The Problem of Persistent Poverty

Ten years ago my oldest daughter went on a youth mission trip.  She was the only one from our church, joining a group of youth from churches in our district.  They spent the week working on the kitchen of an elderly woman who told them stories of growing up in Jamaica, how proud she was of her sons, and all the food she loved to cook.  My daughter felt that she’d made a difference helping to improve this woman’s kitchen.  She’d had a great mission trip, made new friends, had meaningful worship services, and did something good for another person.

Fast forward a couple years – she and I were in the car, between college campus visits – driving through a long stretch of rural middle America.  She was quiet, observing the area, looking at the homes, farms and small towns we passed through.  And then she wondered aloud – did any of her work on that mission trip matter if poverty never changed?

Her reflection on the problem of persistent poverty is one that is not easily resolved.  It calls people of faith to deep reflection on their role in the world.  If we help those who are poor, but we don’t think about why people live in poverty and we don’t do anything about those reasons why, then we won’t make much progress in our call to feed the hungry, to care for those on the margins.

Dr. Angus Deaton, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, wrote in the New York Times this week about poverty in America.  He stated that it is “time to stop thinking that only non-Americans are truly poor.”  I would argue that United Methodist Volunteers in Mission have long been aware of poverty in America.  Like my daughter, youth and adults volunteer for mission trips to repair homes across the U.S.  Organizations like Appalachia Service Project, Ozark Mountain Project and Mountain T.O.P. provide needed services for people in areas of deep poverty.  Dr. Deaton pointed out that life expectancy in Appalachia is lower than in Bangladesh.

Why we Work

In part, Deaton’s article articulates his shift from prioritizing “the faraway poor” to prioritizing the needs of people in poverty in America.  He states that he believes we as a society have an obligation to help those who live in poverty.  I don’t know what his motivations are, but I know that the United Methodists who spend time as Volunteers in Mission are motivated by their love for God and their love for their neighbors, whether those neighbors are far or near.

The problem comes when we realize that Jesus was right – the poor are always with us.  However, this should not cause us to simply repair a roof yet ignore the reasons for poverty.  We may – like my daughter and I in our car ride conversation – just wrestle with the painful realities of our world.  We may not come up with solutions for global poverty.  We may find reasons for poverty in our communities, and work to make small changes so that poverty is alleviated in our neighborhoods.

More than Hammers

The problem of persistent poverty may not go away in our lifetime.  This requires that we who work in short-term mission dedicate some of our time to critical reflection on the contexts in which we work.  We must look deeply and seek to understand.  We must work with hammers and nails, and also with our minds.  We must love our neighbors enough to face difficult realities about our world and be brave enough to make changes.

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