I remember one man I knew who was looked upon as some expert in economics saying that only homeless people in America were really poor, and that there weren't that many of them in comparison to the rest of the population. His argument seemed to be targeted at the wasted money the government spent on helping poor ("not really poor") people. I remember my own pastor, who worked with families like mine, who claimed he was actually less well off than the people in my housing project who were on welfare, but he made it because he didn't waste his money.
I have had the opportunity to be considered poor in America, at least by the government. I have lived and worked in Africa and taken food to drought stricken areas of Kenya, visited refugee settlements in Uganda, walked in the slums of Kibera. I often train churches in how to show mercy, and I try to train them to do it effectively.
I have heard people tell me they grew up poor, but they didn't know they were poor. I am both sad and glad for them. Sad they had to do without, glad they didn't know anything but love and consistent provision by their parents.
One of the things I enjoyed about the book, "When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert is when they speak about the psychological and spiritual damage of poverty. I resonated with that when I read it, because unlike some people I knew I was poor, and to some degree I know how it hurt me. Well, actually I guess I just thought I was poor if in America people aren't "really poor."
This is an honest and sincere question for many, and please excuse any cynicism or sarcasm as I write, although I don't know if I can help myself. I think I can speak to the reality that people are poor in several ways. One is what I would call absolute poverty, which is the condition of a person when they do not have the necessities to live. They don't have drinkable water, they don't have enough food, or only the kind of food that fools their hunger while they actually starve, they have no shelter, they have no clothes, they have no medicine. The lack of these things for long enough will kill you. Sometimes this poverty comes about from being born into a family or region where no one has these things due to famine, drought, the results of war or natural disaster, and if the United Nations or some NGO, government, or somebody doesn't bring those necessities many will die until that help arrives. Sometimes it happens by family, or in smaller communities, but no food is no food, no heat is no heat in the midst of winter.
Many times this absolute poverty comes about because people live on a subsistence level, they survive but not well, they don't really develop due to inadequate nutrition, they scape out a living and they make it, until something comes to tip the balance to absolute poverty. This seems to happen a lot in Africa, but it happened in New Orleans after Katrina when lots of marginal urban dwellers lost their usual means of just making it, and some families exist that way for a few generations.
Often subsistence farmers don't think of themselves as poor, they work hard, everyone works hard, and the family eats and gets by somehow. School fees, medical care, etc. can reveal the depth of need, and sometimes there is panic. Often there is just resignation that this is who we are and what we do or don't have, and we will continue to work toward something better.
This marginal line of poverty can be lived in contrast with the wealthy or in isolation from them. In America of course this kind of poverty is often lived in stark contrast with great wealth, and in many countries in the world this disparity is growing and dramatic. Sometimes this contrast acts to spur people on to greater achievement, if the system provides opportunity. Places of corruption, tribalism and discrimination can freeze whole segments of a population out of opportunity. Sometimes the disparity leads to great bitterness, a justification for crime or violence.
Since I have been hungry, seen my mother weep when we were out of food, had my teeth rot because we couldn't affort a dentist, lived in projects inadequately built due to municipal corruption, had no car, no property, no means to grow our own food, lived in a congested area of single parent homes with fatherless children with its accompanying violence, embarrased by the clothes I wore, by the roaches that crawled from my shoes at school, I would have to say I think I was poor, and it sure seemed real to me.
It sucked, and to this day I don't want to take a dime from the government that I haven't earned, but at the same time thankful and glad that the progams that housed and fed my family existed when we needed them. I have learned that there is poverty by choice, such as my pastor lived in order to serve where he did. I am thankful that he was there, but see that his comments and those who damn the poor because they waste money, eat junk food, don't save, and don't seem to take advantage of all that we have in America show an ignorance of the value system that is both created by poverty and sustains it.
Because some families climb out of poverty in America, because immigrants come here and work like crazy to lift themselves and their families from nothing, doesn't mean the same values of aspiration are able to be grasped by everybody. The results of three or four generations of functional illiteracy, malnutrition, even eating lead paint chips, living close to toxic dumps, peer value formation due to the absence of working fathers in the home, create a numbing "get by" existence that condemns another generation of children to grow up in the same morass.
Is the poverty real in an African village where young children take jerry cans and walk for an hour with their donkey to dig for another hour in a dry river bed to walk home another hour to get there by day break, then hopefully go to a school that has nothing but one chalk board and sometimes chalk? Yes, I would say that is real. But I would also say those children are in many ways psychologically healthier than children who live in slums.
I think all poverty sucks. When I meet children in the U.S.A. who don't know how to read by the fifth grade, whose families often run out of food, whose mother gets evicted and they have to move again after several times this year, who don't see a doctor until they have to go to an emergency room, yes I think they are poor. Even if the poverty of the children is caused by the addiction, immorality, and sluggard behavior of a parent the children still suffer. I think it is also a shame that if that mother knew better, if the values were different, that so much of America's promise could be realized. But we are losing another generation as I write, and that is one reason I feel a sense of urgency to plant more churches that are really active and loving churches among the poor, so that values can be changed, and people loved into aspiring for meaningful changes in their lives.
The nonsense that there are no "real" poor people in America seems to me to be more of a political idea than empirical observation. Without the programs that do exist there would be far more of them. Are some of the programs misguided, actually extending poverty for some? Yes, I think that is true too. I hate the idea of simply sustaining people in poverty, giving them just enough to survive but doing nothing to move them from the point at which they live to a place where they could actually make life better for their children.
I am glad for all of those who go or send money to the two thirds world (and I am one of them) since this is no doubt real poverty there. Even there much money is wasted and often little is changed. I don't think I need to be in a competition to see who is suffering more; all poverty sucks. Starving and dying and feeling worthless and ashamed I would consider to be bad anywhere they happen. So, one neighborhood, one slum, one block, one city, one family, one youth, one child at a time, wherever God gives you opportunity to build a church, a new community, a new value system, new hope in one person, then do it. But please don't insult the "real poor" anywhere with the denigration of their suffering by aloof comparisons.