The recent budget battle may have sparked new questions for Americans to answer, such as what is poverty and who falls under such a classification? Furthermore, due to its massive debt, government may need a limited role in helping the poor. While Christians who stood behind the Circle of Protection advocated for the protection of programs they claim that benefit the poor, other Christians looked at the debate differently arguing for another way to help the poor. However, despite how we decide to help the poor, is our understanding of what it means to be poor misleading?
In the Washington Examiner, Thomas Sowell answers this question with a resounding yes as he explains how the definition of poverty has been politicized and changed:
Each of us may have his own idea of what poverty means, especially those of us who grew up in poverty. But what poverty means politically and in the media is whatever the people who collect statistics choose to define as poverty.
This is not just a question of semantics. The whole future of the welfare state depends on how poverty is defined. “The poor” are the human shields behind whom advocates of ever-bigger spending for ever-bigger government advance toward their goal.
If poverty meant what most people think of as poverty — people who are “ill-clad, ill-housed, and ill-nourished,” in FDR’s phrase — there would not be nearly enough people in poverty today to justify the vastly expanded powers and runaway spending of the federal government.
Sowell goes further in-depth in his column supporting his arguments with a study from the Heritage Foundation which shows what it means to be “poor” in America.
Using the same study from the Heritage Foundation, Anthony Bradley argues in World Magazine that we need wealth creation to help the poor. Bradley explains how being poor in a wealthy nation is drastically different from being poor in a developing one:
“As the rich get richer, the poor get richer”
That may sound like a ridiculous overstatement but it’s true in the sense that nations that create wealth redefine what it means to be poor. Being poor in a wealthy nation is radically different than being poor in a developing one. The above statement also challenges the zero-sum myth: “As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer,” which has so tainted the understanding of economic imaginations of those in the West.
In fact, to be more specific, 99.6 percent of individuals the federal government defines as “poor” have refrigerators, 97.7 percent have televisions, 78.3 percent live in homes with air-conditioning, and 62 percent live in homes with washing machines. These percentages are only possible in a nation as wealthy as the United States; it certainly is not the case in Sudan.
Political liberals and progressive Christians are vulnerable to accepting zero-sum ideology without taking the time to test those theories against real data and facts. The argument here is not that American poverty is “OK”; the point is to highlight the fact that making public policy decisions about “helping the poor” and “ending poverty” in America needs to take into account how “the poor” actually live in reality. Otherwise we will continue to miss the mark and not help the truly disadvantaged. Our public policy needs to be directed toward people who are truly suffering and stuck in cycles of poverty so that we create the conditions that allow for the possibility of sustainable economic mobility.
Bradley raises a valid point, and based on what it means to be “poor” in America is there an injustice and disservice being committed to the poor in developing countries?
Both authors demonstrate the battle is over how we definite what it means to be poor. Unfortunately though, we are now faced with asking ourselves how politics have affected our definition of poverty, and, with the politicization of poverty, have we forgotten what it really means to be disadvantaged? In terms of what poverty means, the questions we face are not easy to answer, they’ll need a prudential approach rooted in Christian values.