What is the truth about poverty?


Poverty is widely debated.  But what exactly is poverty and why should we care?  The answer, drawn from events of this past week, might surprise you.

How we determine poverty

The Department of Health and Human Services released the poverty guidelines for 2018.


Most federal assistance programs use these figures or a multiple (125%, 150%) to determine eligibility.  40.6 million Americans fall below these guidelines, 54.4 million below 125%, or more than 1 in 6 Americans.  Click here to better understand your neighborhood.


These numbers frame debates and impact millions of Americans, but you may be surprised to learn how we determine them.  In 1962 Mollie Orshansky sought a method to determine poverty.  A 1955 Department of Agriculture Household Food Consumption Survey found the average household spent 1/3 of its income on food.  Based on an economy food plan, she took that amount and multiplied it by 3 to determine the poverty guideline.

The government defines poverty today primarily on this 1955 food consumption survey as applied by Orshansky.

Poverty is more than dollars

Poverty is the state of our existence after the fall.  We are spiritually bankrupt apart from the imputed grace of Jesus.  This should root us in our common humanity and prevent us from judging those who are less materially prosperous.   We lost a spiritual giant this week with the death of Billy Graham.  Graham understood this truth as he shared it with presidents and paupers everywhere.   He said,


Wrapped in a false prosperity gospel, we are too quick to judge those with less.  We give value to money and ascribe worth to those with much while denigrating those with little.  Somehow bankers who steal people’s homes are worth bailing out, but those struggling to make ends meet are threatened to be kicked off government aid if they cannot prove a stable work history.

The history of the world is not rooted in the danger of poverty as much as the danger of wealth.  Time and again God raised up prophets to decry Israel’s materialism which oppressed the poor and vulnerable.  Jesus put it plainly,

“Watch out!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  Lk 12:15

Poverty necessitates generosity

The concept of justice is rooted in the Hebrew word Tzedek.  In Hebrew the word denotes rescuing people to restore them to flourishing.  Israel had numerous laws to ensure support for the poor as well as a culture of hospitality toward those in need.  This deep commitment to justice was what it meant to be generous.  The Hebrew word for generous is Tzedekah.  Generosity is rooted in justice!

Giving to the poor isn’t optional.  Jesus financially supported the poor (Jn. 12:5) and he was generous with his time in serving the poor.  He invites us to do the same.  We allow fear to prevent us from sharing time and money.  But Jesus said,

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions and give to the poor… From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. ”  Lk 12:32, 48.

Poverty necessitates action

Some say the poor will always be with us – so why bother.  Besides being a misuse of Mark 14:7, Jesus continually commands us to love our neighbor by serving them.  Love takes action.

Consider this.  The average income in the United States is $51,939.  If you earn that much you are in the top 1.9% of the wealthiest people on earth!  You can afford to be generous.  If you are prospering in your work, know that God is the one prospering you and He is doing that as a way of advancing His Kingdom – not yours!  Consider advancing His heart of justice for the poor.  Visit our business leader page to learn more.  We don’t often think of our work as a means of doing justice, but it is.

Save the date for our Restore 117 conference on June 8-9 and hear from top business leaders how they are incorporating generous justice in their work.

Take time

Maybe you are a lawyer.  Did you know that only 0.4% of the population is lawyers and yet we hold 100% of the access to justice?  More than an obligation, you have a unique opportunity to advance God’s heart of justice for the poor.

Consider this.  Once you were far from the High King of Heaven.  You may have thought He would never listen to someone like you.  Then you learned He cared so much for you that He left his ivory tower and entered your world because He loved you.   Imagine a person without the funds to meet you in your office.  To this person you are as far away and unreachable as God.  You would never listen to someone like them.  But you do.  You leave your tower and lovingly enter their world and as you do you model the love of Jesus.

I was getting my hair cut this week and was asked what I do.  As I explained legal ministry, the woman broke down crying.  She was a domestic violence survivor because she received help from a legal ministry.  The basic guidance and care changed her.  The trajectory of her life changed because a lawyer and team met her in her hour of need.

Perhaps you are a church leader seeking ways to equip your people to do justice.  While the church has led the way in health care and education, we have absented ourselves from meeting the legal needs of the poor and vulnerable.

Consider this.  There are 384,000 churches in America but less than 0.1% provide legal ministry to the poor.  Change that.  At no cost we can help you bring the gospel and justice to neighbors in need.  Get started at www.gji.org/churchleader.


Poverty is rooted in systems

Get involved in the lives of individuals but don’t neglect the systems that contribute to poverty.  Last week Black Panther opened in theaters across the country.  The movie is about the wealthy nation of Wakanda wrestling with isolation from the challenges of poverty and oppression.  See the movie and stay after the credits for a powerful speech to the United Nations by the King:

“Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We cannot. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”

Less fictional is the example of my ancestral home, Norway.  Norway is doing exceedingly well in the winter Olympics.  But one article argues the reason for this is Norway’s wide-spread economic prosperity and lack of economic inequality.  This system allows time and opportunity for all to participate in winter sports.

We should advocate for systems that support the most vulnerable and elevate all of us, not just the wealthy few.  We should be involved in local, state and national initiatives that promote justice for all.