When Jesus said, “The poor will be with you always,” he was not talking to you. He was speaking directly to Judas, someone who would be shortly dead. Poverty would persist throughout the fallen apostle’s days on earth, but it need not persist through ours. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus provides clear instructions on how to eradicate poverty and warns us that our eternal fate rests on how well we follow them.
My colleague Joanne Samuel Goldblum and I have written a book called Broke In America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending US Poverty. People frequently ask us, “You don’t really mean that we can end poverty, do you?”
The US is the richest society in human history and has been for all of our lives—and then some. We have the resources to eliminate poverty. Furthermore, Jesus issued a clear antipoverty directive more than 2,000 years ago. One would presume that his 2 billion followers—about 205 million right here in the US—should have wrapped this up long ago.
Joanne and I spend a lot of time describing how difficult it is for a person in a low-wage job to meet their basic needs, something Joanne is well acquainted with as founder of the National Diaper Bank Network. One in three young families in the US cannot afford an adequate supply of diapers for their children.
As always happens when basic needs are denied, a cascade effect ensues. Babies sit in wet and soiled diapers for hours, sometimes days, and get diaper rash or more serious infections. Parents miss work and school because they cannot access childcare, since most providers require a supply of disposables before they will accept a child. One study showed that a family’s personal income rises $11 for every $1 spent on diaper assistance.
We’ve got so many stories: The woman who dropped out of school because her classmates teased her about her body odor. Her household, like 30 percent of those on Navajo reservations, did not have plumbing. The family shared one tubful of bathwater every week . . . The nursing assistant with the empty fridge who stayed at the convalescent home late so that she could get a meal at the cafeteria . . . The mom “eating light” so that she could afford to go to the laundromat and keep her daughter’s school uniform clean.
Even before Covid-19, 40 percent of Americans did not consistently have enough money to meet their basic needs. As the above examples illustrate all too well, when people cannot afford these things, they risk falling deeper into poverty because it affects their health, work, and education. Yet our government and many philanthropists are reluctant to give people basic goods—or the best proxy in the world for them, money.
The conventional wisdom is that giving people things makes them dependent, which is another way of saying that they are lazy. This, of course, is judging a person, people, actually millions of people we haven’t even met. And we know what Jesus had to say about humans judging each other.
The sin of judging our sisters and brothers has led us to enact heartless policy. We have all but eliminated cash welfare in the country, and the few families still getting meager benefits must jump through many hoops. Yet research has shown that adults who receive the Earned Income Tax Credit actually work more hours, as we’ve found families getting diapers from a diaper bank do. People work more when they aren’t in crushing poverty that cuts off their access to childcare, transportation, healthcare, and so on.
If only someone had told us sooner.
Someone did—that source of great, and frequently unconventional, wisdom: Jesus. “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me’” (Matt. 25:34–36).
Note that Jesus doesn’t talk about giving the least of our brothers job-readiness classes, screening them for drugs, or putting them into their 392nd “program” of the year. He says that the path to heaven lies in providing for people’s practical needs and being in community with them. This is not to say that there are no people in poverty who need job training or mental health care. Certainly there are, and they should get the services they require. But we spoke with person after person who most urgently needed a bus pass or a home and found no assistance to be had. We like to “fix” people in poverty, but we’re much less eager to attack poverty itself.
My least favorite quote may be “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Maybe pollution from the factory killed all the fish in the river. Maybe he’s too weak with hunger to pick up a pole.
What would Jesus do? We know exactly what he did. He gave the man a fish, gave fishes to thousands, no questions asked, and commanded us to do likewise. Poverty will end when we finally answer that call.
Colleen Shaddox is the author of Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending US Poverty, with co-author Joanne Samuel Goldblum.