A Personal Guide to Fighting Poverty

A Personal Guide to Fighting Poverty July 8, 2011

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.

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  • Carl

    Excellent! Couldn’t have been said better.

  • Amy

    Right on David! Thanks for encouraging me to be a better servant!

  • Mark Kelley

    You give a perfect summation of what is required of Christians – not by human law but by God’s law – who intend to follow the Savior and His teachings. (Not that it is all that is required of us, of course.) It is not easy, but those who do it will find it intensely and deeply rewarding beyond anything they might have expected, and they will find themselves becoming changed people. Thank you for putting it into words so well!

  • Joel Tate

    This was an excellent post and it helped with the general feeling of powerlessness that I have been dealing with lately. I just wanted to add John Wesley’s indispensable quote along these lines to the effect that we are to “earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.”

  • jim

    Loss of income and a job also means loss of a place in society and status. I think many men find it emotionally very difficult to maintain friendships if there is a significant difference in status. The result is that unemployed men tend to withdraw from past friendships out of embarrassment and shame.

    So if you have an old friend, or an old college buddy, and you hear he has fallen on hard times … you might want to give him a call just to say hi since he probably is reluctant to reach out to you. Talk about sports, movies, politics, etc. Men especially value being respected and feeling like an equal.

    Many families will fall apart if the husband stays unemployed for long. The tendency to withdraw out of shame is a self-destructive habit of men, but it’s an unfortunate reality. But it makes returning to the workforce that much harder.

    And it’s not just stubborn “pride”. It’s that, but it’s also just the reality that many men don’t know how to maintain relationships if they feel much lower in status than the other person.

    The irony is that for many men friendship is hardest to find, hardest to accept, and hardest to maintain when it is needed the most.

  • That is a great quote, Joel — reminds me a tad of the more modern Dave Ramsey!

  • Re: #4 — or serve as a leader in a Scout troop! There’s good work being done in many BB/BS orgs, but a huge part of their program in most areas is to put on mass events, and the number actually served one-on-one is quite small. The Scouting program (Cubs & Boys, I can’t speak for Girl Scouts) is very scalable, with the proviso that modern Scouting has an iron-clad “two deep leadership” rule. Having said that, you do lots of work with individual Scouts working on rank and merit badge advancement, more in sum than patrol or troop activities.

    But it’s a great list overall, truly! Thanks, and I’ll bookmark this site for sure.

  • Jordan

    David, your article is full of great insights. I would add that to fight poverty, don’t get divorced, like you said, AND, don’t have children outside of marriage. One of the greatest causes of poverty among women and children is no fault divorce and having children outside of wedlock. I have extended family members – some have had children within marriage, others have not. The economic consequences and contrasts between those situations are huge. I think the government could do much more to combat poverty by urging everyone not to have children outside of marriage, and not to get divorced when married. Many are not aware of the inevitable negative financial effects of single motherhood (and it is rarely single fatherhood).

  • If you enjoyed this article, I think you’ll really like this article on Ordinary Stuff You Can Do.

  • Also, I disagree that there’s “not much” you can do about macroeconomics. Yes, your influence is limited, but organizations like Bread for the World would love to have you join their network, and they make it easy. They’ll tell you when there’s a key piece of legislation in limbo and it takes a few seconds to contact your representatives.

  • This article is really important and very helpful, thanks for writing it!

    I especially appreciate #2 on the list “don’t just live within your means, live below them.” What’s so tough about doing this is that the culture at large does accept the “live within your means” mentality. So we, as Christians, don’t feel any conviction for spending all of our paycheck every month to maintain our standard of living. Dr. Tim Keller has a great comment along these lines. He says that we must keep evaluating our standard of living. Most of us won’t ask questions like: Do I need to have a house this big in this part of town? Do we need to eat out this often? Do I need these new clothes? Couldn’t I do more good for others if I scaled back? It’s not wrong to have any of those things, but out of joy for Christ impoverishing himself on our behalf, we should be looking at more ways to be a blessing to others.

    This is an area for Christians where we could look different than our culture without being separationists. In fact, it’s the opposite. You make sacrifices with your income and time so that you can invest them in other people. It’s an opportunity to be the “light on a hill” and I’m praying that we all take hold of it.

    Thanks again for the article!

  • Bill Patzer

    Well said, David. A couple of comments: First, although it’s true as individuals each of us has very limited impact on a macroeconomic level, since greater economic freedom does mean greater prosperity overall, we should speak and advocate for it within our circles. If everyone does, than change can occur on a systemic level. Second, although World Vision does a good job in what it does, World Relief is a far more effective organization at combining ministry to the most vulnerable with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  • David French

    Bill, thanks for the comment. Regarding economic freedom, one of the goals of this blog is to do our part to educate the next evangelical generation about the virtues of economic freedom (especially as compared to socialist alternatives). Simply put, economic freedom lifts people out of poverty; socialism traps them there (and gives them lots of company).