiencing poverty at some time during their lives than at any time in the past 30 years. Fortunately, those that do experience poverty, experience it for a shorter period of time and are less likely to be chronically poor.

In an e-mail the Coalition on Human Needs (CHN) urges caution when looking at national data, and says we should also look at state data and the disparity between rich and poor.

Although the poorest households had the largest percentage income gain from 2005 to last year, income inequality remains at a record high. The share of income going to the 5 percent of households with the highest incomes has never been greater. WaPo

CHN states that the national poverty average of 12.3% is one thing, but Mississippi's is over 20% and 7 states and the District of Colombia all report poverty levels exceeding 15%. Additionally median income in Puerto Rico is $17,621 while Maryland's is $65,144 with the national at $48,451. Indiana's poverty rate is 12.7% (an increase of 0.5% or 37,500) according to the Indy Star and the state's median income was $45,394.

In its press release CHN's Executive Director Deborah Weinstein says

Congress should seize the chance to invest in improvements that strengthen families and should reject the President’s unwarranted cuts. Today’s findings prove again that millions of America’s families are not sharing in the nation’s prosperity.

The Church's Response?

How should the church respond to this mixed data and ongoing need? Jesus said we shall have the poor with us always in John 12:8. Sadly this is often taken out of context, Jesus knowing the heart of Judas, who was actually embezzling money from the community treasury (12:4). Judas didn't really care about the poor, but Jesus did and wants us to do something about it. That is quite clear from the several thousand verses in the Bible that directly mention caring for the poor or promoting justice for the poor.

Maybe looking at the story of the Good Samaritan will help us understand a little bit better. It begins with a lawyer who asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded with a question which was answered like this,

That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself. The Message Luke 10:27

Jesus was happy with that answer, but the lawyer wasn't and tried to find a "loophole". Jesus deftly closed the loophole with a parable using the most despised person possible (a Samaritan) to the Jews as the story's hero. The Samaritan loved his neighbor like a brother and took care of the desolate stranger. We are too often the priest or Levite, too busy to love our neighbor. Zondervan's Handbook to the Bible sums it up nicely saying (pg 610)

A real 'neighbor' is one who does the loving thing whenever and wherever occasion arises, regardless of the deepest enmity or antagonism.

So the response of the church should be to love those who are in poverty. Go back to Luke 10:27 to see what loving your neighbor looks like, it should be like we love ourselves!

We give ourselves the best food, but give away our scraps to the poor. We buy the latest Abercrombie and give away the tattered out-of-style clothing from our closet. We drive a Lexus while giving away a broken bicycle.

What if we truly sacrificed for the poor? What if instead of providing handouts of food we taught someone a marketable skill? What if instead of being upset at the Burger King Mom who made a small mistake we provided free child care for working mothers? What if instead of building more and more houses in the suburbs we relocated into an urban area and sought to understand and be friends with the poor? That is radical.

But Jesus Christ's death on the cross was a radical statement of love. Does He expect anything less from us his beautiful bride? Jesus died to redeem and restore the world, can we be His hands and feet?

Let's be radical lovers of Christ and seek to love those around us.

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