This blog post is for those who already acknowledge that helping the poor is a good thing to do. Christians are required to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and visit the prisoners, according to the words of Jesus. I have to assume I have a tremendously large target audience, since there are so many self-identified Christian in America. People of other faiths and no faith are also invested in helping the poor, so, for the tiny minority of people who think that helping the poor is not something they want to do, for whatever reason, please don't bother reading this.
For the rest of you, I want to say that it is important to get a good picture of what is actually happening with the poor of this country and how it is we came to have 46 million poor people in a land that is rich with resources. While a certain portion of this problem is barely addressed by government programs that are being threatened with cuts or elimination, there remains a great need in this country for individuals of good will to step up and help those less fortunate than themselves.
The confusing thing is that poverty doesn't look like poverty in America. The standard of living is so high that the poor live in apartments or houses that look nice, that have refrigerators and washers and dryers, but there's little or no food in the fridge, and there isn't enough money to keep ahead of the utility bills to pay for running the washer/dryer, the fridge and everything else. Dental care and eyeglasses are beyond the reach of at least half of the poor and nearly poor. Medical care is spotty, and sometimes they can't pay for the prescription and over-the-counter medicines they need. They're living in a golden cage, but the seed dish is empty.
Before you decide how you as an individual are going to prioritize your efforts to help the poor, I would like to suggest 5 steps that you can take, in the order provided, to make it an activity that is informed, satisfying and effective.
1) DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Research basic statistics through reliable sources the provide source data and statistics. Ignore anecdotal stories from your friends and Facebook contacts, as well as opinion pieces about the great unwashed poor and what we should do about them. Understand the overall picture by digesting the raw data. See some of my own resources at the end of this blog.
I have found that reviewing comparative charts prepared from the raw data is a good way to visualize the issue.
If you see a conspiracy under every rock and you distrust every agency that collects statistics, I can't help you, because it is impossible to understand a situation that exists outside yourself if you refuse to recognize any authority but yourself or those persons whose opinions already jive with yours.
2) Listen to and read the opinions of only those people who have expertise in the areas of economics and poverty demographics and who are authorities in their own right and who rely upon credible facts when forming their opinions and strategy. Particularly ignore anyone who claims to have "secret" information that "the government" is trying to hide from us. They're peddling the Brooklyn Bridge.
3) Once you have digested the data, you will come away with a good picture of poverty in America. There are about 46 million poor people in our country and several million who are nearly poor. You can't help them all, aside from paying your taxes (a very tiny percentage of which goes to government entitlement programs), so you'll have to begin to focus on the subset you'd like to help the most.
Keep this in mind: You are not paying ANY taxes toward the upkeep of the poor, unless you are making more than $50,000 income per year. If you make $50,000, only $7 of your taxes will go to welfare. That's for the whole year. You aren't entitled to an opinion about the poor when you're only paying $7 a year to help them.
Often, when I mention the poor, people immediately make reference to panhandlers and the homeless, even though that group represents an itty bitty speck in the 46 million sea of poor people. I myself require assistance from friends in order to struggle through every single month, but I also find myself helping the homeless in several ways. Take it as a given that you'll do a little something to help them in addition to your other activities. Theirs is a special situation that doesn't represent the rest of the poor.
This is the stage at which a great deal of prayer and soul searching are required. Which demographic of the poor will you help?
In America, the poorest of the poor, people whose income is below about $700 a month, are the ones who get the government benefits and free health care. They used to also receive dental care and eyeglasses, but in the numerous cuts to benefits over the last few years, dental care and eye care may have been eliminated from Medicaid.
I would say that, as far as survival is concerned, the poorest people who make up the bottom third of the spectrum are, in some respects, better off than the poor whose income is slightly higher because the bottom third are the only ones who qualify for government programs. NONE of the poor are "doing well," however. They are all scrabbling for survival.
I belong to a rather large demographic of disabled people who, because of their illnesses, have needs that are much more expensive than the needs of an able-bodied, healthy person. Our disability income is probably half what we need to combat our medical problems. For instance, due to various conditions, I am supposed to get regular therapeutic massages, eat organic food, use organic cosmetics, have a service dog, and a super commercial vacuum that eliminates dust in my environment, but I can't afford any of it, so I feel ill all the time and walk like an 80 year old.)
One of my neighbors once said to me, "Why aren't you working? You look fine to me." Big sigh. No human being can look at another human being and magically see everything that is wrong with them. Consequently, no one can automatically anticipate another person's needs, which brings me to category number 4:
4) ASK the poor what they need. Don't decide for them and then try to thrust it on them. Recently, an acquaintance texted me and said that she had gone to the food bank and was bringing me a box of food. Trouble is, I can't eat any of it. My diet is restricted because of my stomach ailments and my numerous allergies. I thanked her, told her I couldn't use it, and asked her to give it to someone else. She said she would take it to some agency and that THEY would be grateful for it (unlike me, who would not take it from her.)
I will be eternally grateful to my two Catholic friends who call me every month and ask me if I need something in particular from Costco or from a favorite grocery store or from the vitamin catalog. Without these angels of mercy, I would be in a much worse position than I am.
5) Finally, don't forget the poverty of loneliness that infects our country. There are a lot of isolated poor and sick people who rarely get a visitor. Visit a nursing home. Invite one of the church ladies to your house for a meal. Take a lonely person to breakfast. It will mean the world to them.
After you have done all the research and rubbed elbows with the poor and made friends among them, let all this education and experience help inform your voting pattern during the coming elections.
Here are some links of some of the reputable sources for statistics that I mentioned:
U.S CENSUS BUREAU
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR - Bureau of Labor Statistics
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
POVERTY THRESHHOLDS TO RECEIVE ASSISTANCE FROM US DEPT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
ECONOMIC AND STATISTICS ADMINISTRATION - UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE
BUREAU OF ECONOMIC ANALYSIS
PEW RESEARCH CENTER - WHO IS POOR IN AMERICA?
WEB PAGES THAT LIST AUTHORITATIVE SOURCES ON POVERTY:
CENTER ON BUDGET AND POLICY PRIORITIES
Multiple sources, including U.S. Department of Labor, Dept. of Commerce, Census Bureau, etc.
BREAD FOR THE WORLD
Includes data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture
This website uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau, The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American Medical Association Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, UNICEF, the United Nations, the Boston Globe, United for a Fair Economy, The Equality Trust, University of Massachusetts' Center on Social Policy, Report by Allen Greenspan ECONOMIC APARTHEID, Michael Gorman of the American Library Association
CENTER FOR POVERTY RESEARCH - UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT DAVIS
Citing a report on Income and Poverty in the United States (2013), US Census Bureau, and other sources.
SAMPLE CHARTS DERIVED FROM AUTHORITATIVE SOURCES: