A Personal Guide to Fighting Poverty

Today is a bad day.  Unemployment is back up to 9.2 percent despite jobseekers leaving the workforce in droves and previous job gains have been revised to reflect job losses.  The poverty rate is climbing, and now more than 43 million Americans are poor.

What can we do?  What can Christians do, as a practical matter, to fight poverty?

There’s no doubt that the causes of poverty are complex, but we do know a few things with a high degree of certainty.  First, on a macroeconomic level, greater economic freedom leads to greater prosperity.  Second, on a cultural level, family status is perhaps the single-best predictor of family outcome.  Third, as Christians we are repeatedly called and commanded to aid the poor.

What can you do about macroeconomics?  Not much, actually.  It’s a simple reality that any given American’s impact on our national economy or our economic policies can’t be measured with an electron microscope.  Our voices should be heard, but individually they don’t have much impact.  In fact, I’d suggest there exists an iron law of service:

You can have a tiny amount of influence over a large number of people or a large amount of influence over a tiny number of people.

In other words, you can’t “change the world,” but you do have a chance at impacting your own home and the lives of people around you.  Give to World Vision, and volunteer for political campaigns, but don’t think that by doing so you’ve discharged your duty to the “least of these.”

I’d suggest that the key to your influence over poverty rests not in macroeconomics but in marriage and family.  It’s around the hearth and home where the real impact is made, and it’s there that the work is hardest, most exhausting, and — ultimately — most powerful.

So, how can we fight poverty?  How can we serve the poor?  Here’s my best shot at a personal guide:

First, be faithful to your own marriage and family relationships.  This sounds simple and self-regarding, but it’s also foundational.  If marriage stands as a firewall against poverty and want, then remaining married helps ensure that you and yours don’t fall victim to the prevailing economic trends; remaining married gives your own children a chance; and a healthy marital relationship is itself a tremendous platform for service as your efforts are multiplied through your spouse and older kids.  You can’t save a drowning man if you’re drowning yourself.

Second, don’t just live within your means, live below them.  I know from bitter personal experience that following the all-too-typical American pattern of living exactly as prosperously as your paycheck allows not only places your family in peril in the event of job loss but also dramatically impacts our ability to be generous to those in need.  We have to understand — to the very core of our being — that our money and assets ultimately belong not to us but to God.  I have seen friends in need and been unable to help because of my own (very silly) financial choices.

Third, enable marriage, not divorce.  One of the worst developments in modern evangelical culture is our increasing acceptance of divorce.  (To be clear, God’s grace of course extends to the divorced; I’m speaking instead of the willingness to sanction and accept divorce as it’s unfolding).  Friends would rather help spouses nurse grievances, or offer a shoulder to cry on, than have tough conversation about fidelity and selflessness.  Divorce is so traumatic, so painful, that it can launch even middle-class couples into downward spirals of increased household costs, substance abuse, and depression.  Amongst your circle of friends, make a vow: You will do all you can to preserve, protect, and defend their marriages and families.

Fourth, invest yourself fully in individual lives.  Remember the rule: You can have a tiny amount of influence over a large number of people or a large amount of influence over a tiny amount of people.  What does that mean in the real world?  That means adoption.  That means foster parenting.  That means taking families under your wing and helping them (with gifts, not loans) as they struggle through hard times.  That means serving as a big brother or a big sister.  Invest in lives, don’t drive by them.  And when you invest, know this — your investment will be risky.  You’ll risk your family, your heart, and your money with no certain outcome, no guaranteed happy ending.

Fifth (and finally), do the rest.  In this category are all the things you do when a person typically thinks of “fighting poverty.”  Serve in a soup kitchen.  Donate canned goods.  Sponsor a child.  Fight for the right candidates and public policies.  Volunteer at a homeless shelter.  Do all that “change the world” stuff you see lionized on television and movies.  But be humble about it . . . because you won’t be making much of a difference to anyone.

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”  (James 1:27)  Those words imply personal engagement, not mere advocacy, not drive-by service, and certainly not mere compassionate thoughts (or prayers).

We can argue all day long about politics, about progressivism or conservatism, and spew vitriol in comment boards (all in good fun, of course), but none of that is of the slightest real-world significance compared to the distress of the family in the pew behind you, the fatherless child you’re called to love, or the troubled kid you take the risk to mentor.

And one final note . . . I have far from perfectly walked the walk.  But as I see the unemployment figures — and as my own community has experienced factory closures and job losses — I repent of my failings and resolve to do better.

We simply don’t have a choice.

Social Justice and Public Schools, a Continuing Series

Several months ago I wrote a Patheos article called “Wisconsin is the New France: Entitlement Derangement Syndrome” condemning the hysterical response to marginal teachers’ benefit cuts and promptly got lambasted by commenter after commenter, with some even questioning my Christianity.

Why bring it up?  Because Glenn Reynolds’ “Sunday Reflection” in the Washington Examiner contains some inconvenient facts:

Wisconsin spends a lot of money on education, and its teachers are well-paid. The average total compensation for a teacher in the Milwaukee public schools is over $100,000 per year.

In fact, Wisconsin spends more money per pupil than any other state in the Midwest. Nonetheless, two-thirds of Wisconsin eighth-graders can’t read proficiently.

But it gets worse: “The test also showed that the reading abilities of Wisconsin public-school eighth graders had not improved at all between 1998 and 2009, despite a significant inflation-adjusted increase in the amount of money Wisconsin public schools spent per pupil each year. . . . from 1998 to 2008, Wisconsin public schools increased their per pupil spending by $4,245 in real terms yet did not add a single point to the reading scores of their eighth graders and still could lift only one-third of their eighth graders to at least a ‘proficient’ level in reading.”

More money spent, same (poor) results.  Where’s the social justice in that?


Real Housewives of the Bible?

Evangelist produces ‘Real Housewives of the Bible’ DVD

I know there are a lot of fans of the “Real Housewives” series.  But seriously?

There’s a new set of housewives on the block.

These women aren’t whining about fashion faux pas and socialite misgivings. Their stories are cast somewhere between the books of Genesis and Revelation.

Ty Adams, a web-based evangelist and author, is producing “The Real Housewives of the Bible,” a two-part DVD series that tracks six women dealing with the ups and downs of marriage as they strive to be good wives.

Adams said that “outrageous reality shows” like Bravo’s “The Real Housewives” series and VH1’s “Basketball Wives” inspired her to create a more wholesome version of the franchise

Read more here. If you were cast in this drama, who would you be?  Abigail?  Rachel? Jezebel?

Come to think of it, this series has the chance of being racier than their modern day counterparts!

Does More Spending Equal More Compassion?

After watching Jim Wallis and Richard Land debate the budget on Bloggingheads and reading my colleague Jordan Sekulow’s Washington Post piece on the debt disaster, I realized once again that the religious left and the religious right seem to speak different languages when it comes to budgetary policy.

All too often it seems that the religious left virtually takes for granted that the hundreds of billions of dollars spent fighting poverty and funding education (to take two examples) represent money well spent and that cutting that funding is “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor” or “sacrificing our children’s future.”  Yet does more money equal better outcomes?  Consider the chart below:


And for a graphical look at education expenses, click here.

To translate from chart-speak, both show that hundreds of billions of dollars (if not trillions) in spending have not (1) lowered the poverty rate; or (2) improved educational outcomes.

Regarding poverty, the single-best indicator of family outcome is family status.  Simply put, intact families have a low poverty rate.  Single-parent families have a high poverty rate.  And to the extent government funding impacts family status, it often does so negatively — by making single-parent poverty more sustainable over the long term.

Regarding education, there is also strong evidence that family status is a prime predictor of educational outcome.  And anecdotal evidence from successful charter and private schools indicate that strong teaching can overcome even poor families — and this strong teaching comes from schools that have much lower funding levels (on average) than the public school system.

Our poverty and education problems are cultural, not budgetary, and we simply can’t print enough money to cover the social costs of illegitimacy and divorce.  It is a symbol of our nation’s underlying strength that we’ve been able to prosper for decades while diverting astounding amounts of money into ineffective programs, but we can’t afford such waste any longer.


Giving New Meaning to the Word “Packers”

My friend and I were walking ahead of our not-yet-teen daughters at dusk in rural Tennessee, separated by a tenth of a mile so we could engage in our own private conversations. When the truck sped by, we rolled our eyes at its loud exhaust and lifted frame. But the truck, seeing only our daughters (since we’d already taken a turn) slammed on its brakes and stopped in the middle of the rural road. It’s a picturesque, peaceful road, the kind where my toddler squeals with delight at the sight of horses, cows, goats, deer, skunks, coyotes, and raccoons. It’s normally filled with slow-moving tractors and fast-moving trucks.

But that truck in particular stopped.

I pushed 9, then 1, then another 1 on my iPhone and began to run to the girls. It was probably nothing, but something didn’t feel right, and I knew that by the time the police came out to our rural road, whatever was going to happen would’ve happened. The truck backed up and kicked rocks up on the side of the road, then lurched forward as it struggled to completely turn around in the narrow country road.

By the time he reached them, I was there.

With a phone.

He drove slowly by, then sped away when he saw a 36-year-old Momma Grizzly in gym shorts.

But within weeks I was sitting in a gun carry permit class, wanting never again to be in the position of merely having an iPhone and a mean grimace to protect myself and kids. The class, held at my hometown church, was full of men and women ready to learn the basics about guns, self-defense, and where one is allowed to carry guns in the state of Tennessee. It was full of grandmothers and grandfathers, young men and young women preparing for the possibility that they might need to practice self-defense in this predictably unpredictable world.

That’s why I was a little surprised to see all of the controversy surrounding Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s signing of a concealed-carry bill into law this week. Specifically, people wonder whether fans will start bringing weapons into Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers. Though the NFL says patrons can’t bring guns into an NFL stadium, the law is unclear, since the stadium is owned jointly by the city and the Green Bay/Brown County Professional Football Stadium District. This may prohibit the NFL from enforcing their own policy.

Immediately, the handwringing began. What about the beer that’s served in Lambeau Field? What about the increased emotions of a ball game?

Those upset about this development don’t understand these three issues.

1. Wisconsin, you are not a trailblazer: Most other states allow citizens to carry a gun, and chaos has not ensued. According to the NRA, 40 states are right-to-carry, 37 require carry permits be issued to applicants who meet uniform standards, two have fairly administered discretionary-issue carry-permit systems, Alaska and Arizona have allowed concealed carrying without a permit since 2003 and July 2010, and Vermont respects the right to carry without a permit. The very fact that so many states have gun-toting citizens should comfort the folks in Wisconsin. You’re not going to wake up after the ink in Governor Walker’s signature dries and suddenly find yourselves living in the Wild West.

2. Carry-permit holders must sit through a great deal of alcohol and drug education. I literally could not believe how long the officers lectured us about the dangers of mixing alcohol and guns: We received verbal instruction, watched a video presentation, and then took a written test. The bottom line is that if you are carrying a gun, you may not drink alcohol, just as you may not walk into your kids’ school with it hanging on your belt loop. These are just the rules. People who are conscientious enough to take these classes and pay their money to get the permit are usually rule-following enough not to drink while carrying.

3. Permit holders do not generally commit crimes. I took my class in a rural Tennessee county most of you would pretty accurately call “redneck.” When I asked the officer how many crimes had been committed by permit holders since the law was enacted in 1993, he said “Zero, though once we had a guy who kept flashing it at Walmart.” And that’s out of thousands of carriers in that county. Florida, as a concrete, less anecdotal example, has 1.9 million permit carriers (more than any state) and has revoked only 168 due to gun crimes by permit-holders. That’s less than 0.009 percent. Additionally, the process flushes out people who have been convicted of major crimes before or who have a mental illness.

Business owners, of course, have the right to forbid people coming into their place of business with weapons. However, while officials are looking at how this pertains to Lambeau Field, people should welcome Wisconsin into the club of so many other states who respect their citizens’ constitutional right to bear arms.

Because you never know when you might need to protect yourself or your children — whether jogging in rural Tennessee or watching a ball game with a plastic slice of cheese on your head.

This article first appeared on National Review Online.