It bore all the marks of a transformational moment in American life. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty” in 1964, about 19 percent of the nation lived in poverty. For the first time, a sitting president was prepared to marshal all the nation’s resources to combat it.
“We shall not rest until that war is won,” Johnson said in his State of the Union address. “The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”
Fifty years later, victory remains elusive. Poverty rates, after dipping dramatically in the late 1960s and 1970s, are on the rise again, currently at about 15 percent, or 46 million people. It’s especially prevalent in regions where evangelical Christians, including Baptists, have a strong presence—across the Deep South and along the Mississippi Delta, where the victims are mostly black; in Hispanic communities in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley; on Native American reservations in the Southwest; and in largely white Appalachia.
Evaluating poverty is both difficult and contentious, with disagreement even about the percentages. A metric adopted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011, which attempts a more accurate picture than earlier measurements by counting the government resources the needy have and the bills they have to pay, suggests a much slower rise in poverty and lower numbers of people affected by it.
But what often arouses the most passion in the poverty debate is the role of massive government programs, whether the initial success of the war on poverty can be attributed to them and whether aggressive government intervention should be replicated today.
Bread for the World. “The programs coming out of the war on poverty helped cut poverty by 25 percent, and it wasn’t until (those programs) were cut that their effectiveness was altered.”The war on poverty “was a triumph until it stopped being a priority in this country,” said Krisanne Vaillancourt-Murphy, interim director of church relations for the anti-hunger advocacy group
Dee Dee Hoosier, a Christian social ministries organizer in Appalachia, isn’t so sure.
“It is an incomplete project,” said Hoosier, director of the Virginia Baptist-funded Bland Ministry Center about 30 miles south of Bluefield, Va. “We have to educate families on how to be self-sufficient. Government rules and regulations tend to make individuals fit into a certain mold, rather than trying to help their individual needs.”
But Christians—both advocates of government programs and those who focus exclusively on church-based solutions—acknowledge a biblical demand to engage those who live in poverty.
“With poverty, we’re not taking an objective view,” said Jeremy Everett, director of the Texas Hunger Initiative of Baylor University’s School of Social Work. “As people of faith, we are called to address poverty. We don’t have a choice as Christians. We might have a choice in how we engage it but not whether we engage it.”
Complicating the debate are underlying, often poorly understood, systemic factors. Among them is a pronounced racial and ethnic component. Poverty in African-American and Hispanic communities consistently is higher than in Anglo or Asian-American ones. The Census Bureau’s alternative measurement, while reporting lower poverty rates, reflects the same relative trends among minority groups as the older metric.
Without addressing those systemic issues, poverty will remain intractable, said Greg Jarrell, the head of The Family Tree, an intentional Christian community in Charlotte, N.C. More than half of America’s children age 6 and under live in poverty, he noted.
“There have been some gains made against the effects of poverty—developing efficient systems to distribute secondhand food products or broadening Medicaid coverage to include poor children and pregnant women below a certain income threshold.” Jarrell said. “But we have not addressed the imbalance of power that keeps people poor. And in some ways, the systems that keep some people or neighborhoods poor have become even more pernicious, yet more hidden and therefore harder to address.”
“Many of our charity efforts still locate their power structures outside of poor neighborhoods. Charity is something we do to the poor. Lasting change comes when churches, government agencies, nonprofits and others put the poor in charge. Institutional power has to be shifted to the poor so that we have to listen to their voices and follow their lead.”
Additional systemic changes are necessary, other observers insist.
Continuing poverty “may say more about the education challenges faced by our country,” said Gus Reyes, director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission. “The fact remains that a complete education continues to open doors and change futures. We have an opportunity to help marginalized groups attain a brighter future through a faith in Christ and a solid education.”
Statistics suggest Reyes is right. Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported just 2.4 percent of college-educated workers fell below the poverty line. But 9.2 percent of high-school graduates in the labor force were classified as working poor, as were 20.1 percent of those who never finished high school.
A lack of jobs also allows poverty to persist, Vaillancourt-Murphy added.
“The focus of government and the private sector should be on job creation, especially in areas that have high poverty rates. Poverty tends to affect the most vulnerable in society because they tend to have little to no voice when it comes to legislation that directly affects them. What we try to do is engage people to urge their congressperson so that they are properly represented when it comes to issues like income inequality, raising the minimum wage or investing in human capital.”
The focus of government and the private sector should be on job creation, especially in areas like Detroit where high poverty rates have crippled the city. Again, statistics tell the story. The 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics report also noted, unsurprisingly, 4.2 percent of full-time workers live in poverty; among part-time workers, the rate was 14.4 percent. For those without any job, the rate soars, although reports vary.
Everett of the Texas Hunger Initiative notes at least one obvious response: “We know a way to both significantly cut federal entitlement programs, save expenditures for the federal government and increase tax revenue. All it takes is for us to raise the minimum wage rate.”
About a quarter of American jobs pay salaries below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four. Everett disputes claims that raising the minimum wage would disrupt the nation’s economy.
“At the minimum wage, you only make $14,000 a year. If we raise the rate to what it would have been if it had kept up with inflation, that would significantly affect the wellbeing of low-income Americans. They could pay for their own food, which ultimately we want them to do. It won’t shock the system. It would be a major step forward.”
Some practices that keep people in poverty—such as payday lending—can be addressed by churches easily.
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “They have done so by offering financial education and affordable loan alternatives to their neighbors as well as advocating for more just laws on the local, state and national level.“I’ve seen all types of churches respond to the economic injustice of predatory lending,” said Stephen Reeves, associate coordinator of partnerships and advocacy for the
“It’s unfortunate that for so long many churches in the U.S. have ignored preaching and teaching a biblical view of ethical business practices. By articulating and promoting an understanding of business practices that do not take advantage of the desperation of fellow citizens, churches can make an immediate impact that will help the poor.”
Ultimately, say most observers of poverty, the choice between government programs and faith-based solutions is a false one. Collaboration is essential.
“This is a huge issue that faces our country and our world,” Reyes said. “It is going to take a collaborative effort by many to make the kind of progress necessary for impact and resolution. We all have a stake in the solution.”
When Christians collaborate, Everett said, “we participate with God, and we get the divine multiplier effect. It’s like the (New Testament account) of the feeding of the 5,000. It doesn’t seem that you can do it, but you can when God moves. When different groups come together, they seem to be collaborating with something much larger than themselves.”
And that may require churches to shift their theological thinking to adopt a “posture of repentance,” Jarrell noted.
“We need to say to the poor: ‘We are sorry. We repent of what we have done and what we have failed to do. We have been given much, and we have chosen to provide you with dented cans and secondhand clothes every-other Thursday from 10 to noon. Please forgive us.’
“Until we can name the power that we have and repent of how we have misused it—often with good intentions—then I’m not sure why poor people will trust us to work with them. When we address power, then we can start to address poverty more deeply.”