What to Do For the Poor

A few afternoons back, Sharon and I were returning home after running errands downtown. We heard the call of the DQ Blizzard so we stopped to enjoy a little ice cream. Both of us had our favorites – a Heath Bar for her and strawberry banana for me. As we sat eating and visiting in the DQ parking lot, a bedraggled man with a knapsack walked up to Sharon and asked for some money to buy food. She turned to me and asked what she should do and I suggested she give him something.

One thing I have learned over the years is that Sharon is much more generous than me. She reached into her purse and pulled out a five dollar bill. I must say, that is more than I would have given. Promising not to use it for alcohol or drugs, the man walked away and crossed the street.PovertyAmerica

About five minutes later, coming down the street from the other direction, was an elderly woman dressed just a tad better than the man. She walked straight to the dumpster next to the DQ and began rummaging inside. It seemed obvious that she was digging for food. After watching for a few minutes, Sharon decided she wanted to help this woman as well. This time she took a ten dollar bill from her purse and walked over to the dumpster.

It turned out the woman was seeking ice. She was too embarrassed to go inside the DQ and ask for a cup of ice and she didn’t have money to walk up the street to purchase a bag at the Mercado. Sharon spoke with her for a few minutes and then handed her the money. The woman actually tried to talk Sharon into giving her only five dollars rather than the entire ten.

The interesting thing to me about this experience is the conversation Sharon and I had on the way home. We are both aware that spending more on these two poor people than we spent on ourselves at the DQ did very little to solve their problem of poverty. We have been in the ministry all of our adult lives and have tried to help countless numbers of people get out of the perpetual cycle of poverty. It is probably not an exaggeration to say we have had no success.

My ministry for more than a decade was to be the stewardship guru for the state of Texas. I preached and taught stewardship in more than 500 churches. I developed and wrote much of the stewardship material that was used by Southern Baptists around the country for many years. I remember one evening waiting at a church for a meeting to begin. I stumbled across a Bible study book that contained a series of lessons on stewardship. I thumbed through the lessons and thought, “This is pretty good stuff, I wonder who wrote it?” When I looked in the front of the book I discovered that I had written the lessons years earlier.

In all my experiences of working with churches and stewardship, I learned the things that interest Christians most in the area of stewardship are having money to build new buildings, family budgeting and finances, increased giving to church budgets, and making sure we have enough for retirement. I stayed very busy responding to requests for each of these areas of stewardship.

I have written books on giving, fund raising, budgeting, financial planning, and investing. However, I do not recall ever being invited to address the stewardship issue that seems to be at the top of Jesus’ list of stewardship matters – helping the poor. I had a friend who had a great ministry helping low income families learn how to handle their finances, deal with credit issues, and actually construct an affordable home for them. I worked hard to introduce this program to churches but I could never get them excited about actually doing something to help the poor.

The problem of poverty is so difficult that I’m not sure anyone knows the solution. Even a wealthy country like ours seems to have no idea how to help the poor. The reason it is not easy to solve is because it is so expensive to be poor that folks cannot simply “earn” their way out. It is not as easy as getting a job and managing your money.

If someone has a job that pays near minimum wage they can never make enough to stay above the poverty line. They have to make difficult choices just to stay afloat financially. When you are poor and cannot afford to make a deposit or qualify for a mortgage then you are forced to pay more for less. If you don’t have transportation then you probably have to live in more expensive neighborhoods that have public transportation. Living downtown also means you must purchase groceries at small convenience stores rather than suburban super markets, which means higher food prices. Living paycheck to paycheck usually means no savings so when a medical emergency (likely you have no insurance) or another expected expense appears you turn to short-term “payday lenders” and pay exorbitant interest rates.

It is a viscous cycle that is extremely difficult to break. It is even worse for those with some type of disability or situation that does not even allow them to maintain any employment. I am well aware that Sharon’s generosity did little more than provide temporary hunger relief, but I’m also confident that what she did was in the spirit of Jesus’ model to be concerned for the poor.

As a society, however, if we are to make a difference, a significant difference, we must do more than what is currently happening. Politicians are doing little to help. Most of their approach is to strengthen the economy with the odd notion that if the rich get richer, somehow the poor will also. While there is some truth to the idea that when the tide rises everyone benefits, the reality is that an extremely small number are becoming exceedingly wealthy, but they are either hoarding that wealth or using it to create inadequate minimum wage type jobs.

In the meantime, the church is doing little better. As I learned from my own stewardship experience, the most excited churches get about stewardship is when they have a building to construct or a budget program to finance. Dave Ramsey has also taught us that it is possible to get middle class folks excited about getting out of debt but that doesn’t seem to translate into much help for the poor.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t know how to solve this problem. I have already confessed my lifetime of ministry attempts toward the poor have been a dismal failure. But I do think we can do more. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Express as much passion toward speaking against materialism and greed as we have about other sins. I am not suggesting we tone down our approach to issues like abortion, but we need to understand the danger of materialism. Jesus spoke a great deal more about the destructive power of greed than He did about murder and sexual behavior. If we believe Jesus then it is likely there are few rich people in heaven.
  • Encourage followers of Jesus to adjust their standard of living in such a way that we remove our excesses and make more available to help others. Just because we can afford something does not mean we should possess it.
  • Challenge your church to get out of the property business. This is a huge thing because the American church has trillions of dollars tied up in property and spends billions more each year. This one step would provide tremendous amounts of money and resources to help the poor. (I will follow up with some suggestions on how this might happen in subsequent articles.)

What we are currently doing to address poverty and help the poor is not working. It is little better than Sharon handing out fifteen dollars in the DQ parking lot. It’s a nice gesture but folks are waking up the next morning with the same problems. This is the real stewardship issue the church needs to address.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “What to Do For the Poor

  1. Steve

    When you talk of the homeless and the poor you bring up two different sets of issues. In the recent past, the majority of homeless people also suffered from a mental illness. That’s not so true anymore, as our economy has soured. Homelessness is a much more complex problem than being poor, in that regard. The poor, whether working or not, need opportunity. The difference between the so called 99% and the 1% is not unfairness, it’s opportunity. The majority of people want to work in some type of meaningful employment, to earn a living wage. Currently, many lower level jobs don’t even offer a living wage, where one can support themselves on their pay alone. This is detrimental to our country and it’s growth. One last word, there are many that used to be middle class that are now poor, some even homeless. Once that cycle starts, it’s very difficult to stop. Again, what most people need is opportunity, and really, it’s what they want, as well.

  2. Steve

    By the way, great article!

  3. Royce

    Great Article. Jesus said, “The poor will always be with us.” I do not focus my efforts on helping the poor become un-poor. I see people who are poor and as soon as they get a little money ,they blow it on beer, toys for the kids, a new TV, and then they are poor again. I think it is more important to always be ready to give a little when there is a need. When winter comes and those same poor people who spent the money on beer need propane I am put to a test. Do I love these people or my money more. I am to love these people as if they were my own family. I will buy them $200+ worth of propane if I can. To not help the poor is to say, I love my money but not you. Stewardship is not about saving up for retirement, that is not even a Biblical concept. Jesus once said, “sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” Uh.. excuse me Jesus, what about my retirement? I can’t remember where, but somewhere in the Bible this is addressed, and the answer is you have no guarantee you will be alive tomorrow. But those people over there are hungry now. We are also told to live by faith. Having a life savings may be living by faith, but it not faith in God, it is faith in 401k. By the way, I have no faith in 401k. And many who do will be disappointed. As for the amount to give, $5, $10, $20. Ask God and listen for an answer. Then obey! If we hear a small voice inside that says $100, we tend to argue with it and say that’s too much. If the voice says $1,000, we think we must have gotten our pills mixed up. Listen to that voice and obey. The last time I was asked for money for food, I had just been to the grocery store, so I gave the man food. He gladly accepted it. I once planned on taking $1,000 per month for myself and giving 50% of everything above that to charity. I was able to do that for about 3 years. I wish I was in a position to do that today. Take heed that you do not be caught up in the cares of this life. God Bless you all.

  4. 1. Education
    2. Health care
    3. Child care (including supervision/mentoring of pre-teens and teens)
    4. Establish justice for the poor and minorities in our legal system.
    5. Restore US manufacturing industry (incentivize long term company strategy and eliminate quarter-go-quarter profit-now business climate)

    I.e. rebuild the middle class…actualize the American Dream…for all

  5. Dwight

    I find this subject causes fatigue just like many suffer Africa fatigue for some of the same reasons…no solutions in sight! It is true that we do spend time and resources to make change happen and often find the progress to be non-existent. There are some sins that we commit as individuals and some it seems like as institutions that keep the status quo for poverty as a central objective. That is, let’s take care of our own first and worry about those with greater needs if we have anything left over. It tries my soul! Well written!

  6. William Pherigo

    Great article! Wish I new the magic formula. Children and youth in “welfare” mentality households have to figure out there is a different way. Education or at least vocational training for job readiness is a must. I have known a specific family that for 30 years. Living in almost a shack-like home situation, mom and 5 kids. Somewhere along the way children ended up with jobs. They have reached a level of near middle class sufficiency. Their children for the most part have/are graduating from high school and entering into a next level of education. Does not seem to be an easy quick fix.
    On another point. There tends to be a misconception that if/when someone gets a good job….life will be great. As example, a single income teacher with 3 children with no other income is at a level his/her children are eligible for reduced cost school lunches.
    The poor always being with us needs to be newly defined and a much broader income range.

  7. Mike Harris

    One route out of poverty has been the US military. Literally thousands of families have been raised from poverty by the man enlisting and then serving the country. Notice that the military will take a young person from wherever they are and train them.

    I am not advocating this for everyone but it has some instructive points. Getting out of poverty requires the acquisition of skills that are valuable to an employer. That has to be a part of solving poverty at least for the able-bodied. It is also important to have employment skills like showing up on time; being productive; not causing trouble with others; working as a part of a team: being dependable; learning to speak well; learning how to solve problems; etc.

    It seems to me that our school systems have switched to a college prep model only. Maybe we should value productive work and give vocational prep a chance. It seems to me that plumbers and electricians make a living income. Same for carpenters.

  8. Kim Norwood

    Terry, I have thought on this topic for years and have considered my response for over a week. I have much to say, but it is getting late. Part of the problem for me is how we define poverty. The poverty line in this country is just an arbitrary line defined by our government. It means next to nothing, but it is always the standard of measure. We lived below it for the first 7 years of our marriage. But we never said we were living in poverty. Cindy was a stay at home mom and we survived on my salary which was barely over minimum wage during my last two years of college and 5 years in Seminary. In fact, we are living proof that a family can indeed live on minimum wage if managed well. We cooked our meals at home, did not have cable, took our kids to a free park to play and read library books to them at night. We used cloth diapers because we could not afford disposable and we could not afford to purchase a home, but we were not in poverty. I dared not even purchase a coke from the coke machine at seminary because things were that tight financially, but that was not poverty. We shopped wisely, drove old cars, and purchased all our furniture from garage sales, but that still was not poverty. I did not possess what middle class America possessed at the time, but I was far removed from real poverty. When Cindy got pregnant and the hospital demanded full payment before delivery because we had no insurance, I took a second job and we used every penny to pay the hospital bill in advance in cash and paid the bill in full 2 months before the birth. I have seen first-hand real poverty in places like Brazil, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guatemala, & Thailand. They have poverty the likes of which makes our so called poverty line look wealthy. As a chaplain I have counseled so many young military couples in “poverty” who get food stamps, WIC, etc, and feel it is their right to high speed internet, premium cable and big screen televisions, X-box, custom rims, tattoos, beer, and routine eating out. And it is true, you cannot do this stuff making minimum wage. A large part of what we do as a society to “help” people simply perpetuates the cycle of dependence. Our War on Poverty has done very little to get out of poverty through handouts. On the contrary, I believe that it has created generational poverty spirit.

    More to come.

  9. royce

    Mike Harris wrote, “One route out of poverty has been the US military.” Did you ever wonder if there was no poverty if there would be a military?

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