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TOP CHEFS: Brian and Eric at Victory Trade School.
Photo by Sarah Elms/Stry.us
TOP CHEFS: Brian and Eric at Victory Trade School.

Hope for the poor

Effective Compassion | Poverty in the United States is at a two decade high, but local groups that connect work and faith to charity provide lasting relief

When Brian Fikkert of the Chalmers Center near Chattanooga, Tenn., tallies the number of people his Christian development organization has helped in Rwanda, he speaks of “hundreds of thousands.” (The work includes a Bible-based curriculum that helps poverty-stricken families save money and assist other community members.)

But when Fikkert, executive director at Chalmers and an economics professor at Covenant College, considers the number of poor people the group has helped in Chattanooga since he founded the organization in 1999, he says the figure drops dramatically: “I can count it on one hand.”

Why the gap? 

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While Rwanda has a violent past and far worse poverty than the United States, Fikkert says it also has something else: “The churches in Rwanda are churches of the poor. ... They are full of the poor.” In Chattanooga, he says, churches are often “full of people who don’t have relationships with the poor.”

It’s not just a problem in Chattanooga. It’s a conundrum for many Christians across the country who want to help the poor in their own communities, but aren’t sure where to begin. Fikkert, co-author of When Helping Hurts, admits he struggles with such problems as well.

That’s not because there’s a lack of poverty in America. A Sept. 12 report by the U.S. Census Bureau found the poverty rate in the United States hovers around 15 percent—the highest level in almost two decades. The rate barely changed from 2010 to 2011. It means some 46 million people in the United States live below the official poverty line—about $23,000 for a family of four. (The poverty rate calculations don’t include certain government benefits like earned income tax credits or food stamps, which would lower the number of those living below the poverty level.)

When it comes to children, the numbers are especially startling. The report found the poverty rate for children raised by single mothers was 40.9 percent. (The rate of poverty for children of married couples was 8.8 percent.) 

The problem will likely grow worse: Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute noted that out of 1 million children likely to be born into poverty next year, nearly three-fourths will be born to single mothers.

For years, politicians have debated the best way to help poor Americans, and the winner of November’s presidential election will face the same question. But as politicians struggle with the government’s role in poverty relief, Christians also continue grappling with their own responsibilities to help the poor. 

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic, says that’s particularly important as conservatives call on the government to curtail runaway federal spending. During a pro-life event filled with Christians at the Republican National Convention in August, Santorum told the group: “If the government is going to do less, we’ve got to do more.”

What that looks like varies widely among cities, Christians, and churches. For the last seven years, WORLD has featured examples of Christians seeking to help needy populations by applying biblical principles to addressing material and spiritual needs. 

Each year, we profile a handful of worthy organizations nominated by readers, and ask our readers to vote for a winner online. On Oct. 18, we announced the winner of WORLD’s 2012 Hope Award for Effective Compassion: The WorkFaith Connection, a Houston-based group that helps some of the city’s least employable men and women find jobs. 

It’s one example of many groups working to do more to meet deep needs. In this report, we’ll review some of the past winners, examine some of the historical context for Christian poverty fighting, and look at ways that Christians can start small to do more.

For men and women looking for jobs after serving time in prison, starting small can seem like a huge task. 

Sandy Schultz, CEO of The WorkFaith Connection, talked about helping people with troubled pasts start over during the Hope Award’s dinner in October. “For so many of the men and women we are serving, putting the truth on a [job] application can be painful,” she said. “But God uses The WorkFaith Connection to remind them that they are a new creation in Christ, that the old is gone. They are living proof, bright lights in the world. They bring Scripture to life.”

Other groups seek to bring Scripture to life for needy populations in other cities. In 2006, the first Hope Award recipient was the Christian Women’s Job Corps in Nashville, Tenn. The group began in 1997 as a program of the Woman’s Missionary Union, an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention. 

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