The United States is often described as the richest country in the world. And yet according to World Hunger Education Services, almost 49 million people in the U.S. are considered “food insecure,” and one in seven people in the U.S. lives below the poverty line.
These stark facts about U.S. poverty are even more disturbing when you also consider that in 2007, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the top 10 percent of Americans earned 47 percent of the income and held 74 percent of the country’s wealth. And this gap has not shrunk in the years since 2007. This unequal distribution of wealth directly affects U.S. poverty.
Why is there increasing economic inequality and poverty in the United States? The issue is complex, but certain factors clearly contribute to the problem: corporate business interests that take precedence over public policies that would be more just for everyone; the belief that government should not provide a safety net; and an attitude that people are poor because they have made bad choices and are not taking personal responsibility, and not because the system is often stacked against them.
U.S. Christians have responded well to these problems through personal giving and congregational ministries, yet economic inequality continues. Generosity and charity are important scriptural imperatives to follow, but so are the injunctions to “do justice” and to create social systems—including government programs—that do not oppress the needy (Micah 6:8; Amos 2:6–7). In our current context of significant poverty, we need both church-based services and broader governmental programs in order to be “repairers of the breach” and “restorers of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:12).
Harriet Sider Bicksler is a member of Grantham BIC (Mechanicsburg, Pa.) and editor of Shalom!, a BIC U.S. publication on peace and justice issues.The Church could do more to alleviate poverty.
Poverty has always been an issue in recorded biblical history. In the Old Testament God clearly instructed His people to be proactive towards poverty (Leviticus 19:9–10, 25:35–38). In the New Testament, Jesus said, “You will always have the poor among you, and you can help them whenever you want to” (Mark 14:7), insinuating that poverty would always be a problem for His people to address. The early Christians sold all their belongings and held everything in common, so that every need was met (Acts 2:44–45, 4:32–35).
Contrast these biblical visions with the history of the welfare state in modern America. In the 19th century, governments began providing relief in the form of poorhouses and orphanages. Later, during the devastating Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt focused on creating jobs but also established the first federal welfare system in American history.
Today the U.S. church continues to provide relief for the needy, but it relies too heavily on government programs to pick up the slack. I write these words not as an uninformed observer. I grew up poor in Philadelphia, because my father was an alcoholic before coming to Christ. I know firsthand the embarrassment of waiting in line for handouts of U.S. Army surplus food.
Maybe those living in poverty wouldn’t rely so heavily on governmental aid if the people of God would truly value others above themselves (Philippians 2:3), because that is the mind of Christ. And maybe we Christians would have more compassion for the underprivileged if we remember that Jesus said, “Whatever you do for one of the least of these, you do for me” (Matt. 26:40).
Jay Johnson is pastor of Zion BIC (Abilene, Kans.).