Wednesday, September 14, 2011

You Will Always Have the Poor

Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”Deuteronomy 15:10-11
Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.” (Mark 14:7.)

Shortly before his crucifixion, as he was enjoying a meal with friends, a woman came to Jesus and anointed him with a jar of costly ointment. When some at the table were appalled at the apparent waste and said that it would have been better if the ointment had been sold and the money given to the poor, Jesus responded by praising the woman’s generosity and told the group that they would always have the poor, but they would not always have him.

The episode has often been recounted as evidence that we should focus on worshiping Jesus rather than on helping poor people. Of course, that interpretation turns the commandment from Deuteronomy upside down and totally misses the point. In the Gospel stories, Jesus is quoting the commandment from the Torah. He is praising the woman for her generosity and reminding his listeners that they have not yet eliminated poverty and they need to keep working. They (and we) need to “be ungrudging” because there will always be people in need.

The latest figures from the census bureau remind us of the truth of the biblical observation. Unfortunately, those figures also show that we are not doing very well at fulfilling the commandment to help move people out of poverty. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of Americans living in poverty grew by 2.6 million, to 46.2 million. Over 15% of all Americans are living in poverty, the highest percentage in two decades.

This will not be another blog on the gap between rich and poor, but it is worth noting that the median income fell by 2.3%, to $49,455. In constant dollars, that is $3,800 less than the peak achieved in 1999. So the Middle Class is also hurting.

The poverty level is even worse if we go back to the original formula for what we call “poor.” By the standards we used in the 1960’s, about 22% of Americans are now poor.

The good news is that Social Security lifts many elderly out of poverty, and the rate of poverty among seniors did not increase. The bad news is that numbers are skewed toward more childhood poverty. Without unemployment benefits and food stamps, the numbers would be much worse.

Our short term economic need is for job creation. Long term, we will need to deal with the deficit, but short term we need jobs. We can argue about how to get that done. And we should argue about how to get that done. But the census numbers remind us that we need to face the issue and we need to work together to find solutions.

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