What Does Poverty Look Like?

What does poverty look like?

Pallam Slum, Chennai by jcandeli.  Shared under a Creative Commons License.

Well, it looks like this. Obviously.

It’s pretty easy to look at this picture–a half-clothed kid standing in the middle of a trash heap in the slums of India–and see that there are needs to be met in his life. Let’s start with the fact that he’s living on top of a pile of garbage and go from there…

Photos like that prompt us to sponsor kids in foreign lands through Compassion or other noteworthy Christian aid organizations. Those images make us feel shameful for living in the land of plenty, for being able to drink water from the tap without fearing for our lives or for wasting the crust on our PBJ sandwiches.

(Just for the record, I am a crust-eater.)   😉

Here’s the hard part: Do we see the needs of the people right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.? In our hometown? Down the block? In our churches?

Maybe you’re like me. I grew up hearing a lot of talk about the lazy, the swindlers, the “taking-advantage-of-the-government” types and the people who “waste their money on drugs and alcohol.” I’m no fool–I know those people exist–but how do I know who they are?

Can I look at a person and say, “Oh yeah… he’s a druggie. She’s just wanting to get knocked up for the sixth time so she can get a bigger check from Uncle Sam. That kid can’t be poor–he’s too fat!” (Because, you know… poor =  skinny, right?)  <–That’s sarcasm, in case you aren’t as fluent in the language as I am. 😉

Let’s face it…we all play judge and jury to some extent. I feel like we have less empathy to fellow Americans because there are so many ways a person CAN get help, through organizations, churches, the government, etc.

Are we snobbish about the needy? Are we more willing to cut slack to a poor man in Ghana than a poor man in Georgia? Do we consider the poor in Tanzania more deserving of help than the poor in Texas? Tough questions. I think the answer sometimes is “Yes.”

My church is starting a partnership with our regional food bank. We are purchasing units of food to be given out in our community for those households who meet certain income guidelines. Today, I spent two hours helping register people. We can only provide a maximum of 75 units of food in our community (that’s 225 boxes of food–they are limited in their truck space)…and after two hours, we were completely full. There are an overwhelming amount of needs in our little town.

These weren’t skin-and-bone people with sunken cheeks.

They weren’t dressed in rags.

They weren’t dirty.

They weren’t stupid.

Most of them weren’t even taking much government aid.

They are just trying their best to get by.

I’m still trying to figure out how a person provides basic needs of a family of four on $500/month when 1/4th is probably spent on an eletrical bill alone. I also can’t imagine being let go from my job and not having any source of income on the horizon while trying to care for a grandchild. Those were just a couple of stories that came through my line today. 

I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from helping in the Third World. I personally feel a special desire to help children in third world countries because a dollar can go so much farther there than in the United States. But I’ve just been wondering…is it easy to overlook our neighbors at home?

What would you have done if you would have seen this guy on the street corner with a cardboard sign?

Copyright Columbus Dispatch 

I’ll be honest. My thoughts would have been part pity, part disgust. Oh–and I would have probably assumed that he was a drug addict.

Turns out, he’s used to be a drug addict, but he’s been sober for over two years. Breaking an addiction is hard enough without turning back to it when you’re living a hard life on the streets. That alone is a pretty incredible story. It also turns out that his journey led him to a relationship with God and–even before all the media frenzy–he had an awesome testimony of redemption. Basically, he was a guy who messed up his life, but was wanting to get back on track.

But I would have missed all that. I would have been too busy judging.

Lesson of the day: we’ve got plenty of Matthew 25-ing to do right here at home. I pray that God will open my eyes, and the eyes of other Americans, to the needs around us without being judgemental. Poverty wears many different faces and it’s sometimes hard to recognize.

There’s always more than meets the eye. Ted knows.

Do you?

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11 Responses to What Does Poverty Look Like?

  1. Jessica says:

    I completely agree.



    From my own American Swindlers Burnout, I’m at a place where, if I’m going to address poverty in America, I want to do it on a needs-meeting basis. As in, clothing, food, necessities. Not. Money.

    Or. In personal relationships. Mentoring, discipling, whatever you want to call it.

    I made half my town mad this past summer with this post about how our baptist “mission” wasn’t doing anybody any good:


  2. Megan says:

    Whoo-wee, girl. That blog post was smokin’! 🙂

    For the record, I agree with you, too. We talked about whether or not the food bank thing would be enabling. We initially went to the food bank with the hopes of starting a backpack food program for kids (where they would get a little lunch bag of easy-to-open/eat foods to take home over the weekend when school is not in session–in a nearby city they do this and have to teach the kids to hide it from their parents who will often take it and eat it themselves). Our goal was really to reach out to kids who are basically at the mercy of their parents/guardians when it comes to whether or not they get to eat. Kids truly are “the least of these” because–as I’ve mentioned before–they are powerless and generally can’t get the help that they need without adult intervention. BUT…we ended up going with the Mobile Pantry (they drive to us) for a bit because it was the best fit for us at this point. And something is better than nothing.

    Oh–and they are responsible for picking up the food, or they get taken off the list. That makes it a little less hand-out-y.

    The boxes of food are substantial–enough to feed a family for a week, I think, so it’s not quite the same problem that you were addressing. I always talk to The Husband (the preacher) who is always dealing with this type of thing. Although he does operate within some specific guidelines when it comes to benevolence, he also admits that you’re always going to have some that are just trying to take advantage. At the end of the day, he says, you’re just going to have to trust that you just tried to help someone. He’s been around the block, and between him and his other staff members, they can usually tell who’s sincerely in need of help.

    I guess my whole point of this post is that you can’t always tell who needs help by just looking at them. There was one lady in my line today who was clearly working the system, but there were so many others who weren’t on any type of government aid and who had jobs but made tiny wages. And don’t you think that people in the Third World are just like people here? There’s lazy bums and swindlers and drug addicts everywhere.

    • Jessica says:

      I’m not sure that I’d 100 % agree that people in the third world are “just like” people here. In some aspects, absolutely. But this IS the land of opportunity. I think you almost have to make a personal effort to be in “need” here. For the most part. Not all.

      But all of this a moot to the subject of your post, because again, I do agree we should help people. Even the swindlers sometimes, they might need the conversation if nothing else.

  3. Heather says:

    Megan—I completely agree with you. I have often wondered why you don’t see the request for American aide like you do for the 3rd world country aide…in my opinion they BOTH deserve our help. I appreciate you bringing this up.

    Jessica–“I’m at a place where, if I’m going to address poverty in America”—REALLY?? IF??? We are called to help ALL people…not once have I ever read in the Bible that we are to help others as long as they aren’t doing the things on what WE decide is OUR “no-no list”. Yes, this is the land of opportunity…but that does not give us the right to decide who is “help-worthy”. For you to say “I think you almost have to make a personal effort to be in “need” here. For the most part. Not all.”, sounds quite foolish and judgemental…it may not be the way you inteded it to sound, but step back and look at it again—it just does. I know I don’t know you personally, nor do I pretend to know your heart, but from what I have read that you have written—not only here but in other places—you do have a tendency to put off a very judgemental vibe. And I am not saying this to be judgemental myself, but to ask you—is that REALLY the legacy you want to leave about yourself??? Bottom line–if you are going to follow God’s directions you are going to have to help anyone, regardless of their situation…You do what you are called to do and let God handle the deceivers.

  4. Jessica says:

    I probably should have said, “When” I address poverty in American instead of “If”.

    I’d like to think I sound more experienced with trying to help, than foolish. For example, I ran in to two homeless guys at the library today that my family tried tirelessy to help last year. We had them at our house for bible studies, we let one of them borrow our car once every week for months to go see his children 40 miles away, we let them sleep on our couch, we bought them dinners. But, the poor guys just aren’t capable of a responsible lifestyle. The haven’t kept any jobs, they’ve lived in dozens of places this year, they won’t stop smoking pot. In fact, the one guy got arrested in our car while borrowing it, glove box full of pot. We still love these guys. They can still come over for bible studies. But at some point you’re enabling. So you have to decided if you’re really helping. These guys are, literally, making a personal effort to stay homeless. So when the show up on my doorstop wanting 5 bucks am I going to give it to them? No. Do I think Jesus wants me to give it to them? I don’t think so. Does he want me to still continue to shine light on them? Yes.

    Like I said to Megan, the fact that there are more abusers than not is true, but is also a moot point, because I agree with the premise that we should still help people. Sorry if that wasn’t clear enough.

    I do stand by the logic that we should find effective ways to help people though. Capital E, Capital ffective. Which I ranted elaborately on in the post I linked to originally. But giving an addict 50 dollars to, literally, buy more drugs with, isn’t helping. So we need to explore more personal and specific ways to help people who are in need. Food, an ear, a shoulder, a study, fill in the blank.

    I’m sorry the way I phrase things upsets you, you’re not the only one. I think you might have been so on the defensive that you missed my actual point, which is that I completely agree with Megan, but that I don’t like to give people money, in America, in most cases. I don’t think that’s very offensive.

    And, frankly, Christians are pretty much the only ones that take offense at what I say regarding this stuff. And that legacy doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t say things to personally offend people. For example, I didn’t attack Megan or her ministry, I actually agreed with it. But I can be blunt with what I feel like is the truth on a subject matter that’s important to me. Blunt, but hopefully respectful. Because I don’t see the point in sugar coating most of the time.

    Funny that I posted a “blunt and abrasive, potentially insensitive” disclaimer on my blog the other day. Ha.

  5. Amy says:

    I honestly have never found Jessica to be judgmental and I know as much about her as anyone else reading on line.

    I have a lot of thoughts about this particular post, but really, I can’t put it together so it makes sense. LOL. And there is so much of my own personal experience, that I don’t want to put out there. Maybe…. someday.

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