Eradicating systemic poverty

You may be startled to learn that 25 percent of children under 6 now live in poverty. Their families lack sufficient income to meet basic needs for nourishment, clothing, shelter, health care and stable family life. As alarming as this statistic is, what is even worse is the fact that poverty is the greatest threat to the healthy development of children and its long-lasting, negative consequences: inadequate quality and quantity of food, exposure to violence, underfunded schools and lack of early childhood educational opportunities, frequent housing mobility, and exposure to pollution and other health risks.

In a developed society such as ours in the U.S., poverty also means a lack of access to social goods such as education that are essential for employment, as well as other measures of dignity, freedom and participation in communal life.

Why do we speak of systemic poverty?

There are structures in our society that all but guarantee that people living in poverty will stay that way. Systemic poverty refers to the economic exploitation of people who are poor through laws, policies, practices and systems that perpetuate their impoverished status.

Poverty is complex and overlaps with many other social ills and oppressive structures in our society.

  • Racism, classism, ageism and sexism are well-documented and mutually reinforcing trends. Disproportionate numbers of African-American and Hispanic families are headed by women, have little net worth and constitute the largest number in poverty.
  • Homelessness is one of the most egregious signs of poverty.
  • General Assemblies of the PC(USA) have called for guaranteed minimum wages, full employment, addressing pockets of high unemployment as disaster areas, welfare reform that does not require workfare or other policies that punish the poor, and support for programs that support the needs of women, infants and children.
  • Acute inequality, declining lifespans and higher infant mortality rates have continued to trend upward — while at the same time, taxes for the wealthy have been lowered and medical care costs have increased over the past two years.
  • High debt loads and retirement insecurity are also characteristics of poverty in the U.S., a unique situation among developed nations.
  • Disenfranchisement of people, including mass incarceration, leads to poverty.
  • Conflict, violence and militarism also contribute to rising rates of poverty.
  • Poverty, climate change and ecological injustice are interlocking issues in which environmental ills disproportionately fall on individuals and communities already experiencing poverty, hunger and other forms of social oppression. Likewise, those same communities are removed from access to and care of clean water, land and air.
  • Determining acceptable minimum standards of living and poverty rates is influenced by moral forces in a society, such as the church. Because income is linked to employment, church policy uses phrases like “family-sustaining, living wage,” and supports public investment to compensate for market failures.
  • Poverty often results from wealth and resource accumulation — and hoarding — by those in power. Reformed theology favors balancing economic as well as political power, as seen in support for workers’ rights to organize, the progressive income tax and luxury taxes.

The theology behind eradicating systemic poverty

As Reformed Christians, Presbyterians believe that government is God’s agent when it comes to the providential care of people. We also believe that creation is entrusted to our care. A crucial part of our worship and mission is to stand together for the common good.

The PC(USA) is guided by policies of the General Assembly. The guidelines for developing social witness policy are based on Scripture, the Book of Confessions, social and natural scientific analysis, and the voices of those often unheard or discriminated against.

The General Assembly has spoken many times about poverty. GA statements are very instructive when it comes to suggesting places for communities of faith to roll up their sleeves and become a living translation of Jesus Christ:

Acute poverty has many causes. It is in part a consequence of each country’s history, such as colonial exploitation, sometimes compounded by domestic ethnic rivalry and the failure of unifying national leadership. Even where adequate resources are potentially available to satisfy basic needs, such factors as corruption, political instability, tyrannical governments, economic mismanagement, control of economic resources by elite minorities, excessive military expenditures, ethnic conflicts, civil wars, high population growth, poor education, and cultural customs such as the subordination of women, have contributed significantly to impoverishment. — “Hope for a Global Future,” 208th General Assembly (1996)

We Presbyterians evaluate any economic system not simply on the basis of the material goods and services it provides, but especially on the basis of its human consequences: what it is doing to, with and for people, particularly the most vulnerable among us. In our tradition, economic behavior, like all behavior, must be subject to moral scrutiny. For this reason, the church must speak to the present economic crisis, to the devastation it has brought, and to the hope to which we bear witness: that, in Christ, a more just order is arising. — “Living Through Economic Crisis,” 219th General Assembly (2010)

Scriptures for study and reflection

Matthew 25:31–46
Deuteronomy 15:7–8
Jeremiah 22:3
Micah 6:8
1 John 3:17
James 2:15–16
Isaiah 1:17
Luke 4:18–19
1 Corinthians 10:24
Romans 12:13
Proverbs 22:22–23
Proverbs 31:8–9
Proverbs 3:27–28
Proverbs 11:25
Proverbs 14:21, 31
Proverbs 19:17
Proverbs 22:9
Proverbs 28:27

How do we eradicate systemic poverty?