Poverty In America: How We Have Failed

Author’s Note: This article is a “director’s cut” version of an article review I wrote for Fare Forward. I highly recommend you visit that site, like the publication on Facebook, and even become a subscriber.  It’s a collection of people much smarter and much better at writing than me, discussing all topics you could imagine through a deeply intellectual Christian worldview.  I’m humbled to have written for their second issue, which is the basis for this post.  I’ll also be published in their third issue. They’re far too kind to me. I’ve tricked them into thinking I’m a legitimate writer.  Please don’t destroy this illusion. But do support Fare Forward. It’s amazing what they’re doing.

“Mr. Williams can’t take our extra food stamps away, CAN HE?!?”  It was my second year with Teach for America in one of the lowest performing high schools in Nashville, Tennessee.  In my 11th grade U.S. History class, I found myself refereeing an unplanned, heated debate about food stamps, welfare checks, and other strands of the social safety net.  Introducing the topic of LBJ’s Great Society, I asked my students (many of whom were enrolled in safety-net programs) to what extent the government should assist the poor.

Chaos ensued, with the resulting debate focusing on the propriety of families selling excess food stamps on the black market.  One of my students panicked, fearing that I would turn informer and have all their food stamps confiscated.  Other students’ eyes seemed to open to the fact that these systems were not working as well as they could or should.  As I stood at the front of my classroom trying to reassure my students that I would not be reporting them to the Welfare Office, I felt sad and overwhelmed.  I could see the brokenness and inefficiency in our system, but many of my students could see no path out of the cycle of poverty.  The public school system had failed them.  The government had failed them.  We had all failed them.

Georgetown law professor Peter Edelman’s op-ed piece in The New York Times observes that more U.S. citizens live in poverty today than in decades.  As a bleeding heart conservative, I hoped “Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It?” would be that rare piece (a) detailing the faults of the Great Society approach to ending poverty; and (b) explaining how action based on conservative principles could do better.

I was disappointed.  Edelman’s four causes of America’s poverty problem (low-wage jobs, single-parent households, the eradication of welfare, and racial inequality) are a mixed bag of sickness and symptoms, a set up for him to appeal to decades-old Great Society prescriptions.

According to Prof. Edelman, we know what we need to do and it is more of what we have already tried. We need to raise the minimum wage (redistributing income from owners to employees) and raise taxes on the rich so we can spend more on providing healthcare and a bigger safety net.  He did not find it important to mention that raising taxes on the rich does not make our entitlement programs any more sustainable in the long-term.  He did not find it important to have any serious discussion about the best ways to break the cycle of poverty. Are more bureaucracy and federal government programs our best bets to turn schools and communities around?

Edelman has not started the serious, pragmatic discussion about poverty that our country needs. His article is simply more left-right finger-pointing. But the failure to end poverty has been bipartisan. We have all failed those students in my classroom. Conservatives and liberals. Republicans and Democrats. Ron Paul Relovealutionaries and Jim Wallis Sojourners.  While arguing with each other about theology, philosophy, and political ideology (worthy debates, to be sure), we are not being very effective or efficient in caring for “the least of these.”

The right recognizes that government-centered solutions have failed to solve poverty in the long-term and is really good at pointing at government’s inefficiencies and ineffectiveness. But they (especially the Christian right) could do far more to stand in the gap by starting ministries, non-profits, and programs that display how local communities and the local church can better serve those in poverty.  Writing checks to charities and short-term mission trips aren’t enough.  How are we changing our lives and popping our comfort-zone bubbles to walk side-by-side with our neighbors in need? How much are we learning about God’s grace, joy, and provision from those who have much less than we do? How often do we fail to realize how much we need God because we’ve managed to live our lives without needing help from anything or anyone?

For those of us on the religious right, this does NOT mean we fight any less for the millions of unborn children whose innocent lives are ended.  And yes, it means continuing to stand up to the lazy slander of the pro-live movement. But it also means we must continue to challenge one another to be living sacrifices to serve the least of these.  As Tim Keller says so eloquently in his EXCELLENT book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, “We do justice when we give all human beings their due as creations of God. Doing justice includes not only the righting of wrongs, but generosity and social concern, especially toward the poor and vulnerable. This kind of life reflects the character of God. It consists of a broad range of activities, from simple fair and honest dealings with people in daily life, to regular, radically generous giving of your time and resources, to activism that seeks to end particular forms of injustice, violence, and oppression.”

The left (including the Christian left and Prof. Edelman) may champion government benefits to aid the poor as the path to a more just and equitable society, but their advocacy often comes at little to no personal, sacrificial cost to themselves.  They are really good at pointing across the proverbial political aisle at Republicans and conservatives for cutting government benefits.  But, like their conservative brethren, other than their political posts on Facebook and their vote at the ballot box, how much are they doing to serve the poor? How do their lives reflect a true commitment to helping the least of these and sacrificing their comfortable lifestyle beyond supporting a small increase in taxes paid to the federal government?

Some fight to let the government serve the poor, while others fight to free the poor from government dependency. But, if we are serious about caring for the poor, we must love them. In order to love them, we must know them personally.  That means moving beyond politics and sacrificially serving the poor among us. Neither the government nor the free market will end poverty.  Christ was clear that the poor will always be with us and that how we treat them reflects how we have treated Him.  This is as good a time as any for the Church to assume a mantle of leadership and begin to live out the charity it preaches. It’s time for all Americans to move beyond political bickering about what the government should or should not do and begin to live out the charity it preaches at the other side.  Let’s have an honest conversation about what is helping the least of these break out of the cycle of poverty and not what makes us in the upper-middle class and upper-class feel better about ourselves. When that happens, hopefully both our government and our private charities will assume their most efficient and effective roles.  Until then, we’re all going to continue to fail those students in my classroom, and worry more about beating each other politically and philosophically than we worry about actually helping them.


Posted on by Joseph Williams in Faith, Featured, Politics

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