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The PC(USA)’s denomination-wide book study gets explicit on solutions for ending poverty

Those studying Matthew Desmond’s ‘Poverty, by America’ hear a brief presentation and then join small groups to discuss how faith communities can help

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator for the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, spoke to people studying Matthew Desmond’s “Poverty, by America” on Monday. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — More than 160 people tuning into Monday’s third online installment studying Matthew Desmond’s best-selling book, “Poverty, by America,” discussed together the heart of Desmond’s argument for doing away with poverty: how we rely on welfare, how we buy opportunity and a chapter on how to invest in ending poverty.

Leading the discussion at the outset of Monday’s gathering was the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People.

“Every chapter is provocative in some ways. These chapters [chapters 5-7] are intense, but real and truthful,” Johnson said. “I found them key to understanding how systemic poverty works.”

Eradicating systemic poverty is one of the focus areas of the Matthew 25 movement.

Desmond’s fifth chapter, “How We Rely on Welfare,” points out misconceptions about people’s willingness to work, Johnson noted. He found Desmond’s analysis of the federal government’s emergency assistance during the Covid pandemic “powerful,” because “when people got emergency money, they paid their bills, and the poverty rate decreased … People spent the assistance doing what they said they would do,” Johnson said.

Desmond also differentiates between visible welfare — “We know it when we see it,” Johnson said — and invisible welfare, such as homeowner subsidies and 529 college savings plans. “Desmond astutely points out the invisible welfare that benefits the middle class and affluent Americans,” Johnson said.

Chapter 6, “How We Buy Opportunity,” includes this indictment of the economy: “fast and cheap — that’s how we prefer to consume in America.”

“Americans are loaded,” Johnson said. One in eight families owns property in addition to their primary residence, he said.

Society continues to see private fortunes being amassed and puts up with the decay of public spaces, including parks, schools, transportation and public housing.

In Chapter 7, “Invest in Ending Poverty,” Johnson summed up Desmond’s prescription this way: “We need to pay attention to wealth and how it’s accumulated,” Johnson said, calling for “more poor aid and less rich aid.”

Or, as Desmond puts it, “Our policies need to be impactful, not resentful.”

The free online denomination-wide book study concludes Monday.

“We need to crack down on tax cheats,” Johnson said, citing a Desmond statistic that said if the wealthiest 1% of Americans pay what they owe on their tax bill, it would be almost exactly enough to end poverty.

After their small group discussions, a few participants shared some of the highlights. One group kept turning over Desmond’s “private opulence, public squalor” phrase, which they abbreviated “POPS,” a reality that is easily observed in most communities just by driving around, one person said.

Another group expressed surprise over how much access to government subsidies was available to the middle class and rich.

A third person said it’s important for members of faith communities to be aware of their members “who have problems with affluence and problems with poverty.”

A fourth said someone in their small group talked about “how we imagine mission our churches.” One church is using Lent “to reassess what to do with the funds available to us” as it seeks to move “from charity to doing work in changing systems in the community.”

Book study organizers including the Rev. Rebecca Barnes, coordinator of the PC(USA)’s Hunger Program, and the Rev. Ellen Sherby, associate director of Global Connections in World Mission, helped close Monday’s session with a call-and-response reading from Cole Arthur Riley’s “For Solidarity” from “Black Liturgies: Prayers, Poems and Meditations for Staying Human.”

“God of Solidarity, thank you for being a God who enters the suffering of the world — who doesn’t run from those in pain but rushes to the site of blood and tears.”

“Release us from those empty cravings for unity that come at no cost to the oppressor. Lead us toward spaces of costly advocacy.”

“Let us learn to risk ourselves on behalf of the vulnerable, believing that when one of them is harmed, we all are.”

“And God, keep us from those who will demonize the fight in us, who would prefer us complacent and far from one another. Secure in us the courage to resist, knowing that together we will restore what the world has tried to suffocate in us. Amen.”

The final online session of studying “Poverty, by America” begins at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 26. The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, director of the Kairos Center housed at Union Theological Seminary and the co-founder of the Poor People’s Campaign, will be the featured speaker. Register here.

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