By Tom Quiner
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What does it mean to be poor? In the scripture passage above (Matthew 5:3), poor refers to an attitude.
The poor in this context have a humble attitude. They are open to God. They look up to God. And they’re rich, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
There are other meanings to the word “poor.”
What does the typical American think it means to be poor? The Catholic Campaign for Human Development asks that very question in their Poverty Pulse poll. They find that Americans view poverty as characterized by homelessness, hunger, and an inability to meet basic needs.
So how many people live in poverty in the United States?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 30 million Americans live in poverty.
Did you know that? That’s one out of seven Americans.
But the government’s meaning of poverty is different than that of the typical American.
Government research into the amenities found in the households of those defined as living in poverty raises eyebrows. This research comes to us from the Residential Energy Consumption Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2005.
They show us that the median “poor” household in the U.S. has an air conditioner, a washer and dryer, ceiling fans, and a cordless phone.
The median poor household had two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR.
The median poor household had a refrigerator, a stove and oven, a microwave, and a coffee maker.
What are we to make of this?
Scholar James Q. Wilson puts it this way:
“The poorest Americans today live a better life than all but the richest persons a hundred years ago.”
None of this is meant to diminish the seriousness of poverty, which has ticked upwards during the Obama years.
When poverty statistics are used to foment class warfare, as the Obama administration does on a daily, if not hourly, basis, then it’s worth taking a closer look at the numbers.
The mainstream media isn’t interested in reporting the type of information revealed to us by the U.S. Department of Energy study I just shared with you.
Americans are left with a skewed, politicized perspective on poverty when they hear numbers like 30 million presented by politicians demanding tax increases.
But did you know that in 2009, for example, a half a percent of Americans lost their home and had to live in a homeless shelter for a while?
That’s a lot, and it’s a human tragedy to those who experience such displacement.
But it’s not one out of seven.
This leads us back to the question, what does it mean to be poor?
We had a young man from Gugulethu, South Africa live with us for a year in 1998 as an exchange student. We have adopted him informally as a member of our family.
He is now thirty years of age. As I write this, he is touring Europe singing with the Cape Town Opera Company.
When he’s not singing, work is very difficult to find.
My son visited him a few years ago. His house would best be described as a hut, smaller than a one car garage. It is big enough to fit in a double bed mattress, which sits on the floor, and not much else.
My son spent the night in his abode. He discovered his South Africa brother keeps a machete under the mattress for “security,” which fortunately didn’t have to be used during my son’s visit.
In the morning, he asked my son if the bed bugs bothered him.
We sent over a pair of Nike tennis shoes and Levi jeans for our South African son, which are a big deal in his culture. He wore them in public for everyone in his township to see.
Within a week, his hut was broken into and everything but his mattress was stolen. I mean everything.
Fathers aren’t very present in his culture, so sons don’t have good male role models. By American standards, our South African son lives in abject poverty.
Does he have hope? I would say that he brims with hope. His faith in God is an inspiration. He is happy. He loves life.
He makes me realize that there are different meanings to being poor.
A person whose life has no purpose, no direction might be considered poor.
A person with no hope might be considered poor.
Poor goes beyond material well-being.
Nonetheless, Americans have a shared value: to provide a safety net for the materially poor in our communities. Here in Iowa, we have created a network of community action agencies doing wonderful work in helping pull people out of poverty and providing the tools to return them to productive society.
The challenge is knowing where to draw the line.
The politicization of poverty statistics polarizes the debate and harms those truly in need.
Jesus said, “The poor will always be with us.”
Let us carefully consider what it truly means to be poor.