Are The Poor In America Really Poor?

There is a myth that makes it hard to concentrate on the needs of those who are suffering in this country. It is the myth that the poor in this country are not really poor. It is due to a comparison of those suffering in this country with those in third world countries. Whenever I speak on the needs of the poor in this country, inevitably someone will bring up the needs of those overseas.

I took a group of young people from a large Chicago suburban church on a mission trip to Chicago’s inner-city. The Minister of Missions let me know that he was on the trip reluctantly because he had serious doubts of the value of our trip. He felt that there was so much more need overseas. He gave me the impression that the trip was a waste of time. I shared that I did not see it as an “either/or” situation. There are obvious needs overseas, but there are needs here too. We were simply responding to those in need close to home and, hopefully, that this trip would raise awareness to the needs of those in other countries as well.

How many times have we heard the expression, “The poorest person in this country is rich compared to those living in third world countries”. But is this true? Is the poorest in this country far better off than those in third world countries? Now please, I have seen the pictures, I have seen the bloated stomachs of children. I have next to me, only three feet away, a picture of an Ethiopian Famine Camp taken in 1988. I took it with me when I left World Relief as a constant reminder of those suffering around the world. Not for one second would I try to minimize the need of those starving refugees around the world. But I have also been in cities and rural areas in this country where homeless live in rubble eating rats, garbage and whatever food is given to them at homeless shelters. I have been in neighborhoods where mothers were not able to put food on the table for days at a time and where children are living in the streets digging in garbage cans for something to eat. 

Viv Grigg has studied poverty around the world. In his book, Cry of the Urban Poor,  he refers to “slums of hope” and “slums of despair”. You cannot judge poverty just by the physical element of food, water and shelter. Hope and despair are two important factors that must be counted too. Many of the third world poor have come to their slums, as bad as they are, thankful for a chance to have a meager paying job and very small plot of land to put their makeshift shack on. Mr. Grigg calls these slums of hope. They have hope that their opportunity will grow and their future children will prosper because of this chance that they have. Vig Grigg writes:
 The poor will not go back. [to the rural areas from which they came – my comment] This indicates how they feel about their lives in the city. They are hooked. For all of the deprivations and depravity, they are better off. They have hope. They have access to health and education for their children. They are city dwellers, urbanites who no longer fit back in the home town. They have come from being hopeless, landless farm laborers. They are moving into the city of gold. The momentary problems of the slums can be suffered for such a glorious dream – even for a generation or two.
 In comparison, many in this country believe that there is no hope of change. They eke out their existence feeling that it will never get better. This is what Mr. Grigg refers to as slums of despair. Viv Grigg has created the chart, Levels of Urban Poverty, that helps us compare poverty in different countries. He suggests that the complexities in the nature of poverty make it hard to differentiate between poverty in various cities and cultures. He created four catergories: Housing; Unemployment; Social problems; and Malnutrition. He then took each catergory and created five degrees of severity. If we took a family in Calcutta that has a small business, is socially stable, living in a poor shack and 1st degree malnutrition and compared him to a person in Chicago that is homeless, no source of income, addicted to crack, but eats better because of our food in America – we could be tempted to say that the person in Chicago is poorer and in more despair.

The point is this. We need to be helping the poor around the world. But let us not forget that there are those not that far from our front door that need help. There are the “really poor” in America.

4 thoughts on “Are The Poor In America Really Poor?”

  1. The poor don’t stay poor if they avoid early pregnacy, substance abuse, obey the law and seek employment. Even the mentally retarded do nicely with this simple recipe. In America to be really poor you must trash your own life repeatedly in order to stay poor.

    These who stay poor are not “unfortunates”, they are volunteers for poverty.

    We should offer them a lifeline of help but we cannot take them to raise generation after generation. Most of the responsibility of living a productive and responsibile life belongs to them.

  2. T. Martin, you blame people lost in sin for not behaving wisely, like those who are already walking in victory through Jesus Christ. Only through the work of the Holy Spirit can people avoid the generational sins of the past. Do not be surprised that the unsaved behave like the unsaved! Jesus compassionately healed the palsied man at the pool of Bethesda, even though that man displayed some of the personality characteristics we see in this article. Without Jesus’ healing, the man had no hope of repairing his own life. It is the touch of the Master’s hand that allows the poorest to find relief in this life… and the next.

  3. Michelle,

    You are right. They need to be born again but I think the article had more tangible help in mind. Outside of their spritual life in which we have minimal control, what would you suggest we do?

    T Martin

  4. I am a strong advocate for personal responsibility. And yet God Himself reaches out to us when we have been extremely irresponsible. That is what grace and mercy is all about. In fact God goes further by giving us the Holy Spirit to guide, direct and even empower us. I believe that this is an example of how God then wants us to behave toward others. Sure some poverty is do to lack of responsiblity, but I also know people who are working and cannot make ends meet without some help. There is much we can do in the name of Jesus. Budgeting skill, affordable housing, job advancement skill training all have to do with helping people overcome finanical difficulites.
    On the emotional side we can help with counseling and Spiritual teaching. Yes “they” need to be responsible but all the personal responsiblity in the world will not help someone who is seeking Spiritual understanding if we are not obedient in going forth and teaching. The church has a responsibility to shine the light in the world of darkness. The purpose of this blog is to help get the dialog going. Thank both of you for helping get this started. Ron Ovitt

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