Snapshots of Life

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

More Than You Love the Poor and Needy

To begin the discussion on poverty I think it would be helpful to provide a big picture of how pervasive poverty is in the United States.  Here are some statistics from various government sources:
  • The 2011 poverty line in the United States for a family of 4 (parents and two children) was $22,811 in gross annual pay.  The figure is adjusted based on family size.  It is a controversial figure for several reasons that I will not go into on this blog.  Suffice it to say that anyone who makes below the poverty line is considered to be in poverty.  We can probably all agree that this is not a lot of money for a family.  Someone making minimum wage and working full-time brings in just over $15,000 annually.
  • 48.5 million people in America fall below the poverty line.  That is 15.9% of the population.
  • 21.6% of children in America are considered to be in poverty.
  • 38.2% of African Americans and 32.3% of Latinos are considered to be in poverty.
  • The poverty rate has increased across all ethnic groups in each of the last 4 years and in every region of the country.
  • 50 million people or 14.9% of the population are considered to be food insecure, which means that they do not have enough food to meet adequate nutritional needs.
  • It is a myth that only people who do not work are poor.  7.2% of the total labor market still falls below the poverty line.  Keep in mind also that the poverty rate is nearly twice the current unemployment rate, which also suggests that there are a lot of people working and are still in poverty. 
  • The average CEO in America makes 411 times the amount of the average American worker.
  • 1 percent of the population holds 34% of the nation's wealth.
  • Approximately $92 billion is spent every year on corporate welfare in this country (tax breaks and subsidies to corporations with no expectation of providing direct benefits, goods, or services to the government), which is nearly 50% more than is spent on all welfare programs for individuals and families combined!  The bulk of these breaks and subsidies go to large farm operations and big oil companies.  Let me say here that I am not opposed to subsidies and tax breaks, but the disparity between corporate welfare and family welfare is interesting.
  • The United States spends the least amount of money as a percentage of GDP on social welfare programs than any other industrialized nation in the world.  On the flip side more private money as a percentage of GDP is spent on social welfare programs in the United States than in any other industrialized nation in the world.  I think this speaks to our generosity as a nation.
It is pretty easy for me to look at a list like this and just see numbers.  There is very little emotional reaction to these kinds of statistics until I start to think of the faces and situations that are behind the numbers.  It is easy for me to take for granted my ability to pay my bills and feed my family, with little day-to-day thought of the folks out there who are really struggling to obtain or maintain basic necessities.  Seriously, can you imagine what that would be like?

It can be fairly argued that poverty in America is nothing like poverty in the rest of the world.  In many ways this is absolutely true.  Do you know how organizations like the U.N. and World Health Organization measure poverty in most of the rest of the world?  They measure it by the percentage of people who live off $1 or less per day and $2 or less per day!  Those of us who have been in other parts of the world and have seen large families living in one room huts with dirt floors, tin roofs, no plumbing, no running water, no stove, and no heating/cooling systems, recognize that many people who think they are poor here in the U.S. really live like kings.  Surely, poverty is a relative term!  Nevertheless, poverty also impacts people in a relative way.  In other words the mental, emotional, and social impacts of poverty on a family in the U.S. - with our culture of consumerism and excess - is quite different than they are on a rural family in Guatemala where everyone is equally poor and few know or could fathom anything different.  Indeed, research shows that the impacts of poverty are significant.  I will not detail them here but suffice it to say that there is a high correlation of poverty to a host of mental, emotional, and social ills, which carry enormous costs to families and society.

From everything I can gather from my study of the issue, the Lord is not pleased with extreme economic inequality.  In a recent General Conference address Elder M. Russell Ballard described concern over trends related to family and religious life in the United States and across the world.  In the midst of the discussion he made this statement, "Equally worrisome is the ever-growing gap between the rich and poor..." (That the Lost May Be Found, Ensign, May 2012).  According to Elder Marion G. Romney, in a classic address entitled, Socialism and the United Order, one of the primary reasons for the law of consecration is to eliminate economic inequality, which suggests that in the ideal situation God desires that there be economic equality among His children (see Socialism and the United Order, BYU Devotional, Mar 1, 1966).  There are ways to achieve this that are consistent with true principles and then there are sinister ways to achieve this, which will be discussed later, but the point is made that inequality is concerning to the Lord without saying anything about the attempts to eliminate it.

The scriptures provide additional insight to the issue of socioeconomic inequality and they do so strongly.  I was quite surprised actually, at how many verses of scripture address this and at how clearly it appears to be condemned.  I will share only a few here.

And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches...Now the cause of this iniquity of the people was this— Satan had great power, unto the stirring up of the people to do all manner of iniquity, and to the puffing them up with pride, tempting them to seek for power, and authority, and riches, and the vain things of the world. (3 Ne. 6:12,15).

Yea, he saw great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted. (Alma 4:12).

That you may be equal in the bonds of heavenly things, yea, and earthly things also, for the obtaining of heavenly things.  For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things (D&C 78:5-6).

But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. (D&C 49:20).

For additional references related to socioeconomic inequality see:  2 Cor. 8:14-15, Mosiah 29:32, 4 Ne. 1:23-26, Moses 7:18, D&C 38:22-26, and D&C 82:17-19. 

It seems that equally troubling to the Lord, and perhaps condemnable, is the way the poor are treated by others.  There are numerous verses of scripture, once again with very strong language, that provide statements about God's disapproval of ignoring and oppressing the poor.  Still others prophesy of future days (which in most cases are OUR day) when the poor are smitten and oppressed.  From the Old Testament we read:

The people of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery, and have vexed the poor and needy: yea, they have oppressed the stranger wrongfully.  And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none. (Ezek 22:29-30).

It should be noted here that the word "stranger" in the above verse is translated from the Hebrew and means "immigrant".  This should give us pause in considering views on immigration, but that is for another post.  Clearly God was not pleased with the oppression of the poor among the Israelites.  He evidently yearned to have someone step up and change the situation, but no one did.  He goes on to say in the following verse that He poured out His indignation upon His people as a result of their sins.  For additional references related to oppression of the poor see:  Isa. 3:14-15, Ezek 16:49-50, and Hel 6:38-39).

God has spoken in past tense about oppression of the poor but He has also spoken from the past about the future oppression of the poor and needy, usually as an antecedent to judgments being measured out on the people.  In the Church we often cite Mormon 8:35 to demonstrate that Mormon, the abridger of the plates that would later become The Book of Mormon, saw our day and knew our doing.  We believe and teach that the material he included in his abridgment of nearly 1,000 years of records was chosen specifically for us in the latter days because he had actually seen the latter days.  We don't talk as often about what Mormon described about our day immediately following his statement that he saw it.  Read carefully beyond verse 35 and pay attention to the theme. 

35 Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing.

36 And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel, unto envying, and strifes, and malice, and persecutions, and all manner of iniquities; and your churches, yea, even every one, have become polluted because of the pride of your hearts.

37 For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.

38 O ye pollutions, ye hypocrites, ye teachers, who sell yourselves for that which will canker, why have ye polluted the holy church of God? Why are ye ashamed to take upon you the name of Christ? Why do ye not think that greater is the value of an endless happiness than that misery which never dies—because of the praise of the world?

39 Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not?

40 Yea, why do ye build up your secret abominations to get gain, and cause that widows should mourn before the Lord, and also orphans to mourn before the Lord, and also the blood of their fathers and their husbands to cry unto the Lord from the ground, for vengeance upon your heads?

41 Behold, the sword of vengeance hangeth over you; and the time soon cometh that he avengeth the blood of the saints upon you, for he will not suffer their cries any longer. (Mormon 8:35-41).

I don't think any further elaboration is required on that one.  It has become more and more clear to me as I have engaged in this study that part of the moral decay of societies that results in God's judgments, and that will ultimately usher in the return of the Savior, is the increase of pride and materialism that occurs with great wealth, bringing subsequent apathy toward, if not downright oppression of, the poor, the needy, the sick, and the afflicted.  Is our society guilty of this?  For additional references dealing with prophecies related to oppression of the poor see:  2 Ne. 26:20-21 and 2 Ne. 28:13-14.

How does God feel about those in poverty?  First, He loves them.  Of course we know that He is a loving God and that His love is unconditional.  But does he say anything in particular about His love for the poor and needy?  If the whole of the Savior's life and ministry is not enough evidence of how He feels about the disadvantaged, we might consider His teaching that when we clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the prisoner - even the very least of them - it is as if we have performed those acts toward Jesus Himself! (Matt. 25:34-46;  see also the parable of the feast in Luke 14:12-14).

Second, He consistently commands us not to judge the poor, and I'm not just talking about not judging in general.  In several places throughout Holy Writ, the Lord specifically prohibits judging the poor.  

If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth. Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry unto the Lord against thee, and it be sin unto thee. (Deut 15:7-9).

16 And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

17 Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—

18 But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.

22 And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth; and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done. (Mosiah 4:16-18,22).

For an additional reference related to judging the poor see James 2:2-7.  I see no caveats in these verses.  No exclusion clauses to this prohibition on judging.  Obviously we have to discern and use wisdom in our efforts to assist others, both individually and as a society (I will share some thoughts about that later) but discernment is different than judgment.  I am afraid I stand chastened in this regard.  I don't consider myself to be a mean person, and I try hard not to mistreat people, but I am guilty at times of making judgments about people in poverty in the United States.  When I think deeply on the matter and try to exercise self-awareness, the judgments I engage in are found in subtle thought patterns and attitudes that are too harsh and unempathic.  I confess this to the readership of this blog and commit to be better.

Third, it seems that God is not pleased with those who, as a result of their own patterns of idleness or lack of able-bodied self-sufficiency, are stuck in poverty.  He has very strong words for this group of people.

But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel. (1 Tim. 5:8).

Wo unto you poor men, whose hearts are not broken, whose spirits are not contrite, and whose bellies are not satisfied, and whose hands are not stayed from laying hold upon other men’s goods, whose eyes are full of greediness, and who will not labor with your own hands! (D&C 56:17).

The responsibility for each member’s spiritual, social, emotional, physical, or economic well-being rests first upon himself, second, upon his family, and third, upon the Church. Members of the Church are commanded by the Lord to be self-reliant and independent to the extent of their ability. (See D&C 78:13–14.) No true Latter-day Saint, while physically or emotionally able, will voluntarily shift the burden of his own or his family’s well-being to someone else. So long as he can, under the inspiration of the Lord and with his own labors, he will work to the extent of his ability to supply himself and his family with the spiritual and temporal necessities of life. (Statement of the Presiding Bishopric as quoted by Spencer W. Kimball, Becoming the Pure in Heart, Ensign, May 1978).

May we each contemplate the state of the poor in our country.  May we consider that the ever-increasing inequality among us is an evil in the sight of God, contrary to the messages of the world.  In our own efforts to work hard and to become self-reliant, may we ponder on our attitudes and actions toward those in poverty, remembering that the Lord prohibits judging, ignoring, and oppressing the poor and needy.  Instead, He invites us to assist them and to serve them in love, with the promise that service to them is only service to Him!

Next up:  The responsibility of the individual, the church, and society.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

And There Was No Poor Among Them

In recent weeks my thoughts have turned to the subject of poverty.  This has come about for two reasons. The first is because I am teaching a social welfare policy course this semester.  As many of you may know the social work profession, like many fields of social science, promotes quite liberal social and economic philosophy.  The author of the text book we are using this semester (I did not choose it) is unabashedly socialist.  The content of the course explores social problems and policies in the United States from education to health care to welfare.  We examine the history of these problems and policies, discuss policies currently in place to address social problems, and explore potential policies for the future.  I have always been a bit of a political junkie but I would not fancy myself a policy wonk.  My interest in teaching social work at the university level has much more to do with the areas of clinical practice than it does with the areas of policy, especially since the field has such a strong liberal bias.  Nevertheless, I am interested in policy and view it as an important domain for personal awareness and knowledge.  And, let's face it, I have to teach the courses they tell me to teach and I'm at the bottom of the totem pole right now!  Anyway, in preparing for and teaching the course I have been compelled to reflect seriously on the matter of poverty in our country and the policies that do, could, and should address it.

The second trigger for this current stream of thought is the presidential election.  Two weeks ago a video was released to the media of our very own Mitt Romney making some remarks that seem to disparage the economically disadvantaged, or at least give the impression that Mitt is not concerned about them.  This, of course, added to his already villainized image of a rich white guy with no capacity to relate to the common man.  I disagree with the characterization, created and perpetuated by the Democrats and the media, of Mitt Romney the unfeeling capitalist looking out only for the wealthy.  But then, I also disagree with the characterization of the President as Barak Obama the evil socialist out to destroy America, as painted by Republicans and conservative talk radio.  I think what Mitt was trying to say is that there is a certain percentage of Americans who are stuck in a victim mentality, which leads to a sense of entitlement that the government (and everyone else for that matter) owes them something.  Some of these folks become dependent on government welfare programs and are therefore drawn to the parties and candidates that talk about preserving and expanding those programs.  He seemed to be making the point that nothing he says in his campaign is going to change that.  Anyone who has worked in social services or mental health cannot deny the reality of this type of paradigm.  However, Mitt said that it was 47% of the country and he said he didn't care about them.  He is now working hard to correct his lack of accuracy and eloquence.  Of course, 47% of the population are not dependent on government handouts and certainly 47% do not have a victim mentality.  Furthermore, not all of those who DO receive assistance have a victim mentality either.

Enter Harry Reid, also one of our own, who later thought he would take political advantage of the situation and chimed in by saying that Mitt Romney had "sullied" Mormonism.  Harry, a good man and faithful Latter-day Saint, is heavily liberal in his political leanings.  In fact, he attributes his liberalism to his Mormonism in his oft-repeated statement, "I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon."  It should be fairly noted that Mitt has made plenty of negative comments about the Honorable Gentleman from Nevada too.  Thus disappointingly, the conservative Mormon heavy weight and the progressive Mormon heavy weight throw political jabs at one another over what really comes down to questions about the government's role in attending to the poor and the needy.

I have written before about my views related to our political behavior as Latter-day Saints (click here).  As saints we are called to avoid "doubtful disputations" (Rom. 14:1).  It is one thing to debate the issues and it is quite another to trash character and judge another's standing in, or relationship to, our faith based off his or her political opinions.  The Church has repeatedly stated, "The Church does...expect its members to engage in the political process in an informed and civil manner, respecting the fact that members of the Church come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences and may have differences of opinion in partisan political matters."  The Church's official position on political participation also notes, "Elected officials who are Latter-day Saints make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with a publicly stated Church position...These officials still must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies whom they were elected to represent" (see here). Let us not, as Latter-day Saints or as human beings for that matter, allow political rhetoric from any direction of the spectrum, even among our own membership, to distract us from the call and the goal to be of "one heart and one mind" as a people (Moses 7:18).  Calling into question someone's worth and faithfulness or questioning their commitment to the gospel because of a differing political position is nothing less than religious manipulation.  I observed it at my neighborhood caucus meeting earlier this year between the Ron Paul supporters and the Mitt Romney supporters.  It came from both sides and it was less than impressive. 

Returning to the issue of poverty.  There is another call and another goal, in conjunction with the scriptural mandate to be of one heart and one mind, for which we are commanded to strive.  It is the goal to have no poor among us (Moses 7:18).  It was the political conversation described above, and the Mormon as well as national reaction to it, that propelled my thoughts about the topic of poverty further along.  What are my views on the poor?  How should they be treated and assisted?  How should I address the issue as an individual?  How should we address it as a society?  What should the role of government be?  These have been some of the questions swirling about in my mind.  

I am of the view that the spiritual and religious doctrines to which I subscribe should guide my political thought and positions.  That is, instead of using the philosophies of men and the world to influence my political stance and behavior, as much as possible I want to use the gospel of Jesus Christ to influence my positions and actions.  This is not always possible, as the Lord has not spoken out on every issue.  It seems to me that often He deals more in broader doctrines and leaves the rest to us to identify principles and govern ourselves accordingly.  Furthermore, there can be different interpretations of gospel principles that lead to different political and policy conclusions (see statement above).  Now I fully recognize that my own perception is at times skewed and distorted because of my human nature, which has a blinding effect upon me.  I am not always right and I certainly do not claim to always be on the side of God in matters political (if God chooses a side).  However, I do try to be thoughtful, prayerful, informed, and studious.  I do try to determine a political position that is most aligned with the teachings of Jesus and His ordained servants as I understand them, versus a political ideology or party platform.  I am not suggesting this is the only way to guide political life, but I do believe that it is a wise way.  I accept that others may view things differently.  I also accept that others may come to different political conclusions after having gone through the same process of striving to pattern positions after principles of eternal truth.  Though there may be disagreement, somehow I feel like in such situations there is greater opportunity to come together to create workable and agreeable solutions.  But, I digress once again.  

Ultimately, I decided that I needed to do some spiritual studying and pondering about the topic of poverty.  Having studied the various philosophies of men, my objective was to discover to the best of my understanding the doctrines and principles set forth by the Lord and His servants related to the poor and needy, and in the process answer the questions I have been posing to myself as described above.  My writing here is a way for me to synthesize and solidify the insights gained for myself, and perhaps share something of value with those few who read this as well.

I began with a study of the scriptures.  There are 326 references to the word "poor" in the Standard Works.  I read every single one.  Of course, some of those are not speaking about economic poverty, instead they refer to being "poor in heart" or other spiritual concepts.  My study of these references included gaining context and in some cases consulting cross references, other versions of the Bible, commentaries, and Hebrew and Greek concordances.  I also read the 30 references to the word "poverty" and the 74 references to the word "needy".  In addition, I studied numerous references in the scriptures to government, tax, liberty, welfare, and charity.  Following my study of the scriptures I turned to the words of the living prophets.  I read dozens of statements and discourses from Brigham Young to Marion G. Romney to Dieter F. Uchtdorf.  As a side note, the study notebook feature on was extraordinarily helpful in organizing the information.  All of this was pursued with efforts toward prayerful contemplation so as to invite the impressions of the Spirit.  It has been a fascinating, inspiring, and surprising endeavor.  The search resulted in a confirmation of some of my understanding, but it also challenged some of my understanding and brought new perspective and nuance to my thoughts and feelings.  I would encourage all to take a similar journey.  What you find might surprise you.

I have not mapped anything out, but I think I will take this in parts, otherwise it will be too long.   I should note at the outset that I have a bias, which is probably already quite clear to those of you who know me.  First, I completely believe and embrace the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Second, I am  politically conservative and a registered Republican.  I am not, however, a hard right-winger, probably not really even a tea-partier (mostly as a statement of tone more than principle).  I'd like to consider myself more of a pragmatist than an ideologue.  

 I know that poverty is not a particularly exciting topic, nor is it very uplifting, but I am a nerd and I am a social worker, so these are the kinds of posts I create, I guess. What I can say is that from everything I have studied, this is a topic of extraordinary import to our Father.  If only it were for us!

"Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.  Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked." (Psalms 82:3-4).

"The place to begin is to familiarize ourselves with what the Lord has already revealed. We should not assume that we know. We need to approach the subject with the humility of a child. Every generation must learn anew the doctrines that undergird the Lord’s way of caring for the needy." (Dieter F. Uchtdor, Providing in the Lord's Way, Ensign, Nov. 2011).