Wednesday, April 23, 2008

American Poverty

I am a Crown Financial small group leader at my church. That means that I periodically lead a class where people learn God's plan for the use of money. I say that I lead the class, rather than teach it, because I'm involved mainly because I need to keep the ideas fresh in my mind. In other words, I'm re-learning these ideas every time I participate in the class. I just happen to have done it before so it's beneficial to have me lead the class.

In any case, one section in the class is on giving. And it talks about two general topics: giving to the church, and giving to the poor. And invariably I am in a minority in the class when I report that I simply can't get myself worked up about poverty in the U.S. My claim is that the poor here live like kings when compared to where real poverty exists. Here are some facts about poverty in the U.S:

The following are facts about persons defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau, taken from various gov­ernment reports:

  • Forty-three 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.

  • Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

  • Only 6 percent of poor households are over­crowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.

  • The average 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.

  • Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.

  • Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

  • Eighty-nine percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and 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.

Now, of course, that doesn't mean that poverty doesn't exist in the US. The above are averages. And there certainly are poeple here who fall below those averages. But compare that with developing nations. And what do you find that's different? Poverty in places like Africa and China is killing people. Here, almost no one dies of starvation. Instead the focus is on increasing access of "the poor" to middle class goods and services.

So what's the difference? Here, we've actually done something about poverty. And what have we done? We have a government that protects liberty better than anywhere else in the world. That liberty allows for innovation which drags the entire country out of poverty. Yes the rich get richer. But by every measurable account, so do the poor. The things we've done here should be the model for attacking poverty throughout the world.

But I find it increasingly difficult to find an organization who's willing to actually teach the world to fish! Now, I give to those programs even though I think they're not helping in the long run, because people's lives are at stake. I'm happy to argue about the most effective way to fix it in the long run as long as we're keeping people from dieing in the short run. But almost no one is talking about how to fix the main thing that keeps poor countries poor: bad government. For example, consider Africa, as reported by this African:

The amount that the developed nations give to Africa creates an incentive for the African governments to dedicate *MOST* of their time collecting more handouts instead of using the generosity to produce an economy that works without handouts.

I'm anxious to read Shane Claiborne's book but before I even crack it, I'm skeptical that it's really going to do much to increase focus on long-run solutions to poverty. Which is where the real gains are. I don't mean to say that we should diminish any short run solutions. I just wish that there was *some* support for long-run solutions.

1 comment:

Jimazing said...

I don't hear a stingy heart saying, "To hell with the poor, I've got my own." What I hear shining through is a heart that desires to really help the poor... not just throw money at it just to conform or to salve your own conscience.

I wonder... Is poverty something you feel drawn to? Is this your "holy discontent"? (a la Bill Hybels). How might you apply your passion for economics in this area?

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