There is no doubt in my mind that the scriptures admonish us to care for the poor. I believe that that admonishment includes caring for the spiritually poor as well as the materially poor, but we cannot ignore our responsibility for caring for those around us who lack food, shelter and other basic goods.
But I wonder how far we should take that inside this country as the United States becomes richer and richer.
When I hear a lot of the rhetoric about the poor coming from politicians, I often wonder if they have ever been in a typical poor person’s home lately. Poor people in the United States are rich compared to poor people in, say, Brazil, where I lived for four years.
Take a look at some of the statistics here, for example:
46 percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
80 percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
Only six percent of poor households are overcrowded; two thirds have more than two rooms per person.
The typical poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)
Nearly three quarters of poor households own a car; 31 percent own two or more cars.
97 percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.
78 percent have a VCR or DVD player.
62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.
89 percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.
As a group, America’s poor are far from being chronically undernourished. The average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and, in most cases, is well above recommended norms. Poor children actually consume more meat than do higher-income children and have average protein intakes 100-percent above recommended levels. Most poor children today are, in fact, super-nourished and grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and ten pounds heavier than the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II.
It is also clear that some of the poorest areas of the United States are getting richer.
Unlike many of my neighbors in the area of Miami where I live, I have actually been in many poor peoples’ home lately. There are several people suffering in our ward who are poor, and we have put together projects to help them with repairing their roofs and walls. I home teach one man who lives on a 20-foot boat and works part-time because of a back injury. He probably makes $500/month. He is definitely about as poor as you can get in the United States these days. (It’s interesting to note that he is overweight because there are so many churches nearby offering free food).
On a personal level, I take King Benjamin’s speech to mean I have an obligation to give to beggars, and I do this all the time.
So, I am aware of poverty on a personal level, even though I am not personally poor now. For what it’s worth, I was raised by a single mother and lived in a 600 square foot house with a bedroom the size of a closet until I was in my teens. We were probably poor, although we didn’t realize it at the time.
But the poverty we see in the United States is simply nothing compared to Latin America, where I have traveled extensively. Arriving at the Rio de Janeiro airport and driving toward Copacabana or downtown, you pass the most horrific ghettoes I have ever seen. The air has a fetid smell of sewage. People live in cardboard box-sized homes stacked one upon the other. Naked kids run around all day long, and bony dogs eat garbage in the streets. There is electricity, but little running water, and no sewage systems. From what I’ve heard, the slums in India and Africa are notably worse.
So, I guess I would say I am sympathetic to individual cases of poverty in the United States but not convinced that there is much more we need to do about it in terms of public policy. Some of the government programs we have enacted over the years (AFDC, for example) have tended to make the situation worse by, for example, encouraging women not to marry and have more children so they can get more government aid. Meanwhile, the market tends to function in poor places like South Texas (and Miami) where people work to bring themselves out of poverty.
But I am open to the possibility some additional government programs may be necessary. So, I guess I would ask M* visitors for some input: if you think federal and state governments are not doing enough to help the poor, what specific programs do you think are necessary given the comparative prosperity in the United States today? How do you assure these programs encourage people to keep on working? Is there anything more the Church should be doing that it is not to help the poor in America?