Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Googling How to Help the Poor

Let us begin today’s blog entry with prayer:

Dear Jesus,

If it must continue to snow, thank you for inspiring Bristol Tennessee city schools to cancel classes on this, my daughter’s first day with a driver’s license. While I did not wish to take away her glory by driving her myself, neither did I want to pull her out of a ditch. I truly appreciate your divine benevolence and care. Although, honestly, a little spell of decent weather wouldn’t hurt us either.


OK. Now down to today’s topic: how do you help the poor? I don’t mean in personally, how do YOU help the poor—although wait, maybe I do. Anybody with good strategies, stuff that works, stuff that helps—I want to know about it. Because I just Googled “how to help the poor,” and I got a lot of really useless information:

            --prayer.  This was way up the list on a lot of posts. I’m not suggesting it doesn’t help, but “prayer without works is dead,” and if we all sit on our hands we won’t do much practical good. I’m all for practical, baby.

            --advocacy. Write your legislatures. Well, okay, maybe. I see two problems with this: one, our politics have become so hopelessly entrenched in stupidity that I think it’s going to take some cataclysmic event for the government to ever become useful again, and two, nobody seems to know which government programs actually work. For example. they've pretty much proven that Head Start is useless, but we keep on pouring money into it, because it sounds like such a good idea.

I have strong opinions on two government-based issues:

1. I am against cutting food stamps. Despite the fact that some people will find a way to abuse anything, SNAP and WIC are two of the most non-abused government programs. They give poor people food. That’s about it. We can argue all we want about root causes of poverty, but I don’t think any of us feel that children who are hungry and malnourished are as likely to grow up as well as those who are not.

 2. I support a higher minimum wage. I know this will have some repercussive effects, but I think many of them will be good ones. I see so many people at Faith in Action working 25 hours a week at $7.25 an hour because that’s all the job they can get. I don’t care who you are, you’re not going to thrive on $725/month. Raise the minimum wage to $11, and that same worker gets $1100—which is still very hard, but starts to become possible, especially if there are 2 wage-earners in the household.  

 If people start to earn enough for themselves, they won’t need food stamps. Right now we’re subsidizing our very low minimum wage with other forms of government assistance.)

 OK, back to my first list, “how to help the poor.” Still with me? Here's the least-useful suggestion I found: 
            --as a money-saving tip, "buy your jewelry at discount stores.” I kid you not. Everybody write it down.

            The Gates Foundation, by the way, has a ton of really excellent information about their efforts to fight global poverty.  Their annual newsletter shows how much we’ve gained on a global scale in recent years, and it bears reading if you haven’t seen it. But in our own country it’s a bit harder.

            I’m thinking about all this because the Executive Committee of Bristol Faith in Action was supposed to have met this morning, until the President couldn’t get down her icy driveway. We’re working on hiring a part-time social worker to help transition some of our clients to self-sufficiency. I really want to know how to do that. When I think about the people I was so concerned for last week—the disabled elderly person can’t ever work, but could possibly move into subsidized housing. The couple who are dying could really use a social worker to walk them through their issues. The two women from the abused shelter, who will share an apartment—I’d love to get to know them better, find out how to help them become permanently safe and well.

            I know very well that we can’t help everyone. I see the mentally ill, the addicts, the ones that are just plain mean. But yesterday I read a really moving article on the difference between Pope Francis and Phil Robertson. I’m not going to try to summarize it; you can look it up if you’re curious. Basically, do we see people first, or do we see what we perceive as their faults? Do we love them? Do we try to form relationships with them?

             I’m convinced we can, I’m just trying to figure out how.  Help me, if you can.


  1. I'm curious as to why you think Head Start is useless.

  2. There are several studies that show it doesn't have a long-term effect. The initial effect--in the first few years of schooling--is there, but it doesn't last; by third grade kids from the same background that didn't go to Head Start have caught up, and there don't seem to be any permanent positive effects such as increased high school graduation rates or college attendance. Unfortunate, but true. I think the biggest summary of the research is in one of Malcolm Gladwell's books.

  3. I haven't read the Gladwell books. I know that my neighbor who studies early childhood programs mentions the correlation b/w attending head start and lower prison rates later in life. I found these two studies in a quick search. Reynolds, A. J., Temple, J. A., Ou, S., Robertson, D. L., Mersky, J. P., Topitzes, J. W., and Niles, M. D. (2007). Effects of a school-based, early childhood intervention on adult health and well-being: A 19-year follow-up of low-income families. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 161(8), pp. 730-739; Schweinhart, L.J., Montie, J., Xiang, Z., Barnett, W.S., Belfield, C.R., & Nores, M. (2005). Lifetime effects: The High/Scope Perry Preschool study
    through Age 40. Ypsilanti, MI: High/Scope Press.
    From a social-welfare point of view, if nothing else, it's 2 school years of free meals and adequate daytime shelter for kids who might not otherwise have access to those. Whether it's worth the cost of providing those services is a different argument, but there are benefits to the program.

  4. I agree that two years of meals and good day care are worthwhile.

  5. I think the best place to start is to do what you're doing anyways. Help as much as you are able to, and no less. Fight as hard as you can for people who are fighting their hardest and see past what looks like apathy and realize that many of us would fall apart far worse if faced with even a tenth of the situation many people are in.

    I think over all the most important thing is the call to action. You can make a difference in a lot of people's lives, but your difference can reach much further if you can convince other people there is a need for their help as well. I think a lot of people feel like they are struggling too much to help anyone, but I don't think that's true. We all have something we can offer, even if it is just an hour or two a week manning phones. I know your blog posts have inspired me to think more about places in my life where I can give, and things I can do with my skill set to make a difference.


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