When we think of people living in poverty, images of men in cardboard boxes often come to mind. We think of our first youth trip to the Appalachian Mountains or to the other side of the tracks to serve soup to the needy. We think of the single mother, living on section 8 housing in an area of the city we rarely visit. We think of someone else, somewhere else.
But, the most recent Census numbers are revealing a disturbing new image of those who are scraping just above the poverty level and are at risk of falling into poverty. The census reveals that 51,000,000 Americans could be classified as the “near poor” – meaning 100,000,000 Americans are below or just above the poverty level. Of those in the near poor category, 20% escape the poverty designation through government programs such as food stamps, but just barely.
The “near poor” do not all live in urban ghettos headed by a single-family head of house, but instead, nearly half are married and living in the suburbs. As the New York Times indicates, this swelling group of the “near poor” looks demographically more like “The Brady Bunch” than the “Wire.” Many are working full-time jobs, and even though they’re officially above the poverty line, they’re still finding it hard to make ends meet.
The “near poor” are sitting in pews across the country. They’re sitting next to you in worship. They’re your friends, neighbors and co-workers. As Christians we have a responsibility to care for those in need. This we know. But, the harder challenge is caring for our friends and neighbors in a way that gives dignity. Jesus spent his life among the marginalized of society, never as someone who Lords over the less fortunate, but as a friend and neighbor. Jesus restores the dignity of those he comes into contact with – he never takes it.
During college, I would occasionally slip out of the admin office of the non-profit where I interned to spend time working in the food pantry. Our organization interviewed each client, because we believed the lack of food was simply an outward sign of a deeper problem such as the lack of affordable medical care or a job. Chatting with our clients was always fun, because I learned much about the people we served. Some fit the “typical” profile of “poor” as I might envision it, but others didn’t, walking sheepishly through our door – almost trying to hide. I’ll never forget one working father of four who had recently moved to the area from Ohio in search of work. He poured out his story to me and then said, “I’ve never done this before, it’s so embarrassing, but my family needs food.”
As we approach the holiday season, how can we offer assistance to those in need in a way that gives dignity – rather than takes it?