Further thoughts on poverty, the poor, and how to help

Sep 12, 2023

Solutions to fix the “problem.”

Upon reading William A. Schambra’s past remarks in remembrance of Cordelia Taylor last week—“Charity, progressive philanthropy, and eugenics” and “Place and poverty”—The Gathering founder Fred Smith recalled for us the below reflections of his own. Previously featured in The Smith Slant, they are republished here with permission.


I posted an article on the shrinking of the middle class as an increasing number of people are falling into the category of economically at risk. “Squeezed by rising living costs a record number of Americans—nearly 1 in 2—have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income.” While not saying much about the article, I did say, “Is it un-Christian of me to doubt these numbers?” A Facebook friend responded with a private message to voice his disagreement with my skepticism. Out of that has come an interesting exchange from our different—but not opposite—perspectives. Mine is from years of frustrating experience with bureaucracies and their penchant for reclassifying data (and people) to fit their political purposes. If you want to increase government funded programs, then you make the problem worse than it is.

His perspective is well reflected in what he wrote:

It may be helpful to share a little of my experience and perspective. I have lived for over 30 years on the edge of an African American ghetto, Woodlawn, just south of the University of Chicago. I watched as buildings continued to be ruined by landlords who paid no taxes but sucked out all the rent they could before Chicago closed down what was little more than a shell—first abandoned, often burned, eventually torn down. I have watched as local families and children struggled to “make it” and local organizations develop strategies to deal with rapacious landlords and dramatic loss of jobs on the south side. I too have become suspicious of lots of explanations but I am very weary of a lot of current explanations that make the poor the cause of their own problems. It was not true in Swaziland, Africa where I was a school teacher for 6 years. And it seems to me it is not true in the United States either.

Our conversation reminded me of an essay I read years ago by Suzanne Roberts on the relationship between poverty and the Church—from the earliest Christian community to the 19th century. It is the process she calls the “secularization of charity” and it occurs in six stages:

First, the majority of Christians were poor and shared what they had. At the end of Andy Crouch’s most recent talk at Q titled “Overcoming Our Greatest Affliction,” he says Romans 16 may be the most astonishing chapter in the whole Bible. Tertius, likely a slave named only for his birth order as third, is considered by Paul and the earliest church as an equal and allowed to greet the believers in Rome. They had all things in common—including social status.

Second, the Church glorified the poor and those who chose poverty. The poor were supported because their prayers were thought to carry special weight with Christ. The obligation of the poor was to continuously intercede for the living and the dead.

Third, the Church cared for the poor and included them in the community and while they were no longer glorified, they were not viewed as outsiders. They were recognized as neighbors, family and even embodiments of Christ himself. “They were ashamed, perhaps, depending on their status, but not alien. The poor had a clear and important role.”

Fourth, the Church and society began to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving poor. As poverty became a social problem rather than a spiritual opportunity, attitudes toward the poor and poverty were transformed, becoming more complex and even contradictory. “Voluntary poverty lost its sacred character, and consequently even ordinary wretchedness was desanctified.”

Fifth, the Church and society began to treat the poor as dangerous and poverty as a curse. The poor were now strangers and no longer seen as part of a community or as intercessors. Just the opposite, they were now a threat, passed off to charitable institutions other than the church, and viewed with suspicion and fear. The identity with Christ and the role of intercessor had long since passed.

Sixth, the Church and society came to see poverty and the poor as a problem to be fixed by a new form of charity that would be more objective and efficient. We must eliminate poverty altogether. The way to fix poverty is not charity, but scientific philanthropy and initiatives designed to analyze the issues and create practical solutions.

If Anand Giridharadas is correct in Winners Take All, then it is even more worrisome. “We are attempting to solve these problems with the very tools and the very minds that constructed the problems in the first place.” From my perspective, it is that sixth stage which is the most dangerous to the poor themselves. They are a “problem” to be solved and if they cannot or will not be fixed, we must find ways to deal with their failure to cooperate with our solutions.

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