A few years ago, our church discovered a rich mine of service in the local culture: the poor. The area we live in is a crossroads for low-income people who find green pastures here-not just from the state, but from local churches too. Like Depression-era hoboes who had their own grapevine for sharing generous towns and households, transient down-and-outers get the word out. Subsidized housing, food banks, a myriad of services-all available here. Plus, it's not too hot or cold and the people are nice: Come on down! The local homeless shelter seemed ripe for harvest when our pastor started showing up there. Our church pews filled with strangers in torn jeans and T-shirts, and some professed to be moved and encouraged.
They just never stayed.
The problem, as we haltingly and imperfectly came to learn, is a misunderstanding of poverty-particularly American poverty in the 21st century. It is not primarily a matter of income or opportunity. It's more a state of mind.
It's widely remarked that to be "poor" in America often means decent housing, at least one vehicle, a cell phone for everybody in the family over age 12, air conditioning, two TVs, and a pig heaven of high-carb snacks-wealth beyond the dreams of the average Haitian. Though often exaggerated, it's true enough to raise eyebrows when discussion turns to "The Other America."
The real picture is complicated. Some men and women classified as poor are indeed lazy, and some are masters at gaming the system. Others work hard and dislike handouts (or claim to). Some struggle with drugs or alcohol or personality disorders, and some have a police record. For others, none of those things are true but they're snared in the poverty web.
I grew up in a two-bedroom, one-bath house, on one income-my mother's, after my father was disabled. We never had money for vacations and seldom ate out. Even after adjusting for inflation, our family would probably be considered below the poverty line today, but we never felt poor, or thought poor. There were books in the house, and ideas, and plans. My parents knew how to forgo pleasures today in order to save up for tomorrow, and that's the way previous generations progressed out of poverty.
Today ... not so much.
Social observers, most recently Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart, are concerned about the creation of a permanent American underclass. It consists of an increasing number of individuals who don't marry, don't pursue an education, and lack the ability to set long-range goals. Ruby Payne, in A Framework of Understanding Poverty, isolates certain values common to the lower class, such as an almost tribal obligation to share everything with blood kin, and an acceptance of short jail terms (for oneself or a relative) as normal. Payne is castigated for oversimplifying, but her work deserves attention. Illogical behavior among the disadvantaged is well known to relief workers: Men may work hard at a new job, then quit, or just stop showing up, as soon as they've paid the month's rent. Moms will feel it's perfectly reasonable to blow half a welfare check on a lavish baby shower for their unwed daughters.
When the U.S. government declared War on Poverty in the 1960s, it was gunning for the material kind. But other kinds are much more devastating. The authors of When Helping Hurts (Moody, 2009) identify four kinds of poverty, including poverty of being that lives for the moment and doesn't see a broader world beyond its narrow experience. Shoveling resources their way with no accountability only exacerbates the problem.
This doesn't mean that churches can't help; on the contrary, churches are the best qualified to help. Moreover, we're commanded to help. We just need to be wiser in how we go about it. What's needed is tough love, personal investment, patience, prayer, and reliance on the Lord rather than results. Old molds are hard to break, but new creatures may be waiting inside.