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US Poverty Increase Is a Church Concern

by Elliott Wright

Members of Korean United Methodist Church and McKendree United Methodist Church serve meals to the homeless in Nashville, Tenn.
Members of Korean United Methodist Church and McKendree United Methodist Church serve meals to the homeless in Nashville, Tenn.
Image by: Ronny Perry.
Source: United Methodist News Service

A UMNS Report

September 17, 2010--The number of Americans living in poverty has climbed, and The United Methodist Church is looking for ways to help.

A report released Sept. 16 by the US Census Bureau shows that 14.3 percent of the population in 2009 lived in poverty, up from 13.2 percent the previous year.

"The new Census Bureau figures are distressing in a country as creative and prosperous as the United States," said Thomas Kemper, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. "However, we are not surprised because our work puts us in touch with many of those who are the faces behind the statistics."

According to the Census, 43.6 million people lived below the federal poverty level in 2009, up from 39.8 million in 2008--the third consecutive annual increase. The report set the threshold of poverty at an annual income of $21,954 for a family of four last year. The poverty rate was down for people over 65 years of age, but children were hard hit.

The number of people in poverty is the largest in the 51 years poverty estimates have been available, the report said. Families of all kinds have lost in this economic picture.

The statistics confirm what anyone who works with the poor already knows, said the Rev. John Hill, director for economic and environmental justice at the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

"Our brothers and sisters on the economic margins are being battered by the current economic crisis," he said.

Crisis Relates to Two United Methodist Foci

United Methodist church leaders closely watch the poverty statistics because the denomination has a global emphasis on ministry with the poor. The Board of Global Ministries has a leadership role in the church's engaging in ministry with the poor.

Mary Ellen Kris, a consultant to Global Ministries on work with the poor said the latest figures reflect negatively on the United States, as the world approaches the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. One of those goals is to reduce poverty and hunger significantly by 2015.

"The Millennium Goals apply primarily to those living in 'extreme poverty' on less than $1 a day, most of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia," Kris said. "But the fact that poverty persists, and is growing, in the US is a depressing omen for the rest of the world."

The United Nations has eight Millennium Goals, which also include universal primary education, reduction of child mortality rates, and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases. Kris said a review is in progress of how far the world has come in meeting those goals.

In the US, poverty doesn't just affect people's standard of living. It also can have consequences for their health. Stamping out killer diseases by improving health globally is another United Methodist priority.

Social Principles Challenge Response

According to the Census report, the number of people in the US without health insurance rose from 46.3 million in 2008 to 50.7 million in 2009, largely because of people losing employer-provided health insurance.

At the same time, the percentage of the insured increased from 15.4 percent to 16.7 percent. However, that only tells part of the story.

The Census data indicated that last year, private health insurance covered 63.9 percent of the population, the lowest since 1987, when such data was first compiled. The share of people with government-sponsored insurance was 30.6 percent, the highest since 1987.

The eradication of poverty and the promotion of health are longstanding Methodist commitments, dating from the ministry of founder John Wesley in 18 th-century England.

"Since the Industrial Revolution, the church has worked to overcome poverty and injustice in all its forms," Kris said. "Our Social Principles challenge us to engage in ministries of love, justice, and healing."

The United Methodist Social Principles state: "In spite of general affluence in the industrialized nations, the majority of persons in the world live in poverty. In order to provide basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, and other necessities, ways must be found to share more equitably the resources of the world."

Hill said that the church "will continue to advocate for policies that put the needs of those living in poverty at the top of our economic agenda."

* Elliott Wright is a communications consultant to the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.


Date posted: Sep 17, 2010