Photo above: The Hertford Bridge in Oxford, England. Used by Permission. © Tom Ley 01302 782837

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Poverty Progress, Poverty Persevering and Poverty Surmounted by God's Grace by Dr. Douglas O. Walker

The Census Bureau recently released updated data relating to living conditions in the United States detailed by households classified by age, sex, race and income level. Included are tables relating to the stock of household consumer durables in 2005 for poor families that can be compared with similar data for previous years.

When taken together with statistics relating to cash and non-cash income, the data on household living conditions present a picture of a long-term improvement in the level of living of some of the poorest segments of the U.S. population. According to the latest data, the consumer wealth position of many poor families has improved markedly in recent decades, with the percentage of poor households with washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashers and other consumer durables rising significantly over the course of the past two decades. Almost half of all poor families now have cell phones and more than 70 per cent have one or more cars.

While the overall poverty rate based on cash income has at times risen during downturns in the economy, there has nonetheless been a longer-term downward drift in the percentage of American families living below the official poverty line, especially among the elderly. This overall improvement does not even consider the effects of the significant expansion in non-cash income maintenance programs not included when assessing poverty status, such as food stamps, housing benefits and health care subsidies. These have contributed significantly to raising the level of resources available to the poor. In longer-term perspective, broad trends in cash income, non-cash benefits and household consumer wealth would indicate that the real income of the poor has risen significantly in recent decades.

All this does not mean the problem of poverty has gone away or is going away. Far too many Americans continue to live in poverty and efforts to reduce it must continue. It must also be recognized that many remaining groups that suffer from poverty and its consequences, such as the elderly, the disabled, and the mentally ill, represent core segments of the population where poverty is not going to be reduced simply by an improved economic environment, a lower unemployment rate, or traditional government programs intended to improve job skills and prepare people for the workplace. It will take special efforts over a very long period of time to reduce the level of poverty in core poverty groups, especially greater efforts by non-governmental organizations such as churches and charities. To this end, each of us should focus more on what we can do to lift others and encourage churches and charities to expand their work of service to people who by their very circumstances cannot work themselves out of poverty and require special help tailored to their individual circumstances.

As Christmas approaches we should pause and give thanks that we live in this country at this time in history and recognize that our bounty comes not from our own hands but from the grace of the God, who placed us here where the little we do is multiplied by His Hand through the efforts of others and the inheritance we received from our forefathers. Had we lived even a century ago in the same place and worked twice as hard as we do today, we would nonetheless live below the poverty line we now use to identify the very poor. Were we living today in one of the least developed countries and worked three times as hard as we do each day, we would nonetheless barely survive with little in the way of food and shelter and clothing and nothing in the way of opportunities, health care and the other services we take for granted. Our efforts, taken alone, count for nothing.

The Bible tells us that it is not of our works that we are saved (Eph. 2: 8-9). It is equally true that it is not by our works that we are materially blessed. It is always His incomprehensible grace that defines this life and the life to come, and we should be grateful and give thanks to He Who gave us life, placed us in the here and now, and blessed us with all we have (Act 17: 26).

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