I wonder of course how it is that in my life and ministry I have been poor, been in the homes of the poor, and see people still suffering from poverty. The reality on the ground mixed with the observations of statistics seems to be incongruent.
Let me state that I am not afraid of statistics, I have no desire to waste any money or time if there is actually no need. I certainly don't want to defend governmental waste or incompetence, or to advocate any continuation of strategies that aren't effective in helping to change people's lives. I hope that my desire is to tell the truth, to believe the truth, and to act on it. It is also my desire to be obedient to Jesus, to truly love people, to minister to them in effective ways so that they come to love Jesus, follow him, and have their lives changed.
I have lived in Africa and I have seen poverty in some of its worst forms. I have come to realize that poverty has different forms and effects around the world. I know that being hungry, being at risk from unclean water, being at risk from freezing to death, being at risk from dangerous living conditions, having little or no access to medical care, being at risk from exploitation sexually, economically, and environmentally are real and hard measurements for poverty. Whatever opportunities and progress may be within walking distance of the poor, those hard measurements are still real and will end their lives too soon.
Proverbs 17: 5 says, "Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker; he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished."
This is my concern with those who seem to use statistics to deny the reality of poverty in this country. It is a mocking of the poor. To despise the poor because seemingly so much is spent on their behalf and to then blame them for our national difficulties I take as mocking of the poor.
Some of those who cite these statistics seem to miss the obvious, while stating we spend all this on the poor and then simultaneously deny we have poor people is to lose the connection between the reason for the spending. If we have little poverty compared to the undeveloped world it is because we have spent this money. Wouldn't it be a scandal if the 49 million or so folks considered under the poverty line actually had to live such destitute lives as many in the undeveloped world do, while living in this blessed land of economic properity and opportunity?
The overall cost of poverty programs also has this constant reality; delivery of such services to the poor doesn't directly go to them but to the vast cadres of middle class workers who deliver those services. This is always frustrating but just as we can't send astronauts into orbit without a delivery system so we cannot even get checks to elderly Social Security recipients without a Social Security Administration. Another reality is that though there might be an "average" of how much money is spent for poor people there are plenty of those below that "average" which create the statistic. Not all states give the same amount for the relief of the poor and not all costs of living (or surviving) are the same across the country.
A vast amount of our poor populaton happen to be children. Whatever the fraities of their parents many children in this country suffer from poverty. If we mock them because so much seems to be allocated for them by way of food stamps, school lunches, section eight housing, medicaid, Head Start, etc., and yet they still don't seem to rise above their situation, we might not be taking into account that not all of those children receive those benefits and would be in much worse shape if those services weren't provided.
It is always intersting to hear people making comments that if the church were just doing its job then the government wouldn't have to be spending all this money. Well, I certainly applaud any effort to get God's people to be faithful and obedient and to love the poor as Jesus wants us to do. I think such comments reflect some ignorance of the proper Biblical role of government to protect the rights of the poor, to coerce the wealthy to share their surplus with the needy (scary thought that not harvesting the corners of your field was a kind of tax to help the poor).
I agree that if more churches were being obedient to God many poor people would no longer be poor, or be a burden to anyone but their own brothers and sisters. Of course churches would have to start evangelizing among the poor and plant churches among them, which they don't like to do because poor people can't seem to pay the bills for the church like the middle class can. Even then churches would have to start practicing love to their own members through acts of mercy, and they might have to realize sacrificial giving from their members to be effective at that mercy.
There are a lot of reasons for poverty, and certainly if we had better marriages, more of them, and less divorce or abandonment of children then we would have less poverty. If we had less drug abuse, and alcoholism, less explotative pay day lending, better schools, more job availability for low skill workers, etc. we would have less poverty. All of these are compelling reasons for me to support preaching the Gospel to the poor, and demanding just laws to protect them so it doesn't get worse.
Yet, we have poverty, and I personally think it is cruel to deny it exists because it means God's people settle for doing less, we shift the blame to the least among us, and we therefore refuse to help Jesus (Matthew 25) and we mock the Maker. As for me, I don't want to face the implications of that.