Yesterday’s post featured part 1 of Ryan Abernathy’s insightful commentary about poverty in America. Among other things we saw the perhaps surprising fact that many senior adults depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for groceries. Nearly 4 million seniors a month benefit from the program.
Today Abernathy reveals more facts on poverty in America. One thing is clear: it isn’t always what we read in social media or hear in political debates.
“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”- 1 John 3:17
So I’m sure after reading part one, many of you reacted in the following fashion, “Oh that’s horrible! I didn’t realize the plight of the poor seniors in America. That’s an outrage!” But that reaction was most likely followed by this one, “But what about THEM!?! You know, the people who are scamming the system and living off my taxes and not working and being lazy.” So today, I want to pull back the rhetoric and the stereotypes and give you a look at the reality that faces the poor in America.
We identified in our last post that 61% of people on SNAP are seniors, children, and the disabled. That leaves 39% of SNAP recipients who are working age and working capable adults. What about them? What are they doing or not doing that makes it necessary for them to access a government assistance program? Why don’t they support themselves? These are the questions that are raised by politicians and pundits. So here’s some interesting information.
First, more than half of working age and capable adults work while on SNAP. Further, 82% of SNAP recipients were working before going onto assistance, or work after leaving assistance.  For households with children, those numbers rise to 62% while on SNAP and 87% before or after SNAP. If so many recipients are employed, why in the world do they need help?
There is a very simple answer to this question. Wages. We saw in part 1 how a fixed-income relates to poverty, but we need to take a closer look at the reality of what a low wage does to a worker. The Federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour. Based on a 40-hour work week that factors out to $15,080 annually before taxes. That’s just above or right at poverty level for a single adult. For a single mom raising kids, that’s well below the poverty line. Further, if any of those children are not old enough to go to school, imagine trying to live on that and pay for rent, food, utilities, basic essentials, AND childcare! Dollars stretch, but they don’t stretch that far.
Now, how many workers in the United States actually work for minimum wage? According to Pew in 2013, 3.3 million Americans work for at, or below, minimum wage. Even more chilling, over 1 in 4 employed Americans are earning a yearly salary that keeps them below the poverty line, despite working full time.
Looking at these statistics, you begin to get a picture of why so many Americans are accessing assistance. No matter how hard they work, they cannot get out of poverty. They cannot make ends meet. They cannot get ahead. That puts them in the unenviable position of having to ask for help, even if they are working.
The help they receive is temporary. Very temporary. In fact, the average SNAP recipient is on assistance for nine months according to Bread for the World. SNAP has stringent income requirements that remove people from the program as soon as they earn above the income requirement- even as little as a dollar more.
The other objection we often hear to SNAP is focused on fraud — most notably the selling of benefits or the use of benefits to buy non-approved items, such as alcohol or cigarettes. SNAP actually has one of the lowest instances of fraud of all federal programs. According to the USDA, the fraud rate on SNAP is 1.3% — just over $.01 on every dollar. Compare that to other government programs (Medicare for example) and you will begin to get a picture of how efficiently and accurately SNAP functions.
While all of these statistics are well and good, what’s the real story here? The real story is that men and women and children in our country are in need. They are struggling to get by and they are willing to submit to government inquiry, and endure social stigma, while dealing with income limitations in order to provide for themselves and their children. All the while, the Church, whose Founder and Savior was poor and homeless, regularly criticizes, marginalizes, and judges their situation without mercy.
There needs to be a return to scripture on this issue amongst many of the conservative evangelicals of the day. We need to begin to remember our calling. Our forefathers were known for their mercy and sacrifice on behalf of the poor and the marginalized. In the Middle Ages, the Church fed more of the poor than anyone, even being recognized by pagan rulers as a source of good for the needy. We need to remember movements like one started by Robert Raikes in the 1700s, which educated the poor and provided a school for them to attend on Sundays (yes, that’s the forerunner of our modern Sunday School — an anti-poverty measure). We need to return to the words of Jesus who told us: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:40)
The next time someone in front of you pays for their groceries using an EBT card (aka food stamps), instead of checking their cart to see what they bought, or making an assumption about how they need a job, pause for a moment and remember, they most likely have a job and a family to support. In a few months, they won’t be eligible for assistance anymore. They are the people who Jesus called us to help. How can you move beyond judgment and stereotypes to make a way for them to provide for those who depend on them for the basic necessities of life?
“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”- Deuteronomy 15:11
Ryan Abernathy is the Teaching Pastor at West Metro Community Church in Yukon, OK (www.westmetro.org) and the Senior Director of Programs and Nutrition for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma (www.regionalfoodbank.org). Follow him on twitter @absonjourney.
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