Falling Below the Poverty Line and Over the Fiscal Cliff

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Did you know that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 50 million Americans are living in poverty? The 2011 U.S. Census figure for those living in poverty was 46 million. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the U.S. ranked third-highest in poverty among developed nations in 2011; Turkey and Mexico were the only developed nations whose rates were higher. You may be wondering what the poverty line is: according to the Office of Management and Budget “and updated for inflation using the Consumer Price Index, the weighted average poverty threshold for a family of four in 2011 was $23,021.” There are scores of other people who rise above this line but who are finding it very hard not to fall.

I have found that poverty does not respect age or hard work or place. Did you know that more than one out of every five young children lives in poverty in the U.S., the wealthiest nation on earth? The U.S. Bureau of Labor claims that more than 7 million Americans are working two or more jobs in the effort to make ends meet. And did you know that suburban poverty has now surpassed urban poverty?

You can find out this kind of information and more just by checking out the links above and watching the documentary, The Line. You and I will find in watching the movie and through experience that this is more than information about percentages. It is about real people’s lives—people just like us.

Perhaps we presently think that it is only lazy people, or people with no education, or people who don’t have the necessary experience who face poverty. Perhaps the only time that we will take it to heart that poverty is no respecter of persons is when we come to realize that falling below the poverty line could happen to us. The Line’s story of individuals like “John”—a hard working, well-educated man who had done quite well financially until the economic floor beneath his feet gave way—suggests that it could happen to anyone.

As the debate on the fiscal cliff continues in Washington, we need to consider how lawmakers’ decision or indecision will affect everyone, especially the most vulnerable, in the short-term and long-term. This is no academic or partisan exercise for those who fall below the poverty line, or for God for whom caring for the poor and oppressed, including the orphan and widow in their distress, is central to true religion (See for example Luke 4:16-21 and James 1:27). We need to engage in rigorous, bi-partisan discourse that addresses hard realities and hard issues concerning the poor, as those set forth in this recent article by Jim Wallis, “Our Fiscal Soul and the Arithmetic of Protecting the Poor.”

As my view of being pro-life has expanded over the years in view of Scripture and the complexities of life, I have come to cherish public policy concern not only for those not yet born but also for those who have been born who are at risk. We need a theology and a politics that is pro-life, all of life, across the board. Such a pro-life package will include advocacy for the poor. We need to make sure that Jesus’ mission which highlighted the poor (Luke 6:20) in addition to the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3) is not aborted.

If we don’t care about what Scripture says, or about protecting the poor, we should at least ask and answer the following question: who will be there for the rest of us, if we trip and fall over the fiscal cliff and into poverty?



About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    My family has experienced a great deal of financial hardship over the last few years. When ever I write about it, I get notes from people thanking me for being open and sharing their own stories of illness, job loss, disability and various traumas which lead them over the financial cliff. Almost every person who has written to me about it has shared that they left the church in the midst of their descent into financial failure because they couldn’t take the judgment, the know-nothing advice and unrealistic expectations. I’ve come to believe that the church has driven many people away because it doesn’t actually understand poverty, but thinks it does.

    In my experience people in the church are often VERY unrealistic about poverty. For example, a lot of people think that because they were young and poor once or went through a period of unemployment once, they understand what it takes to survive and get out of poverty. But being poor at 23 is nothing like being poor with kids at 40. Experiencing a period of unemployment is nothing like developing a chronic illness which leaves you unable to work. Living within your means is good advice, but useless for someone whose income is suddenly cut and who now has to figure out how to reduce expenses like the mortgage, utilities and food. Savings are great, but what happens when like my family there are 4 job loses and a failed business in less than 6 years time? And everyone is convinced that there are government programs and charity services which can meet the needs of people who are struggling. However, the programs are always underfunded and can only offer very limited help. And they usually have so many rules, requirements and conditions that it often becomes a choice of spending your time looking for work or accessing help which you may or may not qualify for and which may or may not have funds left. And if it’s known that your family is struggling financially, a shocking number of people feel justified in questioning your family’s spending choices. Recently a stranger paid our family’s gas bill so we could get our heat back on before it got too cold. Someone asked why I have internet if we can’t pay the utilities. Because my financial problems mean that my judgment is suspect, of course.

    At any rate, thanks for writing about this. The church’s attitude toward poverty is an unrecognized problem, imo

    • Paul Louis Metzger

      Thank you, Rebecca. I very much appreciate you sharing your experiences and insights concerning this very weighty matter. Your story helps us see that the issues before us regarding poverty are not simply political or academic, but incredibly personal.

  • rvs

    Thanks for this sobering post. Like many, I worry that America’s hodgepodge approach to healthcare (profit, profit, capitalism everywhere) will continue to put pressure on those trying to crawl out of poverty.

    • Paul Louis Metzger

      Thank you. Yes, we need a comprehensive strategy of addressing this incredibly overwhelming problem.

  • David Marible

    My name is David. I reside in North Carolina with my wife and kids. We live in a two bedroom run down trailer we rent. I work as a TA in the NC school system. I bring home less than $1000 a month. It’s been rough and there are days I feel less than a man because I can’t give my family the life they deserve. I watch people the Obama administration back and support literally cheat the system. 46million Americans fall below the poverty line? Who do you think put Obama back in the White House? I may have to put my dreams out of my head for good but at least I won’t cheat my fellow man, regardless of color, just to get ahead. I guess for some traditional morals are out the door. America has long since stop believing the Scriptures. They’re changing God’s Laws too. God Help Us All and God HELP America!

    • Paul Louis Metzger

      Thank you for your comments, David. I appreciate your openness and honesty. I think a very diverse group of people put the President back in the White House, from across the socio-economic spectrum. As the documentary The Line shows, there are so many people trying to make it, working hard, not cheating the system, but are still falling below the poverty line. There are no easy solutions and realizing that the situation is complex is very important if we are going to make headway in addressing our increasing economic crisis in terms of that line of poverty and how vast numbers of people are falling below it.