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How to Help the Poor

The two main philosophies of how to help the poor can be summarized this way:

Liberal: Give the poor people as much as resources allow: shelter, food, clothing, and medical care, maybe even some entertainment and spending money. That should make them happy. The negative side is that most of them will have little incentive to ever escape the poverty trap and their lives will never be fulfilled or meaningful.

Conservative: Give the poor as little as possible so that they will have to learn to take care of themselves, thus removing themselves from poverty and learning to live a fulfilling life. The negative side is that many of them, especially the ill and disadvantaged, will struggle to achieve a minimal subsistence above which they cannot rise, often going to an early grave.

The truth is that the poor differ vastly, possessing numerous abilities and disabilities. Here is one brief way to break it down.

  1. can't work-due to disability
  2. can work
    1. some work as much as they can
    2. some won't work at all
    3. some seek every imaginable configuration in between
  3. don't know how to work
    1. want to learn how to work
    2. don't want to learn how to work
  4. don't have the resources to work
    1. would use resources provided to learn how to work.
    2. would consume resources provided instead of channeling them toward work.

(Resources include things like a "home address" to receive mail to apply for jobs or assistance, a phone, transportation, work clothes, tools, training, credentials, etc.)

Bible Says: The Poor Need Justice

What do the poor really need? The Bible tells us in a word: justice! People who are struggling need a fair chance to live by their own efforts. Please read just a few of the many scriptures about this.

"You shall not pervert the judgment of your poor in his dispute" (Ex 23:6).

Cursed is the one who perverts the justice due the stranger, the fatherless, and widow." And all the people shall say, "Amen!" (Deut 27:19).

Defend the poor and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and needy (Pslm 82:3).

The righteous considers the cause of the poor, But the wicked does not understand such knowledge (Prov 29:7).

Open your mouth, judge righteously, And plead the cause of the poor and needy (Prov 31:9).

Woe to those who decree unrighteous decrees, Who write misfortune, Which they have prescribed To rob the needy of justice, And to take what is right from the poor of My people, That widows may be their prey, And that they may rob the fatherless (Isa 10:1-2).

For I know your manifold transgressions And your mighty sins: Afflicting the just and taking bribes; Diverting the poor from justice at the gate (Amos 5:12).

Many people become poor because they were defrauded by employers, landlords, governments, insurance companies, lenders, lawyers, con artists, criminals, etc. Other needy people are not able to leave poverty because of unfair systems.

God commanded that all debts be forgiven every seven years (Deut 15:1-11). He also commanded that people receive their own land from which to produce wealth each 50th year (Lev 25, see Sept-Oct 2008 Servants' News). These are systems that should be implemented on the national level. In our society, the equivalent is helping a poor person to file bankruptcy, or providing resources to them so they can make a living on their own.

Many of the poor need someone to personally get to know them, to treat them with Christian love, and to tell them that they are wrong and they need to change in certain areas of their life. While not having an exact percentage, this writer agrees that most poor people could probably get out of poverty by changing things that are within their ability to change. Unfortunately, because they see so much corruption and unfairness in society, they often place nearly all the blame there, and do not look to themselves enough.

This is why Christians need to help these people. Christians need to stand for Godly, biblical, just principles-in opposition to government corruption as well as personal corruption in the poor people who also need to change. Lest any of our readers remain in doubt, legal systems for millennia have favored the rich:

But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? (Jms 2:6)

Today, it is the same. This writer has had a judge tell him, in court, that he should find an attorney because "people who represent themselves don't do very well." Our constitutions guarantee our right to represent ourselves. Isn't it the job of a judge to make sure that trials are fair no matter how each person is represented?

Even so, most court personnel provide less help to those representing themselves than they do to attorneys. This writer has seen people representing themselves in court who asked for legal relief rightly due them, but who lost large sums of money and received more time in jail simply because they did not know the proper legal procedure to ask for relief.

In most civil cases, if a person cannot afford an attorney, the court will not provide one. Attorneys will only take cases for a share of the proceeds if they are virtually certain a big payout is forthcoming. But for the middle or lower income person who, for example, loses $20,000 because of faulty work on their dwelling, or who is sued by someone else for a frivolous reason, they will usually have the choice of trying to represent themselves or losing their life savings to an unscrupulous person.

In criminal cases, court appointed attorneys frequently work more closely with the prosecuting (opposing) attorney than they do with their own clients. They are usually paid a flat fee equivalent to an hour or two of their normal billing rates, and have no time for investigation or discovery for their clients.

Even a person of average means who can hire an attorney is not likely to get a fair trial when facing a wealthy or well-connected opposition. The "little guy's" attorney is often more interested in not going against his fellow attorneys than he is in winning the case for a person of little influence.

Does our system provide a remedy when judges and attorneys "walk all over the poor"? Yes, there are appellate courts. But the victim often does not even know what or how to appeal. Even if he does, the Michigan court of appeals manual states: "Bringing a case before the Court of Appeals without an attorney is a difficult, if not impossible, task." A very precise legal form as well as hundreds of dollars are needed. Using an attorney will cost thousands.

The poor need wise, godly people who can accurately determine the cause of their plight, and either help them to change, or help them overcome the evil that has oppressed them.

Not Programs

Today, most government and charitable methods of helping the poor are reduced to some kind of program that goes something like this:

  1. People pay money (taxes or offerings) into the program.
  2. The program hires administrators who write rules for how they will give their resource to the poor. The administrators vary from people who really want to help the poor, to those who want a job to those who use their position to embezzle or extort wealth for themselves.
  3. The poor fill out forms or make personal visits to obtain the benefits.
  4. The ones who get the most benefits are usually the ones who are the most aggressive, most persistent, best actors or best liars. The penalty for supplying false information is frequently only the denial of benefits-no different than if the person had never applied. The program administrators develop a tough approach to try to keep down waste. The professional "program applicants" learn to accept the tough talk and keep on getting benefits.
  5. The people who really need help are often embarrassed to ask. When they do ask, they are most likely to be rebuffed by the tough approach and receive few or no benefits.
  6. Occasionally, more often in big government programs, the administration becomes corrupt with a significant percentage of the resources not being received by the needy at all.

The programs rarely address the issues causing people to become impoverished. Poor people frequently suffer from unjust landlords, unfair working practices, addictions, scams, gangs, extortion, etc. Poor people often have unbelievable stories-some false, some true. Both are difficult to work with.

Little success is achieved when a massive number of people give to centralized program administrators who channel aid to a massive number of people. What is needed is a lot of local Christians closely involved with the mass of local needy people in their local areas.

A friend who spent years helping the poor cited the Iron Rule::

Never do for people what they can do for themselves.

If a person can work a little, they should. If they can fill out forms for themselves, they should. If they can take care of their own personal needs, or their children's needs, they should. Programs tend to have stringent application requirements, but then once a person is "on them", they can keep on going. The goal should be to remove people from assistance as soon as they are able.

In Your House

The poor need people to be with them, to get to know them, and to see how much of their trouble is due to their own mismanagement, due to injustice and oppression from others, or simply due to unfortunate circumstances. This cannot be done well through forms, rules and distant one-size-fits-all administration.

"But I do not want to get close to these people; they are dirty and my family could get diseases from them." So some might say. But what does the Bible say? Does it warn you about the dangers of getting sick from taking poor people into your house? Or does it promise you healing? Check this out:

 Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then your light shall break forth like the morning, Your healing shall spring forth speedily, And your righteousness shall go before you; The glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard (Isa 58:6-8).

While taking poor people into one's own house is not the only means of helping, it is certainly one of the best ways to help homeless people-those who "are cast out". There are other scriptures that teach this (Gen 19:2; Jdgs 19:21; Job 31:32, etc.) And there is a promise of speedy healing.

Both Jesus and the apostles continued this teaching, not just for physical healing, but as an instrumental part of the Kingdom of God:

"Then the King will say to those on His right hand, 'Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me'" (Matt 25:34-36).

Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels. 3 Remem­ ber the prisoners as if chained with them-those who are mistreated-since you yourselves are in the body also (Heb 13:2-3).

Making it Happen

Not everyone can effectively help the strangers, the poor and the prisoners in their locality. But as Hebrews warns, the problem is that we often forget them, not that we are unable to help them. If all we do is give money to someone we don't know who asks for it, we will not be very effective-we may simply enable con artists to make a better living. But only a little work and experience helps us to do better than that. If we wait to help until we are 100% effective, we will never start.

Help starts with the willingness to spend time with someone and understand them. Following that is a wonderful exercise in preparation to reign with Christ in his Kingdom (2Tim 2:10-12). What does each struggling person need? The Gospel? (Matt 11:5). Correction from the Scripture? (2Tim 3:16). Food and water? (Rom 12:20) Other stuff? (1Jo 3:17). To learn to work in order to eat? (2Thes 3:10) This is our opportunity to share whatever limited resources we have to help others toward the kingdom of God so that we can work effectively when we have the powers of God (Phil 3:21; Col 3:4; 2Pet 1:4; 1Jo 3:2; Rev 20:4).

The job of helping poor people is difficult and taxing, but provides a true understanding of love. It is not nearly as difficult as what Christ did for us.

By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren (1Jo 3:16).

May God give wisdom and strength to everyone who undertakes to serve those who are in need!